Urban Swimways: Hot Boxing

January 19, 2017

Hot Boxing


By Garrett Martin


Baby, it’s cold outside. Holy cow, it’s downright freezing! What urban Portland swimmer in their right mind would consider jumping into one of our waterways right now?

Okay, okay, who said any of us were in our right minds to begin with? And yes, I admit last month I praised the seal-skinned crazies who make up San Francisco’s bay swimming community. And yes, we have all heard tales of Polar Bear swims and ‘ice mile’ swims, and maybe even the off-the-charts lunacy of the International Winter Swimming Association.


But still, I think it would take some convincing for most of us to contemplate a bracing dip in the Willamette during this part of the year. Why is that so, especially when others around the world consider a winter dip as natural a seasonal event as skiing or eating too much cake?


If you ask for my unscientific opinion, I would say it’s related to our deficit of basic swimming infrastructure. Many a successful Urban Swimway has features we covet: comfortable and welcoming access such as beaches or steps, clean and safe water, a place to store your towel and keys, access to safety personnel and information, etc. 


But let’s face it: we’re urban swimmers, not wild beasts. Let Bear Grylls prove his worth in the raw wilderness. Let Luke Skywalker find shelter in the steaming carcass of a dead tauntaun. We challenge ourselves, indulge in the chop and the currents of natural water courses, but we don’t have to feel like we cheated death to get our satisfaction.


So until the planet warms to the point where Portland is more like Miami, we will need one more crucial component: A place to get warm.


Enter the wa_sauna. Admittedly, this month’s Urban Swimway installment is more a way-to-enjoy-swimming than a pure ‘swimway’. The wa_sauna is currently the world’s sexiest floating sauna and it’s now plying the waters of Seattle’s Lake Union. Not Miami, not Sydney, Seattle.  


The wa_sauna was originally conceived by a pair of clever architects at goCstudio, as part of an international design competition inspired by Seattle’s floating bridges and houseboats.


After two years and a successful Kickstarter campaign, it was launched last summer to great hipster acclaim. Costing around $24,000 to build, it sits on an 8-foot x 16-foot lounging deck buoyed by empty 55-gallon drums. It features a small 7-foot x 7-foot sauna, heated by a wood stove, that can house up to 6 people at a time and supports a diving platform. It’s powered by a small battery-powered trolling motor, and has been seen put-putting around Seattle waterways. Apparently it’s accessible to anyone who can paddle or swim to it.  


Since its launch the wa_sauna has become a darling of the Internet—especially among the design community, where it was recognized with a 2016 National Small Projects award from the American Institute of Architects. Google 'Seattle floating sauna' and you'll see what I'm talking about.


I am as seduced by its cool looks as anyone, but I think the real charm of the wa_sauna is its humble simplicity and the possibility its very existence offers for our own underserved Urban Swimway. There's not much to it, but that's the point. Small, relatively inexpensive, highly portable, and yes, sexy to-boot, this little fella packs a whole lot of essential luxury into a compact package.


Imagine for a moment. You’re out swimming in the Willamette. It’s colder than you’ve ever felt it—exhilarating but a little frightening without your usual clammy, chafe-inducing wetsuit. But you don’t worry, because nearby is that cozy little floating box. Before the ice-cream headache sets in you climb aboard and join other swimmers in the sauna and aaaaahh…the warmth and feeling come back into your bones.


You wait until you start seriously sweating before you scale the ladder—bathed in steam—take in the wintry view of downtown Portland, then chuck yourself back into the river.


The swim to shore is all fizzy and tingly, and you still feel the radiance of the sauna’s warmth as you towel off and get into your dry clothes. You marvel at how you used to think this was a summer-only experience. You think ‘what a novel invention!’ until you remind yourself that people have been leaping from saunas into cold rivers for centuries. 


If we keep pushing in the right direction we can eventually turn our river into one of the great Urban Swimways of the world. Beaches, docks, ramps, steps, showers, changing rooms, floating swimming pools, diving boards and safe-swim zones are all possible and probable. But it will require time, money, and patience. In the meantime, why not dream of a little floating sauna barge to tide us over?


HAP columnist, Garrett Martin, is a lifelong swimmer and currently an architect with Hacker Architects in Portland. He competed as a swimmer through the collegiate level before discovering the joys of open water swimming, first as an ocean lifeguard for Los Angeles County. A Portland resident for 20 years, Garrett has long sought a dream of bringing a world-class swimming facility to the downtown waters of the Willamette River.

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