The Wave Less Travelled

 James Kates in Iceland. Photo: Ryan Mattick

James Kates in Iceland. Photo: Ryan Mattick

In the instant age we live in, everything - both digital and otherwise - is more accessible than ever. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll see geotagged waves, or those simply recognisable due to the sheer volume of coverage. Surf reports and wave locations on the one hand make finding a break easy enough but on the other hand, lineup numbers are at an all-time high. All of these factors combine for the perfect storm and now even once difficultto reach breaks, such as those in South East Asia, are thronged with surf resorts, organised tours and your run of the mill tourist.

Thirty to forty years ago riders like Stewart and Severson were pioneering Teahupo’o but in today’s climate, the thought of being one of the first to ride such an iconic wave is almost incomprehensible. Today we have to think outside the box to find something new. Recent booger flicks such as Ben Player’s Far North, or Zion’s No Country for Cold Men plus a handful more from the wider wave-riding community have shown that there are places devoid of crowds - places where surfing at its most solitary state can still be enjoyed… if you are willing to push the boundaries.

Most of us have a passion for travel and adventure and this is something firmly entrenched in our affinity for the ocean as wave-riders. As a bonafide wave-explorer, Ben Player sheds some light on this: “I realised something about myself - and probably all humans - I understood a big part of my enjoyment of chasing waves around the globe was in the actual pursuit of bettering my experiences at a surf spot, not about actually riding the waves,” he says. “After I realised that, I started focusing on trying to surf new waves that I didn’t have any knowledge or expectation for. The attraction isn’t just about being at those destinations, it’s about taking yourself out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself in a foreign environment.”

 Photo: Johnny Casey

Photo: Johnny Casey

That ol’ chestnut: the real enjoyment is in the journey, eh?

But it might not be that simple. Echoing Player’s sentiment to some extent, James Kates - who has made two trips to Iceland in pursuit of the wave less travelled adds a slightly varied angled to the philosophy. In his own words, his primary drive has been to “experience the untapped beauty of the place (Iceland) first hand”.

For both, the waves were important, but not the be-all. Instead it was the holistic experience, of exploring somewhere new, meeting new people and hopefully finding some great waves along the way.

But going somewhere ‘new’ these days can mean fairly inhospitable locations where the water temperature might be lower than ideal: Iceland water temps range from 5 to a balmy 13 degrees. Clearly, thawing out a freezing cold wetsuit in the morning with a kettle takes a fair bit of motivation, but spare a thought for Tom Gillespie of Irish fame, who rarely gets out of 4 or 5mm thick neoprene. “Sometimes you just think why the fuck am I doing this,” says Gillespie. “But when you see waves firing you tend to ignore the fact that its freezing.” For Kates, this enthusiasm was put to the test during his first sojourn to Iceland, with the (questionable) selection of a 4/3 with a “big hole in the ass of it” as his suit of choice. For his second trip, longer stints in the water were supplied via an upgraded 5/4. Despite the extra neoprene, your stoke for getting in the water is certainly tried, but JK eloquently concludes that “the psych of surfing a potentially un-surfed wave overrode the icy water swishing over my shrivelled balls”.

Charming.

 Tom Gillespie. Photo: James Kates

Tom Gillespie. Photo: James Kates

Prior to Scotland, Player had been watching BBC documentary The Coast, which documented the coastline of the UK and when it came to the North coast of Scotland, he became aware of potentially untapped waves. “That was my first trip to a cold location, and I was hooked straight away,” says BP. “Surfing waves in cold locations has become more exciting for me as I get older. When you surf new waves in those climates, I get doubly stoked. Kind of feels like you’re really living.”

However, not only is it the elements that have to be dealt with but getting to these locations may not be as easy as hopping on a flight to Denpasar. When traveling to Namibia, BP faced 35 hours of transit time with long layovers in Dubai and Johannesburg before the final flight to Namibia, but as he says, it was certainly with it for the goods received. As well as the temperatures and the remoteness, there may be other hurdles. One of which for Kates was delivered via a government issued text message, warning people to stay inside in the wake of a volcanic eruption filling the air with toxic gases. The advice was not heeded, and with Maddog filming shoeless in the snow, an epic 5-hour session ensued on a desolate slab, ash falling around him. Seems like a lung was a small price to pay.

Despite getting away from the typical surfing rat race of South East Asia and The Pacific, we still need to be mindful of the people we are going to be impacting when we jet off to these areas of the world. As Ben puts it, “I think a smile and respect goes a long way wherever you are in the world. But that action and reaction is hugely increased in an inhospitable place where there are no other people.” Tom Gillespie has noticed an influx of visitors in recent years on his home breaks but despite this, he still has a few hidden gems up his sleeve. “There are lots of fickle average waves which aren't really well known and are pretty uncrowded still, and maybe a handful of really good waves which are very fickle which only a small number of people know about,” he says. “Comparing that to 10 years ago, it has changed a huge amount to be honest. It’s amazing how effective not documenting a spot is at reducing crowds and people finding out. Photos and videos of a new wave really fuels people’s desire to surf them, whereas word of mouth barely has the same effect.”

These trips away from the norm have sparked something inside many riders that are at a loss with the monotonous coastal fringe they are accustomed to. “It’s kind of addictive to do trips where you’re exploring new, remote locations. They are so gratifying because they remind me that you don’t need all of the materialistic things that life at home that you can be so pre-occupied with.”

The world is a big old place, with plenty of unchartered coast, waves for booging are just a little harder to find. Coastlines with rocky, cliff-lined shores coming off deep water are likely to produce favourable waves and there are some great waves out there waiting to be found. As ostensibly the gatekeeper to some of the UK’s most remote waves, Gillespie parts with some advice for potential intrepid travellers: “The same thing always applies, travel in a small crew, know thy place and don't plaster shots on social media”. And with a similar word of wisdom from one of the sport’s proven wave-finders: “There are still heaps of new locations to explore, I have a whole folder in my phone of screen shots of places I want to go,” says Player. “Do yourself a favour and download the new Google Earth application and start exploring.”

 Photo: Gary McCall

Photo: Gary McCall

Rich JohnstonComment