Extreme surfing in Lofoten
I didn’t get many waves today, it’s pretty difficult to catch them right now. It looks easier from here...”
Tommy Olsen has just waded out of the dark green 7°C water. He spins around and peers towards the horizon.
“But you know what, it doesn’t matter all that much. Simply sitting on your board out there enjoying being close to nature – that’s something really special and maybe the biggest experience for many people who come here to surf.”
There’s a smell of surf wax, sea and wet rubber in the air. The dry snow crunches against frozen sand under his neoprene boots. Olsen casts his steel blue eyes in the direction of his son, Anker, who’s dancing around on a high, unbroken wave in the distance.
The wave rises towards a pastel-colored sky. There will be no direct sunlight in the bay at Unstad for another few weeks, but at least daylight has returned after an absence of several months. The waves that roll in are generated by low pressure somewhere off Greenland. The waves have traveled a couple of thousand kilometers across the Norwegian Sea before being trapped like fish in a net in the bay in front of us. Their journey ends on rock and sand banks at 68.2° north.
Anker sets off at the bottom of the green wave wall out there, picks up speed and navigates inside a tunnel of collapsing water. You can only see his board, which becomes part of the wave as it breaks. A couple of seconds later, a black head pops up out of the foam.
“That was great,” Olsen says with a smile.
He has several reasons to be pleased. Over the past few years, he’s developed an extraordinary northern Norway success story, together with his partner Marion. Not many people would have fancied his chances, as Unstad is a far cry from more traditional surfing and beach hotspots. Surfing, in fact, was something people had only heard about.
The town itself is located at the end of the road, on the far side of Vestvågøy, an island in the Norwegian island kingdom of Lofoten, an exposed part of the country that, in winter, sticks out like a frozen finger into the North Atlantic Ocean.With its wild nature, cod fishery and dramatic peaks, Lofoten is hardly what you would call a secret tourist destination, thanks in part to the magnificent experience of the midnight sun during summer. While the area has been named one of the world’s top ten travel destinations by National Geographic, the story behind Unstad Arctic Surf, the world’s most northerly surfing school, is equally special. Because Unstad, with 15 permanent residents and far more sheep, surrounded by open sea and steep mountains like many other spectacularly beautiful villages along the coast here, now has its own spirit of aloha.
“Remove your shoes Mahalo” is written on the wall inside Olsen’s café. The walls are lined with signed photographs of famous and not so-famous surfers. Surfing memorabilia from more southerly climes include a doll wearing a bark skirt and coconut bra. On the tables are surfing magazines from Australia, USA and Europe, several of which have photographs and creative descriptions of Lofoten, describing unforgettable experiences in a place dubbed one of the world’s most exotic surfing destinations.
Surfer Magazine writes: “Valhalla’s Coast – almost 50 years ago, a Norwegian surfer named Thor shaped his first surfboard to ride the frigid waves of Unstad Bay in the Lofoten Islands. It didn’t go very well. Now armed with much warmer wetsuits, surfers have returned to Unstad and built an unlikely paradise on this inhospitable stretch of coast.”
That’s the abridged version of the story. Olsen tells us the long version after warming up over a cup of coffee.
“Since 1963, there have been surfers at Unstad Bay. Thor Frantzen and Hans Egil Krane were probably the first in Norway. As young boys, they had to work on ships to earn money. The ships traveled worldwide and in Sydney they saw and tried surfing for the first time. Back home in Lofoten they had to make their own boards. At that time, the Beach Boys were on all the pop charts and the only template for a surfboard they had was the sleeve of the Beach Boys album Surfin’ Safari from 1962. So off they went and made their own surfboards based on this. One of the boards is hanging over there,” he says, pointing toward a yellow lump on the wall – a far cry from today’s carbon fiber and epoxy high performance boards.
Part of the board was made from newspapers, and on the back of the board you can still read the local headlines from Lofotposten sometime in the 1960s.
But surfing without modern wetsuit technology was cold.
