Norway: Surfing Under Northern Lights

New suit insulation technology has opened some of the most frigid reaches of the world to surfers seeking isolated adventures and unexplored waves

This was all new to Tim Matley, a 34-year-old thin and boyishly blond Australian who found himself above the Arctic Circle for the first time in a remote village with as many surf shops (two) as sheep farms.

His usual itinerary was six months of surfing in Australia, then six months in Indonesia. If the waves were high, that was great, as long as the temperature was higher. He had never before worn a hood, gloves and boots in a competition. In fact, he had seldom worn a wetsuit.

“I like to feel my toes in the wax,” Matley said. “In boots I can’t feel anything.”

His girlfriend, Guro Aanestad, a three-time Norwegian surfing champion, had just won the women’s title at the Lofoten Masters last October. It is billed as the world’s northernmost surfing competition. Now Matley awaited the men’s final.

The valley at his back rose to a mountainous amphitheatre. A crescent bay opened before him, its exposed, rocky points known for catching North Atlantic swell the way a net catches fish.

“It’s unreal how many people surf in conditions like this,” Matley said.

“It’s beautiful, but it’s so cold. At least I got to see my first Northern Lights. That was good.”

Advances in the design of wetsuits, which are made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber, have pushed surfing far beyond the summery, ‘Gidget’, ‘Surf City’ culture of mid-century Hollywood and pop music.

Since the 1990s, and especially in the last decade, enhanced insulation in the suits has opened some of the most frigid reaches of the world – Alaska, Antarctica, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden – to surfers seeking isolated adventures, craggy nature and uncrowded and unexplored waves.

“Everyone has done the tropics,” Timothy Latte, a 25-year-old Swede who won the 2015 Lofoten Masters, said. “Cold water surfing is the new black.”

Today’s wetsuits, which often cost Dhs735 to Dhs1,850 but can run to Dhs3,650, are warm, light and flexible. Some come with battery-powered heat. All provide far more reliable protection from the cold than early, improvised gear fashioned from wool sweaters coated in oil; rain jackets and pants taped at the wrists, waist and ankles; dishwashing gloves; bathing caps; and a generous slathering of Vaseline.

Unstad, population 15, is among the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago that juts like an arthritic finger from Norway’s west coast into the Atlantic, more than 160 kilometres above the Arctic Circle.

With consistent waves and the rugged beauty of mountains that drop into the sea, the village is relatively easy to reach by car, ferry or plane. And despite Matley’s protestations, it is warmed somewhat by the Gulf Stream.

While the water temperature can dip into the low single digits during winter, when day is a smudgy twilight, the surf averages about 7°C and can climb to the teens during the summer.

During the Lofoten Masters, the air temperature reached 7°C and the bay reached 10°C. Coming out of the water seemed far chillier than being in the water itself.

The 28 male and eight female competitors were mostly semi-professionals from Norway, Sweden, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Russia and France. Most were living in Norway or working seasonal jobs or following a boyfriend or girlfriend. They rented surf shop cabins, drove pop-top campers or slept in tents under the Northern Lights, drawn by the tranquillity and splendour and muscle of the surroundings.

“When you first see the mountains and the valley and the power of the waves, it’s intimidating,” said Thiago Martins, 40, a Brazilian who played college and professional soccer in the United States and surfs when he is not teaching special-needs children or coaching a semipro Norwegian team.

“The first time I was here, my heart was pounding,” he said. “I felt small, scared. But you also connect with nature, and it embraces you.”

Torstein Krogh, 68, a community leader who was born in Unstad, said the surfers – yearly estimates range from 2,000 to 5,000 or more – were generally welcomed. But, he added, “we should be prepared for them” with bathrooms, more spacious parking and electrical hook-ups for campers.

A tourism tax is being considered to upgrade facilities in Lofoten. Yet some locals in Unstad, an insular place with a mostly older population, clearly need convincing that more surfing is better, as evidenced by a homemade “no trespassing” sign posted near the beach during the Lofoten Masters.

“Old people don’t want change,” Krogh said. “They are dinosaurs. But the number one law of nature is change.”

The competitors in the Lofoten Masters wore wetsuits that Unstad’s surfing pioneers could never have imagined: thin coatings of titanium designed to trap and reflect body heat; inner linings said to transform body heat into infrared energy that enhanced warmth and blood flow; high-tech seams that restricted cold water from flushing through the suit with waterproof tape, glue, liquid urethane welds and a clever technique called blind stitching. Most competitors wore what are called 6/5/4 or 5/4/3 wetsuits, a reference to the thickness of the neoprene in millimetres. The suits are thicker in the torso and thinner and more flexible at the extremities to facilitate movement of the arms and legs.

“The first time I was here, my heart was pounding. I felt small, scared. But you also connect with nature, and it embraces you”

On the first day of competition, a slight onshore wind blew perpendicular to the beach. Head-high waves formed quickly and then collapsed. The surfers took it in stride. Most had been in far more challenging conditions.

On the second day of the Lofoten Masters, the waves were smaller but more defined and accommodating for tricks. Aanestad, 29, the Norwegian champion and an architect, won the women’s competition. She was one of the few surfers, perhaps the only one, at the contest who owned a heated vest.

The men’s final featured three former champions. One was Latte, the Swede. Another was Gil Ferreira, 30, of Brazil, a four-time winner.

On his first trip to Unstad seven years ago, he tried surfing without gloves and boots. “My legs felt like stumps,” Ferreira said. “I couldn’t stand on the board.”

Another previous winner, Shannon Ainslie, 32, of South Africa, surfed with power and a certain fearlessness that had been frighteningly hard-earned.

In a widely publicised incident, caught on video, Ainslie was attacked by two great white sharks as he surfed in East London, South Africa, on July 17, 2000. He was dragged underwater by his right hand, which would need 30 stitches to repair.

“Maybe that’s another reason why I came here,” said Ainslie, who works at the Lofoten Surfsenter. “To stay away from sharks.”

In the final, though, no one matched the speed, flow and commitment of Matley, the Australian who made for an improbable champion. Beforehand, he stood outside the sauna, wanting to spend a few minutes inside but worried that he would get too hot. He wore a thinner suit than most competitors. And he felt that his front foot gripped his board too tightly in neoprene boots.

But in the final, Matley was a model of ambition, power and control, assured technically and stylistically with his snap turns, weightless-seeming floaters along the lips of waves and a 360° manoeuvre called an air reverse.

Afterward, Matley shivered as he was announced the winner and sprayed with champagne.

“He’s never been so cold in his life,” Aanestad, his girlfriend, said with a laugh.

The next day, Matley was returning to Australia. He did not plan to wear a wetsuit for nearly a year. “I should burn it,” he joked.

That would not be an option for anyone who continued to surf in Unstad.