, Lea brassy & Vincent Colliard

Greenland/Iceland 2011

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Aboard a polar yacht and Midnight sun surfing, with Vincent Colliard and Léa Brassy, 2 journeys in 1, May and June 2011, by Léa Brassy.

Since Vincent and me first watched Taylor Steele movie “Castles in the sky” we have been dreaming about the dark blue waters of Iceland. It sounded like a green jewel covered by rocks and smoke, moss and horses. The “rock”, lost in the North Atlantic Ocean, is constantly beaten by strong winds and big swells. No wonder why it’s land of fishermen and fairy tales.

We departed France mid May on a Friday 13th on board a sailing boat called Vagabond. The captain offered us to be crewmembers from France to Greenland. This vessel is the logistic support of scientific researches in the polar region. Eric and France are pioneers of wintering in the Arctic. Our journey brought us from Brest, in Northern France to Kilmore in Southwest Ireland for a first stopover and then to Islay in Scotland for a second one. We crossed the North Atlantic Ocean directly from Islay toward the Cape Farewell of Greenland.

Crossing the North Atlantic Ocean was not quite as easy as expected. We were told by some respected Basque navigator that there is no "small departure" when you go north. He was true. One low pressure after the other, head winds and large swells were our companions of watch. It did not help us to suffer of seasickness and the first few days were pretty hard to handle. Vincent and me were on watch together from 5 to 9 in the morning and at night. Then the four others, Eric Brossier, the captain, Piem, his brother and two young kids from the navy were turning. From the beginning, being the only woman, I was chosen as the cook. Well, not the best place to be in 30 degrees of angle, but not the worst either as the guys had to deal with the engine room. At the end, I think my job was very pleasant! The food, in the middle of the ocean for two weeks, is a precious source of joy for everyone. Keeping the belly full helps good mood aboard!!!

About little annoyances, we had a leak of salt water in the drinking water and diesel tanks. I had to fight with myself to be able to swallow this terrible taste salty water, which made me even thirstier. Vincent, who’s very strong with seasickness, was coming back white as snow from the engine room. He had to spend lots of time filtering the gasoline and nobody would envy this task! Going on deck to trim the sails was a well-deserved very-expected moment as it was a great time to take a breath. At any time we were secured with a lifeline, it would be dramatic to fall overboard so far out at sea. And the Ocean was not calm at all. We met four low pressures in a raw, quite unusual in May. It was nothing like a cruise over the Atlantic but a real adventure, with some challenging parts, including both physical and mental little challenges. The boat is not efficient with headwinds and sails power had to be pushed by motors all time. And even though, one day, due to a very unfavourable head wind, we stepped back. I was becoming slightly grumpy as we felt like we were never going to reach our waypoint. To keep our mental good, apart from our little routine and good meals, we focused on weather charts and ice maps. It helped us considering the navigation around the Cap Farewell to feel ready when it would happen.

One morning, after an hour of watch, not quite woken up yet, I saw a small piece of ice floating above the water. The weather was slick and grey that day. I felt something going nuts in my belly, like a big present for all the hard time we had had. Slowly we were surrounded by ice floes and a couple of icebergs appeared on the horizon line. We got very excited and as soon as our watch was over, we started climbing the mast to see further and discover the ice all around us. All the tiredness of the crossing disappeared in no time; the ice is all we were expecting. It was a magical reward. The ice field was breathing in and out with long lines of swell. The vessel was going along the ice where Leopard seals, seagulls and stern were living their life. Our way through the ice lasted for a day, after what it feels safer to be back on the open water.

Shortly after we made a first stop in south of Greenland to pick up France, Eric’s wife and their two daughters Léonie and Aurore (4 and 2 ½). During one week we sailed northward through several fjords, which were eventually filled up with ice and gave us some arch time again! When we reached Nuuk, in Greenland, we took back our boards from the cabin. They crossed the Atlantic on one of our two banks. We did not want to leave them on deck as our friend and talented shaper Sonis had made them especially for our trip in Iceland. Vincent and me had to share the tiny bank left, and off course it was situated on the wrong side and kept pushing us in the net. Well, now is time for surfing, lets forget the bad sleep and dirty hair, we will just remember the magnificence of the ice and the friendship of the captain.

