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THE LAST WAVE: NORWAY

23/11/2020
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THE LAST WAVE: NORWAY

WORDS – Björn Alfthan //PHOTOS Sigurd Benum, Karen Martinez and Björn Alfthan 

Lockdown stirred the creative juices of reader Björn Alfthan, who peers into the future to present a fictional story set in the wild waves of Norway, five years from now check out his story which was featured in our August issue.


VOICES

I stir to the sounds of quiet but excited voices around me. A faint smell of disinfectant fills my nose. A harsh, bright light pierces my eyelids. A shadow moves across, creating a halo above me. I recognize the smell of coffee. I make an effort to open my eyes, but they refuse. “He´s awake, at last”, says a voice I don’t recognise.

In vain, I try to respond and say something, but my lungs and chest feel tight, and my teeth, lips and tongue feel massively bruised. I start to panic, and my heart starts to beat quicker and quicker. I cry out, but the only sound coming out of my mouth is a low groan. “Calm yourself. You need to rest. You’ve suffered a concussion, punctured lung, a few broken ribs and a broken ankle. You’ll do fine but you need to rest”, said the strange voice. I am confused and for the first time in my life, I don’t know where I am, how I got here or how long I´ve been lying here.

NEW START

It was going to be an exciting year ahead, despite the circumstances. My parent’s B&B was surviving. We didn’t get many international tourists anymore. But that wasn’t stopping locals from coming.

Cheap flights, and with it, mass tourism, came to an abrupt stop a few years ago. We could no longer fly whenever and wherever we wanted anyway, even if we had the money. They called it carbon rationing.

But I wasn’t really complaining. I’d had to abandon my university education to help out, but we were doing just about fine. Cash was short, but we learnt how to mend things and keep them going. We worked our small farm behind the B&B when the local tourist season was down and had a solid supply of fresh fruit and vegetables.

It also meant I was close to the only action that mattered: windsurfing. I could land push loops, stalled forwards, back loops and a couple of other wave tricks. I considered myself a decent jumper, but it was really in down-the-line conditions that I excelled. For me it was all about those calmer, float and ride days, where you had to fine tune your senses and display impeccable timing to hit the lip and get projected into the air and land back into the wave again. This year I´d even secured a spot in the top wave league and was hoping to impress enough to get sponsored.

The wave events were lean, mobile operations. It was just the wave sailors, the head scout, his assistant and the drone operator travelling around the coast. No crowds and no cheering on the beaches. All that had moved online now. Each sailor had his own drone following his every move, and a headcam on the now obligatory helmet – both streaming live. Real-time GPS sensors on the board relayed key stats including air time, speed, and even wave height. At home, a team of four judges sat behind their screens; their votes counted for half the total points. The general public could then vote for the other half. It had turned into a sizeable, online spectator event.

And the mobile operation was not just a choice, it was a necessity. When the so-called once-in-a-century storms started appearing every second or third year, things changed drastically. Access to parts of the coastline become impossible as roads and bridges were washed away. Much-loved breaks disappeared as the seabed shifted. Spots that worked best at low or mid-tide simply didn’t anymore. It became impossible to plan events months, weeks or even days in advance. Yet all this chaos created opportunity too. New spots were just being discovered, and we were often the first to windsurf them.

I liked to think we were living through a new, pioneering era of the sport.

LAST CHANCE

Today is the fifth and last event of the season. At least I hope it will be today. I’ve been sitting in my car in a lay-by on the main coastal road, huddled into my down jacket for several hours now, praying that the weather doesn’t get even colder or wetter. In cars to my left and right, I recognize familiar faces. There were even two foreigners amongst them who decided to stay here for the season. They told me they have a loyal online following back home.

There were 20 of us when we started the season. Now we are five. The rest either didn’t perform well enough to qualify for the final event, or broke their kit trying! The five of us have survived the season through a mix of uncanny luck, patience and some skill. I haven’t been scoring that well with the judges, but I’m not surprised, I can barely perform a goiter! But it seems the public like me and I like to think they have an eye for style. Stalled forwards and huge back loops, massive cutbacks, fluid riding and mountains of spray … those are the online crowd-pleasing manoeuvres. Anything beyond a 360 degrees rotation and you’ve lost them; the public doesn’t appreciate the technical skill it takes to pull off such moves anyway.

