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Peter Seenan: Reflecting on sauna and sea swimming in winter

20 jan , 2020, 22.01 Peter Seenan


This weekend I visited my girlfriend’s family’s country cottage near Lovisa where to my surprise I had to smash through lake ice to give myself a refreshing swim after the sauna.

In Helsinki I’m fortunate enough to live close to a very affordable winter swimming club (kayak club during the summer months) that I can nip down to before or after work, sometimes even at lunch for a swift one. My watering hole, if you like, for less than 3 euros a time.

The cost of a winter swimming membership most would find affordable which means I always have diverse and ordinary company in the sauna and on the exposed walk to the sea. The water is always open thanks to a pump that keeps on plugging away when the sea freezes over; something that doesn’t look set to happen this year.

The windows of the sauna look towards Lauttasaari where the sun sets if it’s decided to turn up for its 9-5 and the sun rises late like a teenager behind the the rowing stadium built for the 1952 Olympics, which is on the far left of the panorama as you sit inside the sauna or steam off on the terrace.

There are a few simple reasons why I persist with sea swimming at this time of year, when most of sensible disposition give up not long after the schools go back.

We’ve had a miserable winter in Southern Finland but sea swimming isn’t demanding of good conditions. In fact, in the sleet and drizzle of a miserable November day when your options for outdoor activities are somewhat limited, then outdoor swimming comes into its own.

It’s a magical feeling the rain dancing off you as you trudge down to the sea and spring back a minute later full of all the energies and quickness of step of a bright summer morning. The combination of waves rolling you about and little water darts tapping your skin as you emerge is a highly sensory and immersive sensation. With the cold water and the natureal elements you become hyper-aware of the moment, taking your mind far away from the monotony of grey skies and heavy clouds hanging like funerial veils.

On top of that you’re guaranteed some company when the easiest thing in the world is to crawl home after a work day to hide from the cold and dark. Life continues. In autumn I met an old Finnish man called Hannu almost every day. He’d leave his walking stick at the head of the wooden path to the sea or leaning against the tattered white tiles of the shower room. And then one day he just stopped coming, old age having taken him some hours after one of his regular saunas.

Another reasons for coming is the overwheling sensation of tracing in the finest detail the changes of the seasons and throwing yourself into the scene, like a viewer stepping into a film.

Being an outdoor swimmer forces you to go outside when you don’t fancy it and fairly frequently I feel that I’m stepping out my comfort zone. With that comes the chance to feel very close to seasonal changes in light and air, and in the sounds and smells of autumn and then winter. Being more aware of the natural world and my place in it allows me to more easily cope with the darkness and mundanity of autumn and see subtle differences where before I just saw monotony.

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