Words by Alexei Obolensky | Still photography by Elli Thor Magnusson | Video by Pierre David
This article was originally published in Volume X, January 2022.
You could call it a town. But like so many other towns there isn’t all that much. A collection of houses spread up into a valley. The only noise is the wind. The indicator of the car ahead punctures through the snow, falling every heavier as the last claws of the Arctic light fade into darkness. The grey sea churns in the distance. I recognise the gas station up ahead through our one working headlight where we stopped yesterday in with high hopes of hot dogs, only to be told apologetically, ‘Sorry, our hot dogs are seasonal.’
We stop. Heaters on full blast. Teenage Dirtbag plays on the stereo as by day 6 of an average 8 hours in the car, we’ve run out of music. No, she doesn’t know what she’s missing.
A figure walks through the snow, neck crooked, head bowed to the wind. It’s Elli. Our photographer, guide, Icelandic surf legend and all round good bloke of superb Nordic standing, Elli Thor Magneussen. The window lowers and we’re met by Elli’s signature smile.
“So, we’re out of gas. This gas station only has diesel. We have a range of under 20km and the boat is 60km away. What do we do?”
We elect to keep going.
Something about the Icealanic word Ratiljóst – just enough light to keep navigating.
‘I mean, until the war man, it was Turf Houses and Fishing. That was really it. We only became independent from Denmark in 1944. We’re a new baby in this world.’
Elli tells us this as we speed away from Rekjavik in what is about to become, as anyone who has done a cold-water surf trip knows, one incredibly filthy Land Cruiser. Full Serbian War Lord vibes. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
But first, some history! Iceland is indeed a young buck in an old world. Depending on which historical civilisation you subscribe to, Iceland was discovered by a) The Greeks in 325bc, b) Irish Monks in the 8th Century or c) The Vikings in the 9th century. Iceland is geographically, well, Las Vegas! Active volcanoes, deep fjords (hello point breaks!) and geothermal pools. But you knew that already. Other fun facts include: there is no Icelandic word for ‘please’. Waves are often bigger inside the Fjords rather than on the exposed coastline as the deep water funnels swell in. And last but not least, road construction has been known to be delayed, diverted and indeed cancelled due to the presence of elves living in the rocks. More on that later.
Our team of water ballerinas consists of Gearoid McDaid and William Aliotti (who’s name I misspelled on the flight booking and shall continue to misspell for a long time). Gearoid McDaid is one of the finest surfers to ever come from Ireland. He’s salt of the earth, polite and extremely friendly. He is at home in two-foot beach breaks and oversized, very cold slabs. We have gotten incredibly drunk together in Ireland many a time and I count him as a dear friend. William Aliotti, is an old friend of Wasted Talent. Veteran of numerous trips, from Portugal to Scotland, to Morocco and beyond. Hailing from the French Caribbean, long term resident of Hossegor William is a staple, albeit miscreant, feature on the French surf scene. In the water he surfs an eclectic selection of twin fins; out of the water, his infectious smile is matched by his mischievous behaviour and penchant for a good time as the sun dips. On this trip, I was equally stunned by the fact he managed to spend 54€ on a single burger (mais c’etait de agneau! He doth protest…) and the fact he managed to score weed in a town of only 800 inhabitants. Two worthy shipmates indeed.
We drive to the North of the Island. Our geographical knowledge of Iceland is patchy at best. But as it turns out, it’s pretty big. A six-hour shlep into the night on icy roads, with one working headlight is met on arrival by the Northern Lights which as we discovered, look a hell of a lot greener through an iPhone lens than with the Naked Eye. Who knew?
We arrive on a frozen dock, where the Byr is moored, kindly hooked up by our dear friend Steve Lewis and captained by Captain Siggu. The Byr is an 80ft Arctic expedition ship and our home for the next week. The top decks are frozen solid. This is suboptimal as a sun deck but perfect for beer storage; the local beer is ingeniously called Viking and is very expensive, yet we still drink many. Below deck, the Byr is a delightful wooden cubby hole of warmth and comfort. Jokes about an old, old wooden ship are aplenty and nightly we collapse into bunk beds, buoyed by whisky and tales from the good Captain Siggu, who is every bit the Finnish sea captain you would expect to find 66 degrees north.
Going to Iceland and not talking about the scenery is nigh-on impossible and a thousand authors have done it far better than I ever could so I’ll keep this concise. Icelandic scenery is ‘stop the car’ amazing at every corner. It is the best light you’ve ever seen. It is sunlit. It is green. It is snow and it is rain. It is grey. It is impenetrable blizzards. It is all of the above in just one morning, so we learnt on the first day. It is the moon, it is Montana, Wyoming, Siberia and the Alps.
It is breathtaking.
We spend our days driving through this scenery, ever changing. Roads of dust, roads of mud and snow and ice, paved and unpaved. Iceland is a Toyota Land Cruser and Hilux advert. We check spots and surf waves ranging from oversized cold-water cortez bank to fun, playful lefts. Meals are exclusively hot dogs, a staple diet for any surfer in Iceland, and most likely the only food you can afford. The cold is well, cold. With wetsuits being what they are in this most glorious of Covid epochs, being in the water is fine, even warm. Mr Aliotti even surfs sans hood, which is fucking insanity. It’s getting changed afterwards when the cold hits, numb feet, running, nay, dancing around the car looking for stray socks and of course, “Where are my fucking gloves?”
We get back in the car, rocking back and forth, willing the Land Cruisers heating to kick in. Slurring our speech through frozen lips. Each door opening that takes 1/8 of a second longer than is deemed acceptable is met with “Shut the fucking door!” Elli looks on, smiling. “Wait until January boys.” I close my eyes and think of Los Angeles in January. I open them again. Actually, fuck Los Angeles.
