On the most beautiful Sunday in March, the 24-year-old Danish paddle surfer Casper Steinfath became the first person in the world to cross the ocean between Denmark and Norway on a SUP. But the dark and cold conditions almost pushed him off. This story is about how Casper Steinfath managed to paddle 137 kilometers on a Scandinavian Odyssey that would leave him a changed man.
It is the most beautiful night in Denmark in many weeks. Heavy grey clouds have left the sky open. A marvelous scenery of dancing stars under an arctic winter sky.
We are at a beach called Kjul Strand north of Hirtshals - 100 kilometers from 'Cold Hawaii' - the Danish surfing paradise. It's 01:20 am in the morning, and a young paddle surfer sits in his wetsuit inside an old grey Volkswagen Transporter with the heater on at full blast. The paddler is Casper Steinfath - The Viking he is nicknamed. Casper is one of the fastest paddle surfers in the world. He is four-time ISA World Champion in 200-meter sprint and technical race. But this night, he needs other skills than speed and acrobatic maneuvering on a surfboard to reach his goal.
He and the small crowd around him are waiting for the lifeguards on the following boat to give him the green light for his long-lasting dream: To cross the treacherous ocean between Denmark and Norway on his stand up paddleboard - a 130-kilometer trip. A trip Casper has given the name Viking Crossing.
The gnarliest thing ever
At this time he has no idea what Skagerrak has instore for him: Rogue waves in the dark, heavy currents, ice cold temperatures and treacherous winds. At this time Casper has no idea that he 18 hours and 30 minutes later will hit Pier no Six in the harbor in Kristiansand after 137 kilometers on his 26 inch wide Naish Maliko.
- I'm totally emptied of power. This Viking Crossing is the gnarliest thing I've tried. None of the four world titles I won come close to what I experienced today. I was forced to push myself to another level to conquer Skagerrak. I didn't feel that I conquered Skagerrak. I feel that Skagerrak conquered me, he said when he stood in the Norwegian harbor.
'Skagerrak' is known for its treacherous currents and wild weather. From his hometown of Klitm?ller in Cold Hawaii, Casper would seek to step in the footsteps of his Viking forefathers and be the first person on a SUP to paddle 137 km across the "Skagerrak" to the Norwegian town of Kristiansand. The journey would test his skills and push him to his very limits both physically and mentally.
'There is green light'
- Crossing the "Skagerrak" is a childhood dream of mine. What excites me is the added challenge of paddling for many hours in rough ocean, deep darkness and freezing temperatures. For me, it is the ultimate culmination of dreams, passion and skills learned during my lifetime, says Casper Steinfath who is well-known in the SUP World for his fierce sprint racing skills and relentless determination to prove to the world not to discount underdog nations like Denmark.
He knows that the most significant challenges will be the many hours standing on the surfboard while dealing with the cold. Even though the calendar says March and spring, the Scandinavian winter is relentless and showing virtually no signs of slowing down.
Back on the dark and frozen beach someone suddenly shouts: 'Green light. There's green light'. The lifeguards are ready. The thermometer shows minus seven degrees Celcius - but with a 15-20 knot wind the chill factor will hit him with minus-eleven degrees Celsius in the night. At the same time, small waves would constantly try to push him off his board. He knows that these will be the conditions for the coming five hours until the sun rises over Skagerrak.
- As I stepped off the beach and into the dark abyss my body Immediately came under siege from the cold. The chilly wind first reached for my fingers and sent them towards a lockdown. I had to focus on constantly moving my fingers and feet to keep the blood flowing to these parts. It was crazy! I think I was more worried about the cold than the darkness, Casper says.
His father gave him the idea to cross Skagerrak
Casper Steinfath is a tall, blond and fit paddle surfer. Not muscular as his Viking forefathers, but he is strong, and can paddle for days if the motivation is right. He lives in a little village called Klitm?ller in the northern part of Denmark with only 800 souls. Klitm?ller used to be a fishing village, but the fishing boats are gone. Now Klitm?ller is the heart of Cold Hawaii - a paradise and Northern European hub for surfing in all it forms.
