“The first two years I stared at the sea thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing?’”

Danes are winter swimming like never before. In the past decade, member numbers for winter swimming associations have multiplied by almost five. Physical and mental health benefits are key motivators for these Vikings, as well as the allure of being an “annoyingly fresh guy” every day at the office.

Photo: Stine Skovgaard

By Jacob South Klein & Stine Skovgaard

In the early morning twilight, a couple in bathrobes and flip flops are heading towards the water at the harbour front. Their white flannel clothing is easy to spot against the dark winter backdrop. The air is crisp after a starry night and the temperature sits at around a brisk five degrees Celsius.

Eventually reaching a bridge fixing a timber raft to the harborside, they pass a young man – also robed – before nodding politely and uttering a quiet “Good morning”. It is the only sound to be heard except for the gentle lapping of the waves.

Perched upon the raft is the NorVin clubhouse, a much-coveted winter swimming club in Nordhavn, at the edge of Copenhagen. Submerging your body in the ice-cold water, often followed by a visit to the sauna, is an increasingly popular hobby in Denmark. In fact, it is so popular that many must patiently wait on a list for years to join a club.

NorVin’s club house was inaugurated in January 2020. Photo: Stine Skovgaard

“Before, I used to hate winter”

Back in 2017, Jeppe Kerckhoffs, Ole Sørensen and three other residents started meeting at the harbour at 06:30.

“The five of us would meet every morning and jump into the water – not quite legally, with no safety arrangements,” Jeppe Kerckhoffs says.

For an outsider, it seems strange that anyone would jump into the water on a cold March day.

“The first two years I stared at the sea thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing?’” says Ole Sørensen.

Today, the benefits are clear to him.

“For the past decade I have been fighting winter depression, but that’s stopped since I started winter swimming. In the morning I often feel nauseated and have no appetite, but the water makes it go away,” Sørensen explains.

Kerckhoffs also generally feels less sick, although for him, it is also a social motivation that drives him into the water.

“Even though I live in the capital, I like that I can greet my neighbours in the morning and know them by name,” he enthuses.

Kerckhoffs continues: “Before I started doing this, I used to hate winter. Now, I love it. I love how the same scenery – the colours, the shapes – changes just a little bit every morning”. He looks around fondly as the daylight begins to grow in intensity.

From five to two thousand

Undeterred by their lack of a permanent home, the five neighbours continued to meet for a quick swim every morning.

“We talked about turning it into an actual club – getting more people to join and building real facilities,” says Kerckhoffs.

Soon enough, with a little help from a local foundation, they indeed founded their own winter swimming club: NorVin.

As Nordhavn began to develop into a housing area, the quay became a recreational space, with ladders to enter and exit the water safely.

“The first two years the club was open for anyone to join. Whilst we still didn’t have proper facilities, the members paid a symbolic fee of £6. But before long we were a few hundred-strong,” Kerckhoffs recalls.

Word spread about the club, and today, NorVin boasts over 2000 key-holders to the exclusive club house, with 800 people having paid £23 to be on the waiting list – hoping one day to hold a key as well.

Ole Sørensen (to the left) and Jeppe Kerckhoffs at NorvVin just after their daily swim. Photo: Stine Skovgaard

No medical proof of benefits

Kerckhoffs and Sørensen have no doubt about the mental, social and physical perks of winter swimming.

However, there is very little medical evidence to support this, says Bo Belhage, Chief Consultant at the Anaesthesiology Department of Bispebjerg Hospital.

When asked if any proof of the health benefits exists, Belhage is resolute in his response.

“That’s easy to answer. Absolutely not. There is no real evidence to prove that it is healthy for you – there are indications, but no medical proof,” he states resoundingly.

But, anecdotally, Belhage suggests there may be more going on than first meets the eye: “On a cellular, hormonal and bloodstream level, the reported effects are most alike physical activity such as running and cycling. People describe a ‘kick’ of freshness, or a bodily release of endorphins, like athletes.”

In the name of journalism, our intrepid reporter Jacob South Klein decided to don his swimming trunks and take a dip himself.

Despite the lack of evidence, Belhage describes how the activity itself might affect mood and self-perception.

“You are standing as God made you. You can be old, young, fat, thin, wrinkled, beautiful – it doesn’t matter. You are completely free to be the person you are, and free to have fun.”

As for winter bathers Jeppe Kerckhoffs and Ole Sørensen, they will continue to meet up every day at 06:30 and plunge together into the icy water.

This story is written for an audience in the United Kingdom and could be published on https://www.theguardian.com/world/series/this-is-europe under the Lifestyle section.