Dipping with the Danes
Danish winter bathing takes a special kind of madness.
Text: Conrad Molden
If the sea was 2.5 degrees Celsius in many countries, and you tried to jump in, someone would ring the psychiatric unit. Here in Denmark, such behaviour is celebrated. It is called vinterbadning (directly: winter bathing). A name that masks the horrors of its freezing cold reality. More terrifying than the activity itself is that these mad winter bathers are everywhere - they could be your friend.
My friend Halvor (affectionately known as the Viking) meets me in the park on a cold January for some morning hygge. The grass under our feet is frozen, and you can see our breath hanging in the air. Halvor casually tells me that he just came from a swim at the Aarhus Havnebad, an outdoor seawater swimming pool. He tells me this with a straight face as if it is nothing. It's January, the air is only 3 degrees Celsius. I start shivering at the thought. "It's free!" he insists. Yeah, no sh*t – you couldn't pay people to do that.
This winter bathing madness is ubiquitous. VisitDenmark has a whole "where to go winter swimming" section under 'things to do' as if anyone other than a Dane is mental enough to even consider it. "Denmark's long coastline gives you 8,700 km of opportunities to embrace, including wild wintry beaches." As if you will just pull over to the side of the E45 as it crosses from Aalborg to Nørresundby and casually dive into the Limfjord. "Looking for a place to experience near-death in freezing cold water? Look no further than the enormous ocean that surrounds us." Clicking on their winter bathing website link should alert the authorities.
I remember being driven to Skagen by two Danish friends against my will. It was October. Already bleak, grey and cold. With relentless harassment, I was eventually forced, stark naked, into the sea with them. The only thing more relentless than their harassment was the painfully cold wailing wind that froze every centimetre of my fragile indoor-climate-adapted body. It was not just the air that was agony; the waves were rough, like being slapped by blades of cruel ice. They brought an American football to play with; I was shaking too violently even to reach for it. Meanwhile, the Danes leapt around in the water like glacial sea lions. We were probably there for minutes, but it felt like an eternity - part of my soul died out there, somewhere between the Baltic and the North Sea.
“It was not just the air that was agony; the waves were rough, like being slapped by blades of cruel ice.”
How do the Danes justify this insanity? Health. Always health. When it comes to ingesting disgusting food or partaking in bizarre activities, counter-intuitive health advice miraculously makes an appearance. "An icy dip… releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, serotonin, cortisol and dopamine." So does injecting strange drugs in the Nørresundby Bilka car park, but that is not on the official tourism website. The most significant health benefit is managing not to die - actually remaining alive must be good for you.
How do they hide the naked horror of winter bathing? Fluffy blankets. After going through this ordeal, one of your cult leaders will wrap you in a blanket and give you a mug of something warm. Cups of tea and a quilt are all that is needed to make you forget that you almost died. For me, up in Skagen, the recovery came by huddling in the foetal position in the back of my friend's car. The heating was on full blast, and I still remember the shards of sea ice beginning to melt and run down my shivering body. The Danes sat up front, completely fine, un-traumatised and actually smiling.
One day I fear spotting a drowning man at Aarhus harbour and throwing him a life ring. Only to find a confused winter bather looking back up at me. "Sorry, Halvor!" I'll shout. "It's because you're in the sea, and it's the middle of winter. Undskyld!"