EXPLORATION can be one of the most invigorating parts of surfing and Iceland had always been part of that dream. Searching and surfing new waves where few have been before is tantalizing. The majority of low-pressure systems which generate swell on the Irish coastline originate in the far north next to Iceland, making this island an obvious swell magnet.
Flights to Iceland can be found from London to Reykjavík with IcelandAir, a refreshingly well run airline where surfboards travel free. The flight itself is an easy four hours of airtime with cool facts and Icelandic translations on the back of headrests for some inspiration. The overview of the Iceland was thrilling yet ominous with its gnarled coast engulfed in chunky swell and whitewash. Keflavík airport is a spacious and modern building providing a cozy distraction from the wildness outside its doors. Rarely would one see people being nearly bowled over by a gust of wind. As in the 20kg board bag was nearly lifted off the ground and sent skittering sideways due to the force of the fierce north wind that was blitzing the land. This wasn’t helped by the shock factor of the savage chill that penetrated through the thickest of jackets. If there ever was a wake up call from nature on entering a country, this one had an effect.
This tortuous coastline with many nooks and crannies was bound to offer a myriad of waves on all conditions. The simple fact that Irish skin is most definitely designed for the northern latitudes has always geared surfing expeditions to colder rather than warmer climates.
Scouring Google Earth, researching existing knowledge on Magicseaweed and consulting with surf explorers who had been and gone proved captivating. It was clear there would be a multitude of options on any given swell and wind direction due to peninsulas with 180 degrees of opportunity. Flights were booked, bags were packed and excitement was rife!
A trusty vehicle is a must have on a surf trip around this barren land. Best bang for your buck was found with an interestingly named company Sad Cars. There was nothing melancholy about the little vehicle that stood solid for the trip. So the first port of call, literally, entailed making it to the first major harbor along the coast. This is where the camping idea became laughable. With the high wind speeds constantly ripping through a landscape with little shelter or trees, nestling in between sands dunes was the best option. This resulted in a new form of skin exfoliation therapy for any exposed body parts. Waking up next to a spectacular sunrise along this incredible coast was indeed worth the hard work grappling with camping equipment. Perseverance was key as camping was indeed the sole accommodation for this trip bar one spectacular night in the Blue Lagoon Hotel.
Seeing surf for the first time on a trip is always exciting, even more so when there is no one else around. There is a good chance you may have the waves to yourself, as there are only twenty resident surfers in the whole of Iceland. Frothing would be an understatement, seeing three-foot waves racing down a point with two main sections was a dream start. Even though excitement was rife, nature will occasionally slow down the pace.
As the proverb ‘the less haste the more speed’ rang true of the frozen seaweed strewn boulders lining this point, which served as a severe impediment for easily or swiftly entering of exiting the water. Not only were the waves super fun with hollow sections, speed runs and perfect lip lines; the backdrop was nothing short of captivating.
Wonderment was also found in the rectangular shape of the Icelandic lighthouses. The majority of lighthouses in Ireland and indeed around the world are cylindrical, reasoning for which I have yet to find the answer?
There is huge potential for every wave I set my eyes on in this awesome country. I could foresee how a bigger swell and better direction would indeed make this a wave to fantasize about. Floaters, pockets snaps and coverups were abundant on this average sized day, with the simple variation of sections being the most enticing part of all.
The surfers here were well rounded and many had logged a substantial amount of surf travel miles to exotic locals. They were enthusiastic about sharing their passion and getting their brethren out in the water and up on a board. I have a feeling there may be a fair few more Icelandic surfers around on my next visit, if my hopeful wish for a return trip comes through.
A little further exploration happened us upon a slab wave that would also enable an introduction to some of Iceland’s home surfers. If there ever was the epitome of hard-core surfers, then this Iceland crew is just that.
With no surf shop in the country, these surfers are highly resourceful. Using everything from diving suits to windsurf boards and far-flung purchases on Internet land to get them in amongst the phenomenal natural resource on their doorstep. Thanks to their well-spoken English, communication was not a problem. Yet little words were needed as their surfing standard spoke for itself.
The second surf of the day had just that, a flash blizzard out in the line-up, a crazy experience entailing snow flying sideways and disappearing into the wave face as one raced down the line. This spot would feature again in the trip due to the hollow nature to the waves here. Great waves were had by all in the lineup with oncoming sections to smash, gouges to hack and mini-kegs to sneak underneath. If anyone ever makes a surf trip to this incredible country, then watch out for the Big Blue Bus crew (you know who you are) and give them a friendly hello plus the respect they deserve.
Surf exploration is awesome, most of all when the currency, food and culture differ greatly. Iceland is one of these places. Caught between the influences of Europe and the United States of America, there is a fabulous blend of cultures here. This molds the unique architecture, fashion, music and food found in this region. For instance, it is wild to see a gothic style church followed by a Taco Bell building then a traditional Icelandic red roofed house, all on one stretch of road. Clearly there is a lot more to explore in Iceland other than waves.
The trip was filled with many incredible sights and experiences including Gullfoss waterfall, Geysers, Reykjavík, Svartifoss waterfall, Vatnajökull Glacier, Jökulsárlón, Vík and many more jaw dropping views along the way. A great way to warm up post-surf session is to avail of the local geothermal pools found in most towns. The most famous hot spring of all is indeed the world-renowned Blue Lagoon which is a must do if only for the feeling of floating in a lunar landscape.
Couple that with pristine rights and lefts along this stretch of beach and you easily recognize one of the most mind-blowing surf set-ups in the world. Equally as jaw dropping is another beach break along the coast where a-frames crank under huge sea cliffs overlooking the town’s classic red and white Icelandic church. Both surf spots are nothing short of exquisite.
The bone numbing cold experienced while surfing in these far flung northern reaches of human habitation is something of an experience in itself. Donning a frozen wetsuits left in a car boot was always lingering in the back of the mind when checking any spot. Then comes the initial shock of entering the water, followed by a buzz from adrenaline kicking in, which eventually enables one to paddle furiously during a session, helpful to maintain warmth if nothing else. Changing in blizzards with club hands and feet is something one may wish to block from the mind. Yet when it comes down to it all, the waves are uncrowned unless you count the seals, the landscape is captivating beyond belief, the set-ups can be as long or as hollow as you wish and there is definitely no pollution.
The last surf highlighted the flip sides while surfing in this remote country. Returning to the initial slab wave, it was found to be solidly overhead with gale force offshores. Two young surfers from Reykjavík were psyching and straight out there. Little did any of us predict what this wave had in store for us all. To give a comparison, similarities to a Riley’s like right-hander come to mind.
The waves were bombing and breaking over shin deep jagged volcanic reef. The first major set took the two young locals out of the equation. One snapped leash with the board last seen heading skyward towards the horizon and another board split in half, leaving a lot of room for pondering the consequences of surfing in Iceland. Lone surfing is a reality on this island. Back up is not. Ice covered roads, heavy snow, flash blizzards, extremely remote locations make time and distance to medical attention a real issue. These thoughts do little for one’s confidence when staring down the face of a draining overhead wave.
Taking off deeper in the gusting offshore wind was something of a mission. Scoring views from hollow kegs spurs one on. Finally it all caught up; taking off on a solid set wave, tiptoeing to the bottom, skipping out into the flats, crushing lip impact, slamming into the reef, knee first into rock, excruciating pain, gasping for air, floating, checking, praying. Thankfully walking or more accurately limping away from this Icelandic surf adventure was a true blessing. Iceland must have wanted to leave something permanent to remember it by, a fingertip sized kneecap divot. As if there weren’t enough awesome memories from this trip to last a lifetime!