It is on the third day we surf the A Frame. With the wind ever shifting, surfing in Iceland involves checking three separate and entirely independent wind apps, and then logically choosing the one you most want to believe whilst totally ignoring the others. We ask what apps is being used today – “the Icelandic one”, comes the answer. Swell is well, swell. There’s plenty of it, if anything too much, the clincher being the direction and the wind. Always the wind. Choosing to believe the forecast we like the most, we set off at dark. The 2km track down from the mountain road is impossible, even in the raised Hilux we have been loaned for the day. With the wind feeling light on our backs, and a triangle of whitewater just visible in the inky darkness, we scale down the hill on foot. Gearoid turns to me. “This is insane,” he says, as the darkness turns to light blue. I stay silent, focused on trying to keep my feet warm. Note: wetsuit boots offer little warmth on a snowy hike.
We’re met with a 4ft, sheet glass A Frame breaking just in front of a deserted caravan. Sheer elation takes over as we fumble putting on our gloves and paddle out, way before the filmers have the chance to set up. For the next three hours, we indulge in a roman orgy of wave-sharing arctic pleasure. We nip in, check on the filmers feet, which are by this stage showing the advanced stages of frostbite. We drink all their tea and dip back in. The cold will make you do incredibly selfish things.
For the sake of variety we ask a local captain to take his trawler out into the Fjord, as our captain Siggu has gone away for the weekend, doing Siggu things no doubt. Bow thrusters on, we head out to the Fjord. At this point everything is going swimmingly. The trawler cuts a razor sharp line through the thin layer of ice that has appeared overnight in the harbour, skimming the glassy waters of the Fjord. Our captain mutters something about a dead humpback whale on the point, and then retreats to the wheelhouse. Hitting anything under water isn’t ideal. Hitting a newly formed mudbank at 15 knots in the artic circle on a trawler that is 50 years old really isn’t the best. The trawler rocks from side to side as our captain raises an eyebrow, mutters curse-words words in Icelandic and furrows his brow. There is just enough light to navigate
After our boat trip and unsuccessful surf mission out on the Fjord, we head to our friend Steve’s house, where we dine on reindeer sausages and Icelandic lamb. It is here we learn more of the Elves. The Elves (Huldufolk—hidden people) are supernatural beings that live in nature. A sort of Icelandic magical moral police, they punish those who do wrong by mischievous ways of inconveniencing the offender. They are the enemies of trolls and are also known for stopping children running off into the wild. By means of context, 11% of Icelanders firmly believe in the huldufolk and 48%, yes 48%, believe it is likely or possible they exist. Don’t believe me? Ahem…
“In 2011, huldufólk were believed by some to be responsible for an incident in Bolungarvík where rocks rained down on residential streets. In 2013, proposed road construction from the Álftanes peninsula to the Reykjavík suburb of Garðabær, was stopped because elf supporters and environmental groups protested, stating that the road would destroy the habitat of elves and local cultural beliefs.”
The exploration of a peninsula that looks more like Siberia than anything else is conducted with appropriate due diligence. With each wave we check the question is posed: “Has any one ever surfed here?” If the answer is yes, the question is only ever superseded by asking “What’s this wave called?” To which the answer is always, logically: “It’s called: The slab / The beachy / the point”. We surf ‘the beachy’ one last time in the north before our eyes are turned to a black blob on the chart, approaching the southern coast and in turn, the bright lights of Reykjavik.
“There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.” Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
We hit the city, with rumours of a swell in the south. Reykjavik is a small but nonetheless charming city. When I say small, I mean really small. However, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in Mexican Bars, well one Mexican bar which is unparalleled for sending it. We’re informed at 22:05 that due to, yes you guessed it, Covid, the bars all close at 23:00. Enter stage right more margaritas. More Vikings. A large Icelandic man is carried by four smaller Icelandic men out of the bar. We follow suit.
We wake with hangovers, drive around in the howling wind and check spots in the name of being productive. The wind doth howl and we decide to call it a day and do what any self-respecting metrosexual man would do, hit the spa. Public baths are everywhere in Iceland. The social centre of geothermal megalols. And none more fabulous, more grandiose than the public baths of Reykjavik. Despite the nude etiquette being a euphemistic tough pill to swallow at first, after numerous spas we’re confident. Sans boardshorts and with a towel over our shoulders, sat back in the hot tub as the snow falls down over a subdued city.
On our final day, the wind relaxes. We hear rumours of a fickle wave off an island. We load up, attaching a Zodiac to the back of the Land Cruiser and drive the four hours out east. We’re met by a very soviet-looking dock complete with bemused looks from the local fisherman. We launch the Zodiac, nearly drowning the land cruiser in the process, into the brown sea and we’re on our way. We drop the filmers on the island’s lee-side (read: instant wet feet as filmers and peli cases sink into volcanic mud). We remind them that if this was Saving Private Ryan they would be lucky to be shot at, and we motor around the point. “This wave is the ultimate moment of truth”, our guide, Icelandic Pro Surfer and bon vivant Heidar Logi screams over the outboard.
We clap eyes on the wave and suddenly it’s all been worth it. A rare, never deserved but always welcome total score. An empty, double overhead, cold-water macaronis-esque grinds its way down the point, often glassy, at worst groomed. The wave is so seemingly endless, it is as though different wind directions at different stages are creating their own weather system in the process. We’re so excited we dive straight in, forgetting to do up wetsuits. This is a mistake. We surf for hours. We surf until we can’t speak. We surf until we can’t feel our feet, hands or shoulders. Back to the boat, which by this stage is mainly underwater. Back to the shore. Back to the city. Heaters on full blast. And straight to the airport.
Haste ye back Iceland. Haste ye back.