The temperature is hovering around 0°C and a biting offshore breeze is blowing out to sea. The thin layer of frost covering the ground dusts the cliffs with a slippery glitter that defines the border between land and sea. In the distance a roaring blue-green sea, where a powerful wind blows up small peaks on the giant waves that rhythmically roll towards land. It’s a dramatic natural scenery that would be reminiscent of a National Romantic painting from the turn of the last century — if only it weren’t for the black silhouettes in the distance moving towards the grey-blue horizon.
— It’s magical out there. Completely unbelievable: big, clean and offshore. Like an artic California, says Peter Sahlberg, shivering as he pulls off his left glove to try and blow life into a stiff and frozen thumb.
Both he and his partner in crime Jens Holmer, who’s helped run their surf company, Surfakademin, for the past decade, are covered in 6mm thick rubber of the highest quality. The black neoprene wetsuits, made by Japanese brand Axxe, have been tailor-made for them and are specifically for surfing in ice cold water. This, however, doesn’t guarantee that even the most warm blooded won’t freeze after four hours in 6°C water.
We are now between the 68th and 69th parallel north, roughly at the same latitude as Alaska. We’ve travelled from Stockholm, via Oslo, to Lofoten, in Norway’s northernmost archipelago at the darkest time of the year. The Polar Night, the weeks in December when the night lasts longer than 24 hours and the sun never climbs over the horizon, is over but it still gets dark early. That doesn’t mean that you can’t surf though. The surf season is at its best during this time of year.
— No other place in northern Europe has more guaranteed waves than Unstad. This is becoming clear, as there are more and more surfers coming here each year. The swells that reach here are at least as good as the ones that you’ll find on the French Atlantic coast, or off the coast of Portugal. But when you’re there, there are three times the amount of people in the water, says Kristian Breivik, a local we’ve met at Svolværs airport in Lofoten. It turns out he is one of Lofoten’s most dedicated surfers. He tells us that he runs a business that he runs in the little community of Unstad. His surf school and shop is quite close to the house that we are renting.
Breivik is convinced that you can find world class surfing in Lofoten.
—There are many surf spots to choose from, the wind and wave conditions are excellent and the season is long, he explains. But the way he sees it, the best thing about Lofoten surfing is that there are hardly any people. For now. It’s a place where surf tourism is in its infancy.
With surfboards on the roof of the car, we take off, driving through a landscape reminiscent of Game of Thrones. We pass deep valleys, ice covered lakes and snow covered mountains, driving on roads that are completely deserted for long stretches. Here, in the land of the northern lights and the midnight sun almost nothing new is permitted to be built. This means that the population isn’t growing all that much and the people that do live here are getting older. But it doesn’t seem to matter. People still flock to Lofoten; for hiking and fishing, for whale watching and for the waves. Lofoten is the embodiment of the metamorphosis that cold water surfing in northern climates has experienced in the past years.
A 2016 New York Times feature about Lofoten described cold water surfing as ’the new black’. This declaration speaks volumes about what is happening at the moment. No longer seen as an extreme sport, cold water surfing is being heralded as a lifestyle phenomenon that is entrenched in popular culture. Its influence is even being seen in fashion.
In Scandinavia, Acne Studios head designer Jonny Johannson’s surf passion has become an inspiration for the brand’s collections. The most recent seasons have seen Acne Studios present prints and pieces with clear ties to cold water surfing and collections have been inspired by Robin Kegel and Alex Knost, both of whom are internationally renown surfers. There are also other Scandinavian brands embracing the surf fashion trend such as Uniforms for the Dedicated and Our Legacy.
Where Acne Studios takes a literal approach to surf-inspired clothing in its collections, Our Legacy has incorporated vintage surf culture details in their pieces, most notably through tie-dye and yin-yang symbols in their new concept Our Legacy Work Shop.
— I see cold water surfing as a natural development for those of us who live in the north, and who are already interested in riding waves. In the same way that the back to the roots movement is taking over the snowboard world, cold water surfing is a way to make surfing a natural year-round activity for us in this cold climate. Our Legacy co-founder Jockum Hallin, himself a surfer, says if you love to surf then the effort to take yourself to the waves is part of the experience: spending a whole day just to get 15 minutes in the water or sitting and shivering in a car to suddenly run over a barren beach and jump in the cold, beautiful hard water.
Hallin’s observations go hand in hand with the Scandinavian longing to spend time in nature, to find the places that are untouched and authentic that the modern urban citizen often says they desire to experience.
Surfing is about harnessing the power of nature. But putting on a damp wetsuit in the freezing cold and paddling out in murky water demands a different kind of dedication.
Christer Myhrán, a dedicated surfer and founder of the cold water surfing brand NORD, started surfing in the 1980s when there were hardly any surfers in Scandinavia. He has won the Swedish nationals and has been a coach for the national team.
— We used to be 4 or 5 surfers on a good day at Torö. Today you can easily find 30 people in the water when the waves are good. The last time I was there I saw the Swedish surf pro Freddie Meadows there. The time before that I was next to the Australian Adrian Buchan in the line up. The fact that one of the world’s best surfers comes to the Swedish east coast says a lot about the Scandinavian surf scene today, Myhrán says.
