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The Baltic Heart

Questing for Valhalla with Swedish surfer Freddie Meadows.

Light / Dark

“I think I’ve fucking had it, man. I think I’m done.”

Freddie Meadows had spent a month and a half alone on a frozen island. He hadn’t even surfed. He’d missed swells elsewhere, all because he’d committed to being here, just in case. He’d been thwarted by wind, fog, and darkness. 

This was the path he’d chosen, but all this solitude had become too much. Daylight appeared around nine o’clock in the morning, as much as you could call it light this far north in the winter, and was gone again by two o’clock in the afternoon. Nineteen hours of darkness for company. No phone signal, no conversation. Just the cold and the dark and the waiting. Always waiting. And so he’d had enough. 

“I felt so inadequate,” he says. “I felt weak, like I couldn’t handle what I needed to do. That I couldn’t handle my task.” 

*

Meadows seems to be a series of contradictions. The first professional surfer from Sweden, a country without any real waves. A successful career built on no real competition results or freesurfer profile. No surf industry sponsors, yet support from Breitling, BMW, and Oatly. Hunting for waves in the Baltic Sea rather than spending his life in boardshorts in Costa Rica. And visits to both a sports psychologist and a Viking seer. If surfing is the pastime of dreamers, dissidents, and seekers of a perfection that may not exist, Meadows could be its poster boy.

The world can look narrow through the eyes of a surfer. You dismiss whole countries outright, scything maps down to coastlines and airports. Sweden, then, is somewhere to ignore. It’s not a surf destination. If you grow up there, you might be many things, but you should never be a surfer. Except that’s what Meadows saw himself as. And what Meadows sees tends to happen. 

Growing up, he was shuttled back and forth between Åhus, Sweden, the birthplace of his mother, and London, where his father lived. There were also regular trips to India, where his father was born. He talks about growing up feeling disjointed, like he was never really full-time anywhere, but that his extended stays in Sweden felt most like home. 

His education was a battle. At 11, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, dyspraxia, and slight dyslexia. His parents were supportive, but he bounced around a series of expensive private schools in England, trying to find a fit. 

“It was frustrating as hell, especially for Dad,” he says. “My mum helped me find out what was going on, helped me understand why I wasn’t performing in any way. I apparently had this crazy IQ, so they were like, ‘Something’s not connecting in his brain.’”

Surfing was the focus Meadows was searching for, the one thing that captivated him. “I’d never felt a fire burn so big,” he says. “It wasn’t even a desire; it was a fuckin’ need.” 

He immediately acknowledges the potential cliché in his description. He talks about the ocean like it’s alive, as if he’s lifted it from some dismal attempt at surf fiction. But it sounds real when he says it. 

“It’s all I cared about as a kid,” he says. “What was going on in the sea? What was it looking like? How did it feel? What was it feeling?”

For years, most of Meadows’ surfing took place in his head. But as soon as he was 16 and legally able to leave school, he moved to Portugal to stay with the Lipke brothers, Marlon and Melvin, who were family friends. His parents were against it, but his vision was set. I ask him how realistic this was, aiming to turn pro having surfed only on holidays and never having entered a competition. 

“It was never realistic,” he says. “It was just something that had to happen.” 

He describes getting “smoked” in all the early contests he entered. But then, at 18, he made the quarterfinal of the European Junior Championships, battling through the repechage rounds to earn fifth place—then the best-ever result for a Scandinavian surfer. 

“You hear all your life how lazy you are,” he says, “and how you don’t want to do anything. And then all of a sudden you burn for something and you put in 200 percent more than anyone.” 

No novelty: Ocean or sea, all that really matters when a lump of swell throws over a rock shelf is being able to successfully slide under the hook. Meadows, finding nothing lost in translation. Photograph by Fredrik Skogkvist.

He competed for six years on the WQS. He never had the resources to do a full year, but entered all the European events. He recalls one 15-point heat and a quarterfinal of a 1- or 2-star. He can’t quite remember. He felt alone in competitions, an oddity rather than an equal. 

“In Sweden,” he says, “we thought of ourselves as the Jamaican bobsled team.” 

But competitions were never Meadows’ path. He’d had a vision, the dream of discovering waves in the Baltic Sea. 

Right at the start of his quest, Meadows spent four days and nights in the forest. Walking. Endless walking. Every so often, he’d break from the trees to examine another stretch of craggy coastline, hoping to see something. He found nothing. It didn’t really matter, though. He was home. 

He’d quit the competition scene and taken a gamble, against all advice. Everyone had written it off as a fantasy, said he was a fool or a dreamer. Yet “every cell in my body was singing,” he says. “I was walking through this land that had called to me. I had no expectations. I didn’t even care.”

Then, on the final night, the storm that had brought him there ended abruptly. It was as if someone had swung shut a heavy door and sealed him in a vacuum. Like the outside world had been paused. He emerged from the shelter of the fir trees and glimpsed what he’d been dreaming of: what the fishermen call gammal sjö, the old sea. Glassy ghosts of the storm that had passed. 

