Trend Arctic Surfing

Arctic Aloha

Wearing high-tech wetsuits against the icy temperatures above the Arctic Circle, surfers from around the world brave the harsh severity of the Arctic Ocean.
Unstad, a once moribund village on Norway’s Lofoten archipelago,
is now becoming the Hawaii of the north.

Text Jan Hellerung and Tino Scholz  Photos Jan Hellerung

At ten in the evening, everything is quiet in Unstad. A few waves lap at the shore, but nothing can be heard from the twenty or so people lying out in the grass. They’re all gazing up at the heavens, admiring the green glow of the Northern Lights dancing across the sky above the beach. Several minutes pass before the silence is broken. A man runs to the beach with a surfboard under his arm and jumps into the ice-cold water. The sound he makes is a cross between a shout of joy and a yelp of shock from the cold. Then he starts surfing under the shimmering and shimmying aurora borealis.

This is the sort of moment that is really quite characteristic of Unstad. There are Northern Lights, and you can surf. And that’s pretty much it. Unstad is a sleepy little village on the western edge of the Lofoten archipelago, 220 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The thirteen permanent residents there are clearly outnumbered by the sheep, of which there seem to be at least three or four times as many. Unstad is enclosed by two mountains, the Arctic Ocean and a tunnel. If the latter is closed due to roadwork, there’s no more coming or going. “Without surfing, this place would be dead,” says Kristian Breivik, not without reason. “Nothing would happen.”

The next morning the Northern Lights have disappeared, but the sun is now sparkling off the calm ocean. And plenty of light is flooding through the windows into Breivik’s little shop, the northern-most surf shop at the northern-most surf spot in the world—as his sweatshirt proudly proclaims. His one-room shop is filled to overflowing with surfboards and neoprene wetsuits. Breivik, who calls himself Uncle Frost in allusion to his own surfboard brand, Frost Surfboards, sells and rents surfing gear and teaches classes. He’s aware that visitor throngs are increasing, but it’s not a complete surprise.

Without a board, no surfer can ride a wave. And without the technologically advanced neoprene wetsuits, nobody would last longer than a few minutes in the ice-cold water. It’s the functional, cold- and water-repellant suits that allow a trend like Arctic surfing to take off in the first place. They always keep the surfers warm in the water, and some varieties have a sophisticated thin layer of metal to further reflect body heat back in. And this sort of gear also ensures that increasing numbers of novices dare to brave the Arctic Ocean. “I’m seeing more and more people every year,” Breivik says. “It’s climbed up to five thousand annually. While that’s nothing for Hawaii, for us it’s veritable hordes.”

Unstad has all of thirteen Residents left. But it's the Sufers who keep the Place alive.

Places like Hawaii or South Africa, where Breivik himself lived for years, are the natural environment for surfing, with their tropical temperatures—and daring surfers clad only in bathing suits ride waves that are meters high. But at some point, ambitious surfers had conquered the biggest and most beautiful waves in the world and were looking for new challenges—which they found in the cold climes of Norway, Greenland, Russia and Canada. “Surfers are like mountain climbers,” Breivik says while unpacking new boards in front of his shop. “Higher and higher, farther and farther. The thrill comes from the height of the waves—or even the temperature.”

At the end of September, the weather is unusually nice in Unstad—which is rather bad for the surf. The wind isn’t really whipping up the water into waves, and the temperature is a very mild twelve degrees Celsius, with the water at eleven. Despite all this, there’s more than just the usual handful of surfers who would normally be riding the waves at this time of year. It’s actually five or six times as many, all of whom are preparing for the Lofoten Masters, an annual event started ten years ago that lures pros and amateurs from all around the world up to the High North. They come from Norway, Australia, South Africa, Great Britain, Sweden and Indonesia, to name just a few countries.

One of them is Edi Siswanto, who is normally riding waves off the coast of Bali. He’s sitting in the portable sauna, which was brought here especially for the event, and is looking through one of the large spyholes at the water, which is getting a bit wilder, and at his competitors. Siswanto is one of the tournament favorites: he flawlessly rides the waves like almost no other, and is a trained surfing instructor. “As a surfer, when you hear ‘Norway’ you don’t immediately think of a really good surf location,” he says. “But on a good day, the waves here are just as good as those on Bali.”

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.

On the day after the Masters finals, Breivik is already back in his shop, loading surfboards and wetsuits into his van. “The Masters takes place four days out of the year, which means there are another 361 days for surfing,” he says, slamming the door of his van shut. He’s heading over to a school in Eltoft, five minutes away from Unstad. It’s a very special school: “The only one in Norway that has surfing as a compulsory subject,” he says as he drives past Unstad’s colorful buildings towards the tunnel. Not even a minute later and he’s already driven out of the village.

A bit later, wearing wetsuits with hoods plus thin gloves and socks, a horde of seven- and eight-year-olds scamper into the calm ocean with Uncle Frost. The primary objective of this course is to teach the children how to be safe and have self-confidence when out in the water, explains Breivik, as he shows a boy how to correctly paddle out into the water: lying face-down on the board. “The weather here can change on a dime. The wind can start blowing very suddenly. In winter, it gets dark practically from one minute to the next. If you’re out on the water and can’t get your bearings, that’s a big problem.” And if this surf course ends up producing a few good local surfers, well, that’d just be icing on the cake.

And Unstad needs all the help it can get. Its population has plummeted from three hundred to just thirteen. There isn’t really anything there: no kiosk, no supermarket, no restaurant—just surfing. The residents are getting older, the young people are more likely to move to the city. Breivik hopes that Arctic surfing can offer the place a future—completely apart from the four-day highlight of the Lofoten Masters. Breivik knows all the older village residents, and he’s the point of contact for the young surfers. He thinks his shop could become the link between these two groups. At least that’s his ideal: Arctic surfing as a social bond. “Only time will tell whether it happens.”

Class is over, the sun slowly sets and the Masters have long since finished; summer is slowly leaving the village of Unstad. The winds are getting harsher, winter is coming. The hard-core surfers will soon be plowing through snow, meters deep, before they get to the water, and the icy water will burn the skin on their faces even more strongly. Breivik shivers at the very thought of it. Then he pulls down his cap, grabs his surfboard and heads to the beach. It’s a mild evening, so he surfs once more off into the sunset.

How to dry Wetusits in Norway

Photo: Getty Images, Olivier Morin

How to dry Wetusits in Norway

The equipment in the village is the only the essentials: When drying clothes then the wind must help–no matter what the temperature.

Surfing Dress Code

Thinking about clothing soon leads to thinking about fashion. Yet appealing styles or trendy colors aren’t everything. Clothing must also be safe: manufacturers, retailers and importers must ensure that their textiles or shoes do not contain any harmful substances. For buyers of functional clothing there is, in addition, the assumption that the pieces of clothing will deliver on what they promise.

Precisely for this reason—to guarantee whether such promises are being fulfilled—TÜV SÜD is currently developing an inspection program for functional clothing to provide the relevant certification. One of the things to be analyzed is whether a piece of clothing is actually windproof, waterproof, water-resistant or breathable. Functions such as QuickDry can also be tested, as can UV protection or thermal absorption. These tests would complement the comprehensive textile and shoe testing that TÜV SÜD already carries out in a network of textile laboratories in Asia, Europe and North America.