6x5mm Steamers anyone?
While down here in the land of Oz we complain about a short-lived cold current brought in by a north-easterly wind on an otherwise pristine autumn day, people are surfing in onshore slop, in 13 degree water wearing 6'5' wetties, hoods and booties in southern Finland. Surfing has spread to the most unlikely nations, from Dubai's wave pool, to Munich's standing river wave in the man-made Eisbach River, and even to swell-blocked and ice-clad Finland.
A few years ago I stumbled upon the Finnish Surfing Championships (yes they have their own yearly national comp) taking place in south-west France. Being from a Finnish background myself – and lucky enough to hold a dual passport – I found myself strangely eligible to enter. No doubt the women in my division thought me a blow- in, having never lived in the country, nor learnt to speak Finnish fluently.
Rain bucketed down in Biarritz for two weeks, the surf was crap, and the comp was postponed day after windblown day. On one soggy morning, as cabin fever began to encroach on all those staying at the Anglet backpackers, a chubby pair of Irishmen riding from Ireland to Africa on bicycles strode in to the common room, swept everybody up and into the pub by 10 am. The comp ran that day, and since I was drinking pints and listening to one Irish fella recite poetry while the other performed party tricks with his junk – by stretching his tackle this way and that to resemble various iconic structures such
as the Eiffel tower – I'll never know what may have been.
Although I did not leave the shores of Basque Country crowned a Finnish surfing queen, I did feel a certain curiosity about Finnish surfing thereafter. More recently, I got in touch with Juho Mikkonen, the 2014 Finnish surfing champ, to find out what it means to be a surfer living on the cusp of the Arctic Circle.
Finland – the land of 1000 lakes, of saunas, ice hockey, link sausages, vodka and Santa – is nestled between Sweden and Russia, bordered by the Baltic Sea. Off its south-western shore, an extensive archipelago of islands block the swell to most of the coastline and major cities like Helsinki. So where and when are there actually waves? Juho tells me that the big winter lows in the North Atlantic eventually come across Norway and Sweden and into the Baltic. But the Baltic Sea is so small that the window for actual ground swell is nearly non-existent on the Finnish mainland. Wind swell is much more common, and hence waves are nearly always accompanied by onshore wind. Sounds inviting huh?
There are three main surf regions in Southern Finland located in Porvoo, Hanko and Pori that are open to some surf, Juho tells me. The islands offer many more locations, and rumours of secluded waves come thick and fast over the summer months – but access can be restricted.
Out of a population of 5.5 million Juho reckons there are around 250 Finns surfng locally, with women making up around one third of this population. (The Finns are not only leading the way towards gender equality in parliament, but perhaps also in the line-up?)
The season starts when the ice melts (March/April), and finishes when it starts to form again (Dec-Feb). "During extremely mild winters," says Juho, "the season extends even longer, (thanks global warming) for those willing to dodge a little ice and brave a little frostbite." The national championships were held in Europe (Portugal, The Canaries, Morocco and France) until 2010, but have since been brought back to home waters. A Facebook group called Surf Suomi was originally set up to alert surfers of the date and details of the comp, but has since become the main surf related forum in Finland with 1800+ followers.
So when the Finns head out for the surf check and are greeted with a bit of messy wind swell, a freezing onshore belter and the prospect of struggling into 6 mm of rubber, how do they remain motivated? Finnish surfng, it seems, is a humble pursuit. "The anticipation of the next surf," says Juho, "the lack of high expectations, the beauty of nature and being in the water with good friends always makes for fun surfs in generally shit conditions. Once we actually get surf, we don't need to worry about the crowd, the tide, the exact swell direction, or if the wind switches. If there's surfable waves we're stoked."