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79°N – IKSURFMAG

25 Oct , 2022  

Imagine spending 12 days with 11 crew and 20 board bags on a 25-meter vessel. Even more, imagine sailing that vessel to an environment so icy and harsh that only polar bears and reindeer want to live there – and then going kiting! Paul Serin documents the MANERA team’s incredible expedition to Svalbard, and tells extraordinary tales of kiting between icebergs and in front of glaciers in this IKSURFMAG exclusive!

D-day is approaching, and my excitement is through the roof. This trip was two years in the making, and it is finally happening. I’m increasingly worried about forgetting something, so I’m making lists of all the gear I need. I’ve previously gone on trips to cold places, but I’ve never done anything like this. To tell you the truth, I still have a hard time comprehending where we are going.

A documentary is running on my computer while I continue packing. Base layers, ski socks, ski gloves? Do I really need ski gloves? Rather than ask, I take them. Just in case, as they say. That’s something I say with just about every accessory I add to my bag, on top of my winter jacket and ski pants.

Where exactly are we going? To Svalbard, an archipelago located north of Norway. The islands range from 74° to 81° north latitude. Keep in mind that the Arctic Circle is very close at 66°30′ N. The people I talk to don’t really realize where it is, and I don’t think I do either. I don’t go into details when they ask, “So, Paul, where is your next trip?” I just reply, “On an island north of Norway,” and let them imagine what they want.

Like every trip I’ve been on since I began kiting, there are many boardbags involved. With MANERA, there are always a lot of them, and the airlines must truly hate us. But you don’t want to leave it up to chance on a trip like this. You have to be ready for anything. I don’t know what scares me the most: the cold, or the idea of spending 12 days on a boat between the Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea. 

The trip starts with a stop in Oslo, the Norwegian capital. We wait for the whole team to arrive before leaving for Longyearbyen, the “biggest” town on Svalbard with around 2,500 inhabitants. Our pit stop here feels a bit like a decompression chamber before the real cold, and the real adventure.

As for the riders, Mallory “Mallo” de la Villemarqué and Matt Maxwell are coming for strapless kite and wave, and Fernando “Mizo” Novaes for surf foil and wing. On the media team, Olivier Sautet is our videographer, and Matt Georges is our photographer. Anthony Lietart is here as well to film everything happening backstage during the trip. And, of course, Julien Salles, MANERA’s boss and without whom none of this can be possible, oversees the trip. And finally, there is me, Paul Serin, mainly for twin tip and freestyle, and some wing foil.

Our arrival in Longyearbyen does not go unnoticed. The other passengers on the plane think we are scientists because of all our big bags. When we explain that we are here to kite surf, their eyes widen, showing both astonishment and compassion. Yes, we will kitesurf in one of the most extreme and northern places in the world. Just writing these words gives me goosebumps.

For the next two weeks, our floating house is called Kamak. She is a 25-meter-long boat coming from Paimpol in Brittany. She normally hosts ski trips between Svalbard, Greenland, and Norway, but this time, the action will take place on the water and not in the mountains.

With the crew, there are 11 of us in total. Stress is starting to build. Are we going to get along well in such a small space for 12 days? 

Gaby, the captain, manages his boat perfectly. We also understand quite quickly that he is a little bit obsessive when it comes to tidying up. I personally don’t have a problem with that, but with 20 boardbags, cameras and all their chargers, it can get out of hand pretty quickly. He is assisted by Jean, a young Breton sailor familiar with the cold and expeditions of this kind. Last but not least, Minh is the cook. Despite his shyness, he will be the decisive asset of this trip and responsible for the good mood of the group.

The boat is almost ready to go. I help Minh with the last shopping trip to the supermarket. We are about to leave for 12 days at sea in total autonomy, far from everything and without a mobile network: just us and the grandness of nature.

Finally, we cast off, and the real adventure begins. We are heading straight north. We all gather next to the captain’s screen to try to figure out exactly where we are going. Our first stop will be just outside the Longyearbyen Fjord, where we will have our first session.

I step out onto the deck and look around. The air is frigid on the only part of my face that isn’t covered, but my eyes are in awe of the scenery. The sun is out on this first day. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it never sets at this time of the year. After three or four hours of sailing, we finally arrive at the first spot. The wind blows gently, the area looks clear, all lights are green. 

Another essential detail to mention is that on Svalbard, there are about 2,500 inhabitants and 3,000 polar bears, so the chances are high for us to see one. Of course, our goal is for that to happen while on the boat, and not on land while inflating our kites. The groups of skiers who usually come here are always accompanied by an armed guide to protect them in case of an attack. Our only defence tools are a flare gun and binoculars. Before we land on any beach, we have to scan the horizon to ensure there are no big, white fur balls around.

The first session starts slowly. I put on my 6.4mm hooded wetsuit and my 5mm booties without forgetting my pair of gloves. It is impossible to start with a kite from a sailboat because of the shrouds and the limited space. However, Mizo can easily take off with his wing, so he will be the first in the water.

I get into the dinghy with Mallo, and Jean takes us to the beach. The landing area is slightly below a small hill, so we can’t see if anything is up there waiting for us. As soon as we set foot on the ground, Mallo and I instantly look at each other, the same idea obviously having crossed our minds. We sprint up the hill to see what’s above us, brandishing our kite bars and screaming, driven by a surge of unconsciousness.

No white-haired animal is waiting for us up there. On the other hand, reindeer antlers and the immensity of nature are. Once the adrenaline rush is over, we get into the water. It is cold, and the wind is light, but the sun feels so good.

I take my time to ride and enjoy the landscape. The mountains are high and steep, and the plains stretch as far as the eye can see. I feel like an ant in a world of humans. I imagine the potential creatures that could be underwater in such a remote corner of the world. But as soon as these thoughts cross my mind, I immediately turn around to get closer to the boat.

The first session of a trip is always quite special. It sets the tone and prepares us for the rest of the journey. Getting out of the water, I dread the moment when I will need to take off my wetsuit. Fortunately, my body is still relatively warm, so the transition from wetsuit to poncho is not so bad….

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