ice swimming

The Sauna and The Sea

Posted in Copenhagen

So, lots has been happening. Work, play, parks, hygge and plenty more else. I’m certainly nowhere near running out of anything to do in Copenhagen. There’s a huge amount of events occurring each week and there seem to be countless interesting places to explore.

Today, however, I had my first taste of winter swimming. Near to where we live our the outdoor swimming baths in Islands Brygee (pronounced Eess-lands brooughya). We went there in the summer and had a great time. The kids splashed around while we soaked up the sun or jumped in the water from the diving platform. It was generally a great place to hang out, and half of Copenhagen seemed to be there, either enjoying a swim or having a beer and a barbecue on the grass area nearby.

In winter, however, the whole thing takes on a different guise as the mobile sauna vans park alongside the bathing area and winter swimmers heat themselves up before taking the plunge into ice-cold water. At times they have to break up the ice on the water before they can come in.

Today is guest day for anyone wanting to try winter swimming. I head down there, feeling slightly nervous. My previous encounter with Danish swimming turned into a never-ending cycle of naked showers as I tried valiantly to comply with rigid Danish swimming hygiene laws. Luckily there are people from the winter swimming club to welcome me and explain all the rules. I triple check the hygiene laws but they seem a bit more relaxed here, so I head in to get changed.

The changing room is tiny and being that it is ‘guest day’ its impossible to find space. I end up getting changed in the toilets but then even trying to put my bag away means having to be in really awkward close proximity to a bunch of naked men, whilst men and women enter and exit the sauna just behind us.

Once I get past the awkward, lack of personal space bit, I jump into the sauna. Some of the things that annoy me about British Saunas include:

  1. They are really shit
  2. They are never hot enough
  3. Loads of them don’t have proper coals and just have lava rock over a 3 bar heater or worse still some infrared job
  4. People tend to come in with soaking wet swimsuits and get the benches drenched or sweat everywhere without using a towel
  5.  People keep opening the door (letting the heat out) coming inside for about 30 seconds, then say something stupid like ‘Phew, its hot in here’ (as if the sign saying ‘Sauna’ wouldn’t be a good enough clue that it might be hot inside… hence the phrase, ‘its like a sauna in there’) and then leaving, letting more warm air out. When you’re in a British sauna that just isn’t quite warm enough, this is doubly frustrating.

Anyway, I’m in and the air is lukewarm and the floor is a bit wet and there’s a party of 7 or so British and American males not sitting on towels but instead sitting on the benches directly. Sigh….

I sit down on my towel and look out the window. It really isn’t warm enough but its an interesting experience. I eavesdrop into various conversations and also try to listen into whatever Danish I can hear and see if I can translate anything.

5 minutes in and I’m really having doubts. I’m starting to think I’m never going to get hot enough to go in the cold looking pool. I can’t understand why everyone things this is acceptable. People keep saying stuff like ‘fire minutes’ which makes me think I should stick around just in case the Sauna DJs get their acts together and start playing some hot tracks.

Then ‘Sauna King’ comes in and everything becomes good.

Sauna king has a peaceful, intellectual face on a tough viking body. His small pot belly shouts to me that he doesn’t have time to work on his abs because he’s too busy wrestling bears and making fire with his bare hands. Sauna King explains that he is going to do some Saunagus and the oils he will be using are cedar tree and orange for part one.

He then continues that if we stick around for part two we will get the mystical herb of Madagascar: ‘Ravensuara’.

I quickly decide 2 things: 1. I like Sauna King 2. I’m sticking around for part 2.

Sauna King explains everything in Danish and English. It’s really important to him that everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. Sauna King is like the Timothy Leary of Saunas, he wants us to expand our consciousness and explore new areas of Saunification but to do this safely and with a sauna buddy who will look after us.

Sauna King gets the oils on the go and then cranks up the heat. Finally, I’m properly warm…hot even.

The temperature keeps rising as we are all instructed to breathe deeply and absorb the essential oils.  Sweat is pouring off me now but I’m so grateful to be in this amazing warm environment. Every pore feels like it is opening up and absorbing goodness. Some of the British contingent are still talking. ‘Silence children!’ I think to myself ‘We must listen to Sauna King when he speaks’

Sauna King, then goes heavy on the Magical mystical herb of Madigascar and hard on the heat once more. We are all told to raise our hands in the air and breathe in unison. It feels like we are potentially starting some sort of cult here, but I’m really eager to join it, so I just concentrate on absorbing as much of the mystical herb as I can.

Sauna King whaps the towel hard near my face and I’m blasted by a rich hit of oil infused heat. It’s like a DJ dropping a beat that suddenly charges up my central neurosystem.



Finally, after a lot of towel waving and whipping from Sauna King, he steps back and explains that his work here is done. We all clap gratefully, thankful for our consciousness raising sauna. I’m positively glowing from the inside out. It feels like I’ve had two bowels of Readybrek and a bottle of port and then fell asleep on a giant hot water bottle.

