Why you should care

Because some of the world’s most uninhabited coastlines might soon be teeming with tourists and wannabe surfers.

It’s as if you’ve gone back in time. Clouds loom over Iceland’s prehistoric horizon and the Gulf Stream strikes icebergs like a slap to the face. In the ocean, a single person can be seen bobbing up and down. That’s Ingó Olsen, a first-generation Icelandic surfer who began riding waves as a teen — in a borrowed wet suit and plastic-bag-covered wool socks — and has mastered the turbulent waters of the fjord-ringed island, where temperatures can drop to 14 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts. “This is not Bali,” says the 35-year-old founder of Arctic Surfers, which accepts just four people at a time on its local surfing tours. “It’s not for everyone — but when you have to work for it, it makes it all the more worth it.”

Many of today’s surfers want waves, not crowds. And while many Californians, Hawaiians and New Yorkers are all too familiar with the hundreds of wet-suit-clad surfers who cluster like baby turtles on the shores of the West and East coasts, few know about the world’s emerging surf havens. Iceland is fairly new on the scene, and a surge of fascination with what was once considered a fringe sport has triggered interest in other unlikely places, including South Dakota, India, Norway and Russia. That has meant more, surprising options for the estimated 35 million surfing enthusiasts worldwide, a group that has grown 34 percent from 2001 and now contributes to a roughly $6 billion retail sector, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

Nine-foot wind swells on the Great Lakes have attracted adventurists, while others have tried staying up in the wake of passing barges on the Houston Ship Channel.

Located some 4,000 miles from Moscow, the Kamchatka Peninsula was for a long time accessible mainly by small plane, helicopter or four-wheel drive, but its rising popularity with surfers has it being likened to a California beach in summer, minus the crowds. And in another cold-water destination — Norway — there’s also no risk of overcrowding. As local surfer Marion Frantzen explains it, surfing etiquette dictates that only one person surf one wave at a time: “It gets very boring if you have to wait your turn.” The mother of three, whose children hit the waves at the age of 2, was influenced by her surfing prodigy of a father and experimented as a kid with homemade Styrofoam boogie boards; today, Frantzen manages the Unstad Arctic Surf camp in Norway’s mountainous Lofoten archipelago.

Sometimes it’s a local enthusiast who starts a small business and inspires interest in a particular place as an emerging surfing hot spot. Other times it’s a natural phenomenon at play. Despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, Munich has built a reputation as a mecca for river surfing: The Eisbach river has attracted surfers because of an unusual gravitational force that creates ideal surf waves. Meanwhile, 9-foot wind swells caused by storms on the Great Lakes have attracted adventurists, while others have tried staying up in the wake of passing barges on the Houston Ship Channel in Texas.

Technology is increasingly helping enthusiasts pinpoint new places as well. Former pro surfer Nick Romito, who frequents New York’s Rockaway Beach, says Google Earth has become a valuable tool for hard-core surfers in search of isolated, jagged coastlines where there are good waves. “There’s so much unbelievable coastline that’s pretty much uninhabited,” Romito says. But the unwritten rule of surfing, according to Fernando Aguerre, head of the International Surfing Association, is “don’t disclose it publicly. That’s the surfer’s world.”

Indeed, Aguerre has known some people to have at least 20 secret spots in countries as far removed from surfing as Switzerland. For a long time, one of those exclusive locations included a 24-acre private island in Fiji, where until 2010, only those paying up to $4,000 a day could ride one of the world’s best waves, dubbed Cloudbreak. Rumor had it that surfers had to imbibe a hallucinogen as part of an initiation, though guests now voluntarily sip a kava that may leave them mildly drunk or with a numb tongue, says Wendy Headlee of Waterways Surf Adventures travel agency, which manages listings for the island.

Of course, sky-high costs and unpleasant weather could put a damper on some enthusiasts’ efforts to find new, unchartered waves. But the push to find increasingly peculiar spots continues. As of last year, surfers can now experience the remote, sandy beaches of North Korea. Yes, despite criticism that the country couldn’t be more incompatible with surfing’s laid-back culture, it “is very much open to the idea of surfing,” says Andrea Lee, CEO and founder of Uri Tours, which handles surf trips to the closed state. Surfers just need to keep in mind, Lee says, that before they can hit the waves, they will be taken to several prominent monuments to pay their respects to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung as part of official protocol.

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