Surfing the icy waves of Iceland

Louison left France to settle in Iceland. In the land of fire and ice, surfing is not purely a thing of pleasure. You have to work hard for waves, but they’ll repay you in incredible memories.

Before Iceland…

It was always said that I was an “energetic” child. My parents didn’t know what to do to calm me down. I must have been seven years old the first time I set foot on a board. I’m not sure where it came from. Maybe the influence of my brother, who was starting to do it too?

I was immediately drawn to the ocean. I was completely fascinated by the idea of being able to dance on the waves, immerse myself in this infinite space and to be one with the elements, eyes riveted on the promises of the horizon. It’s beautiful when you put it that way. 

My story, however, is not so sweet. Family problems led to moving house and I had to leave the sea for a while, before I finally found it again as a teenager. At the time, I was finding it harder and harder to vent my anger and escape from everyday life. The world was not turning out the way I wanted it to. I felt like a lion in a cage and I didn’t know how to help myself.

One day, I withdrew all the money from my bank account to buy a second-hand board and wetsuit. It turned out to be my ticket to freedom. Without knowing it, I had opened the door to what would be my refuge, my sanctuary. From that day on, surfing and the ocean became my main passion, a source of constant inspiration and wonder, and a way to finally express myself.

I still had a lot to discover, but nothing could stop me. I literally dove headlong into this mysterious world. Curious and passionate, I learnt how to read the waves, the behaviour of my board, the influence of the tides… The more I observed, the more these elements made sense and fit together.

I spent whole days cycling from spot to spot, along Sables-d’Olonne in Vendée. That’s probably how my taste for adventure developed and then led me to much wilder and more icy places…

Iceland's Mountains

I live in Iceland now, in a small fishing village in the western fjords, one of the most isolated and difficult parts of the country to access, especially in winter. However, it’s my favourite season. The days are short, dark and freezing. The sun rises at noon and disappears at 3pm. The last storm raged for three weeks. The roads are often blocked and supplies are scarce. Many people think I’m crazy to live there. But I love it.

Living and surfing conditions in Iceland

Here, Man is put in his place. Nothing is due, nothing is easy. You have to fight, give everything. You can make plans, but nature and the weather will always have the last word. The unexpected reigns supreme and you have to know how to adapt. Especially when you want to surf, snowboard or climb.

At the moment, I am renovating the oldest wooden house in my village. It dates back to 1889. I spend more than nine hours a day there, even in a blizzard when it’s -10 degrees. It’s hard but it’s nothing compared to my days sea fishing. It may sound crazy, but there’s nothing better to help you prepare for surf sessions in icy waves.

As soon as I can, I escape in my van to explore the coast and find new spots. Nothing matters anymore, except the weather, the swell and the snowfall. I spend hours on maps and websites used by Icelandic fishermen. If the best conditions are at the other end of Iceland, even more than 700 kilometres away, that’s where you’ll find me.

Here, many waves have never been surfed before. It takes time, luck and a good 4×4 to reach the most remote spots. Often you have to cross icy rivers, sometimes even ending up with boards on your back and skis on your feet. I often find myself stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere, but nothing can stop me. The quest for the unknown and the thrill of discovery are all part of the adventure.  

Surfing alone in Iceland

When I find myself alone in the middle of vast wilderness, I tell myself that Man has not yet left his mark everywhere, and that there is hope. Nature is still free here and it’s not uncommon to surf with seals, whales, dolphins, orcas and sharks

One day whilst surfing I noticed some seals behaving strangely. Suddenly, a huge shadow passed under my board. I had a hunch before a shark’s fin rose up about 20 meters away. I started to paddle straight towards it. It was the only thing to do – become the predator, so as not to be the prey. The fin disappeared. When you venture into the wilderness, you have to accept its laws. Take the time to observe, learn to blend into the environment. It is a question of survival, but also of respect. And nature knows how to give it back to us.

My best memory is from last winter. After a month and a half of storms a window in the weather finally opened. A massive swell was heading straight for Iceland, more than 500 kilometres from my home. I told my boss, filled my van with all my boards, my wetsuits, provisions and my mountaineering gear to keep warm at night, and took to the road. Twelve hours later, I parked for the night, lulled by the sound of waves crashing against the rocks. 

By morning, I was in paradise. Nothing but blue sky, the mountains and a straight line that went on and on, endless, hollow and glassy. Alone in the world. I surfed that wave all day, every day, for a week. I only stopped to eat and warm up in a hot spring between two sessions. A magic moment and the proof, for me, that luck smiles on those who provoke it and follow their dreams.

Paradis Surf Islande

But, of course, in Iceland as with everywhere else, dreams can turn into nightmares. Last winter, I went to surf a spot I know very well. The thermometer indicated -13 degrees in the air and 2 degrees in the water. At the spot I discovered three-meter monsters tubing on a slab of sharp volcanic rock, at a depth of one meter. I ran to the water to chain barrel after barrel.

Suddenly, the lip of a wave bigger than the others came crashing down in front of my front foot and ejected me head first right onto the slab. I had never felt such violence. By some miracle, I didn’t hit the rock. But the wave sucked me back in. This time the situation was critical. I managed to turn around just before the impact and, with a second miracle, the lip slammed me into my board instead of the slab.

The impact pulverised my back and I heard a huge crack. I’m not quite sure what happened next but after many minutes of being washed about I managed to drag myself out of the water. I was sore all over but, to my surprise, I could walk. I found my board in pieces. I realised that it wasn’t my back that I had heard breaking.

danger surf islande

As usual, I was alone, in the middle of nowhere, more than an hour from the next village. I was lucky. The ocean didn’t take me that day, but it did put me back in my place. Moments like that make you humble, grateful to still be here and able to appreciate the moment. Maybe that’s what I came to Iceland for after all. Not danger, but nature, the real thing, in all its strength, wildness and purity.

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