Hovering precariously at the edge of the incoming tide, surfboard tucked under my arm, I watch as the grey waves crash over one another. The devouring, foaming, monstrous water that I’m about to plunge into is terrifying. Rut Sigurðardóttir, one of my surf buddies for the day, calls to me over the thundering waves: “Whatever you do, don’t panic!” Almost paralysed by fear, I can only nod. I trot along behind her, into the rough seas, looking longingly back to the safety of the shore and, as instructed, trying my hardest not to panic.
Surfing originated in the Polynesian islands, and most famously, Hawaii—like Iceland, a volcanic, black-sand island, isolated in the middle of the ocean, albeit a much warmer one. Through popular culture and people’s insatiable lust for adrenaline, this sport has ridden the waves from California to Australia, Bali and now, apparently, to Iceland. The surf scene in Iceland is small, but enthusiastic—there are no half-hearted, fair-weather surfers here, perhaps because the island itself has very little fair weather. This isn’t the sort of place where you can just rock up to a beach and give it a go. You have to be patient; to watch the surf reports and the weather forecasts, and to spend half an hour trying to prise a damp, inch-thick wetsuit over your thighs. It’s hard graft.
Sisterhood of surfing
Rut, along with her surfing friends, Elín Kristjánsdóttir and Maríanna Þórðardóttir, is part of an even smaller group of female surfers who are willing to put in the work to tame Iceland’s violent waters. “It’s a close community,” says Maríanna, “because there are so few of us.” This becomes obvious when you see them surf together—there’s a real sense of sisterhood. These aren’t a bunch of surfer bros showing off with their sweet-ass bitchin’ tricks—these women respect the ocean, look out for one another, and cheer each other when they catch a particularly good wave.
In Iceland, like most other places in the world, surfing is a male-dominated sport—something that Elín and Maríanna find difficult to understand. “I think it’s just not in our nature to go surfing here,” says Maríanna. “It’s something you have to develop on your own. Surfing isn’t in our environment. We’re not familiar with it, so we have to go out and get it. Maybe there just aren’t as many girls willing to do that. Perhaps the boys are just more adrenaline seekers, or danger seekers, and girls are less into the danger.”
Elín, too, blames Iceland’s harsh conditions for the lack of women interested in surfing. “Many women don’t realise it’s possible,” she explains. “They’re turned off by the cold. If more women knew it was possible, there would be more women involved, I’m sure.”
The sub-arctic freeze
I am one of those women. I am not just turned off by the idea of the cold, I am terrified of it. I mean, I’m pretty sure someone could set me on fire and I’d still need to pop a cardigan on, so I’m certain this sub-arctic ocean will freeze me solid. When Rut assures me that my wetsuit will keep me warm, I assume it’s her Viking blood talking. But, to my delighted surprise, she’s right. I walk slowly into the ocean, wincing slightly as I wait for that breathtaking chill to hit me, but it simply… doesn’t.
Maríanna explains how much surfing equipment has improved in the past decades, “When I first started out, my mum had this wetsuit from when she was twenty,” she says. “I borrowed it and went into the ocean and I was freezing. I was only out there for a minute, and just thought: ‘Oh shit, I can’t do it!’” Although the thick wetsuit makes me feel more neoprene than human, it does the job, and I’m grateful.
I wonder out loud if people are surprised when they find out that these women surf, keen to discover whether they experience discriminatory or sexist attitudes with regards to their status as “female surfer.” “Well, mostly people are just surprised I surf in Iceland, of all places,” says Rut. “Then they’re surprised because I’m a blonde woman with three kids.”
“When I am with my boyfriend at the airport with my board, all the staff assume it’s his board,” says Maríanna. “I have to correct them.” But it washes right over her. “That’s just how people see it,” she says. Admittedly, though, people with these attitudes seem few and far between. As Elín puts it: “People usually react because I’m a surfer in Iceland, not because I’m a woman.”
