Hunting the World’s Northernmost Surfer

A red belt surf shooter’s most memorable surf trip was also his coldest.

Light / Dark

My clock said 9 a.m., but it was pitch black outside.

I called the front desk of the hotel. 

“Is it morning or night?” I asked.

I’d just landed in the city of Longyearbyen on the island of Svalbard, trying to find the world’s northernmost surfer in one of the most extreme and inhospitable environments on the planet. At a latitude of 78 degrees north, Longyearbyen is the last stop for humans before the North Pole. Here, polar bears exceed the number of people.

My arrival coincided with the onset of two and a half months of total darkness. Midnight, all day long. Not even a hint of afterglow on the horizon.

My enthusiasm for adventure often outweighs my logistical planning. Some would call it impulsive. And I found out just before my departure that my subject, Jorn Dybald, a survival technician and the resident surfer of Svalbard, would not be there. He’d gone surfing in the Canary Islands. Though I decided to proceed as planned, the journey proved a remarkable failure. But the week of total darkness was interesting to say the least, and made me much more aware of the extreme nature of the environment and the two seasons: light and dark.

I remained in contact with Dybald after my first trip and, after 12 months, he contacted me to say he was embarking on a surf expedition by boat along the coast of Svalbard with American surfer Dr. Mark Renneker and a few friends. I contacted Renneker and was graciously invited to join the trip. 

We sailed up the west coast of Svalbard to jaw-dropping scenery, attempting to surf anything that looked like a wave. We felt secure having Dybald’s knowledge as a survival technician, an individual who was so core he slept on the deck in his board bag in minus 20 degrees Celsius. Nevertheless, hikes on land required a guide armed with a large-caliber gun due to the constant threat of polar bears. This danger was very real, and once I even found myself confronted by a polar bear while shooting a small pointbreak from land. These magnificent creatures can outrun and outswim humans, and find prey by smell up to 20 miles away. This particular one had located our smell in his neighborhood from the evening before. Thus, we decided this particular setup was not good enough for a second session.

In the end, we didn’t discover many quality waves. The real score of our trip was simply the thrill of surfing the northernmost reaches of the planet, surrounded by stunning scenery, while wearing survival suits as our daily dress. 

Over the last several decades, I have gone on literally hundreds of surf trips, many of which have explored new and remote surfing frontiers. My personal philosophy of surf travel has long been that waves are just a guiding force. The journey is the destination, as the expression goes. Shared experiences that take one out of their comfort zone—through danger, hardship, and sacrifice—become all the more rewarding and are nearly always my favorite experiences.