Swedish surfers defy cold to catch winter waves
Joel Linde · 11 Oct 2011, 14:44
Published: 11 Oct 2011 14:44 GMT+02:00
On a recent chilly Monday morning, Jacob Wester awoke before 5am.
The night before, the winds had been whipping outside and rain drops had pelted his windows. Much of the country had been issued with a frost warning.
But while many Swedes were digging around for their woollies, Wester could hardly contain his excitement.
Before falling asleep he had said with a smile to his girlfriend, “Can you hear it. The wind is really strong.”
Awake in the darkness, Wester sets off on a roughly 80 kilometre drive south from his home in northern Stockholm to Torö, an island in the Nynäshamn archipelago, to see what swell the wind might have whipped up on the stormy Baltic Sea.
Wester describes the feeling during the long drive to Torö as “expectations mixed with fear".
“I get anxious and easily push a little too hard on the (accelerator) pedal not to miss anything," he explains.
"The last 10 minutes are the worst, and you start doubting that you read the forecasts right, or if you brought your fins. But then you get there and you hear the roar of the ocean and you just want to get in your wetsuit as fast as possible.”
In Sweden, unlike some more familiar surfing meccas such as California, Hawaii or Australia, one doesn't have access to detailed charts and surf reports.
Instead, die-hard surfers have to learn how to read the wind and weather themselves to figure out if the waves will be breaking along the Swedish coast.
It is not yet light outside when Wester parks at Stenstrand, (literally Rock Beach), and the narrow gravel road is still wet from last night’s rainfall.
A handful of like minded surfers have already squeezed into their thick wetsuits and are jogging the last hundred metres through the pine forests that separate them from the roaring sea.
“I know some people who drive from Uppsala to get here, and that’s 200 kilometres away,” Wester says.
“I think that’s kind of a limit for what you can handle if you want to be in the water for several hours as well.”
In water as as cold as this, board shorts are out of the question. Not even standard wetsuits are sufficient to keep the dedicated wave riders warm and healthy when water temperatures hover around ten degrees Celsius.
A quick look around the site, and one quickly realises that everyone is covered in neoprene from top to bottom, leaving only a circle for the face exposed.
“I don’t really care how cold the water gets, as long as I have a wetsuit that’s thick enough and fits me well,” Wester said.
“But I probably wouldn’t head out if it were minus ten degrees outside. With the wind you can easily get frostbite and that’s no fun if it’s windy and snowing too.”
Wester’s suit is five millimetres thick, and that will keep him warm for a few hours in the eight degree water.
He’s also wearing a sealed hood, thick gloves and booties.
And then he’s off.
Unlike the Hawaiians, who have been riding the waves for centuries, Swedes have only been surfing since the 1970s.
It is a growing sport, however, and in 1985 the Swedish Surfing Association (Surfförbundet) was founded to send a team to the European Championships.
Sweden has since competed in numerous championships, both European and worldwide.
To Wester, surfing is among the very best things in life, even though he makes his living in a very different environment.
Since his teenage years, he has been a professional freestyle skier, and spends 170-200 days a year in various snowy destinations.
But when he's not cruising down the slopes, he tries to enjoy the surf as much as possible.
Having surfed classic breaks in California, South America, Portugal and Indonesia, Wester admits that Sweden doesn't rank very high on paper in terms of achieving surfing bliss.
Nevertheless, there’s still something special about it.
“I mean, Swedish surf is rarely epic if you know what I mean, but since it’s so rare to get surfable waves you just enjoy it so much more when it happens." he reflects.
"In Indonesia for example, you’ll have perfect surf every day for a month so it’s easy to lose appreciation for it.”
Wester believes the typical Swedish surfer differs a lot from the stereotype. There’s not as much long hair and Bob Marley music, or guys with rippling stomachs surrounded by girls in bikinis.
“I think the typical Swedish surfer is an environmentally conscious person who climbs or goes on hikes when he’s not surfing, to generalize a bit," he says.
"And it's not nearly the same surf community as in more surf-friendly places. You say a brief 'hi' in the parking lot, and that's that. Just like it should be in Sweden.”
In Sweden, one can surf year-round according to Wester, as long as there’s no ice on the water.
It also needs to be windy for a long time for a swell to build, since the surrounding Baltic Sea lacks the water mass comparable with the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.
“Here you take advantage of every chance you get, and even if the waves aren’t as even and powerful, there’s something romantic about the pine forests, wet gravel roads and stormy autumn seas," he explains.
"It’s raw and hostile, but you defy the elements and adjust. And then every once in a while, all the pieces fit together and build up this short-lived groundswell with warm water, and that feeling is hard to match wherever you might go.”
After three hours of combating the unforgiving surge at Rock Beach, Wester follows one last wave to shore around 10am.
He’s had enough for one day. He recaps the session, wave by wave. Some were good, others less amusing, like the one that flushed his suit.
The improvised parking lot along the gravel road is once again filled with people in neoprene suits, some of them jogging back and forth with chattering teeth in a desperate attempt to regain some body heat.
Wester tears off the snug suit and quickly seeks comfort in dry clothes and his warm car.
“Today was great,” he huffs.
“But I’m definitely buying the thicker booties for next time.”