Braving Norway’s cold: Surfing above the Arctic Circle

The water is just four degrees Celsius, but some surf almost every day in the frigid waves off the coast of Norwegian islands above the Arctic Circle.

Braving Norway's cold: Surfing above the Arctic Circle
Surfers in Unstad. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

“You come up from the ocean and you're just freaking cold,” says Unn Holgersen.

It's deep winter in this land of the spectacular Northern Lights, flashing green on the horizon, and the water is just four degrees above zero.

“You have to put your feet in a bowl of hot water and you have to change really quickly,” the 32-year-old veterinarian advises.

It may be cold and isolated, but Holgersen has chosen to live on the Lofoten islands because she is addicted to the thrill of winter surfing.

On its snow-covered beaches, she and other dedicated surfers brave the freezing weather — outside air temperature is a chilly minus 15 Celsius — and the ferocity of the ocean.

“I love the feeling,” says one surfer after riding the waves.

That exhilaration is shared by all those who visit the tiny town of Unstad on the islands.

Among them are two students, Christina Kolbu and Solmoy Austbo, who travelled three days in a mini-van to reach the frosty shores.

They quickly change out of their hippy garb, put on thick winter wetsuits and grab their boards to head out into the waiting surf.

A surfer puts his board away after a session in Unstad. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

Despite the chill, they do not hesitate as they plunge into the glacial waters.

When coming back to shore, they clutch their boards as they clamber up the beach as thick snowflakes fall around them.

Unstad is a favourite site with surfers: a vast open horizon with a series of snow-capped peaks on either side of the beach.

Situated above the Arctic Circle, around the same latitude as northern Siberia and Alaska, its waters remain accessible due to the Gulf Stream, which somewhat warms the ocean current that flows across the Atlantic to Norway's coast.

“Surfing is a lifestyle, it's a must,” says Lisa Blom, a 38-year-old hotel manager.

“We have better waves, quality waves, they're usually bigger, consistent.”

Some of the surfers argue there are even better waves here than in southern Europe or Bali.

“We have nice clear days, there are not too many people and the beautiful scenery,” says Holgersen. “It's the whole package.”

Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

READ ALSO: Pushing the limit riding Norway's frozen waves


In pictures: Surfing above the Arctic Circle in Norway

The 2019 Lofoten Masters surfing competition was held last week at the Bay of Unstad in the northwestern reaches of Norway.

In pictures: Surfing above the Arctic Circle in Norway
Indonesian surfer Edi Siswanto rides a Stand-Up Paddle Board (SUP) under the Northern Lights in Unstad. Photo: Olivier MORIN / AFP

The sea rises under the low, late summer sun, the wave climbs and curls and crashes, a figure emerges in a wetsuit, on a long board, and punches the air.  

Anker Olsen Frantzen,18, rides a wave. Photo: Olivier MORIN / AFP

His name is Anker Olsen Frantzen, just 18 years old and a native of the Bay of Unstad where the Lofoten Masters surfing competition is taking place. 

Anker is one of 29 surfers (eight female, 21 male) taking part in the 2019 edition of the Masters, the only competition to be held within the Arctic Circle at 68.9 degrees latitude.

Norway's surfer Ine Haugen, winner of the final of the open Lady Contest. Photo: Olivier MORIN / AFP

Lost in a network of fjords, the bay is stunningly beautiful, a haven for seabirds, a hideaway for humans.

Surfers look on at Unstad. Photo: Olivier MORIN / AFP

Its remoteness adds to its appeal. The Moskstraumen – or maelstrom – which forms in the archipelago has inspired writers since the Old Norse poems of ancient times. Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne both used it to dramatic effect in their stories “A Descent into the Maelstrom” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”.

Fortunately for today's surfers there is no sign of a whirlpool in Unstad.

A surfer carries his board as he walks to the judges truck. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

Fair weather surfers who seek out the sun and big waves of Oahu or Tahiti or Jeffrey's Bay might blink at the conditions, although given the location inside the Arctic Circle they are relatively kind.

The dying embers of an Indian summer push the temperatures up to 17 degrees during the day with the ocean at 10 degrees. The high pressure means the waves are unusually small.

Surfing wetsuits and accessories dry at the end of the day. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

Anker's grandfather Thor Frantzen is the godfather of surf in these parts.

Back in 1963, using the cover of The Beach Boys' album “Surfin' Safari”, released the previous year, as his guide, Thor built the first surfboard in Lofoten from a combination of fibreglass and newspaper.

Anker Olsen Frantzen poses with his grandfather Thor Frantzen, holding his 1963 self-made surfboard. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

That summer of '63, he then set about learning to use it. And he has been surfing ever since.

But he has had to hand over the crown — last Saturday the Norwegian Ine Haugen took the women's title while Swedish professional Tim Latte was the best of the men.

Swedish surfer Tim Latte, rides a wave during the final of the Open Contest. Photo: Olivier MORIN / AFP

Oh, and grandson Anker won the longboard.

A longboard surfer walks to the water. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

READ ALSO: Braving Norway's cold: Surfing above the Arctic Circle