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Pirita Open Winter Swimming Festival: literally Baltic

A weekend in Tallinn is the perfect trip for cold-water thrill seekers

“I’m sorry madam, we have no more Prosecco left.”

It is always interesting to get a window into the lives of elite international athletes. This is not one of those occasions. It is 7.30am and I am on a flight to Tallinn, Estonia, to take part in the Pirita Open Winter Swimming Festival. My teammates have already decimated the Ryanair drinks trolley. Two bottles of Prosecco and a can of cider might not be the usual recommended breakfast before competing in a swimming competition, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.

The Baltic states are perhaps not the first place that spring to mind when you think of outdoor swimming destinations. But for winter swimmers they are a great choice. Flights to Estonia are cheap, as are food, drink and accommodation when you get there. And it is cold: literally Baltic. The perfect recipe for a weekend of sightseeing and ice swimming.

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The competition takes place in a 25m pool set up in a marina in the seaside suburb of Pirita, only 10 minutes’ drive from Tallinn old town and 15 minutes from the airport. The official hotel for the event was built for the sailing event in the 1980 Moscow Olympics; a huge slab of Soviet concrete, it is only minutes’ walk from the competition pool and also boasts its own indoor 25m pool and suite of saunas and steam rooms.

After a night spent tapering in the bars of Tallinn old town, I am ready for Saturday’s competition. Two hundred and twenty swimmers from 21 countries have gathered to compete, including the Estonian national swim team (at least one of whom has an Olympic tattoo). Five lanes are set up in the marina, which is still frozen around its edges. It is a perfect day: blue skies, sunshine, and very cold. The water temperature is a balmy 0.8 degrees Celsius. The day’s programme of events is 4x25m relays, 25m head-up breaststroke, 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle and 450m freestyle. The races are jointly IWSA World Cup and Estonian national races. The IISA 1km event took place the previous day, a gruelling 1000m grind through falling snow and fading light. I am signed up for the much more sensible 50m and 100m freestyle.

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The swimming is a mixture of the serious and ridiculous: Olympians racing against ladies of a certain age sporting bobble hats (either way, everyone seems to be having a lot of fun). The relays go by in an adrenaline-fuelled blur, followed by the 25m head-up breaststroke (the traditional winter swimming stroke, and the perfect introduction to the sport). Then it is the 50m freestyle. As I make my way to the start the strap on my goggles snaps. 

Disaster! Luckily a kindly Latvian lends me his pair and, on the command of the announcer, I lower myself into the water for the wet start. The water is cold and dark, meaning you have to sight for the end of the pool. By the end of the second length the cold starts to affect your stroke; I am glad to get in the hot tub and even gladder for the portable saunas: fierce heat stoked by strapping Russians constantly pouring water over the hot coals. Once warmed up it is time for the 100m: four lengths of the 25m pool. Although I feel strong throughout the race by the end of the fourth length my hands and feet are numb and I need a little breather before hoisting myself up the steps out of the pool. 

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Although my time in the 50m didn’t trouble the sharp end of the competition, I managed to claim a bronze medal in my age group in the 100m. Confidence suitably boosted, it’s time to plan next year’s trip to Estonia: can I step up to the 450m? Probably not, but next time I will definitely try the 200m. The weekend ends with a party with awards for the 200m and 450m swimmers, disco and special appearance by a troupe of dancing girls. After a day of swimming and an evening of throwing shapes on the dancefloor I wander towards bed clutching my medal and certificates.

If you want to experience proper winter swimming then the Pirita Open is highly recommended: an efficiently organised and friendly competition with the facilities of the hotel close by, plus all the fun of Tallinn only a short cab drive away. Just don’t forget your dancing shoes. 

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Pirita Open in numbers

Number of swimmers: 220

Number of countries competing: 21

Water temperature: 0.8 degrees

Distances: 25m, 50m, 200m, 450m, 4x25m relays

Fastest 450m time: 5mins 24secs (Petar Stoychev)

Verdict: Five stars        

Full results

Pirita Open Winter Swimming Festival event website

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.