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Unstad, Norway – The road to the northernmost surf school in the world is extraordinary, running through a towering, pinnacled landscape fringed here and there by stunning beaches of white sand. The Lofoten Islands are about 220km inside the Arctic Circle, an ancient rocky archipelago reaching out from the coast of Norway.
Tunnels hewed through mountainsides lead you to Unstad, an old fishing hamlet where reliance on the sea has taken a new turn.
Rather than the rigours of whaling and cod-fishing, Unstad is more famous for its surfing lingo and hang-loose vibe. This is extreme surf country. It’s north of Iceland and north of the Arctic Circle, where the Atlantic rollers crash in, and in the right conditions on this beach make the perfect, albeit freezing, wave to ride.
And this week it’s home to the Lofoten Masters, where surfers from around the world are congregating to catch the waves. The event started in 2007, and it’s evolved from a gathering of local surfers into a popular side event on the international surfing calendar.
“People come from all over the world to compete – from California, Asia, Australia,” said Marion Frantzen, who runs Unstad Arctic Surf. “And actually the water’s not as cold as you might think because the Gulf Stream sweeps right in to these islands and turns up the temperature.”
Still, it’s full-on wetsuits for all competitors as they take on the Arctic waters, with a mobile sauna on hand for rapid re-warming.
Surfing began in Norway back in the 1960s, thanks to Marion’s father. He was working on a whaling ship in the Southern Ocean and ended up trying out surfing on Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. He was so taken with the sport he decided to bring it home to Norway.
He and a friend modelled their prototype board from the front cover of the 1962 Beach Boys album, Surfin’ Safari, and filled it with insulation from a 1950s fridge. And so surfing was born in Norway. The board still hangs on the walls of the surf school.
“In the last few years things have really taken off as more and more people are seeking out wilderness adventures,” Marion said. “And no danger of shark attacks here. You’re more likely to be watching sea eagles and seals as you wait for the wave to ride.”
Among those on safety patrol this week is surf instructor Edi Siswanto, from Bali. Edi followed his girlfriend to Sweden and made a beeline for Unstad. “You don’t really think of Norway as a surfing location,” he said. “But on a good day waves here are as good as any in Bali. You get a really good swell coming in.
“It’s not exactly tropical water, but you get used to it.”
Surfers compete more for glory than money at the Lofoten Masters. And where else in the world can you surf by day and see the Northern Lights by night?