Ocean swimming in Iceland
For winter, Tekla explores the daily routines and rituals of bathing in Iceland, where communal pools and wild hot springs are seen as a way to connect with nature and one another.
Now, along its southern coastline, a dedicated group of women have forged new bathing cultures. Inga Eiriksdottir, an Icelandic model and ocean swimmer, recounts her experience of winter bathing in the North Atlantic Ocean.
It started 2 years ago. My mum asked the family what we wanted to accomplish for the coming year, and she said she wanted to swim the 1km stretch of ocean from her house to the neighbouring coast.
She started training in February with a group of women. Most of them are between 40-60, but she’s even older – almost 70 – and a three-time cancer survivor. They meet, they sing, they walk into the ocean holding hands. Sometimes I see them spin in circles on the beach to warm up their bodies before. They wear yellow beanies with “happier you” in Icelandic on them. It’s wonderful to watch.
Ocean swimming has helped my mum heal following her cancer. She had to retire from working as a nurse prematurely because her immune system was compromised. I think ocean swimming has strengthened it. But it’s the camaraderie that she has with these women that has helped her the most – they share their lives with one another.
I started going with my mum and right away I was hooked. It's so amazing for your body and your soul to get yourself out in the elements, especially in the dark winters here. Sometimes you see seals, you see birds and the weather can be any which way.
Now I swim three times a week. I go around 11:30am, which is when the sun comes up in the winter. I like to be one of the first people there and have the ocean to myself. I change and run straight into the ocean.
When you first get in, it's really hard. I think that's why my mum’s group sing – to distract themselves. You feel your heart rate change in the cold but I don’t even think about that, mentally I'm just with the water. It's all about getting in as quickly as possible.
The ocean is quite dark and it's a black sand beach so you can’t see the bottom. Sometimes you have to walk pretty far to get into deep enough water.
Once you're fully in it's only tough for a few seconds. A lot of people go to bathe and stay still when they’re in, but for me the movement of swimming is better. I take deep breaths throughout – your breath is really a tool you need to stay in. You're very present throughout because you're forced to be.
After you come out of the water you don't feel cold, even if it’s winter and minus degrees. You've gone past cold by that point. Sometimes I’ll walk along the beach in the snow to the sauna.
The best part comes after. Your body is full of energy, full of life and you just feel so happy. I have this rush for the rest of the day from it. I feel the best in the water out of anywhere. It’s a next-level endorphin rush. You feel stronger. You feel like you have better immunity – I don't really get sick often. It just toughens you up.
It can be like a spa experience too. People often exfoliate with sand from the beach in the sauna after. In the summer, they’ll take seaweed into the sauna where it heats and explodes with a serum that they use all over their bodies.
I'm super thankful for the women who are pushing this culture along. Five years ago, no one was really swimming in the ocean in the winter. Now I feel like everyone has tried it. I'm in this Facebook group of swimmers and it’s all women that I’ve known since I was a kid. We post when we’re going to go and others will join. It’s quite challenging to get yourself to go when it’s dark and cold, but friends really help. It's good to have people around you that inspire you to keep going.