When I used to think about surfing, I would always connect it with beautiful white sandy beaches, turquoise-blue sea, tropical climate, sun-lotion, shorts or bikinis. Perhaps even some Piña Colada to cool down while relaxing in a small beach-hut between waves. Given this is the picture I had painted in my head, I hadn’t even considered that a thriving surfer-culture existed in Iceland, where my own concept of surfing is far removed from the reality.
It would be altogether more reasonable to picture the extreme-sport enthusiasts trooping to the mountains for snowboarding around this time of year. I never thought the barren Icelandic coastline would rank as a desirable destination to practice the sport of surfing, attracting a loyal group that hits the water even in January when the average temperature often goes below zero and the ocean’s temperature is little more than five degrees celsius. But for hard-core surfing devotees, the only thing that matters is the waves, not the glorious extras.
I discovered that surfing spots in Iceland are considered to be top of the line and the surfing conditions rank highly on the world-scale. If you don’t mind the cold and the strong currents, the locations easily qualify as outstanding surfing destinations, particularly during the winter months when the size and frequency of waves are at their peak.
After a 40-minute drive from Reykjavík, we arrived in the small fishing village of Þorlákshöfn. Located on the south coast of Iceland, Þórlákshöfn is blessed with quality waves breaking right off the coast. Once there, we met up with Ingó, who has been surfing here for seven years, Tinna, a beginner in the sport, and Arana, a New Zealand native who has been surfing in Iceland for the past five years. While putting on their gear they explain that you need to be well prepared and dress in a 6mm wetsuit from top to bottom, covering every inch of your skin, except for the face, to hit the water.
“Yeah, these aren’t exactly friendly conditions,” Arana says as we stand at the parking lot and look down towards the rocky coast. Although it’s a beautiful day, the temperature is only a few degrees above zero. Only two days ago it had been snowing and I can’t help wondering if this isn’t as extreme as surfing can possibly get.
“Has anybody told you you’re insane?” was my first obvious question.
“Well, yeah, all the time! We sometimes meet the people who are waiting for the ferry to Vestmannaeyjar here at the harbour. If they have been watching us out there, they usually ask us if we’re nuts,” Arana says. “I never even imagined that there was the slightest possibility of surfing in Iceland before I came here. I just found out about it after meeting Ingó. But here, the waves can get up to seven metres high. That’s just amazing,” he adds.
Two other surfers step out of a car parked right next to ours and start getting ready. I am curious to know if the surfing scene is big in Iceland. They tell me it’s not a large group. About ten Icelandic regulars and an occasional foreign surfer have caught on to the idea. Every year a few new surfers join the group but, understandably, not all can stand such harsh conditions. It’s not enough to buy all the expensive gear: in the end, all that will keep you out in the water long enough is a strong will and determination.
The wind is favourable according to the weather forecast. The group speeds to the next good surf spot, which are plentiful, apparently, especially around the Reykjanes peninsula and Snæfellsnes. Some of them are well known, such as Þorlákshöfn, Sandvík and Grindavík. Other spots are kept a secret. Only the die-hards know about them, and they like to keep it that way.
Watching the long stretch of unwelcoming rocks covered in seaweed that separate the land from the black ocean, I ask Tinna if she isn’t at all scared of banging her head on one of them.
“Yes, a little bit, but the guys tell me there’s no need to worry,” she says.
With that said, she pulls the wetsuit hood over her head, climbs down a rocky cliff with her surfboard under her arm and jumps into the water. I guess it’s all just a question of facing your fears, I tell myself as I stumble down after them and try not to fall on my head.
The threesome paddle out to the point where the waves break. One after another, apparently unafraid of any serious crashes, they start dropping into the waves like nothing was easier. From where I stand, they look like small seals swimming around in the distance. I can only imagine how they are feeling. Not only are they free from a crowd of noisy beach-goers, but the landscape out here provides dramatic scenery probably not familiar to many non-Icelandic surfers, making it all the more special.
Suddenly Ingó comes running out of the sea. Considering the conditions, my first thought was that he had fled the cold water to seek some warmth. My guess was far from correct. He only wanted to change a surfboard. “As long as there’s surf, we won’t be leaving!” he said, and ran back to the ocean.
As the weather can be quite unpredictable the surfers have to use every last minute they can go out. They never know when it will be possible to ride the breaks again. After more than two hours, when me and my photographer are starting to get pretty damn cold standing there on the slippery rocks and staring out to the ocean that seems to be going flat by now, one after another, the surfers put their feet on dry land again and start heading back to the car.
“These were some OK waves today. Yesterday was much better though,” Ingó tells me as the three of them start packing their stuff back in the car.
“But aren’t you all freezing?” I ask.
“Well, a little bit yeah. The waves weren’t as good as they usually are. Having to wait so long in between makes it a little cold to be out in the water,” Arana says. Even if he is shivering from the cold, only pure enjoyment shines from his face.
“The worst thing is when you have to take your wetsuit off outside the car when the temperature is below zero,” Ingó adds: “But still, we are definitely going back tomorrow.”
With the car’s heating system set to the max, we wave goodbye to the group. What we’d learned was that although it takes time, patience and stamina to get any good at surfing (a reason why so many beginners don’t stick it out for long before giving up), when you accomplish standing on your board and ride the wave for the first time, there’s no turning back.
It is a feeling so addictive that neither snow nor frost can keep you from running back into the freezing cold sea. This is why a group of surfing-maniacs returns to the water over and over again and continue searching the coastline for some new undiscovered spots and the wave of a lifetime.