Same joy, different waves
It’s a good point. This blisteringly cold, ferocious water is a surprising home to a sport associated with bikinis, beach parties, coral reefs, and the warmth of the Pacific. Both Elín and Maríanna have surfed in these more tropical climates, from Bali to Ecuador, to Australia and the Canary Islands. But how does it compare?
“The quality of the waves [in Iceland] is pretty good,” says Marianna. “You always get the same joy out of it, just in a different way.” The harshness of Iceland’s climate limits the number of people willing to learn to surf, so for those that stick at it, there is a real sense of accomplishment. Elín explains the difference between surfing in Iceland, and other more popular places. “It’s less crowded here,” she says. “It’s more authentic somehow, because it’s not as available to everyone. It’s more special. Anyone can learn to surf in Bali, but in Iceland you have to really work for it.”
The dangers of Iceland’s ocean
Iceland’s water is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I consider myself a strong swimmer; I have swum happily in many an ocean, lake or river, and always felt in my element amongst the waves. But this water is something else entirely. This water is alive, and it’s a monster. It could swallow you up, spit you out, choke you, drag you. It’s cruel and unrelenting. I’m baffled that anyone would choose to go in this water, no gun to their head, no hefty payment, no reason other than the fun of it.
When I ask about the real dangers of Iceland’s ocean, Marianna recalls a time when she and a friend found themselves pulled out into an unpredictable, angry sea by a riptide. “All of the sudden we were so far from the shore,” she says. “We didn’t realise we were going with the rip. It was super fast. Then we hit these huge waves, and they didn’t throw us towards the shore, they threw us straight down. Every time we got back up to breathe, we could take maybe two paddles, and then the next wave came and threw us. And it was like that for, I don’t know how long, but it seemed like forever! At that point I thought: ‘Shit, we’re not going to get to shore.’ I was so scared, but still having to control my fear—to suppress it. Because if you’re afraid out there, you’re screwed. If you panic, you’re just dead.”
Of course, in a sport like surfing, you need that fear and adrenaline to push your limits and help you improve. But too much of it can create, quite literally, a sink or swim situation. If panic sets in, your thoughts become illogical; you forget to time your breathing with the waves, and waste your energy. Do that for too long, and you’re in real danger.
I find myself floundering out at sea. I look back to the shore and wonder how it got so small, and how I have gotten so small next to these impossibly tall waves. My breathing becomes fast, and for a moment I forget that I’m attached to a large flotation device. With my board trailing behind me, I try to swim back to shore, going nowhere. Waves crash down on me and my breathing becomes quicker. “I’m panicking,” I think—the one thing that Rut told me not to do. I force myself to calm down, which perhaps takes even more effort than swimming against the current. I untangle the cord that has become wrapped around my legs, grab my board, and cling to it. I steady my breath, and slowly make my way back to shore. All this happened in about ten seconds. But it was ten seconds you couldn’t pay me to repeat.
I ask Maríanna how she got out of her—decidedly stickier—situation. “Well, there was a big wave and we both caught it, but my surfing partner fell off,” she says. “I was hanging onto my board so tightly, thinking: ‘Should I drop out of this wave and stay with him, or should I just go to shore? If it were me in that position, I wouldn’t want to be out there alone. But if I go to shore at least I can call someone.’”
She laughs, guiltily. “I was really selfish, and went to shore,” she continues. “I couldn’t see him anymore, and it was like that for quite a while. But then finally I saw his head, and he was on his way in. And it was okay.” Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Maríanna’s story is that once she and her friend found their way back to safety, they didn’t call it a day: they headed back out to a slightly calmer spot. If that isn’t fearless, I don’t know what is.
Surfing is an exercise in mental strength. The ability Maríanna has to prevent herself from panicking in what could be a life-threatening situation is truly remarkable. Perhaps when you’re surrounded by the strength of the ocean, you have no choice but to match that strength. As Rut puts it: “An afternoon of surfing is like months of therapy.”
