In January, Iceland's coastal water has an average low of 40 degrees – cold enough to cause hypothermia. Water that's just 7.5-degrees colder will knock a person unconscious after only 15 minutes. It's this same frigid, dangerous water that saved Heiðar Logi's life.
Logi is Iceland's first pro surfer. He was born there, in a pocket-sized village called Sandgerði on the Reykjanes peninsula of the island. It's a place where hundreds of years of history proved the surrounding Atlantic to be a death trap, not a playground. "I was scared…I was terrified of that water for a long time," he says. "When we were young we were taught that the ocean is dangerous and you're not to go near it. So many fisherman and boats that have gone down for hundreds of years back. We have fear of the water, but I turned that fear into an enormous amount of respect."
Surfing became a sort of baptism for Logi's, with the frigid water that holds his homeland hostage near the top of the globe, washing him away from severe ADHD, alcoholism and a "normal" life as if they were sins.
A decade before that first day out on a surfboard, at age six, Logi was diagnosed with severe ADHD and other behavioral disorders while his family was living in Denmark for a short time. He was put on Ritalin and even spent time at a children's psychiatric ward. He was a baleful ocean of a child – self-described as "out of control" and "always getting into trouble." As he got older, the trouble got bigger and the doses of medicine got higher. As soon as his symptoms would begin to show, doctors would increase his medicine until finally he told his mother "things had gone quiet." That's when the Logi's family moved back to Iceland, taking Heiðar back to his roots in hopes that it might help ground him.
His friend, Hreinn Heiðar Halldórsson, gave Logi his first taste of salt water. Logi had met Halldórsson while snowboarding in the mountains of Iceland, and the new acquaintance offered to loan Logi an old beat up surfboard if he ever felt like taking on the ocean. He did. Without waiting for summer, Logi found a used wetsuit, headed for the south coast, and dove into the winter waters with nothing more than some fiberglass, neoprene and a devil-may-care attitude.
He was 16 years old, and he was certain the cold was going to kill him. And if the cold didn't the waves would. "I got so worked. The first wave held me under for such a long time," he recalls. "Even small waves were nailing me down to the bottom. I was super scared." He quickly realized that his experience with snowboarding did just about as much good in the water as board gaming. When snowboarding, you set line in the snow and you follow that line – it doesn't move, it doesn't change. "But with surfing you don't decide, you react," he says. "You don’t know where that wave is going to go, so you have to see the wave and change with it."
So Logi learned to change with the waves.
Iceland has four seasons, each potent with its own conditions. In spring, the snow that locked the central highlands away from the rough-hewn edges of the island melts away and moss bounces back to life. The midnight sun sways on the amber edge of the horizon and swings perpetually up during summer. Fall feels like an ethereal shoulder to rest on before the howling winds, relentless rain and snow and face-shearing cold of winter steals the light and the warmth out of the island. Logi found his teenage years stamped with seasons of their own – terms of school that were branded with prescriptions, detention slips, low grades and a lot of frustration.
Winter, with its brutal weather, brought him back to a temperate state when he was able to spend days in the hills, carving lines in the powdery snow with his snowboard. Those hours out on his board were the only ones where he felt tranquil, fulfilled and under control. The discord of home life and the tumult of school and bad grades and uncontained energy didn't matter out there – so he decided that's where he belonged. Logi settled that he was going to become a pro snowboarder. "I trained super hard and I was snowboarding every day," he says. "I went out even when the resort was closed and hiked the hills."
But then summer would roll around, taking away his snowy respite and giving Logi and his small band of rebellious chums a 24-hour clock of misbehaving and hell-raising. They started drinking around age 13 or 14, and when they weren't in trouble with their parents, they were being rebuked in the back of police cars. "I went towards things that hyped me because I always had to have adrenaline in my life as a kid," Logi says. "It just turns out that getting into trouble was the same adrenaline rush as surfing when I couldn't be in the water." As a last-ditch effort to reel her son back into "normalcy," encourage him to up his grades at school and clean up his act during the summer, Logi's mother made a deal with him: get good grades and you'll get a surfboard. That's all it took. Any small itch to inject his daily life with a little adrenaline was not scratched. Logi didn’t miss a single dose of medicine, a class or an opportunity to study. He got the grades, and he got the board.
And that was the end of the deal for him.
