As a Surf Photographer inspired by the work of photographers like Chris Burkard and Ragnar Axelsson, Iceland has always been on my list of destinations to get to. It is a visual feast for the lens with contrasting landscapes brought to life by the constantly changing elements. No two parts of the island are alike and when you throw in the variable chaos that is the Arctic weather, you have a recipe for something special.
With the rise in popularity of cold-water surfing over the last 8 – 10 years, there are increasingly more brands who want their products and athletes shot in these otherworldly landscapes. These are intense environments – certainly not for the faint of heart. Surf missions to Iceland require a lot of planning and resources to execute, none of which would be possible without the assistance of local knowledge and expertise. Core to this local crew is the Arctic Surfers team based out of Reykjavik. Chances are, if you have watched any Surf doccie out of Iceland, these guys have probably been involved in making it happen. I hooked up with them for a week in October with the express purpose of documenting the small surf community in Iceland, comprising roughly 25 to 35 locals, with only a handful of them being regular longboard riders.
The story of longboarding in Iceland is intertwined with the roots of surfing on this North Atlantic Island, and was pioneered by a small handful of chargers, but mostly by two locals, Ingô Olsen & Ellie Thor Magnussen. Ingô started – and still runs – Arctic Surfers, and Elli is a well-known surf photographer and film director who studied in Falmouth. Both only started surfing when they were 18 or 19 years old, inspired by Americans from the local Army base who would surf in the summer months.
Admittedly, they had no idea what they were doing when starting out and both are a bit surprised that they are still around today to recount the stories of those early adventures. Ingô would lie to his parents as to his whereabouts when heading out to surf, as they had a healthy scepticism around the unknown sport and knew that no one else in Iceland surfed at the time. By their own admission, neither had any proper kit and they were completely winging learning to surf, but the bug had bitten regardless. Ingô got Elli his first board, a Bic, whilst out in Biarritz and Elli was the first of the pair to get his hands on a longboard. With no local manufacturers and astronomical import duties, logs are rare and expensive pieces of kit in this neck of the woods.
Anton Örn Arnarson is another talented surfer in the Arctic Surfers crew who is as comfortable on a log as he is on a shortboard. I spent a week travelling with Ingo and Anton in the North of Iceland, experiencing some epic surf in the most insane landscapes, whilst getting to meet up with various local characters like Elli along the way. Everyone I met on this trip was exceptionally friendly and welcoming, all very mindful and respectful of nature and the environment they get to work and play in.
Over the duration of that week I learnt why surfing in these harsh environments is not for everybody. We spent hours driving our 4×4 through ever-changing landscapes and weather conditions, braving blizzards, gusts of wind that knocked over houses, and treacherous snow covered passes. Keeping an eye on every chart imaginable for the surf, wind, and weather, we still had to gaze into our crystal ball to guess where we needed to be and when. In the variable chaos that is Iceland, you need a plan A, B, C & D every day to score. Once you’ve got to the surf, you’ve then got to try and temporarily contain your excitement whilst navigating the gauntlet of retaining warmth, as you climb into a 7/6mm suit, prep your boards, and check your camera equipment in sub-zero temperatures. There are several crucial hacks to help this process, and only experience gets you these, ensuring you get a decent session in the icy waters.
Once in and with that initial duck dive behind you, the water temperature is quickly forgotten, you’ve acclimatised and start to take in the beauty around you. Crisp blue skies overhead are propped up by snow covered peaks, flanked on either side by fjords bathed in dramatically shifting light. The pace at which the odd seal head curiously pops up and down at a healthy distance is only matched by how quickly the weather moves through. It is a raw, edgy, and humbling experience, but one that connects you with the natural elements in a way that is incomparable in my experience. The hard yards and effort in the build-up are soon forgotten and you’re able to ride that post-surf high for hours, or all the way back to Reykjavik in my case.
I knew that Iceland was an epic surf destination for those up for the mission, but I now know the potential for scoring on a longboard in Iceland and will be heading back in Spring ’23. If you’re keen to experience a surf experience like no other and join in on the next trip, please DM me and get in touch on @tomsimagery