The Arctic is home to extreme sports that push competitors to their limits: long-distance mushing, Native Youth Olympic games like seal hop, one-hand reach, and ear pull, lightening-fast snowmachine races, and now, surfing.
From May 5-11, more than a dozen of the most best surfers from all around the world gathered in Kamchatka, Russia to ride the icy waves of the North Pacific just below the Bering Sea.
“We wanted to go to different locations that are not especially known for surfing,” said Henning Erlandsen, an organizer for the 2014 Nixon Surf Challenge.
“There’s a lot of waves around the world, and what we’ve done in the last three, four years is we’ve gone to Norway, we’ve been in Iceland, and now Russia, with Kamchatka,” he said of the week-long, invitation only event put on by the Nixon watch and accessory company.
“Thing is, you don’t need to live in California, you don’t live in Oslo or France, to surf.”
With the water just above freezing, and surfers decked out in full wetsuits, hoods, and gloves—with cold creams and Vaseline covering what little exposed skin remained—they took to the waves for open, freestyle competition on the beaches of the massive peninsula that forms the far eastern border of the Bering Sea.
With winners judged by the surfers themselves, competitors spent as long as they wanted in the icy waters to perform their tricks and impress their peers.
“These guys, unbelievable, some of the guys stayed out there and surfed consistently for over three hours, four hours,” Erlandsen recalled, adding that it wasn’t just riding the waves, but the tricks and rolls and other athletic feats that made the event a showcase of top surf talent.
All of which Erlandsen said are part of the “new school” of surfing.
“What we mean with the new school surfing, or the more trick-oriented surfing, is that these guys are jumping up in the air and doing 180s or 360s on the board, and landing down in the face of the wave and keeping on surfing,” he described. “Sometimes they have no hands on the board and (are) still doing 360s or 180s.”
In the end, the winner of the weeklong event—as judged by the other surfers—was William Aliotti, a 21-year-old French surfer from a warm climate who took to the frigid environment like a seal to water.
“He’s from the French Caribbean, in St. Martin, so he’s used to surfing a lot of warm water,” Erlandsen said. “It was good to see him perform all these spectacular fun tricks in such (an) environment that we had in Russia, in Kamchatka.”
Second place went to last year’s winner of the Nixon Surf Challenge (which took place in Iceland), French surfer Vincent Duvignac. Third place went to Basque Country surfer Kepa Acero. Aliotti also took home an award for best trick.
As for what, exactly, Aliotti won for coming in first, Erlandsen could only chuckle.
“He wins the honor,” he laughed.