Thanks to its location, Unstad has very good conditions for surfing. When the blustery fall and winter winds lash the waters from Greenland, with all of the energy they contain, onto Norway’s coast here, the swells hit a shoal and surge up to imposing heights. Right on schedule, on the last official day of the Masters, the huge, long-awaited waves finally arrive. And with them, the orcas.
Spectators are pouring hot beverages from thermos flasks, surfers wrapped in multiple layers of towels are standing at the edge of the beach or are lying in the dunes in thermal sleeping bags when the dorsal fins of two killer whales pop up among the competitors. They could be seen close to the beach for almost two long minutes, and the surfers couldn’t get out of the water fast enough. But the competition was interrupted for just a short time, and the commotion quickly subsided. The surfers soon got back into the water while the sheep calmly continued chewing grass at the seaside.
In several duels, the surfers attempted to impress the four jury members, who were sitting in a wood shed next to the portable sauna. For the men, it was Edi Siswanto, as expected, who stood out the most; for the women, a local, Maria Petersson, won in the end. Compared to her competition, she mastered the waves while at the same time managing to show off some high-class tricks. After the end of the contest, the surfers high five with spectators and let themselves be feted. It’s a memorable image for the weekend: on one side, the exhausted surfers in thin neoprene wetsuits, on the other, cheering spectators in thick jackets and wool caps. But no one appears to be cold.
Why is Arctic Surfing successful? "It's the Wetsuits," say the Locals.
A few of the wetsuits are hanging out to dry on a chain-link fence on the dunes, some on a fishing pole, all swaying in the wind. Several surfers keep a constant eye on their wetsuit, which is not surprising: the neoprene suits have become so perfected over the past years, and sometimes so expensive, that every millimeter of thickness can make the difference for maneuverability out on the water and thus be the decisive factor between victory and defeat. “This development,” Breivik explains, “is a major part of Arctic surfing’s success.”
Regular wetsuits cost from 200 to 500 euros, while high-tech wetsuits with battery-powered heaters can cost up to 1,000 euros. As compared to early wetsuits, these are much more flexible, and a bit thinner on the arms and legs than around the torso, for optimal motion out on the waves. “These days, you don’t leave the water because you’re cold, but because you’re tired,” Breivik says.
Which stands in contrast to the experimental beginnings of Arctic surfing in the 1960s. Back in the day, a local, Hans Egil Krane, returned from a trip to Australia and told his friend, Thor Frantzen, about his fascination with the people “who were riding waves on boards.” Together they built a few initial surfboards that were more like kayaks. Heat-
insulated wetsuits hadn’t yet been invented. For their first attempts at surfing, Frantzen and Krane just wore bathing suits, like the Australians—which they quickly realized was crazy.
Probably still frozen and in shock, they next tried wearing wool sweaters underneath diving suits, which meant they could hardly move at all. Breivik describes his first attempts to surf in the icy cold water in 1988: “The wetsuits were still so extremely thick and clumsy we were waddling around in the water like sumo wrestlers.” It wasn’t until the 1990s that high-quality wetsuits started being manufactured that were appropriate for cold-water surfing.