Cold-Water Bali or Myth?
By Tony Butt
“Just go in,” said the woman’s voice. “There’s nobody there at the moment but the house is always left open. Yours is room two, upstairs.”
I was calling ahead to the small guesthouse where we had booked a room. Slightly bewildered, I looked across at my traveling buddy, Martín. “It’s cool man, aquí no roban,” he said, in his usual mix of Argentine Spanish and colonial English. This place was nothing like the streets of Cape Town Martín had just come from, or the Buenos Aires he had grown up in. This was officially the safest country in the world, where the most serious violent crime might be a pub brawl between two drunken fishermen.
Above: Somewhere near a fjord. Photo: Elli Thor Magnusson
We were on the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland, driving along a stretch of coast reputed to contain a plethora of reefs, cobblestone pointbreaks and quality beachbreaks. We were on the south shore, equivalent to the ‘north shore’ in many other places. Iceland is further north than the storm track, so the low pressures pump swell from below, not from above.
There was a huge swell running, accompanied by storm force cross-shore winds and horizontal rain. It was late summer and the temperature was about 8ºC (46ºF). But the chill factor made it feel like zero. Uneven lava fields covered in bright green moss stretched out between the road and the coast, not a tree in sight. I spotted a few potential surf spots which might warrant a closer look, and wondered how long it would take to walk / clamber across all that lava.
Most of Iceland’s landscape is similarly barren and treeless, and you might be forgiven for thinking that it had always been that way. However, before the first Viking settlers arrived around the ninth century AD, Iceland contained lush forests and fertile soil. Analogous to what the rest of us are doing to the entire planet right now, the settlers deforested and eroded their newly-acquired home, depleting in a matter of decades what had taken thousands of years to develop.
Of course, they weren’t to know. At first sight, it just looked like the lands further south that they had already conquered, such as Britain and Ireland. They didn’t realize that in Iceland the soil was much thinner and more susceptible to erosion. Once they had chopped down most of the trees and introduced thousands of grazing animals, things started looking pretty dismal.
Uniquely, and before it was too late, those first Icelanders saw the error of their ways. They evolved a culture of resilience, cooperation and solidarity which made life hard, but stopped them from over-using the resources they had, and enabled them to survive until the present day.
I had come to Iceland because I wanted to do something different. People back home told me I was crazy to go somewhere cold, expensive and unknown. Why didn’t I go to Indonesia, they said, where I could be guaranteed constant, perfect surf in tropical conditions for a fraction of the cost? Yes, I thought, along with hundreds of other surfers.
I did a lot of homework: geological maps, bathymetric charts, swell and wind archives, videos, pictures and articles. I spoke to people who had been there before. Some of whom failed to find any surf, but all of whom told me how the place held such amazing potential for world-class breaks. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
I also wanted to go to Iceland because I was curious. If it really did have world-class surf, would it go the same way as so many other surfing destinations have done in the last few decades, with crowded line-ups, hostile locals, surf camps, surf shops and contests? Or did it have enough built-in protection to remain uncrowded and unexploited forever?
Elli Thor is a tall, wiry man, soft-spoken and full of secrets gathered through years of surfing and photographing Iceland’s best waves. Nowadays he spends a lot of time as official photographer accompanying groups of snowboarders, skiers and pro surfers. “Most groups of pros who have come here haven’t been lucky,” he said. “You really can’t expect to find epic surf in a few days without local knowledge.”
I asked him how many surfers there were in Iceland. “Around 15 who surf on a regular basis all the year round,” he said, “with a few others who fade in and out, but certainly no more than about 40 altogether.” Also, as far as Elli knew, we were the only traveling surfers in Iceland at that time.
Elli Thor. Photo: Elli Thor Magnusson
Elli’s friend Ingó is a stocky, instantly likeable man with elf-like features and a quick mind. He has been exploring his own country for the last 15 years and has more knowledge of Icelandic surf than anybody in the world. Since 2010, Ingó and three friends have been running Arctic Surfers, a kind of surf camp that gets people to the best spots at the best time.
Ingó insists on keeping things discreet with Arctic Surfers. With a maximum clientele of four people at any given time, he is already conscious of the potential effects of overcrowding. “If there are other surfers in the water at a spot we go to, I won’t take my clients out there,” he says. “I’ll drive away and look for an empty spot.” He is reluctant to name any spots or give away any secrets.
Ironically, Elli and Ingó seem to be the people who are most concerned about surf spots being ruined by the surfers themselves. They have travelled and have been around for longer than most. But other Icelanders only see their approach as selfish and unnecessary.
I asked Ingó what he thought of this dilemma. “Of course, all the local surfers, me included, would like to hide Iceland for the world and have it for ourselves as long as possible, but that is arrogant, selfish and naïve,” he said. “The world already knows about Iceland but they don’t know the whole story. It will come down to how the rest of the tale is told and who it reaches.”
