Exploring Iceland. Vikings, Icy Arctic Air and Waves.

24 Aug 2009 0

This is how surfers explore the frontier. They grunt and they groan. They gasp and they pant. They think with their blood. Fingertips, toes and nose are frozen. Brains are numb. They survive on raw, animal instincts; performing simple movements perfected through years of repetition – one arm lifting after the other, arching their backs and pushing up off their chests, stumbling to their feet, leaning on their heels and aiming for flat water, chased by a solid chunk of North Atlantic Ocean. They shriek and they scream. They yelp and they howl. They roar like Vikings, echoing the distant past. With a rush of blood and a lungful of icy Arctic air, this is how surfers explore the frontier.

Adam Wickwire doesn’t look much like a pioneer. His appearance has little in common with library book images of crusty old sea dogs like Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook, those dusty, flyblown Australian explorers, or those unshaven, emaciated Antarctic adventurers, wrapped in fur skins and surrounded by dogs and sleds. A skinny, stringbean of a kid from Florida’s Satellite Beach, Wickwire rocks low-slung jeans barely hanging off his hips, while a hulking hooded jacket hides a close-cropped GI Joe-style haircut. Wickwire’s honey brown tan provides more clues than his almost permanently blank expression. Stuck 66 degrees north of the equator on an isolated island inhabited by ruddy-cheeked locals eyeing the onset of another daylight-starved winter of discontent, the 18-year-old’s sun-kissed skin and thousand-yard stare hint at his true vocation, that of impatient surf explorer.

Wickwire crouches against a dirty red 4WD, sheltering from a gale-force offshore wind that tugs at his clothes and threatens to lift him off his feet and send him sailing towards Scotland. Behind him a snowcapped mountain stretches into a brooding, bloated sky. In front, a newly discovered right-hander reels along a rocky headland strewn with volcanic boulders and dusted with snow. “Man, this place is crazy!” Wickwire suddenly declares in his slow Floridian drawl, shaking his head in disbelief and climbing into the car to warm his frozen bones.

Crazy. That’s pretty much what everyone says when Wickwire and his intrepid accomplice, Maui surfer girl Elise Garrigue, explain what they’re doing. “Surfing? In Iceland? In November? You’re crazy,” they say.

Sometimes it’s prefaced with a few well-rounded expletives, but crazy is the common response. When most people think of Iceland they think of icebergs and polar bears. Not surfing. And Icelandic surfers are akin to the much-celebrated Jamaican bobsled team – a climatic anomaly. While there are a few hardy souls who brave the extremities, the Arctic’s sub-zero temperatures and wild weather patterns have conspired to make it a virtual no-go zone for surfers. Until now.

Wickwire and Elise are exploring an exposed stretch of coastline that is hammered by ferocious storm systems, where the air temperature can drop below -20 degrees, where there can be as little as four hours of daylight and the ocean flirts with freezing. It may be a far cry from the idyllic tropical surf destinations of the South Pacific, but Iceland is “holding”, as Wickwire says. It’s holding an almost inexhaustible supply of virgin surf – from classic point-break set-ups and gnarly reefs, to miles and miles of untamed black sand beaches.

Wickwire sits in the front seat, cupping his hands over the a/c, the warm air steaming up the windscreen. The car shudders in the wind as he gazes out to sea watching perfectly groomed lines of swell march towards the shore. He’s slowly thawing and thinking out loud, gamely predicting that this Arctic version of Malibu is just the tip of the iceberg. Literally.

Extreme cold-water destinations like Iceland are amongthe few remaining gaps on the surfing map. But the times, as Dylan predicted, they are a-changin’. The Hawaiian islands spawned the ancient art of wave-riding, framing the experience in warm water and sunshine. Back in the 60’s the first wave of exploration was sparked by Bruce Brown’s influential surf film The Endless Summer, with its bare-chested matinee idols (Robert August and Mike Hynson) swanning around the globe wearing slicked back hair and sunglasses, reinforcing surfing’s ideal. But as the sport’s popularity has grown it has crossed temperature zones as well as countries and continents. Ironically, the recent trend in wave discovery is to find something almost the polar opposite of Brown’s idealised surfing paradise. Instead of an endless summer, modern day surf explorers are plumbing the depths of winter in search of their own slice of uncrowded perfection.

