Text by Chris Nelson
There are a lot of things you might imagine doing on a trip to Iceland – but surfing, it’s fair to say, isn’t one of them. Yet the country is becoming Europe’s most whispered-about spot for its clean, consistent waves and for the chance to surf ruler-topped waves against a backdrop of smouldering volcanoes and fractured glaciers. Just paddling out against a backdrop of dark jagged peaks is an experience unlike anywhere else on the planet.
And while the thought of jumping into the sea just below the Arctic Circle hardly sounds tempting, it’s not actually that bad – the Gulf Stream ensures a summer sea temperature around 12oC, equivalent to spring in the south of England or France. And new wetsuit technology means you can be protected by 6mm of neoprene, bringing even winter surfing into play.
Despite the fact that cheap flights and post-crash prices have meant more surf-inclined visitors today, there are still only around 20 Icelandic surfers, and none of them had even considered riding the waves here two decades ago. Jón Teitur Sigmundsson was one of four Icelandic snowboarders and friends who, in 1995, had the idea of taking their snowboard skills into the sea. “We’d seen waves, but until then we’d never thought about trying to actually surf them,” says Sigmundsson. “My friend had a cousin in the States who had a surf shop. We sent an email and three weeks later we had four surfboards.” The problem was they had little idea how to stand on their boards, duck-dive beneath waves and negotiate dangerous rip currents.
But then a chance encounter changed everything. They met an American stationed at the now-defunct naval airbase at Keflavík, on Iceland’s south-western tip, who explained that US servicemen had been surfing the nearby Sandvik beach since not long after World War II. “He told us about Iceland’s best surf spots and explained that surfing was the reason many of them applied to be sent to Iceland in the first place,” says Sigmundsson. “There was this incredible beach break not even 10 minutes’ drive from the base. We went there for the first time and found a really good beach, really safe, in a small bay. We started going there all the time – it became our spot, and what we did into the autumn.”
After nearly two decades surfing, Sigmundsson is now well-placed to compare the waves on offer at home with those at the best breaks across the globe. “We went around the world to the surfing Meccas,” he explains. “To Australia, New Zealand, California – with the dream their spots would be breaking all the time. But we found out their waves were just like what we have, except when you hit the water you have to fight for everything because it’s just so crowded. It was nice to get back here to the empty line-ups, surfing with just a few friends – it’s so relaxed and chilled.”
And while you’ll still get the waves to yourself, more and more people are ticking Iceland surfing off their bucket list. In 2009, locals Erlendur Magnússon and Ingólfur Olsen started Arctic Surfers, the country’s only dedicated surf company, which runs tailor-made trips for surfers of all levels. “It’s definitely picked up here in the last few years,” says Olsen, who took around 100 people into the surf last season. “We’ve had lots of pros and photographers coming up here, and the word’s starting to spread as people realise the potential.” Despite that, he says his company is wilfully small: “It will never be crowded here and we don’t want to change that – if we get 15 people in the water, we’re like, ‘What the hell?’”
What he’s not, however, is exclusive. “Anyone can surf here, even beginners,” he says. “It’s just about knowing the right waves at the right time. And people are amazed at the temperature – the water’s only really cold in the deep winter.” So, the secret’s out – just don’t tell too many people.
Chris Nelson is the author of Cold Water Souls: In Search of Surfing’s Cold Water Pioneers, a book that took him on a three-year journey to the planet’s most inhospitable outposts, seeking out those hardy waveriders who call these icy line-ups home.
Need to know
The best breaks Sandvik
A beach break located on the south-western edge of the Reykjanes Peninsula. It has black sand with fun peaks and is suitable for beginners when it’s small.
A high-quality right-hand point break, just south of the harbour about 40 minutes’ drive south-east of Reykjavik. It has excellent walling to hollow waves peeling for up to 200m. It’s for intermediate to advanced surfers only, with entry and exit over boulders.
The reef here, 40 minutes’ drive south-west of Reykjavik, is a bit of a swell magnet and can be big. The right-hand walls when it’s small are suitable for intermediate surfers, but advanced surfers only when it’s big.
Who to go with
Arctic Surfers is run by two local surfers who can tailor trips to your needs, from camping and surf-chasing to day tours from Reykjavik.
What to bring
You can rent equipment from Arctic Surfers, Iceland Activities and AdventureBOX. In summer the sea hovers between 10oC and 12oC, so a 4mm wetsuit and boots will do the job. In winter the sea dips to around 7oC, so a 6mm suit with gloves, boots and a hood is recommended.