An icy J-Bay or an overexposed novelty?

Judging by that smile, Lofoten has more than moments of novelty. Photo: Hallvard Kolltveit

“We stopped in the middle of a snowstorm and the left was barreling right towards the point,” Sage Erickson told me. “It was far from the wave of novelty that I thought.”

Erickson had traveled to Unstad in the Lofoten Islands in Norway. And she was not alone. In fact, for a very short period in early April, the west-facing crescent-shaped bay in the Norwegian Sea was the center of the surfing world. Erickson had befriended Craig Anderson while filming for Norwegian luggage brand Db.

Their journey followed a Billabong shoot which saw Ryan Callinan, Griffin Colapinto, Ethan Ewing, Luana Silva, Laura Enever and Isabella Nichols all heading towards 63 degrees north, deep within the Arctic Circle.

The Lofoten Islands, and more specifically Unstad Bay, have become the poster child for cold water surfing. The waves were first ridden in the mid-1960s, but it was Kristian Breivik who rediscovered the bay after coming up from southern Norway in the 1990s. Access was much easier in 1995, when a new tunnel opened the village of the bay, population 14, to the rest of the world.

In 1999, British surfers Sam Lamiroy and Spencer Hargraves were the first pros to make the trip, while filming their surf movie E2K. More surfers arrived in the 2000s, and Unstad Camping, the precursor to what is now Unstad Arctic Surf, was established in 2003.

Mick Fanning, chasing the Lofoten dream. Photo: Trevor Moran // Red Bull Content Pool

Over the past decade, however, this trickle of Norwegians and international pros has become a stream. With cold-water surfing becoming a thing, brands were drawn to the natural amphitheater that was framed by a left and a right at opposite ends of the bay with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains cut by ice-blue fjords. Add the promise of a glowing emerald in the sky courtesy of the Northern Lights, and it’s become the go-to studio for flogging suits and “adventure wear.”

In terms of exposure, the highlight came in 2017 when Mick Fanning showed up at Unstad the year after he retired from the circuit. He stayed 10 days, made waves almost every day and surfed right under the Northern Lights two hours after midnight. The resulting images, naturally, went viral.

His journey, however, made it difficult to assess the true quality of the waves. I mean if he surfed the Huntington three feet, but under the hue of the Aurelia Borealis, in a snowstorm, there’s a chance it could make you forget about the quality of the waves.

“My friend Willy said it best when he said, ‘If you didn’t know the planet was round, you’d think you were at the edge of the Earth,'” Erickson said. “Everything was so vast and extreme and I had never seen such mountains and snow so close to the ocean. It’s sensory overload. But the wave was hollow and had power, and you could see the true potential.

Erickson had first surfed Umstad Left, the inland wave that can travel a few hundred meters near the rocks on the south side of the bay. The previous week, Callinan and the Billabong team had surfed the farther left known as Garbage Dumps. that the is a real dump near the wave is often not mentioned in the brochures.

“Locals said it usually takes a little more pruning to break,” Callinan said. “But it was super rippable at four to six feet, at double that size it would be a pretty epic wave.” While it’s rare to get the long period, six-to-eight-foot southwesterly swell that Garbage Dumps needs, when it does, it provides a bonafide challenging left that can travel 300 yards.

However, it was the “straight” across the bay that made the Lofoten Islands a household name in surfing. “It can run up to 300 meters, easily stands eight feet and offers both hollow sections and tear-off pockets,” says Australian ripper Wes Schaftenaar, who makes the 10-hour journey from his home in Oslo when the forecast promise a solid northwesterly swell. “In its time, comparisons to J-Bay weren’t totally far-fetched.”

And while it looks like we can build a solid case that Unstad is more than just a backdrop for a winter ad campaign, it’s worth mentioning the cold, the dark, and the inconsistency.

Surfing the Lofoten Islands in Norway: a freezing J-Bay or an overexposed novelty?

Sage’s verdict? Yes, it’s really worth it. Photo: Hallvard Kolltveit

“It’s great that people are visiting Lofoten and Unstad. But it’s a fact that there are a limited number of waves,” said trailblazer Tommy Olsen. “In a bad year with shitty surf and only a few good days and huge crowds, it’s not very pleasant.”

Right and left also depend on sand, which isn’t always obvious in snowy alignment shots. The right, for example, has been plagued by a gutter running along the rocks for the past two seasons of winter and fall, just where the waves are expected to break along the shallow sandbars.

And yet, for anyone who has visited and surfed the jewel of the Arctic, the quality of the waves, perhaps, is irrelevant. “I will always remember day two, and it was just a beautiful afternoon with sunshine, and snow on the ground and lefts coming down the point,” said Craig Anderson. “After a surf I walked in and it was warm and sunny with this most beautiful light. It was quite magical.

Even though the waves are a novelty, this novelty doesn’t seem to be fading anytime soon.

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