Just a Day at the Beach

Well, hello, Internet. How was your day?

Good?

Good. How’s mine? So nice of you to ask.

Because my day was awesome, Internet. Because I went sea bathing in the North Atlantic, after dark (5:30 PM), in November, and I not only didn’t pass out, freak out, or die, I actually enjoyed it.

How do you like them apples?!

How has it come to this, you might wonder? Well, living the life of an intrepid, (part time) news hound has its perks, or, to be truthful, it pushes you into doing things and meeting people you might not have done or met otherwise. And so far, it’s specifically this kind of doing and meeting that has been the best about this job.

Right now, we’re prepping our December “Christmas” issue, and have been working on article ideas which capture the season and perhaps have a little more to bite into than your basic gift guide. A few years ago, there had been some short pieces on activities you could do in Reykjavík in the winter, and remembering a field trip which I actually skipped last year (because I had a cold and a not insignificant fear of large, cold bodies of water), I suggested that maybe we look into winter sea bathing in Reykjavík. I thought this would be like, a short little two paragraph article on the fact that a) sea bathing exists, and b) that there is an association that does it—the Sjósunds og Sjóbaðsfélag Reykjavíkur, or the Reykjavík Sea Swimming and Sea Bathing Association. As it turns out, my editor had something a little more in depth in mind, and so I sent an email to some of the people involved with the group, thinking that maybe someone would get back to me in time for a short phone chat or similar.

But, oh, fate. I emailed the sea bathers late on Monday night. That same night, I got an invitation to go out with them for one of their weekly swims on Wednesday at 5:30, at Nautshólsvík, the geothermally-heated beach which, conveniently, is within walking distance of my house. I’ve been wanting to go to Nautshólsvík for quite some time, actually—we usually just pass it on our walks—since it has this great, long outdoor hot pot facing the ocean bay. And during the summer months, they actually pipe hot water down from the water tanks at Perlan and into the lagoon area so that the ocean temperatures are a tad more more summery (59 to 66F, even).

During the winter months, the facilities—showers, sauna, hot tub, snack bar—are all still open, but that geothermal water? They don’t bother. And so, the ocean temperature is more like…well, actually, it’s closer to the temperature of the ocean when the Titanic sank. (That’s 31F, by the way, and yes, this thought did occur to me at the time…Although, side bonus: too cold for sharks. So that was at least one less thing to worry about.)

But back to the adventure at hand! In my email to Ragnhilður (“Raggy”), the very nice woman who heads the swimming association, I gave this tentative, “uh…I don’t know if I want to go in myself, actually, because um…the water…makes me…um…nervous…um,” but sussed out that a regular swimsuit is all that would be needed. So this afternoon—coming on nighttime, really, since the sun goes down at about 5:00 PM now—I packed my swimsuit and towel without really thinking that I was going to do this. Because doing this involves ocean swimming, extreme cold, dark water and general darkness, and possibly massive discomfort. And it sounded, well, crazy.

‘But you know what?’ I said to myself while walking over (yeah, I’m a self-talker). ‘This would be an awesome thing to Have Done. This would be awesome to say that you did, even once, and when will you ever trick yourself into this situation again, Larissa? And also, yeah, right, go after that story, Ace!’ And so, when I got there and Raggy asked if I had my suit with me, I just said yes and went with it.

Since she explained that I was a journalist from The Grapevine (cache!), I got to use the facilities for free and borrow the neoprene swimming booties and gloves that I was told you definitely wanted to have when the water was this cold.

This cold?

Oh, yeah. The water was roughly 35F. So not Titantic cold, but super-duper-serious cold for everyone, not just this former desert kid.

So, out we troop to the ocean: Raggy, me, and three other delightful sea swimmers, one of whom was wearing a handmade wool suit over her regular one, and another of whom had a flowered swim cap on. The fourth woman I was told was the resident Master of Disaster: literally, she has a Master’s in Disaster Planning, knows major first aid, and was prepared to swoop in, as they all seemed to be, if I looked like I was going to die on impact.

I seriously couldn’t have asked for a kinder, friendlier introduction to this. They all kept explaining that I had to go in slowly, keep moving, keep breathing (“you have to remind yourself to breathe, your lungs will forget to breathe”), and most importantly, that I should definitely keep talking, for safety’s sake. There was a guy we mistook for a seal swimming out in front of us as we waded in, and there were kids diving into the shallows as they screamed behind us. “It’s good to scream,” one of them told me. “You can scream if you like.”

They told me that they often go in for as long as 20 minutes, but that they wouldn’t be doing that today—partially, I assume, because of the cold, and partially, I’m sure, because they were being nice to me. So in we waded, and then we swam out a little bit—far enough that I wasn’t standing, but not all that far, actually—and then we came back in.

I can’t say that it felt particularly good at first. I didn’t really go numb, like I thought I would. Instead, there was a really intense prickling sensation, followed by all of my extremities feeling very intense (not exactly hurting, just intense), and then I wasn’t able to move quite as fast as I thought I might have been able to. And right when it started to get bad…it got awesome.

Because there you are, floating in the North Atlantic, looking at the lights of Kópavogur across the bay, and your face starts to feel warmer because your body is just so cold, but it is invigorating and exciting and kind of a major endorphin rush. It was suddenly, totally, great.

Now, this isn’t to say that I wasn’t glad to get out. And when we walked back on shore, the air around us felt kind of like a heavy blanket, or really, a heavy marshmallow wrapped around me. And we walked back slowly because the hot pot would actually really hurt if we got in too fast, and then we got into the hot pot, and that, too, was awesome. And again, everyone there was extremely nice and friendly and were wearing wool hats, and making statements like “You don’t have to be crazy to swim in the ocean, but it helps.” And it turns out that they have these great social events, in the hot pot. They screen movies (their first was Jaws, and next will be The Creature from the Black Lagoon), and they’ve had fashion shows (hence the knitted swimwear), and they have a reading coming up during which authors will stand on the side of the hot pot and read to all of the people sitting in it.

And then, just when I thought that everything was fully and totally awesome, Raggy hopped out and came back with a bag of…coffee grounds. For a scrub. (“You are getting the full spa treatment,” someone told me.) So we got out, tip-toed over the patches of ice toward the lagoon area, and rubbed ourselves down with coffee grounds. And then, back into the water—this time without the gloves or the boots, which was…harder—to splash off before heading back into the hot pot. And besides smelling like an espresso bar, which was kind of great, the oil from the coffee actually softens your skins and exfoliates. So save your coffee grounds, everyone. Freeze them (“to keep them fresh”) and then when you are ready, you can do the same thing in the shower. I promise, it’s great.

There’s a yearly membership fee of a little more than 3,000ISK to join the association, and I’d also need to buy my own booties and gloves, but I am very seriously considering adding this to my list of activities. Things not just to Have Done, but To Do…

Who in the world would have thought?!

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3 thoughts on “Just a Day at the Beach

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