Naked in Public: Sauna Etiquette from the Swedes

Disclaimer: there is lots of naked talk in this story! No lewd photos or harsh language, but we're going to talk about being naked in public. Sound uncomfortable? Well, now you know how I felt the first time I went in the sauna with my wife and her best friend. 

This has been a long time in the making, and it starts with a story from Finland. My first winter in Sweden was in 07/08. My sister Kate flew over from the USA to join us for the period between Christmas and New Year's ('mellandagarna' in Swedish - literally the 'between days'), and the three of us took the ferry from Stockholm to the Åland Islands to ring in 2008 with Mia's best friend Johanna (whom I had met the same day that I met Mia, on that bus in New Zealand. They were traveling together). 

Åland's flag, a mix of Sweden and Finland, just like the culture.

Åland is an interesting place. It's technically part of Finland, but has an autonomous government, their own flag, and the populace speaks Swedish. But because the people are technically Finnish - and proud of it - they have a love for a good sauna. I knew this, thanks to Mia, and I also knew that you're not allowed in the sauna, especially in Finland, with any clothes on. When Johanna's dad asked me to join him then I politely declined.

Tryggve - that's his name, and good luck spelling it - strikes a rather intimidating figure. He's a bear of a man, a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He works as a plumber and drinks Finnish beer from the can. Our only exchange, aside from him asking if I wanted a sauna, was when he pointed at the TV when the news showed a clip of then-President George W. Bush, then pointed at me and laughed. No thanks, I'd skip the sauna. (As an aside, I've gotten to know Tryggve since then, most recently when we sailed Arcturus to his summer house on Åland last year. Now that I can speak Swedish, we have a lot to talk about. He's still a bear of a man, but he's got a very soft heart and was a fabulous host.)

Clint Wells, one of my best friends, and part of the reason I'm married to Mia. This is New Year's Eve 2011 in Åland.

So my first experience with the sauna was a non-experience, but it set the ground rules, and I knew it was only inevitable before I'd take the plunge. In 2011/12, we were back in Åland for another New Year's Eve with Johanna, this time joined by my best friend Clint (the British 'wanker' whom I was traveling with when I met Mia and Johanna in New Zealand, and who crossed the Atlantic with us on Arcturus).  

The hardest part was that I knew it was coming. We'd been planning the New Year's Eve trip with Clint and Johanna for some time, and Johanna's family has a sauna in the house (all Finns do - over there, a sauna is not a luxury but a necessity. Like having a toilet. Once there was as Finnish boat in the ARC rally that had converted their forepeak into a sauna, cedar paneling and all. The crew enjoyed it mid-Atlantic, and took photos to prove it!).

So there was a certain measure of anticipation that made the whole thing more...challenging, so to speak. Put it this way - I knew, at a precise time in the future, that I'd be joining my wife and her beautiful best friend for a naked rendezvous in the sauna. Two tall, blonde Scandinavian women. Naked. Picture that. Clint - he's English after all, and where us American's inherited our prudish nature from - and I would try hard not to stare.

Mia and Johanna, only a week or two after we all first met, sailing in New Zealand. You can use your imagination...

To the girls, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Johanna said it best. "Boobs are just boobs. They're not sexual until you start playing with them!" Touche. But in American - and British - culture, that's not always the case. We've got a messed up sense of our own sexuality (thank the Puritans I guess, and they came from England), so anytime there's nudity involved the mind tends to wander. 

The day came. The four of us went for a long run around the countryside. It was late December, but the temperature was just above freezing. It was raining, a drizzly rain that Mia and I like to call 'Sverige regn' ('Swedish rain'). It doesn't come down hard, but it's a soaking, chilling rain. We came back saturated and freezing.

The sauna at Johanna's family's house is in the basement, attached to the back of the downstairs bathroom. It's big enough (the bathroom that is), that the four of us went in, with towels on. Johanna abruptly took hers off - in mid conversation with me, though it beats me what we talked about! - and proceeded to rinse off in the shower. Right in front of me, fully exposed, and 100% comfortable.

