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Winter 2010

In a Swedish summer the kindest thing you can say about the sea temperature is that it’s cold; in winter it’s freezing. Literally: in January and February, surfers at Torö, an only partly inhabited island an hour’s drive south of Stockholm, have been known to walk out over a crust of Baltic sea-ice to get to the waves. Even when I visit, in October, a frigid wind is blowing; the sea is restless, the colour of mackerel and cold as a fish’s skin. It looks anything but welcoming; but according to Daniel Månsson, who took the photographs on these pages, “Tomorrow, maybe Monday, it’s going to be working. We’ll be out there.”

“We” means what he calls “the Stockholm caravan”. This is a loose alliance of largely self-employed Swedes in their 20s and 30s, who leap into their bio-fuelled VW vans and head for Torö whenever word gets round that waves are on the way. Once there, they’ll meet up with the hard core of local men (and it is mostly, though not exclusively, men) who pioneered cold-water surfing here almost 30 years ago. Looking at the beach—a steep incline of seaweedy granite cobbles backed by wind-tortured pines, with choppy waves that break uncomfortably close to the shore—you have to wonder why they bothered.

“We saw it in magazines,” is the answer. Johan Cargelius, a tight-packed, single-minded dentist from Nynäs-hamn, has lived all of his 47 years in a clapboard house with its feet in the sea and its eyes on Torö. In 1983 a friend brought back what Cargelius thought was a “beautiful, beautiful” surfboard from a trip to America; that, and a series of photographs of Hawaiian surfers he saw in a magazine, galvanised him. He borrowed the board, made his own leash (the strap that attaches board to ankle) out of a length of rubber, and headed for the water. The fact that the sea was a bare ten degrees warm—or cold—at the time didn’t seem to be an issue: “It looked fun,” he says. “I wanted to try those things.”

Typically, the photo stories in surfing magazines do look fun: endless blonde Californian boys in flowery shorts, shooshing their boards through parabolas of sunlit blue ocean, dipping one balancing hand in the limpid, welcoming waters. The reality for early Swedish surfers was very different. These days, they can muffle themselves in high-tech layers of thick neoprene, but back then that kind of gear was yet to be invented, and Cargelius and his friends had to improvise. To stop their feet going numb, they wore thick socks under plimsolls; to keep their fingers from solidifying with cold, they pulled on woollen mittens and covered them with rubber washing-up gloves. The longest they could manage was a bare half an hour before the unthawed, unkind waves would force them out.

It’s a tribute to the intense, addictive, improvisational joy of surfing that they continued, a joy Cargelius says he sees made concrete in Månsson’s photographs. Unlike most surf photographers—who fetishise “the tube”, that rare moment when an extremely skilled athlete cuts across the face of a double-height wave just ahead of its breaking lip—Månsson has spent five years capturing what goes on the other 99% of the time surfers are in the water.

Whether beginner or expert, in cold seas or warm, anyone who’s paddled out towards a tilting horizon, eyes blinded by sudsy spray, or felt half-exhilarated, half-terrified as a solid wall of wave, as black as a basilisk’s eye, rears up in front of them, or sat, bobbing and meditative on their board, looking out to sea and waiting for one last set, will feel the salt sting of recognition when they look at his pictures. They may be of shivering thirty-something Vikings in wetsuits, but those Californian boys in their board shorts would understand. They’re radical. ~ ISABEL LLOYD

COLD AND DARK
The photographer’s childhood friend Magnus, paddling out. Joel Sjögren, a 16-year-old regular, says: “This is just what Torö’s like. When you look at it, you can feel the water beneath you, how cold and dark it is.”

POST-SURF WARMTH
“I liked how this guy looked almost Hawaiian”, says Daniel Månsson, “with his towel round him like a skirt.” His fleece top is a post-surf necessity—the nearest hot shower is 20 minutes’ drive away.

A PIONEER OF SURFING
Johan Cargelius, a pioneer of surfing at Torö, wears a 7mm-thick wetsuit in winter. He claims not to suffer from the dual curses of the cold-water surfer: neither “ice-cream headache”—vivid, neuralgic pain at the front of the face—nor surfer’s ear, where bone grows over the eardrum in an attempt to protect it from continual dousing. “But two of my friends have had their ears drilled,” he says, nonchalantly

PATIENCE
A good day. But Torö surfers need patience—for the beach to work, as they say, it needs several days of steady wind from the south to blow up a swell; ideally, the wind then switches to the north to keep the waves clean. This only happens at most 50 times a year

A SHOT LIKE THIS
“To get shots like this”, Månsson says, “I swim out with the surfers. I have some fins [flippers] to help me, which is fine when it’s calm and golden, like this. But when it’s big, I can get knocked under a lot, so I have to practise holding my breath. So far, I can last up to a minute

HEAVY COBBLES
The beach is built of heavy cobbles, thrown aside as ice-age glaciers ground down to the sea. Torö regulars have to pick their way across them with cramped, cold feet—but they also use them to build small cairns for sitting on, the better to contemplate the waves

BUILDING SMALL CAIRNS
The beach is built of heavy cobbles, thrown aside as ice-age glaciers ground down to the sea. Torö regulars have to pick their way across them with cramped, cold feet—but they also use them to build small cairns for sitting on, the better to contemplate the waves

BALTIC COAST OF SWEDEN
A surfer takes off on a wave at Torö beach, on the Baltic coast of Sweden. Around 200 people surf here regularly—even in the middle of winter, when the water temperature can dip as low as 0°C

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