Words: Chris Nelson
A taste of sulphur rides on the heavy mist that drifts across the dark barren landscape while the bleached peaks of far-off summits fade from view. The foreground is fractured and broken, the surface a crumbled canvas riven with deep channels and sheer faces. The black rock is rippled and contorted as if caught in the agony of its birth. The Reykjanes Peninsula defies the raging North Atlantic in its youthful enthusiasm, still angular and abrasive against the onslaught of time and tide. Iceland is growing. Not the kind of growth that bucks the trend of any mere economic downturn, for this is a new land, an island of fiery volcanoes, petulant geysers and steaming springs. Its physical mass expands with every eruption, extrusions emanating from deep within the Earth. This is an isolated place sitting, as it does, at latitudes higher than Anchorage Alaska, brushing the very fringe of the Arctic Circle. Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is the most northerly major conurbation in the world. The only thing keeping the sea from the choking grip of pack ice is the calming tendrils of the Gulf Stream. Changing out of my wetsuit I glance up at the empty point, as another glassy set rolls down the headland. Huddled out of the biting wind, hoping from one cold foot to the other in a race against hypothermia, I am still coming to terms with the solitude of surfing in this Viking land.
Jon Teitur Sigmundsson casts his mind back to the origins of the Icelandic surf scene, the cryo-genesis of local waveriding. He doesn’t have to travel that far. OJ Simpson was about to walk free from a California court, Braveheart was cleaning up at the Oscars while Kelly Slater stormed to his third world title at the Pipe Masters contest in Hawaii. It was 1995 and in Iceland the very first local surfers were wading out into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. “It started out with the snowboard scene,” explains Jon. “Two of my friends got this idea of starting a snowboard shop. We’d seen the waves but until then we’d never thought about trying to actually surf them. One of the shop owners, Heida Birgisdottir, had a cousin in the States who had a surf shop. We sent an email. Three weeks later we had four boards. From then on we would go out trying to find some waves.”
This pioneering group of four began to scour the coastline for suitable spots. Jon, Heida, Johann Oskar Borgthorsson and Runar Omarsson had no one to ask for advice, no one to emulate. Without peers, everything had to be trial and error: how to pop or duck-dive, how to spot a rip current. It was a hard path to tread. Then a chance meeting led to a revelation. “An American we knew stationed at Keflavik NATO airbase saw we had surfboards and told us there were guys from the base surfing at a place called Sandvik,” explains Jon. They discovered US air personnel had been surfing here for decades off the radar. “I think the Americans surfed here almost as long as there has been a base,” he explains. “When we met them there were only about four guys. But we heard stories of guys who’d just surf alone, wouldn’t go surfing with the others. This was within a community of only four. For us surfing was a social thing, a bond, so we didn’t really understand it.”
We live in an era when surfing has become easily accessible; around the globe it hasn’t so much flourished, it’s boomed. However here on this frosted isle you still have to plough your own way.
More than fifteen years later, waveriding has yet to blossom in Iceland. We live in an era when surfing has become easily accessible; around the globe it hasn’t so much flourished, it’s boomed. However here on this frosted isle you still have to plough your own way. It’s about commitment to surfing rather than the lifestyle. “It’s a hard place to start off here in Iceland,” says Steinar Þór Bachmann, a 22 year old student from Reykjavik. “It’s getting easier – when we started we weren’t really sure where to surf. People still don’t really know there are waves here in Iceland. We don’t have a university surf club or anything. There’s probably only fifteen to twenty that surf all year long, probably only three more guys our age, not much more.”
In essence surfing in Iceland still possesses a purity of spirit that harks back to a long gone era, one where the hassles of crowds and competition are absent, one completely devoid of the pressures of commercialism. It is a place where waves are still shared and turns taken. For Jon it’s more than a sport, more than just the physical act of riding a wave. “Sitting in the water with your hood on, a six millimetre suit, your nose running and it’s a beautiful day; the sky is clear, the light is very dynamic, especially if you are surfing in the fall. For me it is about the fact there’s a pulse of energy travelling across the whole Atlantic and it breaks beautifully on this rock in the ocean – it’s not just about getting some 360 or some trick. If you’re surfing that barrel you were actually there when it broke at the end of its journey – that’s a beautiful experience.”
The locals are yet to see many visiting surfers. The often brutal conditions have sculpted a very social crew where crowds are still an alien concept. “We never had this in the surf scene,” explains Jon. “We always wanted more people to come. We never worried that it’s becoming too crowded. We are a long way from that, we have far to go.” In the expanding global surf market, where we ultimately trade in a limited resource, perhaps more visitors and increasingly crowded Icelandic peaks are inevitable. However there is still a harsh reality here that no photo can capture; the shocking jolt that came with my first duck-dive in these subzero temperatures, one that even my modern neoprene could not ward off. Or the chill that cut through the line up as the icy off-shores tore down from the highlands, or changing out of my damp wetsuit as the wind-chill nudged minus fifteen. These are all part of the pain and the pleasure of surfing this Viking land.