Photos Courtesy Margareta Engstrom/ Starboard
It’s funny how one little picture, seen more than a decade ago, had me
crossing the Arctic Circle in search of a remote wave. Surely there are
warmer options. However, such was the case on a recent trip to Lofoten
Island in the far north of Norway, which is to say far, far north.
That one image of a reeling left-hander was etched into my memory. I
knew nothing more about the place, though, and flying into Oslo didn’t
hint at what was ahead. Nice city, Oslo, if you don’t mind absolutely lunatic
prices for alcohol. I probably should have carried a board with me, because
exploring its waterways and outlying islands would have been pleasant,
I’m sure. But I didn’t, hence the hefty bar tab.
Things became a bit clearer as we flew further north toward Bodo
Airport. From the air, the ground was looking very white. As we walked
out of the heated airport into a stinging cold rain, photographer Margareta
Engstrom and I exchanged mutually shell-shocked glances. What in the
blazes were we doing?
A four-hour cruise on the good ship Hurtigruten was next, and we
finally pulled into Lofoten’s Stamsund Harbor. Even dressed in gray, the
place was stunning: snow-capped mountains morphed into majestic cliffs
plunging into the sea every which way we looked. Meeting us at the port
was our host, Kjell Vaskell, Lofoten resident and surely the last Viking.
Within minutes we were in his comfortable home.
Back in Oslo I got a funny feeling when a mate, Fritjof Opsal, insisted
that the wave of my dreams really isn’t sailable, due to the sea cliffs. I hoped
he was wrong, of course, and when local surfer Ola was more sanguine and
offered to escort us to Unsted, Lofoten’s premier surf location, I was sure I
I wasn't. The surf was a ramshackle, unremarkable head-high,
definitely not my picture. The cliffs indeed prevailed, and the wind
would have a tough time getting in there. Advantage Fritchof.
I went out anyway to see what 7 mm rubber feels like and to
shake the travel with a bit of a paddle. Due to the Gulf Stream,
winter temperatures in Lofoten are very mild, given their Arctic
Circle location. It’s bloody cold, but it could be worse. And it is
when you fall on your face. Avoid it if you can.
With ten days to go, I wasn’t real worried about my wave. We
were on an island deemed one of the world’s “three most beautiful”
by National Geographic, with everything in sight a source of
amazement. It would happen.
OK, our ten days: Every morning we got up hoping to see the sun
shine, but mostly it didn’t. We never witnessed daybreak, per se,
even if we rose at 4 a.m., because it arrived hours earlier. In fact,
from May 25 to July 17, the sun never sets. (From December 9 to
January 4, it never rises.) Every time wind or surf was forecast,
we checked out Unsted for a surf or sail, but it just didn’t happen.
Further up the coast seemed promising. The wind was almost
there on occasion, but that might have been wishful thinking. There
were some waves, but few and small. Driving along, however, we’d
see a stretch of water so appealing that we just had to go for a
flat-water cruise. We’d head down fjords, the wind accelerating
through a mountain pass. Or for a paddle in a protected spot where
the water was sheet glass. Gliding silently over reflected images of
the exquisite landscape was profoundly moving. There were just
so, so many waterways and expanses of water with islands or rivers
perfect for sailing or paddling. Sunny or bleak, it didn’t matter.
Even bitterly cold, this is a place that makes you want to go out
and experience what you can, who you are.
One thing that was pretty cool was to be dropped off at
a certain point and go for a downwind coastal cruise. It’s
super pleasant, a part of windsurfing that I’d pretty much
Snow on the beach, me launching into ridiculously clear
tropical green water mirroring snow-capped mountains: it was a
whole different reality. In fact, it’s like everything is just a little
out of whack with the rest of the world up there. That includes
its inhabitants, self-admitted and ascribed to the climate by
Kjell. It takes a certain hardy type of character to survive out in
After varying shades of gray for about a week, the sun finally
broke free for our last few days. Now the place was even more
beautiful. It sound cheesy saying this over and over, I know, but
the fact is that many times I uttered “bullshit,” purely from what I
was looking at. Unfortunately, the swell never materialized. Like
many a Viking tale, the Unsted left remains somewhat of a myth.
To travel so far and get skunked for waves normally would
devastate me. However, I came away from this trip totally fulfilled
by doing things I’ve never really done, or haven’t done for a long
time, in locations that were a privilege to behold.
Thank you, Lofoten.