[This article originally appeared in Volume 255. Subscibe to Wavelength now to never miss an issue.]
When the future King of Denmark made his annual visit to the Faroe Islands at the end of August, he was treated, upon his request, to a surfing display put on for him by David and Katrin, the archipelago’s sole pair of resident surfers.
Throughout the last 30 years, wave riding has spread to all four corners of the globe. No matter how fickle, war-town, wave starved or freezing the region, in everywhere from Siberia to the dense jungle of Papua New Guinea, scores of locals have grabbed hold of whatever craft they can find and paddled towards waves on the horizon.
Everywhere that is, except for the Faroe Islands. Despite its seventeen inhabited landmasses, 694 miles of coastline, 50 thousand strong population and legitimately pumping waves, the island boasts just two solitary local surfers.
This is not due to lack of contact. Over the last decade the islands have received a steady procession of travelling surfers, with a string of films and magazine articles produced in their wake. However, until recently, the local surf community has shown little sign of growing.
Now, changing attitudes, increased publicity and the opening of the country’s first surf hire shop look likely to finally set the wheels of change in motion. And if the rest of the world is anything to go by, they may be about to spin at lightning pace.
Accordingly, we decided now was the time to visit and meet the members of this fledgeling surf community, while searching for a few waves ourselves. We booked flights, and invited along Mark ‘Egor’ Harris, a man as well versed as any in searching for waves on the desperately fickle isles of the North Atlantic. We’d heard that access to much of the coastline was almost impossible in the kind of rental car we could afford, so we accepted a kind offer from our friends at Bentley to lend us their new Bentayga V8, assuring us safe and stylish passage through even the islands’ most seemingly insurmountable terrain.
As you approach the Faroes from the sky, the tops of the vast mountains and sea stacks are the first things that signal there is land below. They rise up, carving dark geometric shapes out of the sprawling blanket of cloud which hangs low over the land.
As you fly in closer, breaking through the dense brume, the flushed green terrain comes into focus. Then, tiny clusters of multi-coloured houses appear, huddled together in huge glacial valleys. Above them, rivers snake their way down vast mountainsides, flowing pointedly until they reach the land’s jagged edge, where they cascade into the deep blue hues of the North Atlantic.
After a mystical but unyielding first day spent driving the coastline and pointing at potential, we headed into town with wetsuits still dry. These are notoriously fickle lands after all, and to score by chance would have been an insult to their hard-won reputation.
We’d arranged to meet Katrin and David in their favourite local bar. The minute we crossed the threshold, we spotted them, glowing orange under warm lights; looking every bit the unlikely pioneers we had travelled so far to find.
“It all started when Yazzy came in 2006,” David explained as I set the beers down on the table. Pleasantries had lasted less time than the pulling of four pints, and with Egor’s encouragement, David had already launched into the story of how he became the first local surfer in the Faroes.
The ‘Yazzy’ he was referring to was surf photographer Yassine Ouhilal who spent much of the early 2000’s pioneering the globe’s most remote and hostile cold water surf locales, including, it transpired, these very islands.
“He came with a group of Hawaiians and Americans and they were asking around if there were any local surfers here,” David continued. “I was already kitesurfing at that time and someone who didn’t know the difference told them about me, and I met up with them. I knew nothing about surfing, but they asked if I wanted to join them and it ended up being really fun.”
David had learnt to kitesurf after a stint in Denmark, bringing his interest in the sport back with him to the Faroes. However, the kites on offer in the islands were inadequate for the strong gusty winds, so he’d been going less and less in the run-up to Yazzy’s arrival. Meeting the surfers offered him a window into a whole other world of ocean-based possibility.
Yazzy stayed for the whole winter, calling in the surfers when a storm loomed. In the intervening months, he and David became friends, with Yazzy offering to teach him to surf. At the time, there were no surfboards on the island, so Yazzy would push David into waves on a windsurf board.
“And that’s how I learnt to surf.”
“Yazzy also taught me how to predict the swell and I quickly learnt that while our main spot is not that good, it is consistent and when there’s swell, it’s usually offshore.”
Yazzy and his crew searched the entire coastline during that winter and, according to David, they enjoyed a fair amount of success, discovering and scoring several slabs and offshore bombies as well as pioneering the islands’ now well-known beaches. Soon after he left, David bought himself a board from Oslo and began surfing the islands alone.
“Did you feel scared paddling out in such a vast and wild place completely solo?” I asked. “No” replied David without hesitation. “It was really good. I would sit out there alone, with the seabirds and porpoises around me, just thinking ‘fuck, this is nice.’”
With no one to emulate regularly, David developed his surfing through a strict programme of YouTube videos and trial and error. Occasionally though, he’d happen across other surfers.
“There was an Icelandic chef once,” he remembers, “and some more groups of visiting pros and photographers, but I mainly surfed alone…”
“Until I showed up.” Kat interjected.
Kat was born and raised in the Faroes, and like many of the young people on the island, took the opportunity to get out and travel as soon as she could.
In 2010 she went to Costa Rica for three months to learn to surf. It didn’t occur to her until a few years after her return, when she discovered a Faroese surfers Facebook page set up by David, that there were rideable waves along her native coastline.
