Ice surfers carve up Finland’s frozen sea

HELSINKI (AFP) – What to do if you are a windsurfing enthusiast in a country where the sea freezes over for months of the year?

For a group of Finns, the answer is to kit out sailboards with skates and take to the ice, reaching speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour in a burgeoning sport that can only be practised in a handful of places around the world.

“I call them happiness machines,” Feodor Gurvits told AFP, pointing to his self-made board which sits on three blades and has a windsurfing sail attached. “They really make people smile, and it’s such a joy, pure movement.”

Gurvits and around half a dozen fellow ice-surfers are soon cris-crossing the expanse of Baltic Sea ice off Helsinki’s Hernesaari coastline, kitted out in crash helmets and body padding in case the blades slide out during a tight turn.

“It will hurt your hands and you have to have a good grip on the boom, but otherwise it’s quite easy on the ice compared to summertime,” Esa Harjula told AFP. Harjula regularly teaches the sport to groups of beginners, and said there has been increased demand in recent weeks. “It’s so great to see people learning, how they can get it in a few minutes.”

An aerial photo taken on February 28 shows ice surfers skating across the frozen Baltic Sea off the coast of Helsinki. PHOTO: AFP

At 30 centimetres thick, the ice is currently strong enough to drive a “small truck” on, Gurvits said – although the warm sunshine and temperatures of plus five degrees Celsius mean that it is starting to melt along the shallower shoreline.

Ice surfer Mete Ciragan clocked up today’s speed record of 71.6kph in light winds of eight metres per second. “It feels great and you forget to breathe sometimes,” he told AFP. “But you need to concentrate on the surface so you don’t hit a bump and fall.”

“With a lighter wind you can go much faster than on the water, because there’s so much less resistance,” added Marianne Rautelin, a former European windsurfing champion.

Rautelin, who regularly surfs with her husband Ian and the pair’s adult daughter Riina, said she cannot choose a favourite between water or ice. “The attraction in summer is that the waves make it more challenging, but in winter you can just start racing straight away,” she told AFP.