The swell was there, but it was dumping on dry rock. The reef didn’t look like he’d hoped. But there was one last headland. After that, he was done. Meadows remembers coming over the crest of the hill and looking into a gaping, spitting barrel. It was a wave that shouldn’t exist in the Baltic, one that defied logic. It was a wave worthy of children’s dreams. 

He called it “Valhalla.” It would prove both a gift and a curse.

*

Nothing about the Baltic Sea is conducive to surfing. A long, narrow body of water in the heart of northern Europe with an average width of 120 miles and a mean depth of just 180 feet. There are no tides and it’s mostly freshwater, so it’s far colder than most oceans. It’s technically a brackish water basin, rather than a sea. To further complicate any surf potential, there are 221,831 identified islands scattered around the Swedish coast.

“There’s so many variables here,” Meadows says. “Surf anywhere is already fickle. In the Baltic, add a hundredfold. Here it’s all about hours and minutes.”

Does Meadows ever feel like he’s backed himself into a corner? Like he’s stuck in the Baltic, chasing ghosts? Sometimes. But mostly he feels like it’s his calling. 

Meadows’ passion to explore here is palpable. He’s spent years studying bathymetry charts and maps, driving, walking, and paddling, mostly not actually surfing. It’s why Valhalla was a gift and a curse. He’s stacked all of his chips with his first bet. Now hes doomed to spend his life chasing it. 

“I’m completely obsessed by seeing how the Baltic can behave,” he says. “But it’s almost like I’m searching for something that might not be there.” 

As surfers, we’re all prone to fantasies—perfect walls tapering through our dreams. Meadows just never quite shook this vision. Most people in his position would be in Costa Rica, where his mother owns land, but his Swedish roots have pulled strongest. 

“I felt history here,” he says. “I didn’t feel it anywhere else. I have these magical experiences at these slabs, surfing alone. It’s a really spiritual experience. You’ve timed this really random weather phenomenon, and it’s all come together. You’ve put enough energy into being there, and you’re managing to reap it. I look up at the sky and I just scream. All of a sudden I know exactly who I am and what I should be doing. All the clarity is there.” 

I’m not surprised that Meadows has sold his vision so effectively that he’s attracted dream brands like BMW and Breitling. He even shared a manager with soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimović once. “When I was competing, I saw visions for what I wanted to create from surfing, and those ideas were never really with surf brands,” he says. “My father’s a fashion designer; I like quality materials and craftsmanship. I just saw this path.”

His father, Peter, designed Julia Roberts’ iconic red dress from Pretty Woman and is the current director of Hunza G, one of the world’s top swimwear brands, favored by the Kardashians.

Meadows’ expeditions are lessons in extremes. Most of his time is spent coping with the isolation and elements, waiting for the clear skies of opportunity. Once that opportunity presents, then it’s all go—lest he blink and it’s suddenly gone.  Photographs by Hampus Marcussen.

It’s not hard to see Meadows’ appeal. His Viking ancestry is undeniable. He looks like you want a Scandinavian explorer to look: lean and defined, with blond hair that permeates his eyebrows and rugged stubble. From our first contact, it’s apparent he communicates well; he’s polite without being obsequious. And Meadows listens. You sense his ear hears more than is said to him. 

But I wonder if it’s worth it, selling a vision that’s so unlikely. Is the reality not just a few rare novelty waves and pretty backdrops? 

“There are times where you do question it,” he says. “There’s a storm, you’re stuck inside, you can’t go anywhere. There’s no reception and you’re just too tired and too cold to do anything, and you’ve got to go outside to cook and there’s wind and rain, snow. And you’re just like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”

 When the self-doubt kicks in, Meadows seeks guidance. Last winter, driven mad by loneliness, he called Dennie Hilding. Hilding works as Meadows’ “mental trainer” and lives on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. When Meadows was ready to quit, Hilding steered him back on course, helping him to understand that what he was feeling, having spent so much time alone, was a perfectly logical reaction. “He actually switched it,” Meadows says. “Like, ‘A month and a half? You’re strong.’ And that changed the perspective for me.” 

Something Hilding says helps me, too, in my struggle to understand the choices that Meadows has made: “Freddie’s goal is to create a reality of his childhood visualization of Baltic waves.” 

I still can’t decide if following the literal dreams you had as a child is the most admirable or foolish thing I’ve ever heard. 

Meadows, between storm chases. Photograph by Måns Gullgren.

Does he ever feel like he’s backed himself into a corner? Like he’s stuck in the Baltic, chasing ghosts? Sometimes. But mostly he feels like it’s his calling. 

“It hurts when you struggle,” says Meadows. “You drive for 12 hours and you’re wrong, and it’s confusing. Youve taken up everyone elses time. And you dont know it it will even happen again in the next year. Sometimes it can make you question your connection, your knowledge, and the gifts youve been given by the sea. I truly feel like I have been given gifts. There’s too many things that have happened in the Baltic for me to turn a blind eye to that.”

