The fierce wind hits the stony beach. Some people in warm clothes with their hoods up stand shivering in the wind.
I used to spend some winters in France surfing on snow so I can imagine the attraction, but I still have a hard time fathoming the enthusiasm some people show for the water variety, climbing into their wetsuits in the Swedish winter cold.
They don’t seem to care. If there is a wave to catch, then all is good.
The general public in Sweden might not have a clue about it, but you can surf up here in the north, and Torö in Stockholm’s Southern archipelago is no secret. It’s a very well-known surfing spot and seems to attract more and more avid surfers.
You run into both Swedes and a few foreign visitors, most of them brought back to Sweden by Swedish girlfriends they’ve met on sandier, sun-scorched beaches. But surfers are a rare breed, and if you have to brave these Nordic elements to get your fix, then so be it.
It’s cold, real cold, but the coldest season, when the storms of the late fall rage, actually seem to offer the Torö regulars the best quality surfing in Sweden.
Lately, with the help of internet of course, it seems everyone is finding out when and where there’s a surfable wave, and I hear the line-up at Torö is getting busier each year.
The upsurge in demand for these waves would obviously also have to do with the fact that so many Swedes travel the world and get acquainted with surf culture while on holiday in warmer climes.
In 1963 there were two million surfers world wide – now there are over 25 million. Stockholm is obviously not the only urban area that has seen more and more people surfing, whatever available waves there are to ride. New York has seen an extreme upsurge in surfers, from the crowded near-town Rockaway Beach to local outposts further out like Sandy Hook and various Long Island breaks all the way to Montauk.
But despite all the water within the urban area, Stockholm doesn’t really offer any urban surfing options like Rockaway. The spot of choice is still Torö, which lies quite a ride away from the city.
Surfing in Sweden
Stockholm’s first meeting with surf culture was just over 100 years ago during the 1912 Olympics, when the Hawaiian surfing Godfather Duke Kahanamoku – The Big Kahuna – came here to win a gold medal in swimming. I don’t know how much he advocated the joys of riding the water but a lot has happened since, even though it took some time. Despite his golden efforts, there was never much surfing going on by these shores until about 35 years ago.
“I was windsurfing with home-built sinkers in the early 80s,” says Ants Neo, a Stockholm surfing veteran. “I moved on to surfing one morning with no wind, when the waves continued to come in towards the beach at Fårö. That’s when I stopped putting a sail up on the board.”
He’s been a Torö local for many years, and sings it praises. “Torö is very good. And it can hold a lot of surfers, because of the many beach breaks along the strand. The waves actually get quite powerful, especially compared to elsewhere in Sweden, mostly due to Sweden’s deepest sea bed being outside it,” he says.
The problem the Stockholm surfing crew faces is that the weather only permits good surfing every once in a while – and it changes rather quickly, so they better keep one eye on their weather apps at all time and be ready for a swift take off.
“It requires at least 10 m/s with the wind preferably coming from 10-30 kilometres south of Torö to create good enough waves. It’s actually not that important how much the wind actually blows on Torö itself,” Ants explains.
I speak to Nina Waltré, one of the few girls who surf Torö, and she says she has several weather apps – when and if most of them say the same thing you go in hope it will be good surfing.
“I’ve actually never been when you couldn’t surf at all. But if worst came to worst, you’d at least get a fantastic walk.”
Ants has even taken a basic weather education to be well-equipped in forecasting the conditions. He talks of some of the most extreme conditions he’s seen at Torö.
“Some years ago during the winter time we were out in hurricane winds over 36 m/s. The beach was gone, the water went all the way into the trees, with like six metre thick tsunami waves. It was like paddling against the flood. In the end I reached the line up which was maybe two hundred metres out. I took a deep breath and got scared. I was thinking about what would happen if my suit went bust or if the board hit me in the head. No-one would be able to save me. I was alone and thought I better take a wave back towards the beach, without freaking out. I took a wave on my belly, that was enough that time.”
Despite the waves for the most part being far from world class, the Torö crowd seem to be a happy bunch. “Everyone is so happy to be surfing at all so that’s what makes the great atmosphere,” Nina tells me.
“I have been living abroad for a long time and until last year I had only been surfing outside of Sweden. But once in a while I’d meet some Swede in Indonesia or somewhere and I heard a lot about Torö. I was wondering if it was at all surfable and just how good it actually was. The first time I went down to see the beach, I was surprised by how many people were there. It didn’t really look much surf-wise and it was raining and with real cold winds, but it was so much fun. The atmosphere was so good, I was just met by all these huge grins by all these happy people.”
There are plenty of other surfable breaks along the near Stockholm coastline, but Ants tells me people are reluctant to talk about them. “That’s a very sensitive subject among us surfers. You don’t reveal the secret spots, especially not officially. But I can say there are some good spots north of Stockholm too, even all the way up to around Gävle. Some of them can be very good when it’s the right conditions. Sadly, they’re not as frequently working as Torö, they cannot hold as many surfers, and they are considerably worse at a higher water level than what Torö is. Plus they require more wind to work.”
I’m eager to find out just how large the community who surf regularly in Stockholm is. “I would hazard a guess that there are around 1,000 surfers in the whole of Sweden now although it doesn’t get very “regular” for anyone, “Ants says.
Nina surfed Torö about once every other week all through the fall. “It’s so dependent on the weather conditions, it might only be working for a few hours.”
“I’m not a super professional surfer but I love to come out. There can be over 40 people and it gets fairly crowded in the water at times, but there’s so much space at Torö. It’s so much fun and it’s so beautiful.”
It is, but it’s got to be the cold that prevents even more people to come to get a slice of the action. “Winter surfing works surprisingly good,” Ants says. “The water is ‘warm’ all the way up until the ice sets. But to be surfing during the early spring on the other hand is incredibly cold!”