Surf Discovery: Russia Gets World-Class Waves
Four Australian surfers recently scored and returned home safely — and they’ve got a story to tell.
Good, empty waves.
We all want ‘em. Trouble is, the good/empty combination is increasingly hard to find in today’s world where everyone surfs and information that was formerly sworn to secrecy can now be accessed on a whim.
Finding good, empty waves typically requires research, creativity, optimism that borders on naivety, a leap into the unknown, and the ability to problem-solve on the go — the combination of which is often referred to as adventure.
It’s what recently led four Australian surfers to Russia for six weeks.
The trip was a pipe dream that slowly trickled to life. It was two years in the making, and the timing was less than ideal. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the crew was in the middle of their 60-hour voyage to Kamchatka, a surf-rich peninsula in Russia’s far east.
They were one flight away from Moscow and had to consider canning two years’ worth of work and canceling a complex production that was so close to taking shape.
They decided to adhere to the number one rule of adventure: Just say “yes” and see what happens next.
And what happened next? They scored. But it wasn’t easy.
I caught up with the team shortly after they returned to Australian soil. They were Spencer Frost (Director/DOP), Guy Williment (Director/Photographer), Letty Mortensen (Surfer), Fraser Dovell (Surfer), and Luke Kneller (Producer). Luke hung back in Oz and helped out with logistics from afar, which ended up being crucial when the sanctions hit.
When I spoke with them, it became immediately clear that this project was never designed to veer into politics. They are normal surfers and storytellers, who love surfing and telling stories, and set out on a quest to find waves. They want to stay in the lane of surf films; it’s just that the timing on this one was simply bizarre.
That said, we have to acknowledge the atrocities that are resultant of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Stab has donated $500 to a Ukrainian humanitarian fund here, and we invite you to donate if you are in a position to do so.
The team is aiming to release the film later this year. Until then, here’s our chat.
STAB: What drew you guys to this place initially?
Spencer: We made a film in Iceland and it was well-received, which sparked some thoughts about where else in the world we could go. We had a few ideas, and Russia was last on our list because it’s such an unknown beast and so far away — I mean, it took us 60 hours to get to Kamchatka from Sydney.
Guy and I started looking into this coastline after we saw it in a snowboarding film and it looked like it had waves. Surfers had been there before, but they’d always go in summer. We noticed a trend of constant groundswells with offshore winds in the winter. Once we started looking into it and talking to people, the reason why nobody had ever done a surf project in the winter there became apparent.
Was it difficult to pull off?
Guy: It was a shit show. [laughs] When we got there, we immediately realized that the forecasts were so off. Most of the coastline is only accessible by helicopter, and that’s a really expensive endeavor. We had a limited amount of flying time and had to pick our days for the swell. Sometimes we’d fly for half an hour, which would cost an arm and a leg, only to find that the winds were completely different from what was predicted. Other times, we’d be about to surf and the pilots would be like, “Hey, there’s a storm coming in, pack your shit up, get in the chopper, we’re going back to the lodge.”
Spencer: Yeah, and it took about six months for us to get visas.
Guy: Covid made it hard. Initially, we couldn’t get a tourist visa because the world was still closed to Australians. We then applied for a business visa, but then those got taken away, so we ended up getting a humanitarian visa. We’d been dreaming of it for two years, and we didn’t get our visa until five days before we left. There was a time when we were planning everything without really knowing if we were going or not. It was absolutely crazy leading up to the trip.
Did you scope a lot of the coastline on Google Earth in advance? How did you find spots?
Letty: We had a few places in mind. That coastline is so big, and with the limited heli time we had to pick a few zones in advance and then just use our eyes while we were flying over. When there were big swells, we’d be in the helicopter looking down at so many potential spots — it was overwhelming.
Fraser: It was an interesting one because the pilots didn’t really speak English, and they hadn’t ever surfed or looked for waves. It was difficult to have a conversation about stopping a chopper on a cliff to check a wave. You’d see a crazy setup and then find out that you might not even be able to land there or walk around the headland.
Could you surf every day? And how was the experience when you weren’t surfing?
Spencer: We stayed in a lodge in this crazy mountain range with world-class heli-skiing all around it. I got in contact with the owner and sent him the pitch for the project back when it was just a pipe dream, and he loved it. They jumped on board because they’d never done a surfing project before. Having them on our side was so beneficial.
The beaches are a two-hour drive from the lodge, but it can be a six-hour drive because the roads get fucked in the winter. We had a few six-hour drives, which were a bit painful. We definitely didn’t surf every day — there were a few days when we just sat in our cabins and didn’t do much. We snowboarded a bit as well.
We’d split our time between the lodge and a cabin on the beach. We linked up with a guy named Anton, who’s the first surfer from there, and he’s actually got a surf camp where he teaches kids to surf. We linked up with them one day when it was -10 degrees in the air and 2 degrees in the water, and these kids were just smiling ear to ear, frothing on surfing.
So there’s a surf scene there?
Spencer: Anton told us he saw surfing in a Hollywood movie way back when and thought it looked cool, and then 10 years later he found a surfboard and became obsessed. Everyone thought he was crazy when he first started. His girlfriend and parents were telling him to get a job, and he was like, “Nah, I gotta follow my heart.” His story is so incredible.
Letty: He’s the craziest frother. He was surfing three times a day with us. Then on top of that, he was organizing our snowmobiles, chopping firewood, and just leading the tribe. He talked about chasing his dream and being able to share everything that he loves with us, and he was so grateful for where surfing had taken him.
Were there any sessions where everything aligned?
