Does Surfing Have A Future In Iceland?

The battle to save Thorli takes on cultural dimensions

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By Stu Nettle (stunet)

Does Surfing Have A Future In Iceland?

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)

Last month, researchers at Australian National University released a paper detailing the value of surfing to the national economy. The research found surfing injects almost $3 billion into the Australian economy each year.

More than mere accounting work, the findings were used to bolster the importance of surfing and by extension the value of surf spots. The rationale being, surf spots should be preserved because it's good for the economy.

In this, it's very similar to 'Surfonomics', a theory developed by Dr Neil Lazarow in 2012 that quantified the value of waves.

Both bits of research appear to make good sense, yet the thinking stumbles when the economic worth of competing pastimes - boating and fishing for instance - are also put into the equation.

An example is Bastion Point in Victoria, which in 2013 was effectively cut in half when a 130 metre-long breakwall and boat ramp were built. Using Surfonomics, or any other monetary-related theory, to save Bastion Point would have been futile. Surfing may be worth $3 biilion to the whole Australian economy, but recreational fishing is worth that just to the state of Victoria.

In total, recreational fishing injects $11 billion into the Australian economy per year

Point being, surfing pales against many pastimes and industries so, tempting as it is, inviting economic comparison is a fraught activity.

Another way 'Surfonomics' falls short is its appeal to the immediate. 150 years ago, an idea to build a breakwall between Cape Byron and Julian Rocks was proposed, cutting off all the swell to Byron Bay. If, hypothetically speaking, an economic theory was used to justify the business case then of course surfing would lose - it didn't yet exist in Australia.

That's an extreme example but the points stands: What something is now can't account for what it may be.

This last point is important when reading the following conversation. Steve Wall is an expat Aussie now living in Iceland, and his experience to save Thorli - one of Iceland's greatest waves and one that is close to being lost in a harbour expansion - takes the above thoughts out of theory and into reality.

How to advocate for surfing when few Icelanders currently appreciate it? It's a simple question that Steve answers by way of cultural understandings.

Later this week, we'll look at another threatened wave, also in the northern hemisphere.

All surf photos by Víðir Björnsson.

Swellnet: Icelandic surfers were initially conflicted about the campaign to save Thorli - as to save the wave meant exposing the wave. Has that issue been resolved?
Steve Wall: For sure, there was a view amongst the local guys that this could be solved quietly, without needing to tell the whole world about it. But it got to the point where it was a choice between perhaps a few extra people in the water, or no wave at all. At that point, it's simple. Not to mention this issue goes way beyond keeping an already well known surf spot on the hush. People really do see this as commercial interest threatening the Icelandic nature, a community resource. Whether it's a wave, a mountain or a river, this is a pretty broad issue the community has been dealing with on multiple fronts in Iceland. 

As I've spent more time exploring the island, I can speak to the difficulty that even the most committed surfers will face in actually getting good surf up there. It's a really tough place to score without serious resources or the best local insight. It feels like the variability of conditions and environmental challenges are a much bigger barrier to entry than staunch locals could ever be. 

Given this is a first for Icelandic surfers, how are they responding to the cause?
It’s worth mentioning this isn’t the first time. There’s another wave in the north of the country that was threatened by the expansion of a nearby harbour, before the surf community helped the town council understand the implications of their project on the wave. They acknowledged the cultural and economic value that a good wave can provide and adapted their plans accordingly. They implemented a protection over the area called Hverfisvernd, which is like a neighbourhood nature reserve that prevents development. This is created with a majority vote by the residents of the local area, so therefore much of the strategy around this issue has been showing the local community just how special their backyard is. 

BBFÍ (Brimbrettafelág Íslands) or the Surf Association of Iceland, was formed by a bunch of the original surfers in the country, because of the ongoing need to advocate for the protection of these surf spots and coastline. For years now, this group of Icelanders has been self funding legal defence, coastal engineer consultants and community events - pushing hard against the tide to convince a community uninterested in surfing why they should concede economic opportunity, for a little understood sport practised by just a few people.

Options were given to the mayor, have they been taken up?
BBFÍ engaged the services of Simon Brandi Mortensen at DHI, a world renowned Australian coastal engineer. He outlined the consequences on the break from the existing plans and advised an alternative design approach that gave the surfers and developers what they wanted. It was a good plan, but his suggestions were completely ignored. They chose to work with an infamous local engineer, who published in their reports that people don’t even surf anywhere near the landfill in question, that they surf far out to sea on a bombie. Therefore, they are able to say ‘this project will have no impact on the wave’ in their project approvals. Something that many Icelanders will agree with and look no further. Again, in a society that don't have the intricate knowledge of surf mechanics - this passes the pub test.

In Australia, we have a strong coastal culture, to the extent we often take our coastal environment for granted. How is it to be in a country that doesn't value the coast the way Australians do?
It was pretty surprising to me initially, to be honest. But when you come to understand the history of the Icelandic people going to sea things start to make sense.

