It’s before sunrise on the day of the winter solstice in Hobart. It’s -1 — minus one degree — and the ground is covered in frost. But so many people have registered for a dawn swim in the altogether that they have to run two batches — and those are for the 350 who were accepted; another 300 people were knocked back. 

The nude swim is part of Dark MoFo, a winter solstice festival run by the Museum of Old and New Art: Festival Of Music and Art (MonaFoma). Thousands of people brave dark cold nights to stand in the centre of a beam of light that streams 15 kilometres up into the heavens. They flock to concerts (sold out), are deliciously shocked by art installations, enjoy winter feasts — and now there’s the naked swim.

A section of Sandy Bay beach is roped off, and spectators crowd behind the barrier, near a sign saying: “Warning: Nudity”. It’s so cold and distant no warning is needed; spectators can’t make out anything of what must be pretty shrivelled, uninviting flesh. I put my hand in the water: absolutely anaesthetic, bitterly cold. Not quite iced over, but only just.

Forty metres out in the bay is the rescue section: a police boat, three other boats, three kayaks and 10 surf lifesavers on surfboards. In wetsuits, the cowards. There’s a cheer as the first group of about 150 swimmers emerges. They’re wrapped in white towels with red bathing caps, looking like some sort of cult. Some of them dance round the fires to keep warm, adding to the druidical atmosphere. The sound of Tibetan drums pulses out over the water, the tempo rising as the starting time nears (7.42am).

The swimmers line up by the icy grey water. They’re all ages, all shapes and sizes. The starter fires a smoke gun, and as orange smoke drifts across the water to provide some cover, the swimmers throw off their towels and plunge in. Shrieks, yells, cries, but on they go, plunging bravely in the water, swimming out to the police boat — actually swimming through what looks like barely melted ice. 

No one pikes. No rescue activity is needed. Out they all go, and then they swim back — they’re in the water for a couple of minutes, and some are looking quite comfortable. They don’t even rush back for their towels and race to the fires, but saunter out, a pretty pink, to cheering and clapping from the shore. (It’s just as well they don’t rush back for their towels, in fact, as a wave came up and soaked most of them. One swimmer reached for a towel, found it was wet, and picked up a dry one.  The crowd booed him.) 

How did they find it? “It was wonderful!” It was fantastic!” “What a great event!” Damon Thomas, Hobart’s lord mayor, looks marvellous in his small white towel. His effort raised $15,000 for charity. He’s shaking with cold, but he’s exhilarated as he tells the media how wonderful Hobart is. “This will get you a few votes,” I said to him. “Might lose some, too!” he laughed. 

The second batch of swimmers in their birthday suits are about to have their dip, and after that there’s the prude swim, for faint-hearted people in bathers. But it’s definitely the nudists’ day, and one beautiful young woman, looking radiant, has the last say: “Now for a hot cup of tea!” 

Peter Fray

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