Nothing is brighter, apart from diamonds maybe, than the ice cap we flew over to reach Reykjavik in Iceland. Arriving from this destination, we landed in the tiny airport right in town. Magni, manager of Iceland 4x4 car rental was here waiting for us with the car he was going to lend us for the entire trip. Dynamic, efficient and with a cynical but delicious sense of humour, he was really like he had sounded to me during all our correspondence by email.  Soon we met with his son Heidar and went along very well. With a red pen he pointed us on the map all the spots, included potential ones. Our excitement was growing as the map was being filled up with precious information. Heidar jumped in the car and we went on the road for some surfing. Heidar is classic. Eighteen years old, absolute surf addict. All he does is for surfing and all he wants is surfing. It’s pretty amazing to see the power of the passion in his life. How it can change life, just because it gives the thrill. It reminds me how surfing is powerful in my life too, and how it’s evidence to me.

Now that we are ready for some action, aware of where to go, lets consider the charts. A short period swell, 4 to 5 feet, will pop up for a couple of days maximum. After that the swell looks fickle and it’s a bit bitter after all the bad weather we had out at sea during the crossing of the North Atlantic. From what the locals told us, there were a few really good shots in May, while we were all spewing overboard!!!

Before going on a road trip looking for news waves, we want to sea what the Peninsula looks like when it properly breaks. With this Southeast swell, there are two options, a sucky, doubling-up and fast left-hander or a long and smooth with a fasting inside right-hander. Iceland is a volcanic land therefore the best waves break on sharp lava rocks. A few beaches though, but mainly for beginners or very long teeth, hungry ones. Considering the fact we will have to get used to our 6mm full suits, we choose the gentle right-hander. When we show up, the line up is flat as my hand. Absolutely desperate, we go for a new check online at the local library and can’t realise the swell doesn’t hit the coast. When we go back to the break a couple of hours later, a long powerful and perfectly shaped right-hander peels along the shore. The swell came was just late. In a second, our faces change from absolute disappointment to absolute happiness. That’s what surfing makes of you…

After four weeks of harsh sailing, lots of logistic and transportation, we finally reach our goal: surfing Icelandic jewels. There is only the two of us and a swarm of ducks; cheeks being taught how to go out of the lagoon without getting washed away by the big waves. We take our time for a quick dinner and a long check to the spot. We prepare our brand new boards with special care. I’m overexcited about trying my Green-one, new eco-friendly concept made in France. Sets come in with consistency. “Léa, Léa, check that one!!! Waaaoouuhhh !!!” calls Vincent every two lines. It’s bubbling up in my body and in my mind, I am so keen. It’s 9 pm. The light turns to a warm and shiny yellow. Got dressed up in a minute, we paddle out by the lagoon. It takes a few minutes before I start feeling the water through my thick wetsuit, hood, gloves and booties. The peak is like a perfect A-frame with a short left while the right is long with a pushing up wall. The water is clear, blue-green and reasonably cold. I take off on my first wave and directly catch up with the great sensation of gliding and speeding. Something calms down all my soul when I feel that. That new board, short with bigger volume than usually, is perfect for the conditions and the cold, I start loving it from the very first turn. When I paddle back out for a new wave, Vincent takes off on a set one; the glassy wall is just perfect. His first manoeuvre spreads on me golden drops and we both laugh and shout in the air how happy we are to share this perfect timing with the Ocean. For three hours we take wave after wave to satisfy ourselves, fill up our mind with pictures and get a fix of salt water. The golden light remains for hours and when, exhausted, we finally come in after midnight; the light is slightly weaker but already keen for a new sunrise. It will never be dark; June is the month of the midnight sun. I fall in Vincent’s harms; we both think that magical moments like these have no price.  Time to get back in our warm clothes, boil some water for a cup of tea and here come some locals, around midnight, for a little surf. While we were telling them how great was our surf, the wind starts rising strongly and it was over. The local guys, after a quick disappointment, kept on their night out, drinking a couple of beers and smoking their pot. During the midnight sun season, surfing is part of the party, and they often go for a 3 am session instead of a nightclub session!

