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 100kph in a burgeoning sport that can only be practiced in a handful of places around the world.
“I call them happiness machines,” Feodor Gurvits said, pointing to his self-made board which sits on three blades and has a windsurfing sail attached. “They really make people smile.”
Gurvits and about half a dozen ice surfers are soon crisscrossing 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 said.
Harjula regularly teaches the sport to groups of beginners, and said that there has been increased demand in the past few weeks.
“It’s so great to see people learning, how they can get it in a few minutes,” Harjula said.
At 30cm thick, the ice is strong enough to drive a “small truck” on, Gurvits said, although the warm sunshine and temperatures of plus 5°C mean that it is starting to melt along the shallower shoreline.
Ice surfer Mete Ciragan clocked up the day’s speed record of 71.6kph in light winds of 28.8kph.
“It feels great and you forget to breathe sometimes, but you need to concentrate on the surface so you don’t hit a bump and fall,” he said.
“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 who also started surfing on ice in 2009, and has since notched up winter championship wins.
Rautelin, who regularly surfs with her husband, Ian, and their adult daughter, Riina, said she cannot choose 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 said.
Gurvits said about 1,000 people practice ice windsurfing, of whom about 20 perform at the top level, mainly spread across the Nordics, Baltics and Poland, as well as Canada, Russia and the US.
In 2017, he fulfilled his dream of winning the World Ice Sailing Championship, but said he is not packing his board away yet.
“My ambition is to keep sailing, enjoy the feel, try to build better gear and be competitive, and try to keep other people happy as well,” Gurvits said.
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