To go on a boat trip and take a swim while you’re at it is a pretty common activity around the world, in the city of Piteå in Swedish Lapland as well. But here, just a hundred kilometres south of the polar circle, the considerably less common twist is that the boat trip happens in minus 20 degrees Celsius with an icebreaker that weighs in at 400 metric tons.

Boat trips in summer and early fall are a given part of life for the residents of Piteå, a city in the Bay of Botnia blessed with a rich archipelago. Northern Sweden and the Bay of Botnia in particular hosts many archipelagos with large islands covered by sand, stone and pine forests. Here we find picturesque places and areas where the great rivers that run from the mountains in the west meet the ocean.

In summer many tourists come to Piteå and the well-known resort Pite Havsbad to experience this. At the resort, often called the Riviera of the North, the camping site is filled with cottages, caravans and over ten thousand visitors, mainly from Norway and Sweden. For a municipality that usually has just over 40 000 residents, that is obviously a huge addition.

Are there any guests who’ve gone in wearing just underpants?

However, winter tourism at Pite Havsbad has grown over the years and boat trips have become the primary attraction. For the uninitiated it may sound contradictory that tourists flock to boat trips in the middle of winter, but in that contradiction lays the unique pull of the experience.

After a short walk we arrive at Pitsundskanalen, the mouth of the mighty river Piteälven. It meets the sea here after a 400-kilometre journey from Sulitelma glacier in Norway.

On the landing stands captain Thomas Wirén, a retired shipping company owner who’s dedicated over 40 years of his life to shipping. Few are able to match his knowledge of shipping in an arctic climate, since his company among other things played an important role in establishing the Norwegian oil industry in the North Sea.

Thomas takes us through the safety routines and welcomes everyone on board the Arctic Explorer, as the boat is called. Soon the great diesel engine of the icebreaker lets out a groan from below and the deck beneath our feet comes to life with a slightly massaging vibration. The obligatory smell of diesel oil that fills the air enhances the atmosphere considerably.

Before the trip captain Thomas Wirén welcomed everyone and went over the safety routine.
Kurt Beyer from Austria enjoyed the ride on the deck
Many photographs were taken during the trip, which lasted three hours
With a weight of 400 metric tons and a hull armed with steel the icebreaker easily breaks through the ice cap.
The massive blocks of ice floating around near the boat fascinated many.

Warm clothes, thick caps and tons of anticipation

In the lobby of the hotel building at Pite Havsbad, the largest conference establishment of northern Europe, a group of people has gathered. It’s a Saturday morning in March and two things serve as common denominators for everyone here: warm clothes and thick caps.

For the most part, similarities end there. As I listen to the chatting in the lobby before we set out I’m able to make out at least a handful of different European languages. That people from all over the world gather here for the same reason that they’ve gathered here today is nothing unusual. And even though I don’t understand most of what is said, I can clearly feel the anticipation in the air.

After a couple of minutes a young woman approaches and greets us. Here name is Ulrika Johansson and she works as a guide at the facility. Ulrika goes over the schedule for the day and says we are to walk to the boat and then listen to a safety briefing by the captain.

The excited group sets out and during the walk I get to know Ulrika a little better. She tells me it’s her fourth season working here as a guide on the icebreaker trips and talks about all the people she’s had the pleasure of meeting.

What is it that the guests appreciate with these trips?

“Different things, but for many foreign guests it’s the first time they walk on frozen water, which of course is quite an experience. Others think the most amazing part is bathing in a hole in the ice,” says Ulrika.

How does it work when they’ve bathed, do they warm up in a sauna on board the boat?

“No, they receive dry towels, but they get to use special rescue suits when they bathe which make sure only their hands get wet.”

Are there any guests who’ve gone in wearing just underpants?

“Haha, yes, just yesterday there were a Spaniard and an Italian who did just that,” Ulrika reveals.

How did they react?

“They seemed a little in shock, but at the same time they thought it was an awesome experience.”

After a short walk we arrive at Pitsundskanalen, the mouth of the mighty river Piteälven. It meets the sea here after a 400-kilometre journey from Sulitelma glacier in Norway.

