Tip of the Arrow

From Baltic slop to Roaring Forties juice, meet the unbreakable Odd Grimm Persson.

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Odd Grimm Persson might be a strange-sounding name in English, but in his native Swedish it means “the tip of the arrow.” It’s fitting, given how Odd came to surfing. He was raised in a tiny village on the Baltic Sea, where waves usually come at night in ferocious windstorms. 

“I would surf alone in the darkness,” Odd says, “sometimes by my dad’s car headlights. I learned not to be scared. I learned to love the strong wind and wild waves.”

Quickly, his surfing of “wild waves” sparked an interest in big ones.

“My dad took me to Mullaghmore, Ireland, when I was 16,” Odd says. “We watched guys towing in. All I wanted to do was be out there. The next day, I paddled into 15-foot waves for the first time. Chasing big waves became a calling.”

I met Odd in 2015. He was 18 and living in J-Bay. He asked if he could come out to Dungeons with me. I said no. But when I got out to the lineup the next day, he was already there, looking at me with sheepish defiance. I decided to help him. Over the next few years, and many sessions at South Africa’s big-wave spots, Odd became capable and comfortable in large surf. 

(Feature image) Far from home, Swedish national Persson commits to a steel-nerved drop at South Africa’s Sunset Reef—the spot that nearly left him paralyzed. (Above) Overcoming physical and mental injuries is, for him, just part of the big-wave game. 

In 2018, Odd, Matt Bromley, and I were surfing Cape Town’s Sunset Reef. It was 15 feet with sideshore wind. Matt and I watched Odd get hit by a set and washed 100 yards inside. He signaled for help. I got to him first. Odd was disoriented, mumbling, “I can’t feel my legs.” I kicked furiously under his limp body while supporting his neck. Matt paddled for shore, dragging the two of us by his leash. I’d ditched the other two boards, which were smashing against us in the whitewater. We made it a half-mile to the beach.

“I was concussed, and paralyzed from the chest down,” says Odd. “The second wave bent my spine the wrong way. When I got to the hospital, the doctor told me he thought my back was broken in two places. He did an X-ray to confirm his diagnosis, and when he came back, he thought he was looking at someone else’s results. He was so confused: My back was fine. I was up and walking again the next day. It’s a total mystery to me.” 

Odd was back out in big surf just a few months later, though the effects were long term.

“I was physically recovered, but my headspace was ruined,” he says. “Mentally and emotionally, it felt like I was beating my way through an overgrown path. I would spend hours lying in a dark room, depressed. Then I took two more huge wipeouts at Sunset and things got worse. I did a rugby concussion test and the doctor told me that another big hit could be life threatening. I got an appointment with a brain specialist, who told me to take a year off from big waves. I knew he was right, but stopping surfing for that year was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

While Odd was recovering, something unexpected from his wipeout was taking shape. We’d lost track of the boards we ditched during Odd’s rescue. I expected them to wash ashore in the following hours, but they never showed. A few weeks later, two hikers in a remote part of West Coast National Park spotted my board on the shoreline, nearly 100 miles from where I’d last seen it. Thankfully, I’d written my contact info on it. Eleven weeks later, Odd received an email from a tour guide who’d stumbled upon his board on the dune belt about 100 miles south of Walvis Bay, Namibia—a distance of roughly 850 miles from Sunset Reef. “Though my board had been at sea for three months,” Odd says, “it was still in perfect condition. I needed closure on that season of my life and decided that paddling it into a big wave at Sunset would give me that. Injury is something you have to live with. But I realized that while you can be pushed to the limits of fear, it’s only for a finite amount of time. We don’t get to stay in that place forever. We only get to pass through it. I think if you stop surfing big waves after a bad experience, then you weren’t meant to be out there in the first place.”

[Photos by Alan van Gysen]