Ingó. Photo: Elli Thor Magnusson
We didn’t have to wait long before another swell arrived. It was accompanied by the usual gale-force winds, but I had my eye on a wrap-around spot that would be offshore. It turned out to be a text book cobblestone point with perfectly groomed lines refracting around a headland. It had a clean peak with a long, fast right and a shorter, bowlier left, which peeled into a perfect paddling channel.
Of course, a bit more size would have been ideal. But that wasn’t really the issue. When we arrived there were already about six surfers out and another three or four getting changed. This was half the surfing population of Iceland, all at one spot at one time.
There was nobody on the left, so I decided to surf there rather than make a nuisance of myself on the right. A tall surfer with a huge red beard paddled over and joined me, smiling. Then two other surfers left the main break and paddled up the point to another wave just near the headland. It was refreshing to see people using their ingenuity.
Eleven hundred years earlier, when the Viking settlers saw what was happening to their land, they realized it would die and take them with it if they didn’t try to control the erosion they were causing. The only option was to cooperate, agree amongst all the farmers to slow things down, stop using up all that wood, reduce the number of sheep and get rid of those highly-destructive pigs and goats. According to Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, a degree of cooperation between clans was a major factor in the survival of those first Icelanders. Diamond contrasts this with the continued stubborn competitiveness that eventually led to the failure of society on Easter Island.
I wondered whether modern Icelandic surfers had inherited some of that culture. Perhaps somewhere in their subconscious was the idea that the surf in Iceland wasn’t as limitless as it seemed. Perhaps they know that the surf has the same kind of fragility and is just as susceptible to “erosion” as the land that those first Vikings found around 900 AD.
The swell dropped just as quickly as it had picked up. I started thinking about where to look for surf during the next couple of days. The southernmost tip of Iceland was a few hours’ drive away and would be sure to pick up any trace of remaining swell. My geological map revealed a large area containing Holocene sediments. In other words, beachbreaks.
What looked quite promising on the map turned out to be a vast expanse of shifting dunes and quicksand, sometimes stretching many kilometres between the road and the sea. It would take a day or more of hiking across the dunes to get there.
However, just before dark, we found an excellent beachbreak in the middle of a town. There were A-frame peaks breaking hard and close to the shore, with a light offshore wind and probably not another surfer within 200 kilometres. I couldn’t really imagine a spot that would make better use of those swell conditions, even if we’d hiked all day to find it.
I noticed that the town was quite touristy. There were gift shops and a plethora of quite expensive guest houses and hotels. It was a picturesque place, right on the main ring-road around Iceland and easy to get to from the capital, Reykjavik. At the other end of the beach there was a restaurant, car park and some curious rock formations. The place was overflowing with tourists, almost every single one holding a camera or smartphone in front of them, worrying about recording reality instead of experiencing it.
Tourism is booming in Iceland. Which is great in a way, because Iceland’s economy has been struggling after the Kreppa, the famous financial meltdown of 2008. The Kreppa turned Iceland from an unknown backwater to one of the most talked-about countries in the world. Then, in 2010, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull put Iceland firmly on the map. Instead of being a disaster that an already struggling country didn’t need, it was a free advert, a godsend for the embryonic tourist trade. Now, tourism is fast becoming Iceland’s most lucrative industry.
But will the influx of tourists spoil the Iceland that is so pristine and wild? Will Iceland become another Benidorm or Copacabana? Probably not, but tourism could still have negative effects. Ultimately, it will be up to the Icelanders themselves to choose the right moment to slow down before Iceland’s unique features, so attractive to the rest of the world, start to erode away.
The south coast went totally flat. So we travelled up north, where lava fields and black shifting sands gave way to fjords and snow-patched mountains with icy streams flowing down to the sea. The wind had picked up again, but this time from the north: strong to gale-force and accompanied by the usual horizontal rain. It was cold. When I looked north the raindrops firing into my face felt like shards of glass.
But I couldn’t complain. The northerly wind we were experiencing was at the end of a fairly large fetch, which was generating a large, wind-driven swell. The north of Iceland relies mainly on swells generated close to the coast, but the convoluted, mountainous coastline acts as a filter, transforming a large, uncontrolled sea into smooth, ruler-edged lines. Well, that was the theory anyway.
We decided to keep things simple to begin with. We headed for the most well-known spot in the north of Iceland—the right-hand pointbreak you’ve probably seen in videos and photographs. The spot is nestled between two large mountains at the top of a fjord. Martín and I managed to surf small but long and perfect waves in breathtaking surroundings with not another surfer in sight.
Up north. Photo: Elli Thor Magnusson
We pulled into a café. The way they roll here is that you just help yourself to soup, bread, coffee or whatever else is on offer, and go back for refills as many times as you like. Many things in Iceland are like this—flat rate—you pay once and then just take as much as you need. The Icelanders don’t abuse this system so it works perfectly.
The owner of the café seemed to know we were surfers. “This is one of the most famous surf spots in the world,” she said, enthusiastically. “We regularly get groups of American professionals here to make videos and write magazine articles.” She told me that some of the Icelandic surfers from the south didn’t want to name the spot or make too much publicity about it. She thought this was a stupid and selfish attitude. I wasn’t so sure.