In the early morning we pick up our friend and photographer Laurent Masurel. We had already informed him that the swell was going to go away very quickly and we had to get the best of it, while it was here! We gave it a go at the hollow doubling up left-hander. On the low tide, all the seaweeds are uncovered of water and the break is on the background of a field of brownish slippery weeds. Fast take off with poor shoulder; it’s nothing like we’ve been told it can be. A couple of good visions though and a very good atmosphere in the water with the four locals out that day. This wave is their favourite. We decide to move to the jewel we surfed the previous night. We drove over an hour in a monotonous lava rock landscape. The wave is breaking with the same perfection, clean and pretty but maybe not as consistent. Laurent, who discovers the place, is very keen and starts shooting from the shore, with an interesting point of view, which first surprised us and later enchanted us, when we saw the pictures. He is a very talented photographer, and I very trust him when it comes to get the best of a place and atmosphere. Having him with us for the trip in such a busy period is an honour. Laurent is also a funny character. I travelled a few times with him and we often laugh about all our blunders on trip.

We settled the camp in front of the lagoon, on the side of the wave. It’s a horse field and we have to deal with these friendly animals. They are curious about us and come along many times. We have a big tent and a very basic kitchen in the boot of the car. We thought that if someone had his little tasks it would be easier. Vincent is in charge of the set up of the camp, I’m in charge of the catering and Laurent is behind the camera.

The swell last for one day on the beautiful right-hander before it became flat. We decided to move on south, maybe some beach breaks would catch up more swell. When we look at the forecasts, a hypothetical swell could hit eastward tomorrow and after it’s all purple blue around Iceland: nothing at all, no swell, zero waves, absolutely flat. So we drive, all night, through green fields and waterfalls. We even jump on the ferry for a little Island offshore; we found strong wind and no waves, come back and keep driving. The light become interesting around 2 am and every quarter of an hour Vincent is pleased to stop the car, and then Laurent and me can have fun with our cameras. So it goes for hours until we reach a fantastic place where the glacier fills up a lagoon with ice floes. We are shortly after the eruption of a volcano and there is a surprising hash topping on the floes, like a cacao topping on tiramisu. At 4 am the sun starts showing up. An especially interesting cathedral of clear ice, geometrical and transparent appears in the big lagoon. I paddle out for the fun. I’m quickly in another world along this piece of art. I can hear crackles and drops, and nearly I can feel the thing moving. Half asleep and half awake, not quite sure this is happening.

The place is fantastic but nothing to be surfed. We drive back and stop on a long black beach we had checked during the night. About ten kilometres of sand before we reach the shore, like an oasis in the desert. With the shape of the beach and the current, a left-hander breaks but does not seem very regular. In fact, out there, it’s an absolute mess and only the atmosphere of the beach is worth getting wet. Here we put the camp, at the bottom of very high cliffs which ages ago were the crater of a volcano. The place is weird, like camping on the moon! We collect drifted wood for a little fire camp to keep us warm around a glass of wine.

Waves forecasts make us considering that June is really not consistent enough for such a surf trip. Quite expensive for a surfing destination, you don’t really want to be waiting waves for days. A Sunday morning, after checking online forecasts, nothing in the next week, we make a “meeting” between the four of us in a natural hot tub and considering there won’t be more action, we decide we probably have to go back home to our jobs, save some money and come back later, with snow and decent swells.