Iceland’s finest surfer, surfing the world’s coolest waves: Georg Hilmarsson

Iceland’s finest surfer, surfing the world’s coolest waves: Georg Hilmarsson
July 4, 2009 Kaja Cencelj

Georg Hilmarsson is an ordinary surfer, living in an extraordinary place. Georg has the distinction of being one of Iceland’s very first year-round, native surfers. Regardless of the cold air, cold water, and generally harsh conditions, Georg is truly stoked. (And no, it never does get warm.

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An Aussie Beginning
Born and raised in Iceland, Hilmarsson moved to Perth, West Australia with his mother when he was 10 years old, where he picked up surfing and was hooked immediately. Living right on the beach made his transition to surfing as simple as another young bloke falling into the rhythm of the Australian way of life. Hilmarsson picked up the Australian accent quickly, and says, “People didn’t know I was a foreigner until I told them my name.” He fell right in with a local surf crew, skipping school, partying, surfing and partying more. In his time in Perth he traveled south frequently, regularly surfing the Margaret River area. Hilmarsson moved back and forth between Australia and Iceland a few times over the years – from one of the earth to another – finally moving back to Reykjavik for good in 1997. He took all of his equipment with him. Hilmarsson quickly hooked his older brother Ollie, who he now describes as “Iceland’s best windsurfer, without a doubt”. He fondly remembers his first surfs in Iceland, where he, his brother and a handful of other brave souls would tackle the inhospitable conditions with all the fervor of stoked young groms.

A crowded break of 15 locals
While Iceland hasn’t quite developed a surfing “scene”, it has produced a number of talented, year-round surfers who have managed to turn what one would think to be a passing fad (especially in Iceland) into a lifestyle. There are about 15 (yes, only 15) guys who are always on it and truly dedicated to the sport, then there are another larger number of fair weather surfers (not that Iceland has much fair weather), who only pop out once in a while. Hilmarsson says that all of the regulars know each other, and they tend to be a pretty collegial group overall. They even have a number of transplant locals, with the addition of Iceland’s first year-round sponger just a few years back. The beach scene as we know it in Australia, California and other points around the world is all but nonexistent. Says Hilmarsson: “There is no scene. In Iceland, you go surfing… and when you’re done, you hurry up to get changed because it’s freezing”. While there are too few surfers in the country to define a stereotypical Icelandic surfer, they are all in it for the same thing, love for surfing. Hilmarsson’s fellow surfers include programmers, pilots, dental technicians, artists and the unemployed.

Summer all-night surfing sessions
Despite the cold, Hilmarsson finds plenty of stoke in the land of the midnight sun. He talks of memorable sessions during summer, when the sun never sets. Entering the water before midnight, on several occasions he’s surfed until 2:00 or 3:00 am. Sounds great, but it comes with a significant downside: The winter can be harsh; extremely cold with very little light. Says Hilmarsson: “I remember one time when I went surfing in winter for just under an hour. In that time, we had sunlight, then full cloud coverage, then a snowstorm, then a hail storm, then offshore winds, which quickly changed to howling onshores. As they say, if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes.”

Don’t even think about heading to Iceland without equipment
Adding to Iceland’s difficulty for your casual traveling surfer is the fact that buying surfing equipment locally is rarer than a warm day in Reykjavik. As generous as the locals can be, surfboards and wetsuits are too hard to come by to loan out to a random traveler. There are a few skate shops and ski and snowboard shops in Reykjavik that import some equipment for the locals, but it is more frequently acquired abroad, or by visiting surfers. (Hilmarsson was recently the beneficiary of the later, as yours truly recently couriered a new Channel Islands Pod for him.) Visiting pro surfers have also been kind enough to leave equipment with the locals. Dan Malloy generously gifted a big gun to Hilmarsson while in Iceland on a surf trip to shoot the sequel to Taylor Steele’s Sipping Jetstreams. Word is that Dan loved Iceland so much he was ready to throw down roots there on his first trip.

Overcrowding is a problem
Though the Reykjanes peninsula, which Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital and largest city) sits on plays host to a wide variety of surf spots, Hilmarsson and his friends think nothing of traveling around the country in search of better or uncrowded waves. “Uncrowded” from an Icelandic perspective means no more than two surfers in the water. Hilmarsson was quick to complain about an end of summer session where there were nearly 15 guys surfing at the same spot, at the same time. (Sounds like an empty lineup in California). So, where does he go to get away from it all? “Up north,” he says. “It’s a little bit colder there, but no crowds.” His brother Ollie lives all the way north in a small town called Dalvik, where he is a geologist and programmer. Hilmarsson says, “Ollie moved up there a while back to follow his better half. They are full into the mountain scenarios and skiing, thus up north is the place to be.” The Hilmarsson brothers and friends have explored a huge area of coast in the north, as well as most of the south of Iceland. Says Hilmarsson: “Well, these places aren’t really hard to get to if the weather is good and there isn’t too much snow. When traveling in winter though, a lot of places could be really hard to get to since remote areas are not snowplowed regularly.”

As for water hazards, other than the remoteness of most breaks, the lava reefs, and the ever present chance of a volcano opening up where you’re surfing, there are a few natural predators lurking off the waters of Iceland. Says Hilmarsson: “Well, although I haven’t seen sharks personally, we (the surfers) like to believe that the sharks here in Iceland don’t eat meat. But, I saw in the newspaper some time ago a fishing boat picked up a huge shark in the net with half of a large seal in its stomach. Who would have guessed?” According to Hilmarsson, there are a lot of orcas around some areas, and he’s had a couple of close encounters with huge whales while in the water. Fortunately for him, all of the aquatic life he has encountered to date has left him well enough alone.

Hilmarsson is passing the stoke on to his family as well. He and his beautiful fiancée have two children, a baby girl named Saerun, and a little boy named Brimir, both names roughly translating to waves or surf. He’s already prepping both for a future in the ocean, with daily trips to the pool. When he’s not working or surfing, Hilmarsson spends most of his free time with his growing family and pursuing his artistic pursuits, with a passion for painting. As an aside, Hilmarsson has one of the coolest jobs on the planet: he is a concept artist for a computer game company in Reykjavik called CCP, designing for EveOnline. “I get to draw spaceships for a living,” he says.


What is the future of surfing in Iceland?
According to Hilmarsson, more and more people pick it up each year. Though he doesn’t think we’ll see a professional surfer come out of Iceland anytime soon, he does see the possibility of Iceland producing some seriously talented second generation surfers. As for further exploration, he says, “We will be picking up and finding more and more good spots….. there are plenty out there to be uncovered”. He believes that now that he and his friends have laid the ground work for surfing as a viable activity in Iceland, the lifestyle will continue to take off. Though he contends that the distance from population centers will keep a big surge in surfers at bay, saying, “It’s always work to get to the beach and there are not a lot of people living by the good breaks. You almost always have to drive an hour to get a wave. Hopefully, this will keep the good spots uncrowded for the time being”.

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