In June 2015, I met Thor Frantzen while researching a story on Arctic Norway’s beautiful Lofoten archipelago, with art director Rickard Westin and photographer River Thompson.
On a sunny summer’s day in the Arctic, Thor Frantzen is in his happy place: with a black coffee and a roll-up cigarette, looking out over Unstad, the beautiful little surf bay on Lofoten’s north coast where he founded a surf camp in 2003.
Thor’s Hawaiian shirt suggests a certain loucheness, and his sonorous voice is perfect for his deep well of stories. By far his best, and most well-worn, is that he was the first person to surf in Norway, along with his old friend Hans Egil Krane, at Unstad back in 1963.
“We were teenagers at the time, working on the ships to make money,” he says. “Hans Egil had been to Australia on a ship and got to know some surfers on Bondi Beach. He came back and said: ‘We have to try this.’ It was partly a way to get girls.
“We made what I’m sure was the first surfboard in Norway, using foam from a refrigerator and the cover of the Beach Boys album Surfin’ Safari as a reference. When we got it made and got to the beach, I said to Hans Egil: ‘You go first.’ We didn’t have wetsuits, and we didn’t realise that you needed a leash – so, as well as getting terribly cold, we kept losing the board.”
Still, they learned, attaching a lease and wearing woollen jumpers under thick, rubbery diving suits, so that they could handle the frigid Arctic water. “People thought we were from another planet – and the boards were only really a good way to meet girls when they were strapped to the car.”
People thought we were from another planet
Over time, a few other hardy surfers joined Thor and Hans Egil as they experimented with more boards – though it hardly became a scene. Hans Egil became a commercial diver and Thor a big engine driver, even if they both still surfed now and then.
But the steady breaks at Unstad remained world-class, with the water warmed by the Gulf Stream (it gets down to three degrees at the end of winter, but up to 15 degrees by the end of summer). Thor’s daughter, Marion had been surfing at Unstad since 1991, to the horror of most of the locals, and she began inviting surfers from down south and further afield to discover the beach, which has a mix of sand and reef breaks, and where the waves can reach 15 metres high. In 1999, the E2K surf movie – starring British surfers Sam Lamiroy and Spencer Hargraves – suddenly thrust Unstad into the consciousness of the global surf community.
“It just made sense to do build on the growing reputation of this place,” says Thor of opening Unstad Arctic Surf, which has grown from a basic surf camp to include six traditional cabins, a campsite, and portable hot tubs and saunas. Thor has since handed most of the day-to-day running of the camp to Marion and her husband Tommy, a former windsurfer.
The camp has been a success, as Unstad has become a global bucket-list destination and improving wetsuit technology has made braving the water increasingly bearable. Many of the best surfers around the world have come here to ride waves at the end of the glacial valley, including Australian superstar Mick Fanning, who surfed under the Northern Lights in 2016. “We’ve always known what we have here, but we’ve watched the world discover it too,” says Thor.
And you can still see the board that was inspired by the Beach Boys, as well as one which Thor calls the “banana board”. “They’re hunks of crap,” he observes. “But then, they’re also little pieces of history.”
Read more about Unstad Arctic surf here.