Interviews, Surf cultureBaltic Sea Surfing: A Community of Surfers in Latvia 

-Words by Kim Feldmann, images by Kaspars Cekotins

Latvia, together with Lithuania and Estonia, make up the Baltic countries in north-eastern Europe – a region know for its eventful history ranging from the last pagan settlements of Europe to Swedish, German and ultimately Soviet occupations that ended when Latvia declared its independence a hundred years ago. Despite having an extensive coastline, it is the image of dense, dank, mushroom-filled forests that come to mind when thinking of Latvia, not wave-filled seas. Yet, the latter does exist.

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I spent a fair share of this past autumn in the capital city Riga, digging for my great-grandfather’s birth certificate – he left Latvia over a hundred years ago in search of a better life in Brazil. Every morning, a yellow longboard leaning against the wall next to the hostel’s main door starred at me during breakfast. Intrigued and slightly surf-sick, I eventually asked the owner what was the deal with that surfboard; she said she went for a paddle every now and again. That same afternoon, as the autumn rain descended from an already dark sky, we sat inside drinking coffee and looking at pictures of snow-covered beaches and mushy waves that were taken not far away from where we were. “I’ll send you the contact of a guy who will be able to tell you more about surfing in Latvia,” she said while switching a lamp light on and refilling her cup of coffee.

Here is what Kaspars Cekotins – her contact – had to say about surfing in Latvia:

As far as you know, when did people start surfing in Latvia? Was there one person who pioneered a movement or did it grow organically?

It was a little over 10 years ago when people started surfing. There has never been a surf culture here; you never saw anyone out there on a board even though half of Latvia’s borders are coastlines. The main reason is that we are geographically located in a way that we never get ‘real’ swells – only wind swells work. So in a time before smartphones and wave forecasts, it was quite challenging to be at the right spot at the right time while still managing to work in Riga – which is 3-hour drive from the west coast, where most of the spots are. Most Latvian surfers come from a kitesurfing background and we slowly started connecting the dots between wind directions and how they build up the waves at different spots – the sort of patterns that nowadays apps do for you. On some days when the wind suddenly dropped or changed direction and we couldn’t go out there, we still saw some good waves which made us realise it was actually possible to surf. Anyway, it took a while before the first surfers actually started catching the waves and even then it was not a common sight to see. Also, a small number of Latvian surfers learned to surf somewhere else and brought a board home with the idea to maybe try surfing here one day. I have no idea who was actually the first to surf here. At that time there was very little communication or social networking.

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What is your own relationship with surfing?

I also came from a kite-surfing background. After a long time renting an apartment with a small group of friends in Liepaja to try and chase every storm that hit our coast, I slowly realised that bringing all that gear to the beach was a little too much for me. So being able to just be out there with a wetsuit and my board seemed much simpler; although quite often much more demanding and uncompromising since our season for the waves normally starts in fall, when the temperatures drop close to zero, and ends in mid-winter.

Since at the time I lived in Riga, I had to be on the lookout for the way the wind played with the trees outside my office’s windows or wherever it was I was working. That slowly grew into an obsession and now I have fully moved to Liepaja because of it, and built all my life around it. Quite a common story, I guess. Another thing that made it work for me is I realised you can be out there surfing as much as doing any other activity, you just have to understand the weather patterns.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

How has the surf culture in Latvia developed since you started surfing?

The biggest impact has been the arrival of smartphones. Being able to see swell forecasts and livecams made it easier to understand when and how will the wave be at a certain spot. Back then, it was surprising to see another surfer out there; now it sometimes gets crowded on a summer day with a chance of a good wave. When I say crowded I mean there can be sometimes twenty people out on the same break, which rarely happens but it does happen. Nowadays, Latvian surfers are just generally better informed of conditions, and then there is Facebook spreading pictures of people actually surfing nice waves within few hours from where you are.

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What are the main surf spots in Latvia? What kind of conditions do they need to work well?

The main spots are Liepaja (Ziemelu Mols), a small village named Pavilosta just half an hour away, and a few around there that I would like to keep to myself. In terms of waves, the best spot is Menlrage, just across the border with Lithuania.

The rules are simple: you need a cross-onshore wind to blow hard enough and long enough to build up a proper wave and then, depending on the direction of the wind, you just look which spot would work better – keeping in mind that at all spots feature a pier-like dam that protects the entry to the harbour for the incoming ships. In our case, it also shelters the incoming waves from the wind and cleans them up a bit so that you can understand where it actually is. It can be tricky but still gives you the full satisfaction once in the water. Oh, then there are those 2-3 days a year when, after a storm, the wind changes to off-shore and you can only blame yourself for being some place else for that hour or two.

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I imagine the surf community in Latvia is still relatively small. How many people would you say are actively engaged with surfing – those who surf regularly, participate in the organization of events, shaping boards, owners of surf shops, etc.)?

I reckon there are over a hundred of people who have a board hanging over their bed or stored some place. A good twenty surf regularly. But when it’s -20C, you’re often out there alone.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

What are some surf-related initiatives (surf brands, contests, shapers, magazines, events, etc.) currently taking place in Latvia?

We have our own surf brand that is currently re-located to Liepaja called DRTY boards. We have few shops that sell surf accessories, a few contests between the three Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and few secret spots. This is where our domestic “surf-infrastructure” stands. However, lots of people go on surf trips; some spend their winters in warmer places with better waves and some move to west coast of Latvia, purchase the warmest wetsuit available and wait for that yet another swell.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

In your opinion, can the development of a surf culture and industry eventually generate a stronger impact on Latvia as a whole?

It’s a harsh environment and the waves are crappy in most cases, but that rewarding feeling of being out in the sea can help anyone able to find a way to it. Surfing in Latvia will never be mainstream and probably won’t help the country in general, but those who surf know there is never anything like it anyway.

Compared to most surf spots, Latvia doesn’t present the most favourable swell or water temperature conditions – yet, you guys go out. Is there anything other than passion motivating people to surf in Latvia?

No. Surfers are still just a small fraction of people who go out here chasing waves. This place is more suited for kite-surfers and windsurfers, so it’s just about the stoke I guess.

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How would you say the surf culture in Latvia develops differently than some mainstream European spots like Hossegor or Sagres, for example?

We simply don’t get waves often enough and they are never as good as places like Hossegor or Sagres, so there is a big gap in the level of riding.

When going abroad on a surf trip, what aspect of Latvia do you think you bring with you?

I’d definitely go out even on a knee-high day – as I’m sure any other wave-hungry surfer would. I guess coming from Latvia makes it so that the craving for waves is probably bigger. Also, our Northern perception of beauty makes us appreciate the harsher environments and we sometimes end up going to places other people would normally put down at the bottom of their list, or not even regard as a surf destination. My last surf trips were to Norway (twice), Normandie, Iceland and Ireland.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

What is people’s usual response when you say you’re a surfer from Latvia?

“You mean like with a real board or what?”

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Besides the inconsistency of waves and often cold temperature, what are some challenges that surfing in Latvia presents?

Half of Latvia’s population lives in Riga, which is around three hours drive from the best spots here. So you have to be quite motivated to do it and still make it back home within the few hours of daylight around this time of the year.

Surf Simply and the author would like to thank Kaspars Cekotins, and Tree House Hostel for their assistance with the article.