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The Dr Dolittle of Unstad

Words: Jack Copeland

Photos: Hallvard Kolltveit

Daydreaming about potential surfing trips probably occupies a solid two hours of every surfer’s afternoon lockdown schedule at the moment. These quarantine-fuelled mirages likely consist of white sandy beaches, towering palms, and glassy barrels but it’s doubtful that many of them feature the white snow-covered beaches, towering glaciers, and glassy… well… ice of Norway.

If you were to see a muscular blonde dude with dreadlocks in the Norwegian fjords, you would probably assume that they were a Viking before assuming that they were a surfer. However, unlikely though it may seem, Scandinavia has recently witnessed the birth of its own surfing culture, with the likes of Klitmøller in Denmark and Lofoten in Norway becoming hotspots for Arctic wave-chasers.

While fantasising about where to go once restrictions ease, it’s understandable that Lofoten would not immediately spring to mind. But perhaps it should.

An aerial view of a remote village in the Lofoten Islands of Northern Norway. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)

One surfer who has made himself at home amongst these frigid point breaks, despite hailing from the scenic coast of South Africa, is Shannon Ainslie. Growing up in East London, around two hundred miles east of Jeffrey’s Bay, you might wonder why, when living so close to a Championship Tour stop, he would trade hot weather and crystal-clear water for blizzards and icebergs.

Back in 2000, at the brazen age of fifteen, Shannon went for an after-school surfing session at Nahoon Reef with his brother, Brandon, and a handful of friends from school. Carving his way through clean six-foot waves, Shannon was surfing boldly at the picturesque right-hand break before he was quite literally dragged into the kind of scenario that you would expect from a horror film.

As he paddled over the crest of a wave, the bottom of Shannon’s board was viciously rammed by a four-metre-long great white shark, sending him reeling through the air and into the water. Once he plunged beneath the surface, the same shark clamped its jaws around Shannon’s right hand and dragged him one hundred metres out to sea, yanking him out of the path of a second great white that attempted to bite his head and shoulders.

In February, Shannon recalled the incident in an interview with SurfEars. He said: “The shark let go of me and then stopped to stare straight into my face. It was around half-a-meter away, so I could see all of its teeth and the one big, dark eye looking at me. We just stared at each other for a few moments. It was intense. And then it just swam away.”

After the shark abandoned him so far out to sea, Shannon clambered back onto his board and began paddling back to the shoreline, his ring and pinky finger hanging on by a thread and his wrist-joint completely crushed by the shark’s tooth.

In his SurfEars interview, he added: “It was like a nightmare. All I could picture were the sharks coming back for me over and over again. I was scared, shaking, and crying.”

Eventually, Shannon managed to coast back to the shore on a wave and was met by Brandon who immediately rushed him to hospital. He received thirty stitches and managed to keep his two mangled fingers.

Six weeks later and he was back in the water, apparently unafraid of the dark eyes lurking beneath the waves. Although, if part of the reason for Shannon’s eventual move to Norway was to avoid sharks, you can’t exactly blame him.

Four years later, at the age of nineteen, Shannon moved the two hundred miles west to J-Bay for his gap-year. Afterwards, he established his own surf school and set about coaching professionals at the notorious break, his continuous stream of clients being directed his way by Kristian Breivik.

Kristian is Norwegian and owned a surf hostel near J-Bay at the same time that Shannon was coaching surfers, the two of them living symbiotically by passing on clients to one another.

Whenever the friendly pair would meet up, Kristian would implore Shannon to go to Norway and find work in its fledging surf industry. After two years of pestering, Shannon finally went to Norway, and he never looked back.

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Shannon examines the line-up from the shoreline at Unstad in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)

Before going on to coach the Norwegian professional surfing team, Shannon surfed competitively in Scandinavia and even earned a place at the semi-finals of the 2017 Lofoten Masters where he was confronted by another king of the ocean.

Whilst Shannon paddled back to the line-up, after having caught a wave just moments before, he was approached by three enormous, phantom-like figures below the surface of the water. As the phantoms glided closer and closer to Shannon, he was able to make out the distinct black and white patterns of an orca’s hide.

In an interview with Zig Zag Magazine, not long after the incident, he said: “The water and bubbles were moving around it as it got under the nose of my board and turned to look at me. It was then that I could see the white belly.

“While it was happening, I quickly sat up to get my feet on the board. Another orca then swam in close, slowing down as it turned in front of me. It could have attacked but they’re so intelligent they must have realized, at the last second, that I wasn’t food. There were two big ones and a calf.”