During his last term of school at age 16, Logi quit taking his medicine and left school for good. He lost all interest in that "normalcy" his family wanted for him. He knew what made him feel "normal," and it wasn't a degree or a business card. It was skimming the surface of Arctic water that froze his skin while adrenaline made his blood boil.
"I always knew that I it wasn't going to work out for me to live a normal," he says. "I always knew I was going to be something different. I had to do something different. I'm just fortunate that I found surfing as being that thing." So he cut out school, he cut out alcohol, he cut out the social anxiety and he cut out the medicine and filled the gaps with trips to the coast. Alcoholism runs in Logi's family, and putting an end to his drinking was one of the hardest obstacles, but the most rewarding.
The withdrawals were more punishing than the hangovers that kept him from surfing, but once the sweats and the thirst stopped, his new outlook began "I finally realized that whenever you have a lot of things in your life that that you just think you should have or do, you won’t be the best version of yourself," he reflects. "When I had drama or work that I didn’t like filling my time, I felt immediately felt different. I felt uncontrollable. When I do what I love, I am the happiest. I want to fill my life with things that mean something to me."
And while love and happiness are valuable, they don't pay the bills. Logi moved to Reykjavik and took a part-time job bartending at the downtown hotspot Loftið. He worked nights, and surfed days. He didn't sleep – he would finish his shift and drive to the coast. After surfing as long as his body could tolerate the cold, he would take a nap, drive back to Reykjavik and start another shift. It wasn't long before the routine taxing routine depleted Logi. He was pouring drinks to fund his surf sessions, but he was ready for surfing to fund itself.
"From that first hour I spent in the water, I knew I wanted to be a professional surfer," he says. "Now I was ready to do whatever I needed to do in order to become a professional surfer." But in a cutthroat world of countless men who can hold their own in a pipeline and look good with their long, unkempt sun-washed hair while doing it, doing "whatever" you can do in order to secure a professional sponsorship means "being able to do what everyone else does in a way that no one else can."
So Logi showed sponsors the one thing he had that no one else on the pro circuit did: Iceland. "I became Iceland's first pro surfer," he says with pride that is not a result of the title, but the process of earning it.
And to see Logi surf on his home turf is to see an athlete who is a charger. He surfs big and hard and fearlessly – feeding off the energy of the swells. The colder, crazier and bigger the waves, the better he surfs. "Icelandic surfers are fast to learn to surf hard because of these waves," he explains. "For me, I'm better at surfing bigger and more powerful waves because that's all we have."
Since securing a professional sponsorship with Icelandic apparel company 66º North, Logi has surfed around the world: Nova Scotia, California, France, Indonesia and Spain – but he always craves the challenges of his native water. "There is more surf to be had in those places – it's easier to find good swells and the winds aren’t as wild, but there is a fickleness about Iceland that makes you appreciate every wave. You can't just rock up to a spot and expect it to be perfect."
Because of Iceland's constant gale-force winds and mercurial tides, Logi might as well have his degree in meteorology by now. Surfing in Iceland will make a weather forecaster out of any person – with wind patterns constantly shifting and sending wave-hunters on a chase that could end in a perfect session or a defeated drive back to civilization. Logi’s film debut, The Accord, is a love-hate letter to this dynamic of Icelandic surfing. "That's the adventure of – you have no idea what to expect when you show up. It's such a rush of relentless chase that when you get the good stuff you get an extreme feeling of accomplishment."
After all the time he spends chasing the things that he wants in his life, every accomplishment doubles as a cathartic validation for Logi. Iceland, vices, arctic water and ADHD have all doubled as stumbling blocks and podiums of victory. The same places that have presented the greatest challenges of his life have also given him the most memorable accomplishments. "I'm always being reminded of how much respect I need to show to Iceland," he says. "Getting smashed in the bottom in the reef or being held under is just as much of a notice as seeing the Northern Lights. A year ago, we surfed under a full moon and the northern lights one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life. Riding those waves was insane."
That ride – which also took place amidst the worst storm to hit Iceland’s shores in 25 years – was documented in Logi's latest film project, titled "Under an Arctic Sky." Created and presented by Chris Burkard Studio, the film is set to premiere in March.
The duality of a raging storm creating Logi's most gratifying surf to date is the perfect metaphor for how he has turned the turmoil of his life into contentment. "When you let go of the things you don’t truly want in your life, there's room for everything you do want," he says with a smile that can only be described as easy. "But to have what you want in your life, you have to be all in. This water taught me that."