The next day we set off looking for new surf. We found endless coastlines of cobblestone pointbreaks, reefs, rivermouths and beachbreaks—literally hundreds of potential surf spots. Unfortunately, they were too small to surf. The swell direction had changed and, as we found out later, we should have headed for a different peninsula, six hours’ drive in the opposite direction. I figured this sort of thing probably happens quite often.
So, along with the harsh conditions, another factor that might put people off is that you need to really, really know what you are doing to be in the right place at the right time. With such a convoluted coastline and sometimes no road access, it takes time and planning to get to each spot. Swell and wind conditions change extremely quickly, and in the winter there are barely three or four hours of light. So you need to know where you are headed and stick to it, otherwise you will end up driving round in circles until you run out of light. I had previously experienced this phenomenon in Galicia and in Ireland. But in Iceland it was much worse.
After a few days we headed south again. In part, this was because we hadn’t yet paid the rent at the guesthouse. During our initial seven-day stay we hadn’t seen another soul. Maybe the house was populated by Iceland’s famous huldufólk—small, mythical creatures that lived in the rocks and were rarely or never seen in real life.
When our landlord eventually appeared, he was anything but one of the “hidden folk.” Jon Arason is a quintessential Icelander: a giant of a man with short blonde hair, a large chin and a hearty laugh. He told us that he had been on a fishing trip for 23 days, which was why there had been nobody in the house.
Jon was sitting at the breakfast table eating three pieces of fish: two huge slabs of cod or haddock and one smaller piece that I couldn’t identify. He offered me some, so I took a small slither of each. The first two were very nice but when tried the third I got a big surprise. A cloud of rancid gas shot up my nose and down my throat. It was like biting into a nuclear holocaust. Jon explained to me that I was eating hákarl, a national dish that Icelanders are fiercely proud of. It was rotten shark meat, sealed-up in an airtight bag and left for about five months. The meat contains a large amount of uric acid and ammonia, which explains the explosive taste.
Hákarl is something uniquely Icelandic and, along with other more palatable foods, one of the traditions that the local population really don’t want to lose, especially with the constant threat of fast food and Americanization that could accompany the current boom in tourism.
Jon was extremely interested in us being surfers. I told him that if I knew of any more surfers coming to Iceland I would send them to him. He thought that was a great idea. He even talked about turning his guesthouse into a surf camp. However, he also confessed that some of the neighbours were already complaining about his guests’ cars parked along the street, which could reach about nine during peak season.
So, will Iceland soon become overcrowded with surfers? Will it become a regular surf-tour destination like Morocco or will it become heavily localized like the Canary Islands? Or will it stay the same as it is now, with just a few hardy travellers and a few friendly locals?
For a start, it’s cold. Most surfers would never dream of going on a surf trip somewhere colder than home. On the other hand, wetsuit technology is more advanced than ever, so the cold is not the problem it was 20 years ago. Then, it’s expensive. Most surfing destinations are in poor countries where we first-worlders can live like kings. But then it’s probably not as expensive as some exclusive surf camps in Fiji, for example.
Before I left home I was a bit scared of the prospect of surfing in such cold water. But in the end, it wasn’t so bad—if you have the right wetsuit, keep moving and don’t get cold before you paddle out, you’ll be fine. I was also worried about the cost, but that can be worked around too. If you insist on eating in restaurants or buying a lot of souvenirs then, yes, things can get expensive, but just basic living is no dearer than in most European countries.
Iceland really does contain a huge number of quality setups. There were some areas with cliffs or some other bad coastal geology, but most of Iceland’s coastline has great potential for surf. Everywhere I looked, I could see cobblestone pointbreaks, reef breaks, rivermouths and beachbreaks, just waiting for the right swell.
So, you might think that there really is nothing stopping Iceland from becoming a major surfing destination in the future. But that last point—the fact that all those perfect reefs and points don’t often get the right swell—could be a key factor. Most surfers would prefer to park in front of a known spot and surf there every day without having to worry about complicated swell patterns and coastal geology. In Iceland, you have to chase swells around the country and risk not being in the right place at the right time. And most surfers just don’t have the patience for that. All in all, I think that most surfers would still prefer to surf in board shorts in Indonesia or Mexico, for a fraction of the price and with a guaranteed wave count.
Hopefully, most of the surfers who go to Iceland in the next few years will be those who prioritize solitude and a pristine environment over maximum tube time and minimum effort. By definition, they will be the kind of surfers who understand that surf spots, just like the trees and the soil that were so abundant when those first settlers arrived over a thousand years ago, are a limited resource that will erode away fast if we don’t use it wisely.
For more from Tony, check out his previous articles here on The Cleanest Line.
Tony Butt holds a BSc in Ocean Science and a PhD in Physical Oceanography. He divides his time between Northwest Spain and Southwest South Africa; makes a meager living teaching and writing about waves and the coastal environment; and works with NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage and Save the Waves. His published books include Surf Science: an Introduction to Waves for Surfing (2014), The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates (2009) and A Surfer’s Guide to Sustainability (2011).