On the landing stands captain Thomas Wirén, a retired shipping company owner who’s dedicated over 40 years of his life to shipping. Few are able to match his knowledge of shipping in an arctic climate, since his company among other things played an important role in establishing the Norwegian oil industry in the North Sea.

Thomas takes us through the safety routines and welcomes everyone on board the Arctic Explorer, as the boat is called. Soon the great diesel engine of the icebreaker lets out a groan from below and the deck beneath our feet comes to life with a slightly massaging vibration. The obligatory smell of diesel oil that fills the air enhances the atmosphere considerably.

When the boat made a stop in didn’t take long until many fascinated people were running around on the ice.
The swim in the icy waters was one of the highlights of the day. Here captain Thomas Wirén helps passenger Monica Pettersson attach a safety leash.
Under the supervision of the captain and other assistants many took the opportunity to swim wearing special drysuits.
To make your way back up onto the ice wasn’t all that easy and sometimes the guides had to help.
Those who bathed in the ice-cold water often wore an expression of delight mingled with fear.

Ploughing through the thick ice of the Gulf of Botnia

The day of our trip is a nice one, with a shining sun and a relatively high temperature considering the season. As we chug out towards the ice-covered sea we pass one of Piteå’s finer neighbourhoods, a string of riverside villas and gardens colloquially referred to as Guldkusten – The Gold Coast.

One of the guides tells us of one earlier trip that took place shortly after a snowstorm that left the Gold Coast villas covered in snow, looking abandoned. The curious view made one of the tourists ask if reindeer-keeping Sami lived there, fascinated over the nice houses they seemingly had left.

When we’ve left the rapid-flowing waters of Pitsundskanalen and reached the open sea, all the passengers gather on deck. Soon the thing everyone is here to experience will be upon us; a mere hundred metres ahead the vast white landscape of ice stretches out as far as the eye can see. Will the icebreaker cut through all that ice like a hot knife through butter, or are we in for a collision like the one that the passengers of the Titanic so bitterly experienced in 1912? Excitement is reaching its climax.

We meet the edge of the enormous ice shelf with a speed of about 5 knots. Even though we’re on a steel-clad colossus that measures 37 metres and weighs 400 metric tons, the ice certainly puts up a fight. As the Arctic Explorer eats through the solid white surface that shelters the Gulf of Botnia like a down quilt, its spastic movements force the passengers to hold on to something. Muffled cracking sounds from the ice giving way are mixed with the rumble of the diesel engine.

Next to me stands a man who has chosen to shelter his face from the cold winds with the hood of his jacket. His name is Kurt Beyer. He’s from Salzburg, Austria, and it doesn’t take long until we’re chatting.

How did you end up on an icebreaker in Piteå?

“I’ve come here to experience the winter and northern Europe, it’s all completely new to me. I’ve never been north of Stockholm before,” Kurt tells me.

What are your other plans, besides going on this boat trip?

“We’ve already gotten to do a whole lot. We have walked with snow shoes, raced dog sleds, driven go karts and hovercrafts on ice – lots of stuff that I haven’t done before!”

What has been the best thing this far?

“Oh, that’s difficult to say! Maybe the dog sled ride, it was an awesome experience that offered a combination of speed, adrenaline and nature,” says Kurt.

Kurt also mentions that he has an office job and therefore appreciates being active, preferably outdoors, in his spare time. As he talks about his days in Piteå and the Norrbotten region the memories seem to warm him up, even though it was the cold and the winter that enticed him to come here.

A hole in the ice in which the brave can bathe

After ploughing through the seemingly infinite sea of ice for some time, the Arctic Explorer turns back toward the mainland. In a vast bay covered by ice, we stop for the next event on the trip. A gangplank is felled out, landing with a thud on the ice. The passengers flock by it and soon, one by one, they disembark to wander around on the thick ice. Soon the frozen sea is swarming with tourists amazed by the feeling of walking on water.

In the trail behind the mighty icebreaker, dark water mixes with great blocks of ice. More and more of the passengers find their way to a point around 20 metres behind the boat, waiting for the highlight of the day: bathing in the ice cold water. After a couple of minutes two orange figures leave the boat to join them, each attached to a guide by something that looks like a dog leash. The orange figures are the tourists who will go first into the dark waters.

