In an effort to put down in words the unearthly experience that is swell-chasing in Iceland, I will continue looking up synonyms for ethereal. Anyone who has researched a new spot to surf knows that there is a vast difference between what you read and what you find. That is the nature of surf travel. The four of us armed with boards, extra thick wetsuits and the winter trimmings boarded the plane with the anticipation akin to Christmas mornings.
Touching down in Keflavik as the sun rises gives you a good idea of how varied the coastline is.
Fingers of land that resemble peacock feathers chiseled out of volcanic rock, snow-capped mountains with geothermal steam surging out of the ground like a manhole in Manhattan, and expansive horizons paved with magma.
To say that Iceland has an interesting landscape would be underselling its magnitude. The full photographic exploitation of the countryside is for another time. For now, the search.
The surf scene in Iceland is minuscule compared to the rest of the destinations I’ve visited over the years. Central America, Indonesia, Australia, the Caribbean… all explored, exploited and surfed silly. Detailed surf reports, wave cams, spot guides, surf guides and tour companies all hold court over some of the most sought after spots. Not here.
We ran into roughly six or seven other people surfing. By “run into” I mean they were driving with boards on their cars away from our destination, or arriving as we packed up and carried on. It was refreshing to not battle it out with strangers and to enjoy exactly what we all crave: wave-rich surf sessions with our closest friends.
One of the biggest drawbacks to a crowd-less surf adventure is the inability to judge conditions from the shoreline. Currents, wave size, underwater dangers (reefs, rocks, depth) are all left to the imagination. Occasionally being the guinea pig meant paddling out alone, as the rest watched from the shore, noting variables in the water. This lead to a “monkey see, monkey do or do not” manifesto that held true during the entire trip.
Traveling with reliable and responsible adults is a plus. You don’t need reckless abandon to land a day in the hospital abroad. The conditions alone are dangerous, with miles of coastline and a small national population means isolation is imminent. Staying safe is number one.
In crowded surf spots, watching a wave go unridden is painful. Thoughts of what-could-be plague the surfer who retreats from the water and looks back. In Iceland, there are more unsurfed waves than days in all of our lifetimes combined.
The solitude is due in part to the geography. Certainly traveling North instead of South for a surf trip is unusual. In a country of volcanic beginnings, the coastline is as jagged as you can imagine. It provided us with endless opportunities to find a new wave.
The cold temperatures, dangerous weather patterns (see: microbursts) and general difficulty of figuring out a new surf spot, when no one else has, makes Iceland a challenge. You need to bring all of your gear. All. Of. It. Neoprene, wax, boards, fins, leash, extras of everything.
The number of surf shops can be counted on one hand. The number of local surfers can be counted on your toes and fingers. However, the variety of waves in Iceland ensures that surfers of all abilities can find something worth riding.
Pack your board bag, your winter neoprene and slap your big-boy (and big-girl!) pants on. Come ready for anything: rain, sleet, snow, heaving slabs, point break cruisers, barreling beach breaks, jetty jump-off and the occasional walk through an industrial park.
In a time when surfing is becoming increasingly popular and the nostalgia of California cruising is being overcome by crowds and pollution, an Arctic escape is exactly what the doctor ordered.