“I’d started that group to try and get more Faroese people into surfing,” remembered David. “But it didn’t really get much interest.”
“Except for me.” Kat said through a smile. “Then David and I had to be friends.”
“What were local people’s reactions when they saw you two suiting up and paddling out?” I asked.
“People would say ‘it’s tiny today’” replied David. “They would keep saying ‘why weren’t you here yesterday?’ When there had been ten-metre waves the day before.”
“Especially the old men,” added Kat. “They’d be like ‘that’s too small!” Because they’re used to seeing the storms.”
As articles penned by visiting surfers mentioning David were published in magazines around the world, more and more people began contacting him through Facebook. Among questions on when to come and where to surf, another regular topic of conversation emerged.
“It was around that time that all the Sea Shepherd shit started,” said David, pausing for a minute as his eyes flitted nervously down to my phone, which sat recording on the table. The look constituted a rare interruption to his otherwise unwaveringly cool Nordic demeanour.
David was referring to a campaign launched by the conservationist organisation to put an end to the ‘grindadráp’- a mass hunt of pilot whales, which takes place every summer on the Faroes. During the hunt, which has been going for over a thousand years, whales are driven ashore by boats, before being killed by hand with knives or spinal lances.
Videos of the practice, showing dying whales squirming in the shallows and bloodied waves lapping at the shore, go viral every year, eliciting fury among animal rights activists, who deem the hunt to be senseless and barbaric.
In 2014 Sea Shepherd launched operation ‘Grindstop’, which involved hundreds of volunteers descending on the islands to document, disrupt and attempt to prevent the hunt in any way they could. One of their methods was generating as much media coverage as possible.
“I got quite paranoid at one point,” David explained. “My dad runs the local aquarium and after having a conversation there with two German guys, he ended up in a big article, where everything he said was printed. They had been recording it undercover.”
“Before that, my grandmother had invited two travellers into her home and given them dinner and it turned out they were doing the exact same thing,” he continued through a furrowed brow. “So every time a surfer would contact me, I didn’t know if it was Sea Shepherd undercover.” He paused for a minute. “Like you guys, you could be from Sea Shepherd right now.” We laughed nervously at the accusation. “No really, I’m serious, they were undercover everywhere,” he said.
Because he was a surfer, people contacting David expected him to be an ardent critic of the practice and when they discovered he wasn’t, conversations often got heated. “And so what would you tell them?” I asked. “Well,” he said, breathing out a sigh of trepidation, “I think a lot of people who grow up in cities have a very strange relationship with animals and where food comes from. If you’re eating beef, you’re not thinking about the slaughter. Then we have these whales, that swim free all of their lives and according to all the research are not endangered at all.”
“There’s also a lot of misinformation about it being a tradition that brings people into manhood, but it’s just food, local food. I don’t see a difference between killing a cow and a whale. It’s done relatively efficiently and fast. There are lots of hypocrites who are happy to eat an animal that’s lived in a barn its whole life, under horrible fluorescent lights and died a sudden
death, but say it’s bad to eat a whale.”
Of course, any long-serving cultural practice seems confounding without context. And it was easy to forget, sat in this upmarket bar with its exposed wooden beams and the smell of burgers wafting over from the kitchen, that for many in the Faroes, life is still one of subsistence. Earlier that day we’d seen dozens of Faroese farmers, scything grass by hand and bundling it up, ready for the winter. The land and climate are unable to sustain crops and so the only local sources of protein are the sheep that graze in the grassy fields and the fish and mammals that can be taken from the sea.
Admittedly, the islands are not as dependent on locally sourced food for survival as they have been in years gone by, with regular imports arriving by boat. However, in Europe we’re less reliant on meat for survival than ever before, and yet our consumption continues to rise. The difference is that in the winter months, a succession of storms can cut off the Faroes’ external food supply for weeks on end, leaving the population reliant on the frozen whale meat left over from the summer slaughter.
In an ironic twist, the pair informed me that local consumption of whale meat has gone down, but not because of the efforts of campaigners, but rather growing concerns for the pollutants the animals now carry. High mercury levels have been detected in the whales, causing serious health problems for both the animals themselves and anyone who eats them. The rest of the world’s astronomic energy consumption and the pollutants our power stations leach into the sea is leading whales to die much slower and more painful deaths, in far greater numbers, than the hands of the Faroese have ever inflicted. However, campaigns for the replacement of coal power stations don’t deliver the same visceral gut-punch as footage of whales writhing in a sea of blood.
The attitudes of the Faroese, particularly among the young, may however be shifting in other ways. “We see more possibilities now than we did even a few years ago,” explains Kat. “Before, everyone wanted to get out of the Faroes, but now they tend to come back, because they see the opportunities to do activities using the elements we have here.”
“Now we have a lot of climbers, a lot of mountain bikers, a lot of paragliders,” added David. “Although there are still only two kitesurfers and two surfers.”
It seems this change has been brought about by a slow, but fundamental remapping of the land and sea in the psyche of the Faroese people. “To them, the mountains and the ocean were where they made their livelihood, not somewhere you go for fun.” Kat reflected. “That’s probably why no one ever surfed before, or did any of these activities.”