My phone buzzes and the coordinates come through. We’ve been directed to a farm along the coast. Rumours had been circulating for a few days now that the scouts were trying to gain entry to a point break recently just discovered by a handful of local surfers. The only problem was access, as it was through privately owned farmland. Apparently the farmer wasn’t too pleased when surfers started camping on his fields and acting like they owned the place. He’d even clamped a few cars and demanded a ransom payment to free them.

I reach the farm and drive between some buildings before a small, hand-drawn sign directs me down a gravel road. A middle-aged man standing by the side of the road gives me a broad smile. Presumably the scouts have come to a good arrangement with him; maybe he’ll get some online airtime to advertise his organic produce during the show? The weather is clearing and the wind is picking up. I take the opportunity to take in the scene for a minute. The view is stunning as the farming landscape gently rolls down towards the ocean. Swell is rolling into the bay in orderly lines, and white caps are showing. Far to the right, I can see a rocky, low-lying headland. I spot the crests of breaking waves and whitewater; the waves must be huge to be visible over the headland! A juggernaut of a wave comes into view as it rounds the headland, hugging the coast and peeling perfectly from right to left, it’s steep in the pocket and should allow for many turns!

I continue down the road and over a cattle grid. Not that they were needed anymore, as it was just crops these days. I guess it was cheaper to just leave them in. Down by the lower edge of the field, I spot the windsurfing association´s pickup with its several radio antennas and an empty trailer in tow. The jet ski must already be down by the water.

And laid out on the field are the crown jewels of the windsurfing association: its drones. Six of them evenly spaced about 2 metres apart. All state of the art, ex-surveillance drones capable of flying for 100 minutes and handling winds up to 50 knots. All now repurposed to stream this amazing sport live.

SHOW TIME

The water shimmers in the sunlight and gentle pulses of swell pass underneath my board. The wind gently picks up as I head out of the bay. Across my right shoulder the headland comes into full view, and I see a wave making its way towards me. The side-shore winds are blowing trails of spray off the top of the wave. The wave must be mast high at least. There seem to be three distinct sections. The deepest part of the wave looks to be the biggest, and is fairly fat and wide. Presumably it’s still deep water there. The wave steepens as it starts to hug the coast. A solitary, large rock stands in the way of the wave. The wave reforms after the rock to become a perfect surfing wave, glassy smooth and fast. Several peaks appear and at this point it seems the best option would be to pick one and go for a massive aerial.

My GPS watch is emitting a loud beeping noise and the screen has turned bright green, that’s the start signal. I glance over my right shoulder and I see the squadron of drones heading out like low-flying swans, one to each windsurfer. The sixth drone takes a higher line for a birds-eye view. It will scan for any dangers. Further back, the jet ski is making its way up to us from the launching spot, already half a kilometre away.

The beeping stops, and the 45-minute countdown begins! That’s it, we’re off! I steer my board downwind slightly to pick up speed. I am planing in an instant. My 4.4 sail and 83 litre board are perfectly matched to the conditions. I spot an opportunity to hit a clean, steep section of the wave and boom! I am airborne; I push my front foot forward, willing the board to reach higher into the sky. Out of the corner of my eye I see my drone now level with me, catching the whole show. I glance over my shoulder, spot my landing, and steer the nose down to enter the water. A near perfect back loop.

I continue out to sea, attempting to gain as much height as possible. To my right, a fellow windsurfer is upwind of me. I see him tack and head back towards the headland and the wave but I continue. I want to be in a strategic, upwind position, even if it means losing a bit of time. After another two hundred metres, I do a quick tack, turn my board around, and start heading back in.

It’s hard to do justice to the size of the swell. It’s like travelling along the crest of a moving valley. I see a large set coming in and ease off the throttle. I’m aiming for the fourth wave. Downwind of me, the others are getting into position. So far so good, I make my intentions clear and I am sufficiently upwind and far out to claim the wave. I charge down the crest of the swell, aiming to be as far upwind as possible. The swell starts to steepen and now over my right shoulder I can see the wave forming.

