Cold Water Bodyboard
A crispy winter day in late January. The outside temperature does not exceed -5°C while the water temperature averages 2°C. Large chunks of ice can be seen along the shores and floating in the ocean, the only thing moving in this snow immensity. The silence echoes through the white vastness, broken only by the waves crashing onto the beach and ice cracking. Standing in front of the sea in a thick wetsuit restricting your movements brings you thoughts like “What is wrong with me! Of all surfing places, how did I end up here?” but soon enough the awe and excitement take over and you are in for another session. A typical surf day in Iceland, a million miles from the ideal of perfect crystal tubes, white sand palm-fringed beaches, wearing just boardshorts. But just as good, according to Christian’s smile, the waterman of our duo.
I have been bodyboarding since I was 10, mainly in Brittany and South-West of France but have experienced my most extreme and adrenaline pumping sessions when I set foot – fins! in Iceland, six years ago.
No Man’s Land
Iceland has long gained worldwide attention among Nature lovers and great outdoor enthusiasts. More recently, the island has lured surfers seeking solitude and scenery. Why? Numerous set-ups with potential great waves. No crowds. Most of the world gets better surf in winter than summer, and Iceland is no exception, although a surf trip there is a gamble, due to the sometimes harsh weather and limited daylight. Located right in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, there is nothing on the way to block the storm surges and strong swells, which hit the 4.970 kilometers of coastline with full force.
Ian Battrick from Jersey, UK, was one of the very first to see the potential of the island. Taylor Steele’s legendary film, “Castles in the Sky” (2010), starring Dane Reynolds, one of the best free surfers of his generation, greatly contributed to put Iceland on the map within the international surfing community. More recently, Chris Burkard’s photographic work and film project “Under An Arctic Sky” (2017) confirmed Iceland’s reputation.
A bunch of bodyboarders have also made their way to Iceland. Among them, top Australian bodyboarders C. James, J. Finlay, S. Bennett, J. Cakes, T. Robinson, directed by filmmakers R. Mattick and J. Kates, who used Iceland as a backdrop for “The Viking” (2011). Kates later returned to produce the most inspiring surf/bodyboard movie ever filmed in Iceland, “No Country for Cold Men” (2015). The last to date is Ben Player, 3 times world champion bodyboarder, who discovered in Iceland a new playground.
There are about as many waves configurations in Iceland as there are weather patterns. Friendly beach breaks can suit beginners while long point breaks for right or lefthanders hide in the fjords. For experimented riders – some would say crazy, heavy slabs can be found where rocks and lava are submerged. No joke there. These gnarly waves are unforgiving and scary in that they break in shallow water, meaning you are literally just a few centimeters above the reef when riding the wave. This requires high skills and might involve tough wipe outs.
The main difference between the South and the North lies in the shape of the coastline.
South Iceland is characterized by a flat and long coast with almost no elevation, where the succession of glacial outbursts, jökulhlaup, have eroded and flattened the landscape. The powerful waves coming from the Atlantic detonate on what looks like some sort of infinite black sand beach. While South beaches boast many beach breaks, surfers most commonly ride along the Reykjanes peninsula, consisting of beach breaks and shallow lava reef breaks.
North Iceland is more of a rugged place where fjords and precipitous mountains shape the coastline. During the last period of glaciation, glaciers have carved mountains into deep canyons or so-called fjords. Surf there is more confidential, although some spots are popular among the local community. Other more secret spots are to be discovered if you dare braving freezing temps and are not afraid of driving a few hours for hypothetical waves. Venturing off the beaten track might be appealing, but you really don’t want to find yourself far from first help.
You said Bodyboard?
Bodyboard, or boogie board, was created by Tom Morey in 1971 when he came up with the idea of cutting a polyethylene foam in two pieces. He covered the foam with newspaper, before ironing it, the only way to shape it as he wanted. Since then, bodyboard has grown exponentially all over the world, both as an extreme sport and industry with iconic brands like Morey Boogie, Manta Bodyboard and Wave Rebel. In the 90s’, the leading surf companies Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl started sponsoring many bodyboarders around the world. Australian surfers saw it as a threat and went to war against bodyboard with the motto “Stand up or die”. For some reason, the hype around bodyboarding has since slowed down and it remains nowadays in the shadow of its counterpart, surfing.
But to many, riding a 1m long, 50cm wide piece of foam on a wave, is a way of life.
What sets bodyboard apart is the riders ability to combine maneuvers in the heavier sections of waves like in Pipeline in Hawaii, Shark Island in Australia or El Fronton in Canary Islands. Aerial 360s, backflips, reverse air or invert air are part of the basic skills of every pro bodyboarder.
In pre-20th century, Indigenous Polynesians used alaia boards, usually made of acacia wood, to ride waves on their stomach or knees. Bodyboard has since come a long way and a bunch of watermen have made its history: from Pat Caldwell and Mike Stewart in the early days to today’s inspiring legends Pierre-Louis Costes, Jared Houston and Alexandra Rinder. Phylis Dameron also earned the title of being the first bodyboarder, women and men combined, to conquer big Waimea Bay in the late 1970s. Not to forget Michael “Eppo” Eppelstun, Guilherme Tamega and Ben Player, some of the most influential bodyboarders of all time.
No Room for Improvisation
Surfing or bodyboarding in such environment is an experience words can hardly describe. Only a surfer knows the feeling. You certainly need to put in more effort in cold water spots to score them, sometimes starting by walking down the beach in a thick fog or a blizzard.
In the cold-water game, every session requires a good preparation upstream, not only physical and mental, but also logistical. One basic requirement to enjoy those frigid waters is to be well-equipped, starting with a high-quality neoprene 5mm suit with a good dry lining. While a couple of tears easily go unnoticed on a summer session, you feel the cold water flooding in almost instantly in winter. The post-surf big warm water bottle is just as appreciated, when comes the time to rinse the sand and salt off and warm your feet up again. Til next session.
A careful reading of the weather conditions and tidal forecast is essential, even more in wintertime when daylight is as little as 4 hours a day. Despite all the preparation, the weather remains unpredictable and can move in swiftly. Nature keeps you humble. Likewise, it is not uncommon to drive a long distance with the promise of good waves and end up in front of totally different patterns once there. There is a good share of frustration involved too and one should feel very lucky when he managed to score. An emotional rollercoaster and the eternal game of chasing waves, that make the essence of surfing.