We used to have a summer cottage in the Tammisaari archipelago for almost 40 years. I have spent all the summers of my childhood by the sea. I learned to swim, fish and sail when I was still just a small child.
The scent of the sea is something that is very dear to me. The catch in our nets often included large perches or pike-perches. The jellyfish we threw on the rock to dry up were the size of plates.
Swimming and moving in water have always been an integral part of who I am. What makes the situation slightly strange is that a part of me is still the same little boy who is afraid of water and afraid of the dark. This is why – or despite this – the sea holds its fascination.
In 2002 I began to practice open water swimming a bit more seriously. Having an island of one’s own was luxury. When I swam around the island I was never too far from the sauna and a good meal. In 2005, I decided to start practicing for a swim across the English Channel. Work towards this goal became more serious, but never dull. In 2008, this swimmer’s dream became reality. I had soaked myself for hundreds of hours in the Baltic Sea to prepare for the swim across the Channel.
It is intriguing how you only need to swim a short distance towards the horizon to be able to relax. Everything else fades to the background. This is an emotion I could not reach on a lake. And I do not mean only through swimming but from moving on the sea with any type of equipment. The Gulf of Finland has been extremely important to me also in terms of wellbeing. Without the sea and the time spent chopping wood at the cottage I do not know if I would still be ‘sane’.
In the summer of 2014 I intend to be the first person in the world to swim across the Gulf of Finland wearing nothing but swimming trunks. The coldness of the water, not the distance, is the greatest challenge, which makes it interesting. People tend to think that distance is the main consideration in open water swimming. But the Gulf of Finland is also not very warm. Surface waters are rarely above 20 °C. The journey will be everything but easy. Nevertheless, the mere thought of that 25 to 30 hour swim, the fact that it is possible, makes my palms sweat and my thoughts go awry.
I have used the Baltic Sea relatively little for things other than swimming. After Estonia sank, I gave up ship voyages. I have always felt that large ships are constricting, boats liberating, and swimming is complete liberation. It has been quite a while since I last sailed on the Gulf of Finland – although I’ve swum there more than enough.
For a swimmer, the water is everything. No-one enjoys swimming in dirty or smelly waters. The scent and colour scheme of the Gulf of Finland have always infiltrated deep into my consciousness – even if they have not always been pristine. Many Finnish lakes have been too back and gloomy for me. Scary. The water has to have a taste, a scent, a feel, a foam, be cold or warm. The endless open water is a source of wonder for me. A bit like a flickering flame. You can only respect it.
When swimming, you grasp the strength of the sea in a way that is much faster and more sensitive than in other circumstances. The smallest wave will rock you. You will know immediately when the water starts to cool off. Currents move swimmers just as they shift boats. When swimming long distances any aberration, for example algae or driftwood, will interrupt the mantra-like swim. And you need to start all over again. When you swim you are alone. Sounds and sights will change. The water feels safe, which more than often it is not. Even when you take a break you have to swim without moving forward and stay on the surface.
If I some day win the lottery, I will buy our cottage back and start swimming around the island. Not too far from the sauna and a good meal.