Forget hot springs and hot tubs—it’s time to highlight a slightly more daunting Icelandic activity. It’s time for some sea swimming action. One might wonder why one would want to splash around in the freezing North Atlantic. Because believe me, it’s fucking cold. Still the experience somehow manages to be totally awesome.
Dark clouds hovered above on the particular day we chose to try it out; there was an icy breeze in the air. Standing on the shore, my toes in the cold sand, I think to myself why, oh why am I here, when I could easily be in a number of other places. Warm places.
Still. It’s 4 degrees Celsius, the water temperature is a nice 7.5. It’s a lovely day for a swim in the sea.
Sea swimming has grown more popular in Iceland over the past few years. Most people in the Reykjavík area use the facilities around Nauthólsvík, a.k.a. the artificial beach, mainly because those bring access to showers and a hot tub. So far this year, the number of visitors to Nauthólsvík is five times what it was last year. “A few years ago people thought we were strange. It was almost like we didn’t dare speak aloud of the fact that we sea swam. But this has changed now,” says experienced sea swimmer Heimir Örn Sveinsson. “It’s been a long process but after some positive media coverage, more people became curious and tried it out.”
Just do it
Heimir Örn Sveinsson and Benedikt Hjartarson have both been active sea swimmers for years—they go several times a week, all year round, regardless of the weather. Neither ice nor snow will stop them. They have promised to give me some pointers during my first dip in the North Atlantic. “The first minutes it’s really important to breathe, otherwise there is risk that you start panicking and hyperventilating. So just think actively about the breathing,” explains Heimir.
While entering the water I do try to remember the breathing part, only to realise that I’m both panicking and hyperventilating in-between gruesome teeth chattering. I remember Benni’s words of wisdom: “If you decide to go in—just do it. Just go. Don’t hesitate. Keep going until you find that peace and balance in your body when you get used to the water.”
There is some risk involving sea swimming in the cold waters of the Northern hemisphere. According to Þórarinn Sveinsson, senior physiology lecturer at the University of Iceland, hyperventilating causes a decrease in swimming ability. And when the temperature in your arm muscles is low, they get tired which means you have difficulty swimming. That really just means that you’re at a higher risk of drowning while swimming in cold North Atlantic waters.
Heimir and Benni assure me that sea swimming is, in fact, safe as long as you’re careful and up on your common sense. Tips include: don’t swim alone, stay close to shore and listen to your body.
The only thing my body told me whilst submerging into the iciness is that it’s going really numb. The word COLD repeats itself in my mind in big bold letters, but I push myself further until I find myself swimming. Not only that, I’m enjoying it. “Sea swimming is extremely good for your body and mind. And by taking the challenge you obtain self confidence to overcome obstacles in your life,” says Heimir. Apparently it’s a very healthy way of exercising, at least according to my sea swimming buddies.
I must admit that after a while in the water, it does start to get nice. Real nice. Although not necessarily physically, but definitely mentally. It remains unknown whether this emotion will help me overcome great obstacles in the long run, but here and now it brings a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
Fifty or so metres and approximately 4.5 minutes later, I’ve had enough and head back to the shore. You would think that entering the hot tub nearby would be heavenly after freezing your ass of in the sea. Wrong. At first you’re shivering in the hot water and you can’t feel whether it’s hot or cold. However, after a few minutes of adjusting it’s utter bliss.
My main conclusion after trying out sea swimming á la Iceland: the whole sea versus hot tub thing does not exist. In the end, both have lots of merit, and the combo is the height of awesomeness.