Fishing brought Iceland enormous economic prosperity, but at a major human price - these are serious waters and many have gone to sea to never return. Before the tourism bubble emerged in recent years, fishing was the main industry and culturally defining of the country. It's understandable how many Icelanders see danger beyond the shoreline, not a place of recreation and joy. Whatever value the experience holds to core surfers is not only unrelatable to many, but perhaps even disrespectful to the forces of the ocean.

This drone shot illustrates the marvel that is Thorli: Jumbled lines of swell round the outer point, are made uniform by the inner reef, then peel perfectly through the inside.

What might it take to persuade Icelanders - not surfers but general folk - that they have a coastline worth preserving?
Icelanders are far from ignorant towards the intrinsic value of natural spaces, but the important details of surfing are little understood. Outside the surf community, most people don’t know the difference between a great wave like Thorli and the straight hand beachbreak around the corner. But when they find out, they're quite surprised to hear that there's a world class wave in Iceland - let alone in their hometown.

There is a surf community here, for sure. But it's still in such early stages, it hasn't developed into something acknowledged and understood widely within the broader community. With huge barriers to entry, a lack of reasonably-priced equipment options and the wild weather much of the year it's always going to be the most committed individuals that pursue surf here and it's easy to say why many people think it's ridiculous. 

I think the interesting thing is that Iceland is a place that creates a certain resilience and adaptability amongst its people, like very few other places I've been. To surf here can be extremely challenging, but the same can be said doing anything else outdoors. Icelanders have a brilliant resourcefulness to make the best of what they've got that perfectly equips them for the surf experience here. 

But perhaps it’s the economic opportunity attached to surfing that might speak to people here. If there was any place in the country that could be a surf town, this is it. You could build a coastal hot spring and coffee house overlooking the ocean. Denmark and Norway have even done it, so it's not just the domain of warm-water destinations. If you ask me, a gravel carpark and nobody around was just fine - but maybe it would take something tangible in the tourism space for the local community decide that coastline to be worth preserving.

Promotional poster for 'Aldan Okkar Allra', a short film that has amplified the plight of Thorli. Stay tuned to watch it on Swellnet.

Has it been hard to drum up support in a country without a coastal culture? Does your recent work with David Attenborough stand for anything here?
I’m just an Australian guy living in the north, so I'm well aware I have little say in how the Icelandic community decide to move forward on this. I was lucky enough to grow up near the beach and have gotten so much life experience and opportunity from the coast and the culture attached to it. So from my perspective, I see this landfill as more than just senseless environmental destruction, it’s the theft of the possibilities for Icelanders to experience the magic of surf. Opportunities for powerful experience in nature.

Against the backdrop of centuries of loss and trauma at sea, perhaps surfing is even something profound. Andri Magnason, the legendary Icelandic writer said:

"We’ve drowned for a thousand years, I think we deserve to surf. The forces of nature at least owe us that."

Coming to understand all of this, I decided that using my media / film background would be the best way I can contribute something on this issue. Icelandic creative producer Berglind Jóhannsdóttir and I had started our film production company, Crosswave North just a few weeks prior, so we rallied the troops and decided to dive right into it.

Aldan Okkar Allra - 'A wave that belongs to all' in English - went across all forms of media in the country. Alongside the BBFí crew, we created an event and shot a short film in just a few weeks designed to show the broader Icelandic community that they have a beautiful surf community already flourishing in this country, that could vanish entirely if the wave at Thorli is destroyed. Hundreds of people showed up and the support was overwhelming. 

Thanks must go to Matty Hannon, director of Road to Patagonia. When I first saw his film, it was clear this would be an amazing thing to share with the Icelandic community. From that thought, we built the event to show our short film and Matty's feature-length epic. There were tears around the room and it made me very proud to see the impact the collection of cinema, discussion, and community had on everyone present that night.

Having said all that, we've just asked the question. Is surfing something that the Icelandic people want to nourish and see flourish in their society?

It will only be the townspeople of Þorlákshöfn that decide the answer, and the consequences will define whether or not the sport has a real future in this country.

'Aldan Okkar Allra' will be available to view shortly


blackers's picture
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blackers Monday, 1 Jul 2024 at 4:50pm

Best of luck to them. Fantastic quote from Andri Magnason:
"We’ve drowned for a thousand years, I think we deserve to surf. The forces of nature at least owe us that."

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig Tuesday, 2 Jul 2024 at 10:55am

Indeed! And some great foresight to fight for this wave, even if surfing is only currently evolving and growing in the region.

basesix's picture
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basesix Monday, 1 Jul 2024 at 5:44pm

can't wait to see the short - epic effort!
(get together with Grímur Hákonarson, he'd get it,
and publicise an expected 2026 Cannes hit..)

