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Sunrise at Helsingin kanoottiklubi


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 Loviisa in Southern Finland, where to my surprise I had to smash through lake ice to have a refreshing swim after the sauna.

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

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

A woman walks from the sauna to the sea at Helsingin kanoottiklubi.
On grey days, sauna and swimming is a perfect escape. Photograph: Peter Seenan

The windows of the sauna look towards Lauttasaari where the sun sets if it’s decided to turn up for its 9-5. And at this time of year in January, 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 after summer.

We’ve had a miserable winter in Southern Finland but luckily 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 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 complete experience. With the cold water and the natural elements you become hyper aware of the moment, and your mind is taken far away from the monotony of grey skies and heavy clouds hanging like funereal veils.

On top of that, you’re guaranteed some company – when the easiest thing in the world is to crawl home after work to hide from the cold and dark. Life continues. In autumn last year 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 taking him some hours after one of his regular saunas.

Another reason for coming is the overwhelming 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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