Dutch take to the ice in their hundreds
As much of Europe sought refuge from the cold, hundreds of Dutch embraced the chill Wednesday for the year's first skating event on natural ice, held on the frozen Henschoter Lake in Utrecht.
The Hague--"It has been very busy, I expect that up to 1,500 people will have taken part by the end of the day," Ramon Kuipers, project coordinator for skating federation KNSB, told AFP by telephone from the central Dutch city.
"For us, it is important that as many people as possible are introduced to ice skating, and these events on natural ice help to make the sport accessible. Skating is part of the Dutch cultural heritage."
The federation announced on Tuesday that the shallow Henschoter Lake had frozen sufficiently, to a depth of 12 centimetres (4.7 inches), to be safe for skaters.
The two-kilometre (1.24-mile) circuit course opened at 10 am (0900 GMT>) Wednesday, for participants to skate up to a maximum of 40 kilometres.
"So far we've had mainly adults, the children will come after school," Kuipers said by lunchtime.
"There were a few novices today, but most people seemed to know what they were doing."
Some of the younger children were learning to find their feet with the help of kitchen stools pushed ahead of them, he explained.
As the KNSB warned that natural ice in most parts of the country remained unsafe, emergency services launched a large-scale search involving helicopters, boats and divers for two skaters who had gone missing near the northern town of Marken on Wednesday.
Skating on frozen lakes and canals is a traditional pastime in the Netherlands, but before last year's unusually cold winter the required conditions had not existed for more than a decade.
Every year the Dutch hope for a cold snap to set the stage for the "Elfstedentocht" (race of 11 cities) -- a 200km endurance race on frozen canals last held in 1997.
The KNSB reported, meanwhile, that ice-skate factories were running low on stock as tens of thousands of pairs have flown off the shelves over the past few days.