Long ago, during a particularly merciless winter in the North Atlantic, a battered fishing ship sank off the coast of Iceland. Five fishermen leapt overboard in an attempt to swim for land, but, one by one, hypothermia overtook them and their bodies descended like stones five miles from shore.
Eventually only one man remained, and it seemed that each stroke would surely be his last. But after swimming for six grueling hours, he finally set his bare feet onto a snow-covered beach. As the sun set, he stumbled through the sprawling white expanse until he spotted the light of a farm in the distance.
After his rescue and physical examination, doctors flew him to London for further testing. It was found that an unusual medical condition saved him from an icy grave. A thin layer of fat under his skin insulated his organs like seal blubber. Or so the story goes.
My narrator is local surfer Elli Thor Magnussen, who recounts the fisherman’s tale as we sit in the warm glow of the fireplace in a coffee shop in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. It’s 9 a.m. and still dark outside. Snow pours into the city, clogging streets and burying parked cars.
Winter is far from welcoming in Iceland, but it’s during this season that many of the region’s best off-the-grid waves come to life. For some time, the locals have had their eyes on one such gem, hidden in the most remote corner of the country, guarded by mountains and ice, and accessible only by boat. It’s not the kind of break that most surfers would want anything to do with, but a small band of Icelanders is willing to go to great lengths to score it.
At the coffee shop, we’ve gathered a group of cold-water creatures who share the Icelanders’ enthusiasm. Sam Hammer, Justin Quintal, photographer Chris Burkard, and I are joining three surfers from Reykjavik to make the journey to the boat dock. Timmy Reyes plans to fly in from Hawaii and meet us somewhere along the way, but how this will happen along the fringes of rural Iceland, no one knows.
Magnussen studies the latest weather report on his laptop. He says we’re heading into whiteout conditions, and what normally is a four-hour road trip to the harbor will likely take us eight hours.
I wonder what kind of danger we may be courting, striking out on a boat amid such bitter conditions. The Icelanders don’t seem overly concerned, but I’m not sure if that’s comforting, considering that they’re cut from a very different cloth than our crew of foreigners.
The Icelandic surfers are tall and muscular with long blond hair, looking just a few horned helmets and pelts away from being modern Vikings. They’ve been hardened by a lifetime of exploring icy coasts and surfing frigid lineups, and something tells me that if our boat sank and we were forced to swim for our lives, the Icelanders would find their way back to shore just fine. For our group of comparatively fair-weather surfers, I’m not as confident. As far as I know, none of us has secret layers of seal blubber.
We have no time to prepare for the storm. Outside of the coffee shop, a foot of snow already blankets the cars. Quintal and Hammer rip their gloves off in order to strap boards to the roof of our white Defender while Burkard and I scrape ice from the windows and lights. In minutes the Icelandic surfers already have two stacks of boards balanced on their roof. They wait for us to finish before leading the way out of the city and into the darkness.
From high above, our caravan would look like three specks of light moving slowly across the floor of a black cavern. Where the beams of our headlights hit the ground, snowdrifts writhe across the asphalt like white snakes. Gusts slam the side of our car until Quintal’s longboard spins sideways on the roof. Opening the window is out of the question, so I press my face against the glass and look up. The boards look liable to fly off at any minute, but there’s nowhere to pull over to tighten the straps, so we press on.
This time of year, the sun never truly rises. For little more than three hours a day, the sky fills with soft light, then fades back into darkness. As we drive through the night, strange scenes come into focus outside the car—microcosms of winter life at the edge of the Arctic Circle. We see a house nested in the snow, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, but flickering candlelight coming through the windows hints at life within. We pass a set of tire tracks that veer off the road and plummet into a ravine. A truck with flashing lights is parked by the side of the road and two figures in orange suits stare at the tracks leading into the black void, scratching their heads. We continue onward and come across no other signs of life for the rest of the drive. It feels as if the entire world is hibernating.
As the morning glow begins to seep into the sky, our surroundings take on dimension and color. We’re skirting the rim of a fjord, and the high mountains create a refuge in the midst of the storm. Down below, swell energy is coursing through deep water and small waves are trimming along the snowy banks.
As we come around a curve, I see a small SUV pulled over on the side of the road. The driver is leaning over the guardrail and peering toward the sea.
Someone shouts: “Timmy!”
Reyes turns and looks at us with the dazed eyes of a man who hasn’t slept in days and likely has no idea what time zone he’s in. He points below at the first set we’ve seen make contact with land. Four wide-open right-hand tubes grind along a slab at the prow of the fjord, and the scene dissolves into chaos. Everyone is screaming, laughing, and shaking each other by the shoulders.
Hammer tunes out the commotion and starts methodically digging through his board bag with Zen-like focus. Within minutes his board is waxed, his fins are locked in, and he’s lunging through knee-deep snow toward the shore.
