Crazy Winter Swimming in Estonia

6 minute read

This post was originally written for the International Student Ambassador blog and was first published here on 27-May-2021.

No, the title isn’t clickbait.

Great, now that that’s out of the way I need to make a brief detour to set the stage for the event that I took part in. I promise it is going to be worth your while and will give you some cultural context.

In Estonia they have a children’s song called Uhti, Uhti, Uhkesti. If you are an Estonian reading this, you can probably already hear the tune. For the rest of us though the song is about three friends; a shoe, a water bladder (balloon/bottle thingy), and a straw, all wanting to cross the river, Emajõgi. The straw lies down to be the bridge and the shoe while trying to cross it breaks the straw and drowns. On seeing this the balloon laughs himself to death.

Now, I can almost hear the questions that you have!

Is this song really for children? Yes.

Dark? Yep.

Strange? Absolutely.

But also, I believe that a lot of the fairy tales that we now read were modified and were given more pleasant and lived-happily-ever-after endings. So it’s a welcome change to see that Estonian folklore is preserved in its original form.

Alright, now you have some context. The other thing you need to know is that I’m a part of the Tartu Winter Swimming Club. Inspired by the song, the club decided to cross the river as well. Except instead of going from one shore to the other like sane people, we decided that we would cross it from the origin of the river, Võrtsjärv, to the city of Tartu. That is a course of 56-60km!

So on 8-May a team of 14 swimmers set out to swim at 6:00AM. To be honest, the difficulty of the task ahead of me didn’t hit me until I got on the boat and the first swimmer got into the water. Now, the funny thing about boats is that the only way out is by swimming! There was no going back now, and I decided that I would make it to the finish line. Thankfully it was a relay event, and wasn’t a competition. The idea was that there was always someone from the team swimming. We had a boat, Signild, trailing the swimmer with the rest of the team onboard. In one round, a swimmer swims as much as they can. Then when they’re tired, they give a signal to the team and someone taps in. Additionally, the boat had a sauna, which was the recovery room for the swimmer who tapped out.

Swimmers tapping out and sauna on the boat
Picture credits: Risto Mets, Mart Nöpps

Even though we were swimming with the current, the conditions were, to put it mildly, harsh. There was rain, hail, strong winds, and cross currents along the way. The water temperature on average was 8°C, and the air temperature varied between 3-15°C. Since I come from Southern India, this kind of cold is something that is quite alien to me. This was crazy indeed, but I’d argue that it wasn’t completely insane. We took quite a lot of safety precautions. For instance, we had swimming buoys with beautiful messages like “Swim or Die!” written on them. These provide visibility for water traffic, and backup for a swimmer who needs help. And obviously the boat going along with the swimmers was the biggest safety net.

Swim or die!
Picture credits: Egon Vaiksaar, Risto Mets

So one by one everyone started swimming and continuing the relay. By the end the team swam 7-8 rounds, and everyone swam about 7 minutes on average. There were some superhumans on the boat who could swim for 27 minutes non-stop. My personal best was 10 minutes. This is without a doubt the hardest I’ve pushed the limits of my body. So by the time we reached the outskirts of the city after 15 gruelling yet fun hours at around 9:00 PM I was exhausted. I was almost in tears when I saw the finish line. That’s when the entire team got into the water and all of us crossed the finish. I wouldn’t be able to express the emotions I felt at that point even if I tried. So, I will leave that to your imagination.

Finishing the swim
Picture credits: Tiit Linde, Margus Ansu /Tartu Postimees / Scanpix

On the boat, there were a lot of cultural elements which became really clear. For instance, the Estonian diet consists of a lot of meat. With plant-based diets becoming more popular this is changing slowly, but there is no denying the fact that meat plays a central role on the plates here. I knew there would be some vegetarian food on the boat, but I erred on the side of caution and took some hummus, bread, and fruits with me. This was one of the best things I did. Another observation is that Estonians love dark humour, and you will be the target of one or more jokes. If you are in good company, it is usually light-hearted and the only acceptable response to that is to make another joke. So, if you can make self-depreciatory jokes and speak fluent sarcasm you will fit right in! Additionally, the cultural importance and the necessity of saunas became abundantly clear to me on the boat. They are magical in their own right, and among the best places to socialize in Estonia. I’ve met some of the most interesting people in Estonia in saunas.

Here, I do have to give a shout-out to my roommate, Stefano, who was the only other international participant on the boat. One of the only reasons I even considered going to the event was because I knew I would have some company. All in all, it has been one hell of an experience. And maybe this story will inspire some of the readers to take up winter swimming and more people will join us on the boat next year.

PS: For those who are curious and are still reading, here’s a bonus.

Here are the lyrics of the song both in Estonian and English. The translation was provided by Uku Kangur, and Oliver Vainumäe helped improve it. Uku tried to make the English version rhyme too. Enjoy!

Uhti-uhti uhkesti (Estonian) Uhti-uhti uhkesti (English)
Uhti-uhti uhkesti,
Viisk läks Tartust Viljandi,
Kaasas põis ja õlekõrs,
Õlekõrs kui sääseõrs!

Ei saa üle Emajõest,
Hüva nõu nüüd kallis tõest.

Viisk siis ütles targasti
Oma seltsilistele:
“Otsas häda, otsas vaev.
Põis on meil kui loodud laev.

Kõrs on mastiks kõlbulik;
Mina olen laevnik.”

Põis aga vastas põrinal,
Väga kõva kõri tal:
“Viisu nõu on Imelik:
Laev see olgu laberik.

Vaatke kui ma veeren vees,
Kohe oletegi sees!”

Kõrs siis heitis pikali,
Sillakene valmis nii;
Viisk see hüüdis: “Sild on hea!
Mina sammun üle pea!”

Astus sammu, astus kaks:
Sillakene katki: praks!

Põnnadi, põnnadi hüppas põis,
Naeris, mis ta naerda võis!
“Vaata kuidas rumalad
Uppusivad mõlemad!”

Tõmbas ennast õhku täis
Ja karplauhti lõhki käis!
Uhti-uhti uhkesti,
The bast shoe went from Tartu to Viljandi,
Together with a balloon and a straw,
The straw as thin as a fly’s jaw!

Can’t get over Emajõgi,
Good advice is needed now!

The bast shoe then said wisely
to his companions, brightly:
“End of trouble, end of suffering.
The balloon is like a born ship.

The straw will do as a mast;
I will be the captain at last.”

The balloon answered in a rumbling voice,
loudly as his throat can be:
“The shoe’s advice is quite weird:
The boat should be engineered.

See how I roll in the water,
You will soon be underwater!”

The straw then laid down on it’s back,
A bridge was ready just like that;
The bast shoe shouted: “The bridge is good!
I will cross it as I could!”

He took a step, he took a few:
The bridge then broke: crack-a-doo!

Boing, boing jumped the balloon
Laughed as much as he could!
“Look at them, as foolish they are
Both are drowned, without a scar!”

The laughter inflated him fully
And kaboom, he exploded unruly!