Wetsuit technology has developed at an impressive rate over the past decade, allowing the brave and the crazy to take the Hawaiian sport of kings into another realm – the frozen frontier. Surfers can now be found scouring the coasts of Sweden and Svalbard, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Tierra del Fuego and Tasmania, Oregon and Ireland. Hardcore San Francisco big-wave surfer Dr. Mark Renneker even piloted a trip to Antarctica. But traditionally Americans have looked northwards for unearthly suspense. The Arctic is nearer and, like the race to the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century, such a big blank expanse of unknown just a few degrees above New York arouses the American imagination. However, six-millimetre wetsuits and hypothermia have never appealed to a tow-headed grommet from Florida’s Atlantic Coast. “I used to see pictures in magazines of guys surfing in New Jersey and New York – snow on the beach, full suits, booties, gloves, hood, the whole deal,” Wickwire recalls. “Growing up back home in Florida, where it’s warm all-year round, I couldn’t think of anything worse. It looked way too bitter to go in the water.”

What Wickwire says is at odds with where he is now and what he’s doing there. The explanation is the latest advancement in wetsuit technology – the power-heated wetsuit. Using technology developed by NASA in the last 80’s, Rip Curl has constructed a cold-water wetsuit powered by two polymer lithium batteries (the same as you find in mobile phones, iPods and laptop computers). The batteries power fibre elements in the back of the wetsuit, which produce an infrared heat, warming the body’s core. While wetsuits have consistently gotten warmer and more flexible in recent years, this latest advancement is like something out of a science fiction movie – the wetsuit can edge upwards of 60 degrees on its highest temperature setting, and its embryonic R&D missions are already expanding the surfing map. “I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this suit,” Wickwire admits. “It’s so cold – it’s the coldest weather I’ve ever been in.”

Everybody talks about the weather – the ferocious cross-winds, the freak snow storms, the sunken fishing boats. It’s early evening and pitch black outside with an icy wind blowing up the street. We’re sitting around the hotel bar, drinking overpriced local beer, watching a Premier League replay of Arsenal killing off Liverpool’s title hopes, and talking about the weather. We’ve met a local surfer; complete with long hair, five-day growth and missing teeth. He looks like Axl Rose, sans bandana. His name is David Fannar Steffansson and he’s engrossed in the weather maps on the internet, telling us about life on an island that has 15% of its land mass covered by snowfields and glaciers. “I’m always surfing alone, just you and nature man, it’s beautiful,” Steffansson explains. “That’s what you get here – you surf alone and it’s the whole island to yourself. And it’s unexplored, most of it, like 80% of it, is unexplored.”

Steffansson is a professional fisherman who has travelled and surfed beyond his island home. We unfold a map on the bar and point out potential wave locations – curving stretches of coast, headlands jutting into the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic, protected points and coastal bluffs. Steffansson knows little beyond his local peninsula; a cluttered collection of short rock ledges and exposed black sand beaches. “It is the wind,” he says, by way of explanation. “It is always so windy. And cold. I know my local spots…”

The electronic road signs heading south read -10 degrees and although it’s nearing nine in the morning, the road is illuminated by an otherworldly orange glow – sunrise is still an hour away. We drive through a mid-morning snow storm, a cherry red 4WD balanced on the edge of an ancient landscape, under towering mountains, over glacial rivers, past frozen waterfalls, through Arctic desert. We’re exploring, with seven hours locked behind the wheel ahead of us, guided by road maps and rumours, hoping to reach a small town on the island’s exposed southern edge by nightfall. But Wickwire is eyeing the coast. The road weaves towards the ocean and somewhere in the distance Wickwire sees plumes of spray as we slip down another high-altitude pass. Out here there are no signs. There are no roads. Across an uninterrupted stretch of black volcanic sand, an arid alluvial plain created by ice melts and glacier bursts, lies an unseen surf break. Maybe.

“We had no idea of what was on the other side, but we’d come halfway around the world, so we thought we’d go take a look…” Bruce Brown, The Endless Summer, on the verge of discovering Cape St. Francis in South Africa, his self-proclaimed “perfect wave”.

More than 40 years later, on the opposite side of the planet, Adam Wickwire is honouring his spirit, like a modern-day Mike Hynson, covered head-to-toe in neoprene. There are doubters among us, but he’s urging us on, the wind howling at our backs. The 4WD sashays across the plain towards the ocean, which ends abruptly on a berm of sand overlooking a wild, windblown beach. There are waves – wedging A-frame peaks winding along the beach; hollow dark holes grinding and spitting black sand. The wind is freezing, coming off the inland glaciers and across the plain. It cuts through our clothes and we hide behind the 4WD, watching the surf in dazed disbelief – it’s so unexpectedly epic. The whole scene is surreal and strangely monochrome. Chunks of ice are littered along the shoreline. We huddle together but Wickwire is “amping”, exposing prickled pink flesh as he wrestles with his 4mm wetsuit, bounding down the beach and disappearing into the foam of the frenzied ocean.

