Iceland isn’t the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of surfing destinations. However, a small, dedicated group of surfers have carved out a niche for themselves in the island’s frigid northern waters. Now that modern wetsuit technology has finally enabled them to practice their craft year-round, the island’s surfing community has grown exponentially in just one generation. That growth is due largely to one break, Thorlakshofn, and the surfers of Iceland are fighting to make sure it isn’t lost to them forever.
“The Thorlakshofn point break is the only consistent surf spot we have in Iceland,” wrote Steinarr Lár, Chairman of the Icelandic Surfing association. “It is much like Trestles in San Clemente in the sense that it breaks both right and left. The right breaks for up to 300 yards on good days. The bottom there consists of round boulders that groom the wave. This is pretty special as most of our coastline is recent lava which is very rough and does not produce waves.”
Steinarr went on to explain that the wave at Thorli is a rarity for that part of the world. Dramatic northern tides and a reliance on low-period wind swell, due to a lack of groundswell, mean that most breaks on the island will only have 1-2-hour window where they’re surfable. The fact that Thorli breaks 24/7 makes it the focal point of Icelandic surfing.
“We have built our surf culture on this wave,” said Lár. “We have seen a growth of the sport here from three surfers to over a thousand surfers within 20 years. This would not have happened without the wave in Thorli.”
However, according to Lár and the Icelandic Surfing Association, Thorli is in danger. Plans to enlarge the local harbor would involve replacing half of the wave with a rock armored land reclamation. Not only that, but an analysis performed by DHI at the request of the ISA claims that the reclamation would create reflected waves (backwash) that would render the remaining half of the break unsurfable. Lár also says that the reclamation “would also create a death trap as you would be unable to get out of the ocean with the enormous rocks that create the landfill wall.”
The project has created controversy even outside of the surfing community. The harbor expansion is being spearheaded by a German mining company called Heidelberg, which plans to build a factory in Olfus. Heidelberg, along with its Icelandic business partners, have been accused by local media of trying to buy the goodwill of the townsfolk through grants to local organizations. The company also owns the house the mayor currently lives in, though he denies that this is a conflict of interest. We reached out to Hedielberg for comment, but have not received a reply.
“Both the locals and the Icelandic environmental agency have voiced their concerns with the harbor plans, but the mayor in Thorlákshöfn simply replies that this is not a national decision but a local one where they hold the power to do what they see fit,” elaborated Lár. “Nevertheless they cannot, according to Icelandic law, change the coastline without the approval of the Icelandic environmental agency. Two years ago, they started enlarging the harbor without the approval of the environment department of Iceland, but the daily fines are low compared to the costs of the project and would simply get lost in the overall budget.”
In response, the Icelandic Surfing Association has started to take steps to stop the destruction of Thorli. The ISA has begun working with harbor designer Simon Brandi Mortensen and the Australian company DHI Group to propose alternate designs for the harbor that would keep the wave intact. If that doesn’t work, Lár has vowed that they will file a civil suit and file a court case to fight for the wave. They’ve also created a means for others to voice their support for Thorli by signing the change.org petition here.