Captain Thomas Wirén watches over the well-clad bathers, all the time providing soothing instructions. The faces of the two orange tourists tells me their feelings are a mixed bag of delight and fear as they slowly lower themselves into the freezing water.

After a couple of minutes of splashing and attempts to make it out of the cold water unaided, they are helped back up onto the ice to make way for others. Soon, one of the first bathers return from a quick change into warm clothes aboard the ship, and I seize the opportunity to get a report from someone who’s been in the cold water.

To see the ice getting crushed by the boat was enjoyable for many of the passengers.
For the adventurous it’s tempting to jump between the ice sheets.
The ice sheets formed beautiful formations on the journey back.
Captain Thomas Wirén spoke with all the passengers and answered questions about the icebreaker.

Listen to the sound of ice blocks being crushed against the hull of the boat. Go for a walk on the frozen sea and enjoy a hot drink on the ice. Challenge the laws of nature in safe and comfortable conditions on the ice-classified vessel Arctic Explorer. The ice breaker safaris depart from Piteå. To find out more, visit pite-havsbad.se.

She introduces herself as Monica Gustafsson, a small business owner from Älvsbyn, a municipality neighbouring Piteå. She’s on the trip with her family and reveals this was her first time bathing in ice-covered waters.

How was it?

“It certainly was an experience, but it was also slightly unpleasant. I’m scared of deep waters and sharks,” Monica says with a laugh, well aware that the risk of shark attacks is strikingly low around here.

How is it to experience this kind of thing for someone like you who, unlike these tourists, is from the area?

“It was amazing to see the ice breaking ahead of the boat. It’s easy to become blind to experiences close to home, my family travels a lot but we don’t visit attractions in the region. We live not far from Storforsen, for example, yet we rarely go there,” Monica tells us.

Storforsen is the largest rapid in all of Europe that has been left untouched. It is part of the same river that we set out from, but located further upstream.

The group of tourists wandering on the ice is comprised of both families and larger travel groups. The sun is shining and the obligatory photos where people pose in front of the Arctic Explorer are being taken at a quick pace. Captain Thomas Wirén is enjoying the nice weather, just like his passengers.

For how long have you been involved in the icebreaker trips?

“Since 2004. This is our ten year anniversary,” Thomas reveals.

How is it to be the captain of this boat?

“It’s very social, and it’s fun to get to meet so much people from different parts of the world.”

You must have met your fair share of people over the years?

“Yes, many thousand! Usually we have around two thousand passengers per year; our record is three thousand,” says Thomas.

Is there a particular memory from all these trips that stands out?

“There was this Finnish lady a couple of years ago that asked if she could bathe in just her underwear, which we allowed. She dove in, got back up a while later and said ‘That was nice’ and everyone was just speechless. It turned out she was an experienced winter bather,” Thomas tells us.

What is the difference between an icebreaker and an ordinary boat?

“The prow has a very round shape, almost like an egg, and this one has a steel thickness of 20 millimetres.”

What is the maximum ice thickness it is able to break?

“Around 50 centimetres, and when it’s minus 20 degrees Celsius you have to go out at least every other day in order for the lane to stay open.”

The durability of the ice depends on many factors. Whether it’s solid or comprised of many layers, due to periods of shifting temperatures, is one such factor. Another one is whether or not there are air pockets or other elements making it weaker.

To be able to withstand great pressure, the ice doesn’t need to be all that thick. 50 centimetres of ice easily carries a truck. In other words the 400 metric tons of the Arctic Explorer come in handy when Captain Wirén wants to make his way through the ice.

When we’ve enjoyed the sun, and all the passengers hungry for the unique experience have had their opportunity to bathe, we retire to the restaurant aboard the boat to spend the journey back there. The spastic movements and the cracking sounds still make up the backdrop for our conversations, as we enjoy a fantastic fish soup. The restaurant is decorated in an elegant fashion, with a marine theme clearly present.

The rest of the journey home gives room for reflection and we all agree that it’s truly something special to be on a boat at sea. Of course, this shouldn’t be news to me as a resident in the area, but even so I will vividly remember the powerful experience of the Arctic Explorer ploughing through the thick ice of the Gulf of Botnia.

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