Terror strikes mid-thigh for 700 in Dark Mofo nude swim

When I met Launceston couple Philip and Rhonda Mackrill, I knew that in just a few short minutes we'd be getting nude together. 

We were standing near the registration desk at Hobart winter festival Dark Mofo's second annual solstice nude swim, chatting on the cold concrete promenade at Sandy Bay Beach.

In front of us lay a sliver of damp grey sand, the great frigid expanse of the Derwent River (water temp: 11 degrees), and the challenge of nuding up and getting in. 

"Are you nervous?" I asked the couple, hoping they'd confess to being as jittery as myself. But I was alone. Philip, a marine firefighting lecturer at the Australian Maritime College, was too busy strategising - should he leave his towel back from the shore and get a good run-up, or drop it close to the water, so he can grab it as soon as he gets out?

And Rhonda, who doesn't swim well, wasn't fazed. "Just don't lose me," she warned her husband. "I don't want to have to look in the crowd for you. I won't know where to look, or what at."

We were just three of 700 brave souls who'd woken after the longest night of the year to take part in a swim that the Museum of Old and New Art, which is behind Dark Mofo, hopes to make a longstanding tradition. They are on their way too: the numbers have more than tripled since 230 people took the plunge last year.

My nerves were arguably well-founded. Like Rhonda, I am not a great swimmer, but I'm an even worse nude - I have too much respect for people's eyes to be flashing my bits around with any frequency. As for the cold, if the temperature in Sydney dips below 25, I bust out the Kathmandu gear. I was not well built for solstice swimming. 

But the event was staged with enough drama to distract from personal hang-ups. After a briefing by a Dark Mofo crew member and a surf lifesaver (there were 30 on site), we were ushered into a heated marquee to change (the Mackrills, keen beans, had jumped the gun here and changed in the six-degree open-air). Towels wrapped around us and mandatory swimming caps on (the words "crack of dawn" printed on each), we marched back out onto the beach.

Some huddled around barrel fires; others, like one very confident and hirsute louche near me, prowled the shore towelless as if it were his own shivery catwalk. Then, when the Buddhist drumming kicked in - a nice, rousing touch - we threw our towels to the ground and pelted towards the water. 


I half expected to crumple upon first contact, my feet struck by a freezing numbness that rushed towards my shoulders. But I somehow managed to push through the pain, slapping my dead thighs to wake them and jumping around neck-deep in the water as if on a pogo stick just to keep things flowing.

I shared a Munchian look of terror with a long-haired man who'd stopped at his waist before forcing my head under, partly for the "invigoration", partly just to say I did it - properly, full-baptism style. Then I made for the shore. 

An observer on the beach later told me the screams of excitement as we all ran to the water cut quickly to shudders of fear when we got there - "reality struck mid-thigh," she said. 

I caught up with the Mackrills afterwards, just as Rhonda was taking a photo of Philip standing with his back, and bare bum, towards her, and the Derwent in front of him. They were after proof for their kids, aged 20 and 27, to show they actually did it. 

Rhonda said she didn't notice anyone's bits - she was too focused on herself - and had stayed out in the river for several minutes, mostly unbothered by the cold. "The best part was hitting the water and not backing out."

Still catching my breath, I had to agree. 

This article Terror strikes mid-thigh for 700 in Dark Mofo nude swim was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.