“Even though the Gulf Stream means the water stays ice-free, and with a temperature ranging from 8 to 14°C all year round, it’s not a place to lie on the beach, no matter how white and big it is, with or without snow. So it would be many years before anyone rode the waves again at Unstad,” Olsen says.
In the early 90s, a local named Kristian Breivik rediscovered the bay. At the time, there were only a few surfers in Norway, all of whom were based around the Stavanger area. Breivik moved to Stavanger and talked constantly about the fantastic waves north of the Arctic Circle, so one day they gathered a small team and headed up to face the waves. They scored big time with a monster swell from the southwest and perfect barrels rolled in. Luckily, Surfing Magazine also traveled with them.
“In 1999, surfers including Sam Lamiroy and Spencer Hargraves, made the epic movie E2K, which was filmed at Unstad Beach. At the time, there weren’t many surfers in the area. In the year 2000, I moved up myself and started surfing and gradually a few more hearty souls arrived. In 2003, Unstad Camping became a reality when it was founded by my parents-in-law – Thor Frantzen (one of the two surf pioneers in the area) and his wife Randi. In the beginning there were only a few cabins, but they built more and added a restaurant. When Marion and I bought the campsite and wanted to start Unstad Arctic Surf, people thought we were wasting our time. But it has turned out quite well,” says Olsen.
In recent years, several famous surfers, media, and social media in particular, have helped market Unstad to the rest of the world. Even though most visitors who want to surf or see Unstad come in summer, there’s something unique about winter here, with the special conditions that prevail inside the Arctic Circle at this time of year.
“The darkness, snow and northern lights create a truly special atmosphere in winter. Naturally, summer is the peak season with all kinds of tourists, but I think it’s much cooler to surf in Lofoten in winter. It’s a bit ‘crisper,’ you could say. On the other hand, thanks to the midnight sun you can surf around the clock in summer,” Olsen says.
The campsite is much bigger today with a café and restaurant, surf shop and our own rental department. Up to 500 guests can stop by at any one time in summer and you can rent a surfboard and wetsuit, stay overnight, book an hour of surf coaching or enjoy freshly prepared fish straight from the kitchen. Around 60% of summer customers are surfers. Today, in January, we only have five customers.
“It’s low season at the moment, but we still stay open every day. In summer, we have 25 people working here, compared to only a handful now,” adds Olsen.
The days are short at this time of year, this far north. We’ve only had a couple of hours of daylight today, but the light is already starting to fade again. The streetlights – there are actually a couple of them in Unstad – are starting to glow. A pair of surfers head down the street towards the sea. The wind howls around the corners of the houses and whips snow down over the beach. It’s an offshore wind, which is ideal for surfing because the wind holds up the waves for longer and creates finer wave shapes for surfing.
Down at the beach, Ragnhild Pedersen stands with snow up to her waist and a green surfboard under her arm.
"Is it cold?"
“Yes, it gets pretty chilly after a couple of hours out there, but it’s incredibly beautiful,” she smiles.
Pedersen is from Lofoten and after studying in Trondheim for a few years, she’s now decided to move back to Vestvågøy. This is a trend that appears to be growing, with people moving back to this group of islands to live and work after getting an education elsewhere. Or they’re moving here from other parts of the country, drawn by the spectacular nature of the area, contrasting sharply with many other parts of provincial Norway, where population numbers are falling and people leaving is a problem.
“Being able to enjoy everything nature has to offer here is the very reason I moved back. You can go surfing all year round, but I spend the seasons doing different activities. There are fantastic places to go climbing and skiing here, too. There’s always something to do if you love being outside,” Pedersen says.
“You can come to Lofoten and Unstad four times a year in the different seasons and experience four different trips. Bad weather in the morning can also change to fantastic conditions just one hour later. When the weather is clear you can really enjoy what nature has to offer, especially when it comes to surfing and waves. Nature has an unpredictability out here in the sea above the Arctic Circle – an unpredictability that’s incredibly exotic,” she says. Its very own Arctic Aloha.
Published: February 25, 2020