“When my dad came here in the 70’s everyone used to wear wellingtons, cut off at the ankle, to make rubber shoes,” David told us. “You wouldn’t see anybody in hiking boots, but my dad brought some back after a trip to Greenland. At first people reacted by saying ‘You can’t walk in those in the mountains!’ but now everyone wears them.”
“All the gear and the information has allowed people to change their perception of nature, and how they can use it,” he continues. Indeed, the equipment required to surf has also only just become available on the islands and David believes it could be a turning point: “Now there are three shops that sell wetsuits, and a shop that rents bodyboards and surfboards has just opened up.”
“I remember those Americans and Hawaiians who came with Yazzy on that first trip telling me I didn’t know how lucky I was. ‘Just wait,’ they said. ‘Give it ten years, it will come, and you’ll have surf shops, surf schools, wannabes….’” David fell silent for a moment, a look of lament spreading across his face. “And the prophecy is slowly coming true.” he said.
To some, the idea that these remote little islands will ever become busy with surfers seems absurd. But stranger things have happened at sea. Seven hundred and twenty miles to the north-east of where we’re sat, way up in the Arctic Circle, lies the small bay of Unstad, on the remote Lofoten islands, off the north-west coast of Norway.
The town boasts many similarities to the Faroes: the climate is similarly harsh, the waves are of similar quality- albeit slightly more consistent- and the scenery is similarly breathtaking. The bay was first surfed in 1963, but pretty much fell off the map until its rediscovery in the early 90’s. By the early 2000’s it had begun to feature in surf films and mag articles and by 2003 the first surf camp opened up. Now, 15 years on and the small Nordic village attracts thousands of visiting surfers every year, who join the 50 strong crew of locals out the back, or get pushed into white water on the inside at the world’s most northerly surf school. Reportedly in the summer season, when the water is still only 10 degrees C, the small bay can play host to up to 120 surfers.
The Faroes are at least a decade behind, if on the same trajectory at all. But the new board hire shop, along with a lack of lifeguards, surf schools or public information about hazards, is already giving Kat and David cause for concern.
“There were two local guys who tried surfing and started drifting out to sea,” David recounted of one incident he’d witnessed. “They had to climb out on the point, one guy lost his board, the other broke his finger.”
“They were fucking lucky nothing worse happened.” he added. “Then there were these two local guys, one in a wetsuit and one in a dive suit who had rented boards from here,” he continued, motioning in the direction of the surf hire shop, “and we were at the beach checking it and it looked way too big for us. I told them they shouldn’t go out, but said if you do, just stay really close to the beach. Five minutes later and they are standing there waving their arms and I go down and one of the guys is bleeding out of his mouth because he’s just had the board whack in his face.”
For the pair, incidents like this raise a serious conflict. Over the years they’ve actively promoted surfing on the islands, setting up popular social media accounts to serve as the first port of call for travelling surfers and to encourage more Faroese to engage with the sport. But as a result of this vocal advocacy, they feel responsible when things go awry. They also worry that if they were to abandon their public roles as the faces of Faroese surfing, then would-be local surfers would not be able to contact them asking for advice, which would deny them important information on how to be safe.
While the process of surfing’s popularisation is a largely organic one, there are certainly more deliberate forces at play in the Faroes. “The tourist board and the airline company want more surfers to come here, because they want to change the perception of a place that is just beautiful, with sea birds, to one of action,” explained Kat. “They want to use surfing to bolster that image, and that’s one of the reasons why they want us to surf for the royal visit.”
I was still contemplating surfing’s possible future in the islands the next day, when we stumbled across the village of Gásadalur, nestled in the shadow of Vagur Island’s highest peaks. For much of its existence, the only way for those who lived there to reach the outside was to hike over the huge mountains that surrounded the town, or scramble down the sheer cliff faces onto precariously anchored boats. And so for hundreds of years, that’s exactly what the residents did (along with the postman, who visited three times a week). Nowadays, access is far easier, thanks to a tunnel that has been blasted through one of the mountain sides. However, the intrepid spirit of a people willing to literally climb mountains to get to the nearest shop undoubtedly lives on in the Faroese.
Given the opportunity, such a people would undoubtedly embrace the mild hardships of learning to surf the minute they’ve tasted the pastime’s abundant rewards. It seems this, along with the tourist board’s efforts, the royal visit and the changing mindset of the Faroese youth must surely be sufficiently fertile ground for a surf community to set down its roots.
Perhaps, in five years, those roots will have taken and hoots will reverberate off the mountainside as dozens of surfers scratch into the wind-whipped wedges of Tjornuvik beach. Then, after a memorable session, the surfers will convene to recount their best barrel visions, while somewhere in town Kat and David will reminisce over a post-surf beer about those winter days long ago, when they were the only surfers in the Faroe Islands.
With thanks to Bentley Motors for making this trip happen – bentleymotors.com
[‘Fickle Frontiers; The Unlikely Pioneers’ – featured in Vol 255.] Subscribe to Wavelength now for more long-form surf storytelling you can hold in your hands.
Cover photo: Elli Thor