Coldwater surfing didn’t just begin in the last dozen or so years, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it had. Surfers gritted their teeth, taped wool sweaters to their chests, and filled their bellies with bourbon before braving the icy water in San Francisco and Santa Cruz as early as the 1940s. When neoprene wetsuits boomed in popularity in the 1970s, it meant year-round surfing was not only possible, but comfortable. As wetsuits improved in the 1990s and 2000s, snowbound coastlines were fair game, free of crowds, and like catnip for surf photographers who sought to capture new surf scenes, bored with classic tropical locales.
Today, there isn’t a frigid coastline anywhere in the world that hasn’t been surfed. Iceland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland (I think, anyway), the Faroes, the Aleutians, southern Argentina, even waves breaking off icebergs in Antarctica have all been ridden.
But Norway is the siren call for great coldwater surf experiences. The Lofoten Islands, an archipelago more than 100 miles above the Arctic Circle off the west coast of Norway, are especially well-placed to receive powerful surf, with enough bends and breaks in the coastline to produce shapely surf. Plus, because of swirling currents bringing warm water (relatively speaking) northward, the ocean is warmer than you’d expect at that latitude, climbing as high as the mid-50s in the summer, though, it averages in the low-40s most of the year. Unstad, a small town in Lofoten, is surf-central for the northern reaches of Scandinavia. Since 2003, a family, the Frantzens, have run a thriving adventure surf business in Unstad. They cater to seasoned surf travelers, and, unbelievably, beginners too.
The Frantzens will rent you a surfboard, teach lessons, or guide you to the biggest and best waves in the area if you’re an expert. Post-surf, there are cedar saunas set on the beach to defrost after courting hypothermia in the crystal clear waves. They even host surf contests.
Part of the draw is that the surf there is crowd-free and quite good. Another part is the beautifully unique backdrop to the waves. Unstad’s main beach is a picturesque cove, set between two horns of snow-capped mountains. The waves come rolling in out of the Norwegian Sea, pristine and turquoise, and peel along rocky headlands on either side of the beach. Most of the time, the best wave is a right-breaking pointbreak; other times, it’s a sand-bottomed left breaking across the cove.
Oh, then there’s the draw of surfing beneath the northern lights. That little ole’ thing.
Mick Fanning, Australia’s reigning surf King, three-time world champion and one of the most stylish surfers to dance across a wave, visited Lofoten a couple years back with photographer Trevor Moran. And, well, they scored. A new video series from Red Bull TV chronicles their trip, and that can be seen below. But check out the photos from Moran first. There’s something exciting about surfing in cold water. A visceral, elemental thrill you don’t get when it’s warm and sunny.
Is it winter, yet?
A behind the scenes look at Fanning’s trip is below.
All photos: Trevor Moran