The sea is furious. On its surface, a battered old fishing boat is being thrown around by white-tipped waves, but the captain is transfixed by something else: a shape in the sky.
Above the wheeling blur of storm petrels, extreme windsurfer Dany Bruch hangs sideways for a second in the air. His feet are welded to a fluoro orange board, frozen hands clenching the boom, the sail raining silver spray onto his face. The fisherman shakes his head in disbelief. This is a sight never seen before in the Faroe Islands. Too many people have died in these capricious seas for the locals to go out there for fun. Bruch drops back into the vicious swell and disappears.
As an international windsurfing pro, German-born Bruch has competed all over the world, but this trip is personal. The 34-year-old has travelled almost 6,000 miles to the Faroe Islands from the Canaries, which have been his home for decades. Located halfway between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroes comprise 18 jagged volcanic islands sitting directly in the storm channel of the wild North Atlantic. They’re an adrenalin junkie’s wet dream. Being a long way from home – and from his comfort zone – is what brought Bruch here: he wants to do what no one else has ever done. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Faroes,” he says. “The conditions are so unpredictable and exposed. I’m driven by tackling the unknown. No one has attempted to windsurf in the Faroes, so I had to try.”
Bruch is here to experience unique clifftop lakes, lethal reefs and 80kph snowstorms. “If I jump 10m today, I want to jump 20m tomorrow,” he says. “But surfing in extreme, unknown territory is another way to satisfy that need.”
Having seen footage of Dany’s first attempts, Faroese meteorologist and survival expert Hanus Kjølbro is impressed by the lone windsurfer, but also has his concerns. On Bruch’s first day here, he hitched a lift into a vast, open channel where 5m swells clash with treacherous currents. Kjølbro is amazed that in such conditions, at least 2km from land and with a very real risk of hypothermia, Bruch made it back in one piece.
“You’ve been jumping out of a plane without a parachute and luckily landing on haystacks,” is how he puts it. He offers to help Bruch track the unpredictable weather and points him in the direction of Húsavík, a pincer of dark rock framing explosive waves, where he’ll be protected from the full force of the North Atlantic.
After several days of driving back and forth through blizzards and deep sub-sea tunnels, waiting for the right conditions, the time has finally arrived for Bruch to take to the water at Húsavík.
Black grass-hatted houses and wild sheep dot the hills, and relentless grey columns of rain pass through. Bruch preps his gear, snaps waterproof split-hoof boots into place and faces the sea. Something shifts in his stance and he’s off across the beach, wrestling with his sail against the strong wind as he enters the icy water.
The swell tosses Bruch around and it’s starting to look like a losing battle. Then suddenly he catches a gust and he’s up, racing across the bay, leaning back with one hand on the boom as if flying across subarctic seas was the easiest thing in the world. A full hour of flips and tricks passes before Bruch sails back to shore.
If he had stayed any longer, there would have been a real danger of him seizing up in the cold, which would have prevented his return to land. He manages to raise a hand to the local bystanders who stand on the shore, fascinated by what they’ve witnessed. His hands are blistered and raw from the water, but Bruch is alive in the way only someone who’s just jumped into the unknown and survived can be.
“I’ve surfed all over the world and in all sorts of conditions for more than 20 years,” he says when back on dry land. “But nothing has ever come close to this. The fear, the adrenalin… it was wild.”