Right behind him is Heiðar Logi Elíasson, Iceland’s first and only professional surfer. Our group is amazed by his approach to surfing in icy water. Not only does he outlast any of the visiting surfers in the lineup, but he almost seems to revel in the cold, despite the rips and tears that puncture his hand-me-down wetsuit.
Comfort in severe conditions is a common thread among the Icelandic surfers. For Ingo Olsen, water temperature seems to have no effect on him whatsoever. He wears thinner wetsuits than his friends and doesn’t wear a hood, even on the coldest winter days. His freakish stamina prompts Magnussen to speculate whether he has the same blubber under his skin as the fisherman from Icelandic lore.
Reyes, Quintal, Hammer, and Logi Elíasson scramble for the peak as a set arrives, and one by one they find themselves threading double-barrel sections. Reyes flies out of a stand-up tube as it spits on the inside. It’s a heavy wave, and by the end of the session, three boards have washed up on the shore in splinters.
For the Icelandic surfers, a broken board is devastating. With no shapers in the country and heavy import taxes, they rely on visiting surfers to bring boards.
“You don’t loan your board to a friend who has broken his,” Magnussen explains after the session, with a mischievous grin. “If they break yours too, you don’t know when you’ll get your hands on another one. It could take months.”
Night returns at 2:30 in the afternoon and we watch from shore as the wave becomes more mechanical and hollow in the fading light. When the sets disappear into darkness, we gather our remaining boards and head to the harbor.
The Aurora Arktika creaks as it sways in the tide and presses against the dock. Snow pillows cap the deck and icicles hang from the sides. In the darkness, we hand boards, sleeping bags, and backpacks over the railing to the crew.
Siggi Jonsson stands on the deck wearing a wool sweater and red cap, exuding authority like only a bearded Icelandic boat captain can. Using the Arktika as a mobile base camp, Captain Jonsson’s expeditions have taken him as far as the Norwegian island of Jan Mayen and Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland. But today he’ll be steering us to Iceland’s most isolated coast, where a tangle of mountains sink into the ocean and violent storms suddenly sweep in from the North Pole.
“It’s a careful balance out there,” Captain Jonsson tells us. “We normally try to avoid the conditions that surfers look for. A storm can form at any moment and put us in a dangerous spot.”
Swell rocks the boat as we leave the safety of the harbor. Below deck, the crew sits in a circle around a table, swapping sea stories. There’s something about tales of charging polar bears, vigilante orca hunters, and lonely Arctic outposts that seem uniquely Icelandic. As they talk, the lanterns sway from the rafters, causing shadows to dance around the cabin. It isn’t long before I start to feel sick, and I swallow some Dramamine and climb through the hatch to get some air.
It’s calm and silent on the main deck except for an occasional rumble of laughter from below and the hollow sound of crashing waves echoing between mountain peaks. The night sky is so clear that the cosmos looks close enough to touch, and the placid water mirrors the stars. It’s as if our sailboat is drifting through space.
In the morning, the crew gathers on deck. The radio squeals as Captain Jonsson searches for a weather report. His brow furrows as he holds the receiver to his ear, and he explains that another storm is rapidly approaching.
“It’s a big system,” he says. “There isn’t time to surf; it’s too dangerous. We have to head back.”
This is the obvious drawback to chasing waves through Iceland. The conditions are difficult for most of the year, but surfing there in the dead of winter is borderline masochistic. The entire island freezes into a maze of snow and ice, blizzards barrel through without warning, avalanches consume highways, and darkness devours the country.
The local surfers, however, are accustomed to these challenges. To them, it’s simply the price you pay if you want to surf year-round. The Icelandic surf community is a small, tight-knit group that have arranged their lives and jobs to accommodate the whims of Iceland’s temperamental character, exploring jagged fjords and vast black-sand beaches hoping to find the next icy barrel.
It sounds romantic, but the reality involves endless hours of travel, crossing from one side of the island to the other, chasing the ever-shifting wind and trying to stay one step ahead of storms that could strand you for days. The occasional score is all they can hope for, and returning from a long excursion empty-handed is the bitter pill they frequently swallow.
Our boat is close enough to the pointbreak that we can see the faint lines of whitewater from the deck, but black storm clouds loom over the horizon like a tidal wave. Olsen checks the point with binoculars. The fact that we can’t catch even one wave is agonizing for our crew, but the Icelanders are pragmatic. They know how bad an ill-timed session could turn here. Sails billow and we cut across the sea, racing the weather back to the harbor.
The temperature plummets and the bay freezes over in front of the harbor. A tugboat has to meet us at the entrance and break a path through the ice that we take to the docks.
We stop for food at a small restaurant on the way to our cabin, and Magnussen opens his laptop to load the forecast for the next two days. When the Icelanders see it, their eyes grow.