My positioning is perfect. My goal is to get into the pocket. I traverse down the breaking wave, crossing some whitewater and then do an aggressive bottom turn just ahead of the wave. I look up. I hit the steepest section I can see, and my board is violently projected back into the wave. The rock is approaching fast. I opt to bottom turn around it, meeting the steeper wave on the other side. This time I go for a carving cutback, looking for a steep but smooth face. I throw buckets of spray over the top before cutting back into the breaking wave.

It’s time now to go big. I pull my sail back slightly over my right shoulder to see the wave continuing to form over the next hundred metres. It looks like the whole thing will close out soon. I pick a high line, gathering speed and traversing across the wave. I see the wave about to offer a lip. I adjust my trajectory and go slightly deeper into the bottom turn before heading up the wave. Bam! I approach from below, not too deep, but deep enough to get a big projection into the air. I bring my right foot forward like doing a karate kick, before tucking it back in and spotting my landing ahead of the whitewater. Hopefully the drone caught that tweaked aerial in its full glory.

END GAME

My watch beeps, telling me there are 10 minutes to go. I´ve just finished my seventh wave ride. It’s difficult to tell how I was doing against the others. I´d seen two sailors go down with broken masts and the jet ski pick them up. But three of us were still going.

I´m deep downwind after that last ride. I notice the wind shifting and turning onshore. The water is choppy and the waves are no longer clean. My 4.4 sail can only just about get going. I decide to head out anyway for one last ride. I steer deep downwind in an attempt to get planing. I finally do, and head out, but this time it´s a good 30 to 40 degrees downwind of my original line. I ride those deep swell valleys up and down out to sea, my view of the next set obstructed by the sheer size of those monsters. Suddenly, my watch beeps again, emitting a red light too. A message flashes up, “Imminent danger, return to base immediately.” I´m just reaching the crest of a swell when suddenly I see a huge wall of whitewater bearing down on me. It’s a freak phantom wave and it’s too late to turn around; I charge downwind as fast as I can. I can´t outrun it, but I can gather speed. Just before the whitewater hits me, I steer the board upwind and launch into a huge rocket air, barely managing to hold onto my kit as the turbulent air kicks me around. I see the whitewater pass underneath me. I land, somehow having managed to hold onto my gear and remain upright. But I´ve lost all speed.

It’s not over. My heart is pounding like crazy. A second freak monster wave is bearing down on me. I steer downwind, hoping to outrun the wave, but the wall is too long and I don´t stand a chance. I opt for a gybe, turning a good distance before the whitewater and gathering a huge amount of speed down the swell. I´m going to outrun this thing!! But even as I think those words, out of the corner of my eye I can see plumes of whitewater darting out in front of me, above me and on both sides. I see my drone faltering in the sky. Even with my wetsuit hoody and helmet, the noise of the crashing wave behind me is deafening.

I take one last deep breath. In an instant my sail is ripped from my hands and I feel the board being whipped from under my feet. My feet are flung forward, still in the footstraps and then I am violently spun round and round. Something snaps in my right ankle, pain shoots up my leg. My lungs are at their limit and I fight the reflex to open my mouth and breath. Suddenly, its darkness.

RECOVERY

I feel my shoulder being shaken. I open my eyes. In front of me I see my parents and my brother. My parents look worried but wait for me to say something. My brother has a huge grin on his face, obviously happy to see me alive. “You had us all worried there for a few days!”, he said. “What happened?”, I managed to croak out.

“Your drone went down, but the control drone caught the whole action. The others all made it safely back, but you were already too far out. You got wiped out by a massive wave, we couldn’t see you in all the whitewater for about a minute or two. You were unconscious when the jet ski found you.” All the memories come flooding back and tears well in my eyes. The sheer violence of the impact, my ankle snapping, and the burning sensation in my lungs as I went round and round. My brother’s grin is undeterred. I see him looking to his left, at the bedside table. I turn my head and there stood a small trophy, fashioned from salvaged driftwood and in the shape of a board and sail. And etched into the base of the trophy, were the following words: Wave Champion of the Year 2025. I’d done it!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Björn Alfthan is a dual English-Finnish national who grew up in Switzerland and now lives in Norway on its south coast, where he works for GRID-Arendal, an environmental organization. He´s been windsurfing since 2015 and recently became obsessed with landing forward loops and is glad to report that he managed a full rotation and waterstart (with an almighty backslap to boot) at the end of June!

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