Norway's extreme surfers brave Lofoten

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Lofoten's Unstad beach. Photo: Spesialsnorre/Flickr
19:05 CEST+02:00
The water is icy cold and it's windy, but the intrepid group dives in: far from California's sunny beaches, die-hard surfers flock to Norway's idyllic Lofoten Islands to catch the Arctic's cool waves.

The water is icy cold, it's windy and it's drizzling out, but the intrepid group dives in: far from California's sunny beaches, die-hard surfers flock here year-round to catch the Arctic's cool waves.

Situated at the same latitude as northern Siberia and Alaska, Unstad Beach in Norway's idyllic Lofoten Islands is a favourite spot for surfers seeking out a completely different kind of beach experience.

Surrounded by breathtaking views of snow-covered mountaintops and cliffs dropping into the ocean, surfers from around the world come here 365 days a year, sometimes still in hippie-style vans, to try out the world-class waves.

"There's usually good waves here, the setting is intimate and the landscape takes your breath away, with the northern lights, the midnight sun, the snow...," explains Tommy Olsen, a 45-year-old "Viking" who has spent more than 20 years surfing.

"In the space of 24 hours, you can have a series of amazing experiences: you can snowboard during the day, surf in the evening, and watch the northern lights at night," he says.

The owner of a camping site with small red wooden cabins near the beach, Olsen also works as a surf instructor.

"All year, all I do is surf, either as a job or in my free time," he admits.

In summer, when the midnight sun lights up the region, aficionados are out on their boards day and night.

The water is an important element in the Lofoten Islands, a popular destination for travellers looking for pristine nature and wildlife, and an important fishing ground.

A stone's throw from the beach, thousands of cod heads are drying on giant wooden trestles, likely waiting for export to Africa where they will be ground up to be used as a nutritional supplement.

It was Tommy Olsen's father-in-law who first came up with the idea to introduce surfing in the archipelago in the early 1960s.

After returning from a long trip abroad, Thor Frantzen and a friend made their own surfboards out of styrofoam, wet newspaper and glue.

"We didn't have any money at the time," explains the 67-year-old pioneer.

A half-century later, Unstad Beach is now a prized location for surfers from all corners of the world.

In a relaxed and friendly ambiance, an Australian pro surfer here to film a commercial hangs out on the beach alongside the local bearded dudes and seven Swedish students who, after a six-hour drive, barely finish raising their tent before throwing themselves into the water, their boards under their arms.

All that's missing are a few Beach Boys tunes and ... a bit more warmth.

The bravest can take a dip in these Arctic waters thanks to the Gulf Stream, a warm current that crosses the Atlantic and laps the Norwegian coast.

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As a result, the water temperature rarely drops below five degrees C (41 F). Still, it remains far from tropical.

"To surf here you need a six- millimetre drysuit, shoes and gloves. You feel kind of like a sumo wrestler," says Kristian Breivik.

"The worst part is getting out of the water and changing clothes behind the car."

This 44-year-old "shaper", with silver grey shoulder-length hair, designs surfboards on his computer, has them made in South Africa, then sells them out of his garage.

After selling about 150 last year, he now plans to open the world's northernmost surf store, at 68 degrees North.

That's a latitude that has one special advantage: "Here, there are no sharks," smiles Kristian Breivik.

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