— Back in the days, we wore double layers of long underwear under our wetsuits and rubber dishwashing gloves over our gloves to keep warm. It wasn’t possible to stay in the water very long back then.
It’s obvious that today’s increased interest in cold water surfing has grown with technical developments in materials. Improvements in equipment have meant that it is possible to surf in places and in conditions that weren’t possible 10 or 15 years ago. When Myhrán started travelling to far away places to surf in the early ’90s he was often the only Swede riding the waves. He was met with skepticism. Could anyone surf in the North’s ice cold water?
— As a Swede I was the butt of jokes from local surfers on the beaches of Bali, Australia and California, says Myhrán laughing at the memory.
But then, in the beginning of the ’00s something happened. Countries that previously only received recognition for their breathtaking natural landscapes also became interesting for their surfing possibilities.
— Around this time cold water surfing became a theme in the marketing of Scandinavia. Today there is hardly a Nordic car advert that doesn’t have a surfboard on the roof of the car. I am met by an entirely different attitude now as a Swedish surfer abroad, says Myhrán.
Peter Sahlberg and Jens Holmer mostly surf in warmer waves these days. They describe their company Surfakademin, which has taught thousands of Swedes to surf in the last decade, as a movement that works to spread the joy and energy that they have themselves been privileged to be a part of for the past twenty years.
— The connection to the sea changes lives. We and our 10,000 participants can attest to that. It’s the same experience as when we started in 2006 with seven participants, and today when we have six times as many people. The feeling is still as if we are with a gang of new friends on a surf trip together, Sahlberg says about their business.
With an average of 200 surf days a year, the men commute between the company’s camps in Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Biarritz, Galicia and California. They’ve just arrived here in Lofoten from California.
Warm weather surfing deserves its hype, but they both believe that surfing in Nordic waters is something special. Torö Stenstrand, about 70 km from Stockholm, is one of the most surfed waves in Sweden and the venue for numerous Swedish surf competitions.
— My apartment is a 45-minute drive from Torö Stenstrand. If I’m in Stockholm and the wind picks up enough, I more than gladly paddle out there, says Sahlberg who, along with Holmer, has cold water surfed outside of Österlen on the southeastern coast of Sweden, in Varberg on the west coast of the country, in Norway’s Stavanger and in Scotland.
The next day at daylight we start our search for a left hand wave that Sahlberg and Holmer know about.
Many of the surf spots that are located near Laukvik are ’secret’. This means that information about surf conditions using digital methods is not available. We have to drive to the waves and take a look.
— The charm of places like Lofoten is the inaccessibility. Technical advancements have revolutionised surfing, but it’s also destroyed something. Today you can sit on the sofa and, via a website, see exactly where the best surfing is. When you’re here in Lofoten you have to look for the breaks yourself, and deal with whatever conditions you meet on the day. It feels very old school, and it reminds me of how it was in Hawaii 20 years ago, says Sahlberg.
We stop next to a muddy and deserted field, not a soul in sight save for the flock of fat sheep in the distance. Just as the guys are about to change their clothes in the freezing rain, it starts to sleet. The keen surfers don’t seem to mind the change of weather. They take a few sips of tea from their thermos and sprint down a muddy path to the sea.
— It looks good out there, those waves are about three metres high, says Holmer as he points toward waves rising as high as walls from the sea.
The edge of the beach is empty, but there are around 10 surfers in the line up. Five minutes later Holmer and Sahlberg are lying next to the others in the break. The three hours spent waiting in the car seems like a long wait, but in wave time it apparently makes no difference. They both surface with satisfied grins. Surfing is magical.
It feels like time for lunch, until one of the surfers in the break has told the guys about a wave close by that they should check out. Now. Wetsuits are taken off and the chase for waves continues along the coast. Suddenly, the car stops and everyone looks towards the sea. To an untrained eye there isn’t much to see besides a wild sea, but 10 metres out the guys see something that grabs their attention. An even and long wave, in the form of the letter A when it breaks to the left and the right.
— This looks just too perfect says Sahlberg.
— Something has got to be wrong with it, says Holmer.
A car stops next to ours and two young men, Swedish surfers that Holmer and Sahlberg have met before, climb out.
— The wave out there is called The Mauler, says one of them.
Darkness has settled in before the four come out of the water, shivering and with a glazed look of contentment in their eyes.
— You often hear that Scandinavians have a cold attitude, that it’s hard to get close. But amongst surfers there is a different mood. Even though it’s cold and dark there is an incredible warmth and sense of community. You become a clan that sticks together on the waves, Holmer says.
The community spirit of cold water surfing shows itself even in the style of attire the surfers wear. Cold water surfers have a black silhouette.
— In this raw cold, functionality is everything. It gives polar surfers an androgynous and homogeneous look. But for the dedicated surfer appearance is secondary. All surf, especially cold water surfing in challenging conditions, demands focus and total presence, says Sahlberg.
As we head back to base from the a surfing I think about the attraction of cold water surfing. It all boils down to dedication.
I remember my conversation with Christer Myhrán, who told me that there are no shortcuts to surfing. He, along with Holmer and Sahlberg, has spent more than twenty years surfing and hundreds of days every year and sees each session as a challenge.
It is an early night. After some time in the sauna everyone heads to bed. The hunt for waves in extreme cold starts again at daybreak.