Tooold2bakook's picture
Tooold2bakook's picture
Tooold2bakook Monday, 1 Jul 2024 at 6:27pm

What a great effort by that crew. Hopefully they get the message across. I'm still hoping to visit Iceland and sneak in a fresh surf there

Bubble elder's picture
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Bubble elder Monday, 1 Jul 2024 at 9:55pm

Epic work Steve, keep it up! Stoked the locals are still fighting it hard. I was lucky enough to score Thorli in summer back in 2009, super fun wave and the locals were absolute legends.

greg-n.williams's picture
greg-n.williams's picture
greg-n.williams Tuesday, 2 Jul 2024 at 5:58am

It'd be a shame to lose this GEM to so called progress! Good luck with the negotiations Steve. "A wave that belongs to all' says it all!

atticus's picture
atticus's picture
atticus Tuesday, 2 Jul 2024 at 10:50am

"We’ve drowned for a thousand years, I think we deserve to surf. The forces of nature at least owe us that."

What a great quote.

bbbird's picture
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bbbird Tuesday, 2 Jul 2024 at 8:28pm

Hope that common ground may provail

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher Wednesday, 3 Jul 2024 at 3:37pm

First up...that's a really sweet wave..luv that!

How to reverse park on the sly Uni Surfboard Industry Promos exclusive #1 swellnet study!
[Locals Only] tbb looked the part @ Snapper & was approached by this Dork with his clipboard...

Q : How Often do ya Surf...Daily! (Next) Wot Board do ya ride...( Ya just said...Surf?)
Like ooh, are you a Basher or some shit...Well then...No Board...ya don't qualify for the Study...See Ya!

WTF Kinda Study is this...ain't tbb's money good enough...seacreature no longer human! Fine by tbb!

Help yerselves to a slice of freshly baked Surf Pie.

2022-23 (Annual) Oz Surf Line-Up totalled 14m (48.5% of Oz Pop!)
*Licensed > Cost Prohibitive / Restricted Water Activities

10m Waderz bash about in battery Pens within 2% of Flagged Coastal waters.
7.8m *Dogs -Wading/Swim/Walking > Boss around 75%-98% + breach 70% of wader's 2% beach!
All crew know that's not nearly enough...ACA reckons dog owners should sack The Premier & Albo!
6m Walkerz / beachcombers / sightseers (Restricted from Boating Waterways)
5m *Wave Pools (Age restricted-Water Parks > Digitized Fully Leashed Toxic Crabpots)
4m *Boating (90%) Waterways / Ocean access (Restricted Surfcraft / Bathing Zones)
3.7m *Fishos ( 1m Surf + 2.7m - Estuaries / Rivers / Lakes )
3m Snorkling > All shallow water swims (No open access without Leashed Floats)
2.7m *Surfcraft other than surfboards (90% Access)
2.5m *Ocean / Waterway Recreation Employees (Grant Access)
1.8m *Boardriders (98% Oz Ocean / Waterway Access) Restricted in Family Bathing / Weirs
1.3m Joggerz (Coastal)
1.2m Swimmers (Open / Pools)
1.2m *Jet Skis etc E types (All)
0.7m Beach Yoga (Council led push)
0.6m Beach Cycling
0.6m *Scuba Diving
0.4m Beach Balls (Soccer + All Codes)
0.2-0.5m *SLSA Volunteers / Peak Carnivals
0.1m Volleyball (Council led push > Beach Bars)
0.1m Skateboardz (Council wider Paths > Kiosks)

* Mandatory Restrictive Surf therapy drives WSL Pros Mad...forcing them into early retirement!
(Flotsam/Jetsam) Boats / Jet Skis / Surfcraft / Boardriders / Divers / Fishermen
* Prohibited / Restricted on Public transport
* Need to burn Several Planets just to fire up their Alien Fleets.
* Noisily pollute & kill off massive amounts (70%-98%) of Natural Ocean resource in seconds.
* Instantly blot out the Sun & Ocean Majesty with Stickers
* Instantly draw in Boys to the Yard.
* Consume (10x) Fresh Water Resource 24/7 to mop up their piles of shit.
* Require Several Galaxies of mining & sweat shop slaves to dump shit in their 98% exclusive lineups!
* None know which of 1,000 hired hands claim WOTD...Today, it's clever Clive from Accounting! Yeww!
* WSR SMP Stewards just sold out to WSL Surfline to fork out $200 one of Fish Dick's Hard Fizz Disco balls.

Be very careful who ya tick off when yer saving waves!

* All block out & ward off 100.000's of light years of spine tingling sensual playful wavelengths!

Surfozi's picture
Surfozi's picture
Surfozi Saturday, 6 Jul 2024 at 7:53am

Also it's not only surfing locals and tourism that come to Australia, thousands of international people who come here to study bring their boards or buy and surf.