"You have to shower before you go in the sauna," she says. Apparently it helps open the pores. If your skin is dry, the heat can be overwhelming. 

Mia took her turn, and then Clint and I after. We had towels in the sauna, but they were for sitting on. Mia and Johanna occupied the higher bench, while Clint and I sat on the lower level, all four of us facing the door. I focused my gaze on the fire and the hot stones, but my mind would not let go of the image of my two favorite girls in the flesh sitting behind me and baring it all.

But you know what? It was okay! I didn't embarrass myself (you know what I mean) despite my wandering mind. We spent a long time in the sauna that first go enjoying really fun conversation and getting really comfortable with each other. Clint and I got comfortable being totally naked around our best friends and lovers, without any sexual tension.

We got a lot of use out of the sauna that week - spending time outdoors in the wintertime in Finland makes you understand why a sauna is not a luxury in that part of the world - and I left Åland afterwards with an empowered sense that I wanted to be naked in front of all my friends! It's liberating! After carrying around so much anxiety about stripping down in public, that experience taught me that Johanna was right - boobs are just boobs when you're in the sauna, and it feels wonderful to be without clothing in that setting. 

Swimming in the Baltic, albeit with clothes on this time...

Mia and i have enjoyed my newfound liberalism. We swim naked on Arcturus now when cruising in the Baltic - the water is cold enough to embarrass myself in quite other ways - and spend 'naked time' on the boat. There's nothing nicer than letting in the breeze on a remote island in the Swedish archipelago. Don't get me wrong, we're not turning into nudists or anything. But over here the culture is different. When in Rome...

Now, if only us Americans would get the picture. Since moving to Lancaster, Mia and I have joined the city YMCA and spend three or four days a week at the gym. It's a wonderful facility - a big weight room complete with a platform and rubber plates so I can do the Olympic lifts I enjoy, lots of yoga and spinning classes throughout the week, a big swimming pool, basketball courts and excellent locker rooms. A newish building that's worth every penny of our monthly membership fee. 

The guest cottage at Tryggve and Lotta's (Johanna's parents) summer property in Åland. It had bunk beds...and a sauna. Mia and I took full advantage!

Arcturus anchored just off the summer cottage and sauna at Johanna's family's place. The proverbial 'nice spot.'

The locker rooms include showers and saunas. The men's is typically mens, with a group shower block and no privacy. But the women's, to Mia's dismay, is decidedly prudish. Curtains separate the shower stalls and according to Mia, you won't see a lot of boobs in the locker room, let alone full frontal. Mia doesn't mind - she prances around the place as if she were still in Sweden, shocked at how conservative everyone else seems and wondering what they think of her.

But there are few who understand real sauna etiquette. On one occasion I went in the sauna to find a high-school-ish aged kid wearing gym shorts, basketball sneakers, a black t-shirt and a baseball cap, listening to music on his headphones and playing games on his iPhone. I couldn't resist.

"Dude, you'd never be allowed in a Finnish sauna like that!" I joked. I had to say something but didn't want to make it sound too mean. He laughed uncomfortably and asked about it, and I related the stories from above. He's not the only one I've seen fully dressed in the guys sauna, and Mia has similar stories from the women's. 

And then there's the old fat guys who come in buck naked and don't put anything down on the seats! Get the picture folks - nobody minds a naked dude, but it'd be nice if you sat on something! The rest of us share those seats. Keep your butts to yourselves.

As for Mia and I, we'll continue to follow the protocol established by the experts of the sauna lifestyle in Sweden and Finland. We're on our way to Öregrund today to launch Arcturus and spend the summer living aboard - naked swims in the Baltic about to become a daily ritual. I'm more comfortable than ever waltzing around in the nude (Mia always has been). And in the sauna, I take a towel to sit on.

Mia, in publishable form, swimming in the Baltic.