Skating on the Sea

21/03/2012 11:50 GMT | Updated 21/05/2012 10:12 BST

Have you ever darted on the sea without a vessel? And I don't mean above the sea, I mean on the sea, just there, on the surface of the sea. No? Well, you can do that in Finland (and any place where it freezes long enough in the winter, but let's talk about Finland and retkiluistelu.)

Close your eyes and visualise this:

A blinding sun shines from a clear blue sky. No clouds. There is hardly any wind blowing. The air stands still. The thermometer reads 15 below zero Celsius. And there you are, flying, racing on a limitless frozen sea. Alone... well, with friends rather, why not, to make it less dangerous. Under your speeding feet the deep mysterious sea. The ice is quite smooth and a myriad of ice flowers of the strangest patterns are scattered all over it. The blades of your excursion ice skates cut them with a swoosh that sounds like music from a far away galaxy. You are not sure anymore if you are on Earth or on some planet out there. Kilometres and kilometres of vast emptiness broken every once in a while by the dark shape of a small island. And you don't feel cold. The exercise, the lack of wind and the sun keep you warm. You feel an incredible thrill when you remember you are skating on the sea. What hides under your blades?

Excursion skating is not as popular in Finland as skiing, but many excursion skating lovers stay vigilant at the beginning and the end of the winter when one can find the best conditions for skating on the ice of the sea and the lakes. Clear, cold weather is the best for the ice to become perfect. The ice grows 2,5 mm per Celsius degree below zero during a day. So in 4 clear days of 5º C below zero, the ice will be thick enough to carry the weight of people, that is 5 cm thick. Clouds hinder the evaporation of warmth from the surface of the Earth and wind moves the water making it hard for it to freeze. So a still, starry night is the perfect mother to give birth to smooth, thick ice. If the lake or sea is already frozen, the wind will be an ally as it helps speed the evaporation of warmth. Thus perfect excursion skating ice is not guaranteed every winter, one needs luck. And the season can shrink into only five days at the end of autumn or beginning of winter, and the same can happen in early spring. The skater must be always ready to put on hold his life to make it on time to the perfect ice.

The skates are blades of about 50 cm long that are used either with regular winter shoes or with ski boots; ski boots are much better, they steady the ankles. Ski sticks make the skating more efficient and a long ice pick must always come along as it is used to verify the safety of the ice. The skater needs to carry a backpack as a lifesaver in case that the ice breaks and the skater falls in the water; it'll help the skater to float. Inside the backpack should be a waterproof bag packed with a change of clothes. On the neck hang a whistle and a pair of ice awls that will help the skater to climb out of the water if he falls in. The thing is to strike the ice awls into the edge of the ice and then haul oneself out of the water. A long rope is a must also, so you can help save your friend if he falls in.

Excursion skating is amazing fun, a mystical experience really. Imagine flying on skates on a white, quiet extension that reaches the very horizon. Nobody but you and your friends. Perfect stillness for kilometres and kilometres. And then, a stop to eat sandwiches and drink hot tea or coffee. It's heavenly! But it has its risks. One must be adequately prepared. If you lack experience it is necessary to start in the company of an expert. One should not fool around with the frozen sea and lakes; they could end as your tomb.