For this photo-series Men’s Health magazine sent me to the Arctic circle to photograph Russian surfers.
It was a journey into an old world. A world that had existed behind the Iron curtain.
Surfing was not a state sponsored sport under the former Communist government. It had come from the west.
Surfing was and still is freedom – Freedom to be “at one” with the ocean, to cross borders, explore and find the next set.
Surfing is a counter culture, is it ready to be part of a world that hasn’t fully shed the harness of the old ideals?
Surfin’ USSR. The simple things are what set us free.
Words by Will Nicoll
Russia’s homegrown surf scene involves some of the harshest natural settings on earth.
We intend to travel to an abandoned city in the Arctic Circle and meet the ordinary men who travelled here, in hot pursuit of freezing surf.
Words like “extreme” would significantly undersell just how hostile the environment is. The town of Teriberka resembles a mock-up set from a “Mad Max” only the locals really do have guns. Roughly equidistant from both Moscow and the North Pole, the water is cold enough to kill while the Arctic waves thunder on to rocks which resemble a crocodile’s mouth.
The closest thing you’ll find to a cocktail-served-in-a-coconut is moonshine made from white spirit (which doubles as paint thinner for DIY). Camo is king. The Hawaiian garments preferred by U.S bros and semi-pro surf-jocks would mark their wearer as either “bear food” (or a delusional American spy). If The Beach Boys gave the West a rather lustrous take on Western freedom with “Surfin’ U.S.A” then Marat, Kostya and Sergey are here to provide the antidote. They’re literally “Surfin’ (the former) U.S.S.R”.
Waterfall, so named because Sergey; one of our surfers names the waves after landmarks, sits in a steep basin where detritus left by cargo ships litters the stones. The sea is wild, and crashes directly on to the boulders. The only way to enter the water even vaguely safely is by leaping from a rocky spit which stretches directly in to the ocean. Exit would ideally involve the same method but the wind is strong, and swell already exceeds 2.5 meters. This is probably the most dangerous element of surfing Teriberka. Low levels of Potassium can lead cramps to set in quickly. Anyone unable to paddle, will find the slippery, exhausting process of exiting the water practically impossible. If they’re unable to fight the tide, they’ll either be sucked in to the ocean, or washed in to shore — where it’s probable that they’ll be impaled on a stone.
Rocky-breaks create challenges for surfers everywhere — but Teriberka’s extremely challenging, because it’s extremely cold. On the beach, it’s about 10°c. The sea is approximately 12°c — but the first 2 centimetres of surface water (where the guys spend almost their entire time) are significantly colder. During Kostya’s last winter trip here, the land temperature hit -30°c. By comparison, the sea’s surface was a modest -2°c. As he adjusts his board’s 4 fins, Sergey recalls camping here with Kostya (in a two man tent dug in to the snow). “The first time I surfed it was crazy” Sergey observes. “My beard froze. There was ice all over my face. I was filming it, so the camera was in my mouth. When I came up for air I couldn’t breathe. I took three lungs of water,” he laughs. “I nearly drowned”. Kostya, who had been reclined on a nearby rock with the largesse of a male catwalk model is no longer present to endorse (or deny) Sergey’s titillation at their near death escapade. He’s already entered the sea — and is paddling like a huge man-seal towards a breaker.