“We really weren’t expecting to find anything,” Wickwire explains later from the front seat, cradling a small bottle of local vodka. “It was probably the coldest day we’ve had and the wind was so strong it was actually burning my face. My face and my nose felt like I had frostbite. But the waves were really incredible. It’s not like Indonesia or some tropical destination. When you come across a spot in a place like this you really are beside yourself, you’re frothing, because it’s so new – you know no-one has ever been surfing here before.” He pauses and takes a slug of vodka. “I’ve been having some weird dreams lately. It was kind of freaky, because I thought I was going to get eaten by a killer whale. It’s pretty crazy not knowing; not knowing if there’s sharks or killer whales, you just kind of go in blind. It’s kind of scary at the same time that it’s exciting.” Wickwire is squirming in the front seat, peeling his wetsuit off. Elise is in the back seat crying. Her hands are frozen claws, painfully tingling as they thaw. “Crazy,” she mumbles through numbed, purple lips, echoing earlier sentiments, tears trickling down her cheeks. Wickwire is now shaking his head, giggling almost maniacally – the vodka warming him from the inside out. He’s just scored some of the most perfect waves of his life; stumbled across them at the end of the world, a blank gap on the surfing map, an unexplored island on the edge of the Arctic Circle, so far, far away from his native Florida. He’s thanking King Neptune, and thinking like Bruce Brown. “I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves had been breaking here, but until this day no-one had ridden one. Think of the thousands of waves that went to waste, and the waves that are going to waste right now…”

It is a flying visit. We came, we saw, we conquered. We raped and we pillaged, just like the Vikings before us. And now we’re making the mad dash to the airport, the shiny little jewels stored on memory cards, imprinted in silver on 16mm, and tattooed forever in our minds. “This is a trip I’ll never forget,” Elise told me last night as we celebrated our good fortune by getting drunk in an über cool nightclub in the island’s urban hub of Reykjavík; all velvet curtains, polished brass and rosewood. “Surfing with icebergs? I think that’s something you don’t forget.” Beyond the window the streets are covered in a thin film of ice, sloping down towards the port and into the Atlantic. I wonder about all the things we forget, the things we remember, and what we can ever really discover about a place in seven “crazy” days.

This morning we said our good-byes; farewelling people we’ve shared incredible experiences with, agreeing to meet again in another country, in another time, knowing full well we’ll probably never see each other again, knowing I’ve had this conversation before, a hundred times. It feels the same, no better or worse. The sun is coming through the windscreen and we’re driving into the light, with Sigur Rós on full blast through the stereo. The music matches the mood and the place – extraterrestrial, oozing stark beauty, ebbing and flowing with unintelligible lyrics. We’re running late again – the mad dash becoming increasingly madder by the minute. The beginning of a hangover is starting to arrive with a small pulse, but I know it will be washed away at the airport bar and 30-plus hours in transit. If only we make check-in on time… Street lights flash past overhead. The sun sits on the edge of a mountain range flecked with snow. The ocean is windblown again, edged by ice and black volcanic rocks. My heart is pounding. So is my head. We drive on, searching for hidden meaning in road signs I can’t read, realising there was a moment when all this madness mattered, when it was all worthwhile, and we’d do it again a hundred times just to re-live it. Even these frenzied final minutes, when my watch has seemingly OD’d on amphetamines, the second hand speeding around the dial. Stay focused. Steady hands at the wheel. Try not to be distracted by the images that flash past like just before someone dies in a TV soap – the hire car’s empty fuel gauge, the airport car park, the tripods and camera bags, the excessive excess baggage bill, the ice cold Thule beer, the whitecaps and windsocks… because this is how surfers explore the frontier.

- An excerpt from "Deep Water" by Brendan McAloon

Deep Water:

Travel Stories & The Search for The Perfect Wave
By Brendan McAloon

RRP: $34.95

Gritty, thoughtful, emotionally raw literary mix of one man’s coming of age, part travelogue, part philosophy.

From the land-locked boondocks of rural Australia to the wild coast of West Papua, Deep Water: Travel Stories & The Search for The Perfect Wave follows Brendan McAloon’s remarkable journey to the most remote corners of the globe in search of the perfect wave.

Evocative and enthralling, Deep Water travels from isolated Indonesian island chains to Hawaii’s infamous North Shore, from Tahiti’s Tuamotu Atolls to the velvet green fields of Ireland, the unearthly suspense of an Icelandic winter and beyond.

McAloon’s journey of discovery takes you to the very heart of the surfing experience, stepping beyond the sandy shoreline and paddling out into deep water.

Deep Water is available at all good book stores or you can buy online at www.surfingworld.com.au/shop.aspx

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