Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Swim or sink

photo from Laugardalslaug - from
Iceland is lucky enough to have geothermal power in abundance. Some of the energy contained within the hot water we extract from the ground is used to heat swimming pools, most of which are outdoor and open year round. Such utilisation is nothing new here, at least 13 hot pools have been identified from the centuries just after settlement here and four of them still exist. These old pools from the 13th century and on are not really pools in any swimming sense, I guess they are best described as acoustic Jacuzzis.

In the 1930s and 1940s, dozens of public swimming pools were built all around the country. These were proper concreted pools that allowed for swimming – something not generally practiced in Iceland until that time. Soon after swimming became one of the subjects taught in schools and still today one cannot graduate from high school without passing the sixth level swimming exam in which one must be able to save someone from drowning. The test scenario is pretty tame for what one would assume takes place, the students are for example spared having to knock the unruly drowner out cold. We are however told to expect it if actually saving someone.

photo from

Iceland is surrounded by sea and fishing has traditionally been the backbone of our economy. However, prior to the 1940s very few Icelanders knew how to swim. Past wisdom actually recommended it not be taught or practiced as it was believed that knowing how to swim would only prolong a seafarer’s death by drowning. For sure this was the case if an accident at sea occurred far from shore but I am not as certain about the men that fell overboard close to land. In the summertime they would have stood a chance.

In 1984 seaman named Guðlaugur Friðþórsson from the Westman Islands managed to swim 6 km to shore when the ship he was on sank. This was in March and it was still cold but somehow he managed. For six hours he swam in the frigid sea until reaching shore where he then had walk barefoot over the rugged and frozen lava to find help. His shipmates were not as blessed. Icelandic movie “Djúpið” in English “The Deep” tells this story. It is very touching if you have any connection at all to fishing.      

Guðlaugur’s feat was very much discussed here after it happened. He is still known by one and all for what he accomplished via force and will. In the 80s some odd test were done on him to try and find out what helped get him through the ordeal. I remember that the resulting conclusion was that his body fat was genetically the same as a seal’s. Everyone was in great awe of these findings although today I very much doubt this. It makes no sense. And they were not all that great with DNA in those days anyway. Probably some mix-up at the lab or a faulty reading of the results.
the pool behind my house - photo from

On the street behind my house is the town’s swimming pool. They have a call system connected to a loudspeaker that is somehow aimed in our direction and desperately needs readjusting. We know everything that warrants the attention of the lifeguard and also when it is time for those in the pool to get out and go home. At first it was annoying, now it is just a part of being at home and as such connected to the positive.

Women are allowed to be bare-breasted in Icelandic pools. All except the Blue Lagoon. The reason is due to the tourists, I guess the pool operators are afraid of upsetting them. I have no idea what the rules are elsewhere in the world.

Here the shocker is if someone tries to enter the pool without bathing first. This is a big no-no here and all pools require bathers to shower prior to entering the water. Do not try this. If you do, pick another pool than the one behind my house – at least until they have redirected the loudspeaker.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. I can relate to a fellow who's body fat correlates to a seal's. As for the bare-breasted rules in Greece...let's just say :-D

  2. Thought you might like to know - a little while back we (Northampton, UK) had major fussing over whether Muslim ladies were entitled to swim in black tights and long sleeved high necked tops. Totally clean - they were putting on these outfits as swimming costumes - but a lot of other women objected. The muslim ladies problem was that although they only went to female only sessions, there is a little gallery where people can wait for their friends etc - and the pool wouldn't restrict that to female only
    Oh and I'm pretty sure I have seal fat as well - I can match their distribution of body fat anyway.