*

I can’t shake the feeling there’s something like a penance in what Meadows does. But I struggle not to romanticize it: the battle against nature, the pursuit of an impossible dream. He will say that waves in the Baltic make him feel more alive than anywhere else. He will say that because of the time spent in preparation, the glimpses of success are even sweeter. But this all sounds like more cliché. I wonder if there’s something he can’t quite articulate.

So—and here comes the romanticizing—I wonder if it’s some kind of genetic memory. A haunting of his Viking ancestors. I pitch this to him, gently, during one of our conversations, feeling a bit foolish at my stereotyping. I’m surprised by his response.

 “I’m gonna tell you something that I’ve never told anyone,” he says. “When I sit in front of Valhalla, I close my eyes and breathe and listen to everything, and I have a mantra to Odin. And I get this feeling that I’m ready to do anything. This is exactly where I should be. I feel like I’m protected by…by, you know, my ancestors.”

I press him to explain what he means, knowing that it’s in some way an unreasonable demand. I sense his discomfort. 

“Unfortunately, here in Scandinavia it’s kind of hidden because it’s so connected to racism,” he says. “The racists rock Thor’s hammers, and they have Odin’s ravens on their backs as tattoos, and it’s so depressing. It’s like, you guys should be ashamed to call yourself Vikings, because we learned from so many different races and traded with so many different cultures, and so go fuck yourselves, really.”

Meadows isn’t political, he’s not religious in a formal sense, and he doesn’t follow any specific career path. It’s this aspect of his life that makes me think he’s got it all figured out. All you need to do is what you feel. Despite his reluctance to talk openly about his beliefs, Meadows does feel it’s a guide. 

“In a way, it’s kind of a path, a calling to make that okay again,” he says. “I’m proud I feel so connected to this place. And it’s not a political thing. It’s a natural element thing. It’s a spiritual thing. It’s not a government thing. It’s not even a country thing. It’s the land, the earth, the animals, the history, the depth, the genes.”

Genetic memories are real. No one needs to teach you to be wary of a snarling dog or to duck a flying rock. But they can be powerful, life-affirming experiences you feel you’ve had before, blossoming like rootless flowers in your mind. They are a glimpse of something that’s an intrinsic part of you, but a completely unexercised faculty. And this sense of who you are—or perhaps who you were—is strongest in connection with landscapes. The rocks beneath your feet, the trees above you, the soil under your fingernails. All of it is many, many years older than you. The land is stoic, unflinching. Maybe these feelings are borne of the desire to re-wild ourselves. To break free of lives that have become endlessly scheduled, predictable, easy. It is the wild within us, and it’s like an extraordinary drug. I believe Meadows feels something. 

In some ways, he seems trapped between the old world and the new. On one hand, his life is made possible by corporations, capitalism, technology, and, above all, the luxury of time. Yet on the other, he’s attuned to nature, trusts in his instincts, and is quite prepared to be led by visions, 800-year-old Norse poetry, or the seer he visits. 

I ask him to explain the latter. 

“A seer is how the Vikings would talk to the gods, via a person. Like a clairvoyant,” he says. “She’s next level, man. She just basically told me who I was in a nutshell.” She even guides his search for waves. “I go to find out that I’m on the right path. But when I ask her about waves, she won’t tell me a physical place…it’s all in riddles.” 

When I press him, he’ll say he doesn’t invest in it completely, but he can’t discount it, either. He has Hilding, too. He’s covered all bases. 

The night after our last conversation, I dream of snakes. They’re all around me, coming out of my chest and my stomach, heads waving, eyes staring. Each one has Freddie Meadows’ face. It sounds sinister, and perhaps comical, but it was neither. It was manifest of my desire to tie everything together, and it’s apt that this is how it presents to me. It took me a while to understand it, or maybe to accept it as truth, but this is what Meadows is doing, just like Hilding said—trying to turn dreams into reality. I wrestle with the sense that I’m bending to his narrative. That it can’t just be as simple as that. But it doesn’t matter. We all have our own stories. If you believe in them, at some point they become the truth. 

*

The idea of untapped waves on your doorstep is alluring. Waves only you will look for, let alone surf. Waves you can’t drive to or find with fuzzy satellite images. Waves you need to spend hours trekking through pathless terrain just to lay eyes on. And even then, knowing you could turn your back only for some tiny intricacy in tide or wind or swell to change it, and you’d never know. There’s magic in this. 

In the Baltic Sea, these waves exist, even if it is only once or twice a decade. Does that make them worthless, or the absolute peak surf experience? 

Freddie Meadows is searching for something. I alternate between thinking he’s a genius and a charlatan. One day, I’m certain he’s got it all figured out. The next, I think he’s just as lost as the rest of us. Maybe more so.

“I have a vision of a wave,” he says, “and that’s what I need to find. It’s flawless, and it’s looking like only the Baltic can look, and I’m there. And then I’m done.”

Any wave scores, few and far between as they may be, only reaffirm his commitment to place and, as a result, purpose. Photograph by Fredrik Skogkvist.