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Shannon, clad in a full-length wetsuit with a hood, boots, and gloves, carves a wide arc across the base of a six-foot right-hander at Unstad. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)
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Switching angles, Shannon then swerves up the face of the wave, sending salt water spraying from the rails of his board. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)
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With one hand breaking against the wave, Shannon begins to slow down and hang mid-way up the face of the wave. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)
Shannon breaks with both hands against the wave in an effort to enter the barrel. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)

Ridiculously, these encounters by the South African Dr Dolittle of Unstad are just the tip of the iceberg (sorry, I couldn’t resist). In a recent video call with Shannon, he revealed: “I’ve been attacked by two sharks, knocked off my board by a shark, had to rescue someone behind me in the line-up from a shark, and I’ve also been chased out of the water by sharks twice.

“Then, of course, there was the ‘orca incident’ and a seal once even tried to attack me. I must smell good or something.”

After hearing this, curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask what had happened with the seal. According to Shannon, he had been paddling back to the shoreline after a surfing session at J-Bay and was making his way between two rocks on either side of a blowout.

Opposite Shannon, and trying to make its own way out to sea, was a seal being pulled out by the current. As Shannon approached the inside of the blowout, being gently pushed along on a wave, the surfer and the seal came face-to-face as they were pulled towards one another by the moving tides.

Shannon went on: “The seal tried to attack me but, luckily, I’d seen it and I could just tell that something was about to happen. I slid off my board and held it by the rails in front of me so that it was between us both. It tried to lunge at me again and I shouted at it. We went back and forth like this for a while until it swam away. It was a pretty funny encounter.”

Circling back to the surfing culture of Norway, and specifically around the Lofoten Islands, Shannon revealed that the most distinct feature of Scandinavian wave-chasing is the demographic of the surfers. Apparently, there are hardly any surfers in Norway below the age of twenty, as young people aren’t exactly keen to get into a sport that involves paddling-out in sub-zero temperatures.

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A lone surfer takes off on a gently peeling right hander at Unstad in Lofoten. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)

Painting a bleak, yet also wild, picture, Shannon said: “The biggest difference is the age of the surfers. South Africa has quite a big surfing community because the waves are just so perfect, especially at J-Bay, so you have lots of young people getting into surfing before they reach the age of fifteen.

“In Norway, the community is much smaller and mostly consists of older surfers. You don’t’ really have anybody under the age of twenty who’s a diehard. Apart from maybe one fourteen-year-old called Frimann Breivik [son of the aforementioned Kristian].

“On top of that, the number of people out surfing is pretty consistent year-round in South Africa, whereas in Norway it very much depends on the season. In Lofoten, there are usually just a couple of surfers out when it’s off-season. But, when it gets closer to peak, we get tourists from all over the world, Sweden, America, and even England.”

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Shannon hacks his board around the face of a colossal left-hander at Unstad. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)

Shannon’s description paints a scene of Norwegian surfing that’s both isolated and desolate which, to the current crowd of European surfers, would seem like the perfect place to discover new breaks. Encouraged by the possibility of intrepidly surfing Arctic breaks without competition, Shannon’s bleak picture of a lonely line-up is not actually that bleak at all. On the flip side, an isolated line-up does come with its downsides.

Shannon pointed out: “Since surfing is so new here, there isn’t as much etiquette. You’ll sometimes have another surfer drop in on you or carve up way too close when you’re trying to catch a wave. There’s nowhere near as much aggression, but there’s just a lack of experience from the local surfers.”

Although the Scandi surf community is nowhere near as experienced as your French, Spanish, or even British communities, the surfers themselves make up for it with sheer grit. When asked which of his experiences in Lofoten best encapsulated Norwegian surfing, Shannon revealed: “I would have to say seeing the older surfers changing into their gear and paddling out in the middle of a blizzard.

“By that, I mean getting changed into their wetsuits outside, in the freezing cold, like real-life, rugged Vikings.”

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Shannon and Hallvard getting geared-up for a sub-zero surfing session at Unstad. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)
The snowy beach of Unstad. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)

One upside to the loneliness of Norwegian surfing is that, under lockdown restrictions, the locals of Lofoten have been able to continue surfing. Naturally, in the farthest reaches of northern Norway, people and communities are so sparse and distant from one another that the even smaller surfing communities can continue about their business, relatively unimpeded by COVID-19.

Providing a first-hand account of the situation, Shannon admitted: “Lockdown hasn’t been too bad here. In Norway, especially in the north where I am, people are really spread around and quite far apart so things haven’t had to change that much. We’re still able to surf and go outside. In fact, I’ve surfed a few times since lockdown began.”

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Shannon attempts a barrel on a gently peeling left-hander. (Photo by Hallvard Kolltveit)

In the race to get on top of the global pandemic, Scandinavian countries have been leading the way with keeping infection rates low. At the time of my writing this, Britain has had a confirmed number of more than 290,000 confirmed cases of COVID compared to the 8,594 confirmed cases of Norway.

So, when international travel bans are eventually lifted, Scandinavia will likely become one of the safest and easiest places to visit. And, not only that, but the experiences which Shannon has been so kind to share suggest that Norway would be the best getaway for any surfers who are itching to catch unfamiliar waves.

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