I contacted Georg shortly after and as with most surfers you come across, he was very approachable and more than happy to help me. Georg, I found out is a native of Reykjavík, as nearly all surfers here are, explaining why most of the known breaks are concentrated in the surrounding area. Moving to Australia at a formative age, he grew up in the bosom of surfing, learning his trade there and eventually returning to his native land in the mid nineties but thought better of trying to surf in the harsh extremities of the ocean. In 1998 a group of local snowboarders started surfing the area around Reykjavík, heralding the emergence of Iceland as a wave riding location and prompting Georg back into the scene. Using his vast experience from Australia, he was quickly propelled to standing out as one of Iceland’s premier surfers, amongst the twenty or so who are regulars on the breaks.
Looking at the difficulties presented to the average Icelander on a normal day let alone a surfer, I ask Georg how easy it is to start learning here. He explains that many people have tried to start surfing but have not had the endurance and patience to last, “having strong determination, …the ability and mental strength to get out there and stay out there is the biggest thing”, he tells me. The hardest part personally for him is “putting a wetsuit on standing outside your car, in sometimes the coldest, bitterest days and then still having the determination to surf after.” The weather it seems is the one thing that perturbs people from starting.
To surf in Iceland you need to be prepared. It would be irresponsible to suggest that you could just throw on a pair of shorts, pick up a board, trundle down to the beach, jump on the next passing freight train of a wave, ride a tube and be back in your corrugated tin roofed house to watch the sun go down. The best season to surf in Iceland is during the coldest months of January and February when the winter swell increases the size and frequency of the waves. Therefore with the harsh elements attacking you will need to be wearing a full 6mm wetsuits, gloves, boots and hoods to cope with the conditions. Even on warmer days in spring like the day I went, full protection is needed.
Surfing in so much equipment at first feels claustrophobic and uncomfortable. It is difficult to manoeuvre but guarantees warmth, which is pivotal in these waters as hypothermia can set in only after a few minutes of exposure. All surf spots here are barren and open to the elements.
Expecting nothing less I arrived in Sandvík, the first stop on my surfing tour that day. Most surfing is conducted around the Reykjanes peninsula, with numerous breaks spread out from Keflavík to Þórshavn, the chances of running into anyone are remote. Sandvík, as its name hints, is a sand bed reef. Situated 10 km south of Keflavík, between Hafnir and Grindavík the beach is an isolated 2 km stretch of phenomenal beauty. The presence of sand gives a false sense of security but when surfing at any time in Iceland, you are subject to many dangers, not only are there the rock reefs to contend with but also extremely strong rips and under-currents. In Sandvík these are exceptional and the rookie surfer would have great difficulty if caught unawares here with the conditions varying greatly. The waves are kind to me on this day, presenting a good mixture of small and medium sized breaks, enabling some nice surf.
I ask Georg about the frequency and size of the waves normally, he explains that “in Iceland you don’t think about the size… I am just happy to be out there enjoying it, every wave I get.” He has a point, as the frequency of waves around Iceland are known to be erratic and there can be a long wait from one surf to the next, sometimes with months in between. Georg would know as he is part of a small but dedicated bunch who wait patiently by the edge of the ocean, staring into the void.
I feel this is what makes Iceland different from elsewhere, the attraction of its untouched scene. Nobody to hinder you, no one detracting from experience, the ultimate surfing episode. Take any other well-known surfing spot in Europe and not only do you have to contend with a vast amount of local and travelling surfers queuing up for
waves, but there is also the added danger of the “non-surfer” in the water, neither of these are an issue here. It is just you, the board, the freedom of the waves and sometimes the stares of the odd, old, perplexed fisherman.
Georg told me that surfing originally came from the US Naval officers based here many years ago and more recently with officers from Hawaii and other notable US surfing areas being stationed around the area, word of Iceland’s quality seeped through to professionals. World circuit pro surfer Ross Williams recently visited with a team of pros he surfed along the northwestern shores of Iceland. Amazed by the scenery and quality of the waves he has used it as part of a filmed location in his recent movie Seasons.
Georg summed up the appeal of Icelandic surfing for me: “even though it’s cold, miserable, very dark in winter and sometimes lacking in waves for a long time…it is still a surf paradise in my mind.” I cannot agree more, the true words of a guru.
Georg Hilmarsson is currently in the process of pushing for new ways to increase the awareness of Icelandic Surfing. Further information and links:
Georg’s surfing website
Mike Loomis’ guide to Icelandic Surfing (recommended guide in English)