I calmly head outside. The cool air is restorative and peaceful. I walk slowly for I am one with the Sauna and do not need to rush. I head towards the winter swimming pool knowing the cool water will restore and cleanse me. I climb down the ladder in a zen like trance. The pool is about 12 metres long and shallow enough to stand waist high in. I immerse myself in the water and swim a couple of strokes of breaststroke under the water before coming



An Alarm bell goes off inside my body as  I stand up. Wait…what the fuck. This is cold. Shit… this is really fucking cold….. AHhhhhhhhh fuckkkkkkk…. this is way colder than I thought it would be…. I’ve done my fair share of cold dips before but this is something else. Ouch….not even funny cold.

The zen like trance has totally gone and I’m now stood up waist deep in the middle of the pool and realising I ain’t ever gonna stick my head under this fucking death water ever again. I’m too cold to scream, I just know I need to get out or I will die so I start wading as quickly as I can to the ladder on the other side.

My once adult sized genitals have suddenly gone ‘Fuck This’ and are now making every attempt possible to retreat inside my body.  My head is racing around  at  a hundred miles an hour trying to work out how to deal with this situation. I’m in total shock. Just 10 seconds ago, I was super warm and cozy and having a good day. Why the fuck did I do this.

I’m now closer to the ladder but my entire groin has gone numb. It’s like someone has amputated part of my body and replaced it with an ice block. I can’t feel anything but ice and cold. I eventually climb out and try to walk calmly round towards my towel.

I’m starting to get nervous about my new ice-groin. It still feels frozen, no sensation is coming back yet. I reassure myself that I’ve already has two children so it will probably be ok. I get my towel and head back into the Sauna and head straight for the top shelf where its warmest.

Recovery is very, very slow, but eventually I begin to feel again.

I notice that all the English-speaking people have gone, so I’m now doing my best to listen and understand fragments of Danish. After about 5 minutes ‘Sauna Devil’ comes in and the punishment begins.

Sauna Devil does not talk much. Sauna Devil does not explain the safety features of the sauna. Sauna Devil does not speak English. Sauna Devil does not really care if you have a good time. Sauna Devil has no love for the magical healing herbs of Madagascar. Sauna Devil will not ask you to breathe in unison, raise your hands or applaude him at the end. In fact there is no end, for Sauna Devil is on one continual mission and his mission is to make the sauna as hot as he fucking can.

Sauna Devil gets to work.One, two, three cups of water on the fire and then swinging his towel. The heat is rising but it’s still not hot enough for Sauna Devil. He keeps going: oil, water, towel, repeat. He’s like a jockey whipping the racehorse in  the final stretch desperate to extract all the energy he possibly can.

Sauna King saw the sauna as an opportunity to create shared experience and expand consciousness. Sauna Devil seems the sauna only as a heat-producing machine. One that he must be master of.

I close my eyes and drift into visions. I’m in the desert, or Phoenix or somewhere. There’s been a fire nearby and all the houses are ruined rubble and dust. Once there was life here, but now in this intense heat, no life can possibly exist. I breathe in through my nose and the hairs in my nostrils feel singed. Surely I won’t survive this. We are all doomed to turn into dust. I feel myself melting away…

But Sauna Devil doesn’t care. More oil, more water more towel more heat. He’s on a mission towards the surface of the sun and nothing will stop him.

Finally he pauses. I look around, everyone is sweating hard and breathing with difficulty. Sauna Devil looks at peace as if he is actually a being from another dimension and he needs this scalding heat in order to fully be himself.

I think to myself, do I really want to go back in that freezing water? I’m sure it is a really bad idea. Yet somehow, the intense heat and the dripping sweat are confusing my brain and body. I know I need to drink water and to do that I need to go outside.

Finally once Sauna Devil has finished his 3rd round of fireball creation I head out and grab some water. Well I think… I better go for a dip.

This time, I’m really nervous as I know what is coming. Other than maybe the time when I ‘swam’ in a snow melt river in the northern highlands of Scotland, it’s the coldest water I’ve ever been in. I decide to go round to the other side of the pool. This time my tactic will be to get in, then swim front crawl as fast as I can to the other side and thus limit the damage.

I get in and go. Everything constricts. My breathing gets shorter and shallower but I don’t have time to notice as this time I’m 100% focussed on swimming hard and getting in and out the other side as quickly as possible.

I finally reach the ladder, and the ice block feeling returns but this time its my head that’s numb. I feel dizzy and ridiculously cold. Imagine the worst ice-cream brain freeze you ever had and then multiply that by fifty and you are getting close. It really is unpleasant and I embrace the towel as best I can.

There was no option after this but to go back in the Sauna and recover. Sauna Devil and Sauna King were both there but its all a bit more relaxed this time. I decide to stay for another more chilled session and then do one more quick dip. This time I barely leave sight of the ladder, but instead just dunk my head under water because fuck swimming in this icy death water, that’s why.

I head home and have roast chicken dinner, avoid alcohol and drink herbal teas. I feel wonderful, but the memory of the icy water still haunts me.

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