Rut has only been surfing since the winter, but she goes whenever she can. Her newfound love of the sport has pushed her to improve herself, both mentally and physically. “This is the first time I’ve felt the need to get stronger,” she explains, “so I can paddle harder, go for longer, and be faster.” Rut’s love of surfing is palpable. After describing the many reasons she enjoys it she simply smiles at me, shrugs, and says: “It just makes me feel amazing. Like Superwoman.”
Clinging to my board, spluttering on seawater, and mildly hyperventilating, I certainly don’t feel like Superwoman. I sit in the shallows and watch in awe as Rut and Elín zoom past me. They take the ocean’s ferocity in their stride. They embrace the waves, and it is mesmerising. They make the waves seem like their friends; they move with the water, with grace and ferocity.
For Maríanna, surfing cultivates a closer affinity to nature itself. “It’s really hard to describe it,” she says. “It gives me this feeling of connection to everything—to the ocean, the air and the nature. How nature works, and the forces around you. It’s calming, but it also gives you the adrenaline that you crave so much.”
The language the girls use to describe their experiences and their love of surfing is very different from the stereotypical blasé surfer lingo. They speak less of their own skills, and more about the ocean itself. There is a seriousness to the way they speak, and a certain level of humility. The clichéd, bombastic, macho descriptions of surfing are nowhere to be heard when talking to these women. In fact, they often attribute any skill they have to the ocean. “When there’s good conditions and a good wave, I feel a lot of gratitude, and I feel thankful,” says Elín. “I feel like, in that moment, I can’t get closer to nature. The ocean is unpredictable, but when you train and practice and keep at it, it gives you a lot.”
This refreshing mindset is interesting to me, and I wonder whether it’s a result of gender. Perhaps women allow themselves to be more in touch with the emotional, natural side of the sport than your typical surfer bro. I ask Maríanna whether she considers women inherently closer to nature. She thinks for a second and then shakes her head. “I think [men] feel it as much as we do,” she says. “Perhaps the people just describe it differently.”
Indeed, I think the main reason their language and descriptions of surfing revolve so much around nature is precisely because of the power of the nature that surrounds them. Iceland’s ocean is unpredictable, harsh, and commands respect. The seriousness and humility these women show is born out of this.
But, of course, it can be fun too. Sitting in the shallows and watching the girls tear up the waves, I feel equally inspired, traumatised and down-hearted. Rut sees me, and runs over, shouting: “Come back out!” I look warily out to the waves. “Let’s try these small waves,” she smiles. With an utmost feeling of dread, I agree, and we wade out a little further where the waves have power—just not the trying-to-kill-you sort of power. My feet can still touch the black sand of the ocean floor, and I feel safe. Rut teaches me when to lie on my board, when to paddle and when—in theory, at least—to stand up. Despite my depressing discovery that I have no upper-body strength whatsoever, I start to understand the joy of it. Whilst lying on my board attempting to stand, I feel the wave carrying me, and it doesn’t feel like an enemy anymore. It doesn’t feel like an angry monster trying to swallow me up, but a friendly hand lifting me and guiding me along.
Driving back to Reykjavík, I’m exhausted. I relish the warmth and safety of the car and the predictable straight road, feeling relieved, but also energetic and happy. The sea gives you something that you can’t really get anywhere else. It makes you feel small next to its immense power but, when it’s going well, it makes you feel special and chosen, like the ocean itself has allowed you passage.
The brutal conditions mean that surfing in Iceland is not for the faint-hearted, or the timid, or those scared of cold water, or those with little to no arm strength. But if, like me, you happen to be literally all of these things, you should still give it a go. You might surprise yourself. Iceland’s sea can be cruel and dangerous, but for those crazy enough to ride its waves, it’s a playground; an exhilarating, inspiring, empowering playground.