One day many years ago he stood with his Californian father and talked about the ocean.
- I remember this dream just being stuck in my head. A dream about crossing the horizon. I vaguely remember standing at the beach as a kid with my dad looking out at the ocean and joking about what we humans are capable of on the water. We both laughed at the idea of crossing 'Skagerrak' on a SUP. I guess it all started as a bad joke, but little did we know what this dream would lead to, he says.
This Sunday evening, Casper tells us, he cried with one kilometer to go realizing that he had fulfilled the dream his father placed in his mind many years earlier.
Casper switched nights to days
It was Casper's second attempt to cross the Skagerrak. Last year, under wild circumstances, Casper was forced to withdraw from his crossing attempt just 12 kilometers before his destination after having paddled for nearly 17 hours in freezing conditions. A combination of a building storm and strong currents pushing away from land broke the multiple time SUP World Champion. A very bitter moment for the young Viking.
This year Casper has spent the entire winter at home in Denmark training in the cold and darkness. He spent hundreds of hours analyzing his mistakes from last year and now has his gaze fixed on setting foot on Norwegian soil. Through focused preparations and a strong support team around him, Casper believes he has found what it will take to match Mother Nature on what he describes as the ultimate challenge.
- I believe the key is not to beat Mother Nature with brute force, but instead be patient until she presents me the right moment and hopefully allows me a chance to pass through the chaos. This year I have focused a lot on improving my night paddling skills to prevent seasickness. I have also spent many hours reading and learning about the complex current systems out there as well as stepping up my navigational game, says a humble Casper when asked about his preparations for the second attempt.
Comfortable but scared in the dark
Humble and focused are the emotions emanating from Casper as he gently slides his board into the cold, dark water and take his first of 60.000 strokes in the dark night.
- After training hundreds of hours in the dark this winter, I feel that I became more comfortable in the dark, but never at home. My mind was uneasy. I was scared and I could feel my legs were trembling. My headlamp gave me some comfort, but my mind was clearly set on reaching daybreak. It felt like everything that mattered to me. Reaching sunrise was like a victory in itself.
After five hours alone in the dark, the sun suddenly greeted him on the horizon. It is the most beautiful morning in many weeks in Denmark with a crystal blue sky, a calming ocean, no wind and a warm sun that heats Casper's cold body.
Halfway across the ocean he catches a glimpse of the Norwegian coastal mountains which boosts his spirits and keeps him going. But they only slowly come closer to the Danish Viking and the last four hours are the worst hours on a surfboard in his entire life, he says.
'Kinn' saved him from failure
He is in pain. The last 25 kilometers were brutal. His back hurts. He is not able to bend his knees. His arms and shoulders are empty of power and the wetsuit has eroded the skin from his private parts. His body is simply shutting down. At the same time, he is battered by relentless sidewind and successfully setting foot on Norwegian soil seems like a distant and abstract dream.
But then he sees the small island called Kinn.
The final tipping point on the Viking Crossing. After 18 hours at sea, his mind was also breaking down. He only has four kilometers left to go, but the distance in front of him feels like climbing Mount Everest, he explains.
- Kinn came into my life as a lifeline in a pretty dark hour. After being battered by sidewind for many hours, Kinn gave me shelter and a much-needed rest, before taking on the final stretch in the dark. If it was not for this small snow-covered arctic island, I probably would not have made it to shore. Thanks, Kinn, Casper says.
One hour later he sets his feet on Norwegian soil.
- My body is fully broken down. I feel like just laying in bed for the rest of the week and revisiting my dreams and how magical and intense this crossing over Skagerrak was. I'm pretty sure I will remember both the pain and joy from this Viking Crossing for the rest of my life, says Casper Steinfath.
- I now firmly believe it is not the actual destination that counts. It is the process in which we as humans work to reach our dreams and goals. This is the interesting part. We, humans, can push ourselves so much further both physically and mentally than we dare think, says Casper Steinfath.
Crossing Skagerrak showed him this.
Casper Steinfath became the first person in the world to cross the ocean between Denmark and Norway on a SUP