Spencer: Full disclosure, there’s a wave that will have everyone reassess what’s possible in Russia. The coastline is 1700 kilometers and there’s only one beach that has road access in winter. We flew out on a 10-foot swell and every bay was so lined up — point breaks, river mouths, beach breaks, slabs. You can’t even imagine how many good waves there must be on that coastline, but there’s no access. If you had unlimited time in a heli, I think you could find some of the best un-surfed waves ever. But it’s even illegal to take a boat out of the harbor in winter unless they’re full cruise ships.
Guy: It wasn’t easy, though. One time, we went to the beach when it said light offshore winds all day and the day after. We got there and it was literally 65 knots of devil wind, with a storm incoming, and we were stuck out there for three days. Which was pretty cool, we loved it, but definitely made it challenging.
Luke: I was at home, keeping their families updated. When they’d go look for a wave and we wouldn’t hear back for three days, it made things interesting…
Spencer: But it was so good. We camped on snow-covered beaches in a tent, it was radical.
You were in the middle of traveling there when Russia invaded Ukraine. Can you talk about what that was like?
Guy: We were in an Irish pub in Abu Dhabi during a layover when we heard the news. Leading up to the trip there was all this talk, but none of us really thought anything was going to happen. When it all started happening, there was a three-hour period of time where we had no idea what to do. We sat together as a group and agreed that we’d regret it forever if we don’t at least try to get on the plane and see what happens. So we boarded the flight and got on the runway, and then the plane just stopped. After about 10 minutes of sitting, the pilot got on and went, “The situation is getting worse, there are airstrikes happening, and we’re trying to find a safe path. We’ll keep you updated on whether or not we can fly.”
We ended up waiting on the runway for five hours, not knowing what was going on. The pilot eventually came back on and said, “We’ve got a safe flight path, we’re gonna go for it.” We were wigging out. It was so full-on that even the air hostesses were freaking out. We were told that some business people even got off the plane and we were like, “Oh my God, what are we doing?”
Luke: Through all of this, the people that had been helping us organize it in Russia were telling us everything was normal there. So there was definitely some reassurance on that end. We figured the worst case is we get to Moscow and get turned around.
Spencer: And then we got soooo smoked when we got to Moscow. [laughs]
Spencer: We’d heard from pretty much everyone who’d traveled to Russia that getting through customs is gnarly there. You gotta have your straight face, have your story, have your papers. It was a bit of a worry for all of us because we were on the humanitarian visa, but we also had like 12 surfboards and all this camera gear. Letty walked through and they said, “Your passport didn’t work, do you have another passport?” He gave them his British passport because luckily he had two.
Spencer: So, Letty got sent through, and Guy, Fraser, and I got stopped. They took our passports and sent us into the naughty corner, and we waited for so long. Other people had passport issues and they kept breezing through while we waited. Meanwhile, Letty’s already in Russia on his own, and he couldn’t even contact us.
Finally, this staunch bald guy was like “You three, come in here.” We went into the room and — you can’t make this shit up — he’s got three pieces of paper on the table that say “Official Deportation Papers of Russian Federation” with our names on them. We told him we had an invite to Russia and he basically said, “It’s not in the system, you better make a call quick. Somebody’s gotta give me some clarity or you’re out.” So I called our Russian contact, and they spoke in Russian and it didn’t sound good. I got the phone back, she said, “Spenny, I’ll sort it” and hung up on me. Then we waited again. Our contact called the head of the Russian sporting federation, and he called the government, and they called customs, and we got in.
Fraser: We landed at 4 in the afternoon and didn’t get to our hotel, which was at the airport, until 4 in the morning.
Spencer: Then we had to wake up in the morning and get another ten-hour flight to Kamchatka. We were just running off adrenaline I think.
What was the vibe like in Kamchatka? Did you guys feel safe? Were people talking about the situation?
Fraser: It felt so far away from everything. Everyone made us feel safe — they were happy we were there. We all shared the same love for nature and adventure and we bonded over that. It was truly incredible what they did for us. It seemed like they wanted to make the most of us being there.
Letty: It was wild talking to them, and seeing how the situation was affecting them. We were having these intense conversations about it all. Then they started talking about Kamchatka and surfing and they were super happy to share it with you. The whole town heard that we almost got sent home and they were so glad we made it, telling us that this project means a lot to them.
Fraser: It felt really weird being on a surf trip while everything was happening, but the people we met wanted to showcase the best of Russia.
Did the sanctions affect you guys while you were on the trip?
Spencer: When we first got there, the initial sanctions started and they said visas and ATMs were canceled. But we tried an ATM and it let us get $100 out. So we figured we’d just do that one at a time and we’re sweet for the whole trip. We went back a few days later and they’d blocked every way of getting money. No ATMs, no cards, no PayPal, nothing. Not being able to get money in a foreign country, especially Russia, is pretty scary. But we were lucky that we had some people who could help us if we were really stuck.
Luke: It never felt like they were by themselves over there, in a random hotel or something. They were safe in this bubble. All this hectic shit was happening but we knew they weren’t gonna go hungry or cold. That was what helped us all make that decision to ride it out. We were always ready at the drop of a hat to get out. We were super lucky that they didn’t have to bail early or anything.
How was it exiting the country with camera gear, hard drives, and everything?
Spencer: We had two months of working ourselves up to it. So many people were saying we’d be stuffed trying to get out. We had 14 hard drives and 80 terabytes of footage, and 150 kilos of camera gear split between nine cases or something. Obviously, we stood out like a sore thumb. But we just walked right through customs with no issue. I even almost got a smile off the lady as she stamped our passports.
They didn’t care what we were doing at that point. They just said, “Go home.”
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