A Ne'erday tradition

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new year swim group099THE annual New Year Swim at Rhu Marina at noon on January 1 each year continues a near 100 year-old tradition in the Helensburgh area.

Originally the swim at New Year was one of a series of sea swims held throughout the year in the Helensburgh area, including the Craigendoran Two Pier Swim from Craigendoran Pier to Helensburgh and the Rosneath Swim from Kidston Park to Rosneath.

It took place at high tide on January 1 from Helensburgh Pier, no matter what hour that was.

This tradition continued until the early 1970s when the Ibrox disaster saw 66 football fans killed when crush barriers collapsed, and the then Regional Councillor Billy Petrie wondered about the safety of the railings on the town's pier.

A visit by council engineers pronounced the barriers unfit to hold the weight of the hundreds of people who customarily lined the pier to watch the New Year Swim, and it looked like the event had come to an end.

Organiser for many years Billy Petrie, the former Provost of Argyll and Bute Council, said: "The fences had been erected with the pier and were designed merely to stop people walking into the water in the dark because of course there were no street lights on the pier when it was built.

“The engineers said that it would not be strong enough to hold the weight of the New Year crowd. People were saying that the swim should just stop, and I suggested that we just hold it off the beach and use the swimming pool facilities for changing — but that was not acceptable.

"I then went to Rhu Marina and they said that the swim could be held there, and so it began again.

“My wife Jean and I remembered going along to the swim when we were children with our parents, and we used to take our children, so we decided to keep the tradition going."

Billy and Jean's daughters Elizabeth and Barbara and their son Billy all helped collecting the names of the swimmers at the Marina, and they are collated afterwards and certificates sent out to everyone.

The certificates — which include the phrase coined by Helensburgh artist the late Gregor Ian Smith, "Many are Cauld but Few are Frozen" — are much coveted and are produced every year by Donald Fullarton on parchment paper.

The ladies of the RNLI Guild provide hot drinks for the swimmers and the RNLI volunteer crew spend the duration standing up to their waists in the water ready to help should any swimmers get into difficulty.

Billy, whose wife Jean and daughter Barbara died in recent years and who has stepped back from organising the event, said: "I am very grateful to everyone who helps make the swim a success. The police are very good about dealing with the traffic and parking, and of course it could not happen at all without the RNLI volunteers.”

The numbers taking part each year vary from around 250 swimmers to as few as 70 or 80, depending on the weather.

It is believed that 2005 was the year that saw the largest amount of money raised for charity, with £12,800 going to the Macmillan Nurses. The money was raised by a party of Dumbarton swimmers who were bussed down for the event and swelled the in-water numbers that year to 198.

The swim attracts people from all over Britain and the world, and over the years swimmers have come from all parts of the world. One even used to remove his artificial leg before going into the water from the pier steps.

Frequently TV cameras have filmed the event, but in recent years the 'Loony Dook' at South Queensferry seems to have been favoured for coverage because of the backdrop of the two bridges.

Ex-Provost Petrie added: "It was something we really enjoyed and it become part of our family life."

The latest Ne'erday Swim, on Wednesday January 1 2020, attracted 207 swimmers from as far as Texas and London and was watched by some 300 spectators. Organised by Fiona Howard and the local RNLI crew, it also raised £1,300 for the RNLI.

  • The picture accompanying this article was taken at the 1914 swim.