“These are new colors,” Magnussen says as an animation of the storm system loops on the screen. “They’ve added to the scale to accommodate how big the storm is.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Olsen replies. “The size will make all kinds of spots turn on.”
Magnussen tells us that there’s a stretch of coast that will light up with swell from the storm, but it would take 11 hours to get there. The route crosses a mountain pass and traverses high sea cliffs, with old sections of road that lean into deep, rocky chasms. The steep slopes are known for avalanches, he explains. It would be white-knuckle driving at a snail’s pace.
In the corner of the restaurant, a TV broadcast warns that houses and boats across the country are in danger. Avalanche warnings on roads have been raised to the highest level, and the news anchor says this is the biggest storm to hit Iceland in 25 years. Traveling now is a big risk to take, but no one is willing to miss out on this rare swell event. After an hour of deliberation, we decide to head into the storm.
For locals, preparing for a storm of this magnitude is like preparing for a siege, and they do it in a regimented fashion. They stockpile supplies, seal their windows, and deadbolt their doors. Then, life shuts down. Roads fill with snow, transportation ceases, and, occasionally, the power goes out. Once the storm passes, normal life resumes at the speed of the snowplow.
We stop at a market before our cross-country journey, and the whole town seems to be pushing through the aisles, filling shopping carts with frozen and canned goods. Outside, the shoppers rush back to their homes in the dark, but we race in the opposite direction. Our cars are the only ones taking the narrow road out of town.
The winding road leads up the side of a tall mountain with a black abyss on one side and a wall of ice on the other. Suddenly a thick white blanket slides down the mountain and onto the road in front of us. Our decision to cross the island in a storm now seems terrifyingly naïve.
The car creeps near the edge of the precipice where the snow bank is most shallow and we try to press through the blockage. A few feet in, our wheels lose traction and start spinning helplessly.
For a minute we just sit in silence, listening to the rumble of the elements outside.
“We need to do this,” Burkard says.
I crack my door and the wind blasts it back at me. In that half second, the car’s interior is already peppered with snowflakes. Outside the car, the only way to move is by shielding your face with your hands, leaving a small gap between your fingers to see.
The crew digs at the wheels and rocks the car back and forth to no avail. Logi Elíasson sprints to his car and returns with a shovel. He attacks the snow, slinging it through the air and carving a wide-open space around the car. Seven of us crowd around the back bumper and lean into it. A voice counts down from three, screaming over the roar of the wind. On our fourth try, the car breaks free.
We arrive at a cabin by the sea after 14 hours on the road, and the fury of the storm is only intensifying. The house creaks and warps as we settle in, and then the power goes out.
The next morning, the sky is clear and the storm has passed. The wind has calmed and is gently blowing offshore—our first stroke of luck in days. A snowplow is busy clearing the road down to the coast, and we can finally start our search for waves.
Swell lines are marching in and roping through the string of reefs, river mouths, and sand bars that dot the coast in this part of the country. We spend our precious daylight hours taking full advantage of the perfect conditions, surfing an A-frame that resembles Lower Trestles, then heading to a bay where perfect double-overhead walls peel down a right-hand point under frozen cascades.
When darkness returns, the sky opens up with the surreal neon glow of the Northern Lights. We head back to the point to check the surf, and faint lines of whitewash are visible under the Aurora—evidence that waves are still peeling flawlessly.
“Do you think it’s bright enough to see anything out there?” Quintal wonders aloud.
Threads of colored light bend and stretch, conducting a chaotic dance in the sky. The air temperature is so cold that the ocean surface appears to be steaming, but Quintal decides it’s clear enough to make out the open faces and climbs into thick neoprene.
Quintal disappears into the darkness as he paddles over the first wave of a set, then whips around to stroke into the second. He slides down the face and leans into a long, arcing cutback, then stands tall and draws an extended high line across the wall, casting a lonely shadow on a sea of radiant green glass.
Magnussen stands on the shore, looking on with a beaming smile. He tells me that he’s never seen anyone surfing under the northern lights. It’s surprising to hear, considering the wide spectrum of inhospitable conditions he and his friends have tackled along these shores. Magnussen explains that many variables need to align perfectly for an aurora-lit session even to be possible, and predicting those windows is incredibly difficult.
The power is back on in the cabin when we return, and we find a news report about the destruction that the 25-year storm has wrought. In some parts of the country, roofs have been ripped off houses and docked boats have been smashed into little more than splinters. Our frustration with digging our car out of the snow and dealing with a power outage is suddenly thrust into sobering perspective.
Once the road is clear, our group will head back to Reykjavik and then home to milder latitudes with easily accessible waves in warmer waters. But for the Icelandic surfers, there’s no warm homecoming, and another storm always looms on the horizon. Which is fine, because it will bring more perfect waves. And if anyone can weather the storm, they can.