Excerpt from SW419, full story available in the magazine.
By Sean Doherty
Earlier this year, four guys from Avalon took a surf trip to Russia. To the far east, Kamchatka. In a fateful development, as they were in the air, Russian troops crossed the border and invaded Ukraine. As the world watched on in horror, the boys landed in transit with two hours before their flight left for Moscow. Two hours to make the call. Fly to Russia or fly home? Four guys from Avalon, the safest surfing bubble in the world, were about to fly into some big trouble… and some big adventure. At a time when the world was seeing the worst of human nature, these guys flew behind the Iron Curtain and found, to their surprise, the best of it.
Back in 2018, Australian filmmaker Spencer Frost released A Corner of the Earth to critical acclaim. It was filmed in Iceland, in winter, a long way from his home town of Avalon. It was cold, contemplative… an ice bath for the surfing soul. For an Antipodean surf film, it felt very Euro and very noir. When he decided to explore a sequel, Spencer started scouring the map. Where could he find uncharted, brutalist winter surf? In a shrinking, warming world this isn’t always easy. The surfing cold rush of the past two decades hasn’t left much unexplored in the high latitudes. They thought of going back to Iceland. They looked at Alaska. Then they had an idea.
Kamchatka is a long way away, both geographically and in terms of the surfing consciousness. It’s almost detached from Russia and totally detached from surfing. Or so it seemed. The most recent exploration of surf in this post-Soviet, Pacific peninsula had briefly featured in Travis Rice’s snowboarding movie, The Fourth Phase. “We saw a wave that was kind of like a poor man’s Padang Padang,” recalls Spencer. “A left pointbreak that looked kind of like a cold-water Indo. That was the original spark.” Along with good friend, photographer Guy Williment, they began to sell the idea to their surfing mates, Fraser Dovell and Letty Mortensen. “I remember Spenny and Funk showing me the Travis Rice movie where they surf the left,” recalls Letty. “It was funny. When I was working at Beach Without Sand they’d play that movie with the left all the time, I just didn’t know where it was.”
Kamchatka had surf history. Ted Grambeau of course had already been there with Tom Curren, two decades ago. Chris Burkard had also been there for Surfer magazine. But both trips were in summer. The waves they got were small, clean… almost fun. But what would Kamchatka offer in the depths of winter? “Me and Guy looked back on old swell charts from January, February, March over the last 15 years and we saw a trend of six-metre swells on big storms,” recalls Spencer. “Then after the tail end of the storm there was generally a strong offshore wind that would blow off Siberia and just groom that massive storm swell. We were like, if we can get up there, there was potentially a thousand kilometres of coastline that’d never been explored for surf.”
Finding a surfer who could verify any of this though was a problem. They couldn’t find any travelling surfer who’d been there in winter, so they took another approach. “I got a message translated into Russian asking if anyone surfed up there in winter and if the waves were any good. Then I started bombing anything that looked like a Russian surfing account.”
A guy named Anton Morozov soon replied that yes, indeed there were waves in winter. Anton ran an unlikely surf camp on the coast outside the capital of Petropavlovsk. As a teenager, Anton had watched In God’s Hands and fell hard for surfing. A visiting Russian had left a surfboard and wetsuit there, and he’d had learned to surf on his own. Anton offered to show them around if they came over. He had mates with helicopters who could get them into the remote, uninhabited north of the peninsula, the same guys who’d worked with Travis Rice. This was Max – Maksim Balakhovskii – who owned Snowvalley Lodge up in the mountains. Max had been up there for 30 years, was a snowboarder, photographer and mountain guide. He knew the joint better than anyone. Suddenly the boys had serious ground crew and they got serious about the trip. This was two years ago.
What they didn’t have though were visas. Covid cooled their plans for over a year. It made getting into Russia almost impossible. By the time they planned a date of February 2022 to leave, it had got even harder. Putin was spoiling to invade Ukraine, and who knows what else. Spencer recalls, “We got a message saying, ‘Hey, tourist visas have been scrapped. You guys can’t come in on that visa.’ So the next step was a business visa, but two months out from leaving, business visas were also scrapped.” Putin was closing Russia off to the West, and it looked like the idea of the trip was cooling. With the shooting window closing, they needed a miracle.
The boys applied for a visa to film the Kamchatka landscape and promote the local area to surfers and snowboarders. It was officially classed as a “humanitarian visa” and it was officially a long shot. Russia was virtually closed to tourists, and definitely closed to foreign film crew. They applied anyway and had almost written it off when they got a message from the Russian Consulate in Sydney, telling them their visas had been approved. This was just six days before they were scheduled to fly out. They pulled together everything and boarded the flight ready for something wild. They got something wild, long before they even set foot on Kamchatka.
As soon as they landed in Abu Dhabi and turned on their phones, there it was. While they’d been in the air, Russia had officially invaded Ukraine. They walked into the terminal and it was on every TV screen. It was war… and in two hours they were due to board a flight to Moscow. Letty describes what happened next as, “The craziest fucking scene. I don’t know, like, we’re on a surf trip and then you’re just like, holy shit. You’re all just psyched on going on this trip and then the most fucking unexpected thing happens. Fuck, how am I meant to know what’s actually going on? It was gnarly.”
They’d left home with the Ukraine situation brewing, but it had been brewing for months, even years. They’d taken a punt it wouldn’t escalate while they were over there, but as they watched the news footage of Russia firing rockets into Ukraine, it was very fucking clear it had, and they had a choice to make – fly to Moscow or fly home. One thing was clear. As Guy puts it, “It was suddenly so much bigger than a surf trip, obviously.”
There were a lot of issues to be considered, first and foremost their own necks. Calls were made home to parents and girlfriends. “My folks weighed in and said, ‘Hey, I don’t think we should be doing this,’ recalls Fraser. “Looking back on it now, you realise how massive a situation it was. They definitely didn’t want me going. It was just too sketchy.” But the concerns from home were balanced by calls from their crew on the ground in Russia, who assured them it was safe. The remoteness of Kamchatka was also a factor. They would be almost closer to Australia than they were to Ukraine. They made the call. They’d fly to Moscow and see what happened.
The issue that would present itself later would be a moral one. Was it right to fly into Russia on a surf trip, while Russia was bombing civilians in Ukraine? “I think we were definitely ignorant of that at the time,” offers Guy now. “We didn’t realise how hectic it was over there, and how hectic it would get – what was actually going on in Ukraine with civilians dying. This was hours after the invasion, and we just didn’t know at the time and wouldn’t until later. The whole situation was so beyond us. We were just young guys going on a surf trip, and we got caught in the middle of a fucking war.”
“I genuinely don’t expect anyone else to understand our reasoning,” says Spencer, “why we decided to go. I think a lot of people will think it was a bit reckless. But the fact was we were totally reassured by our contacts over in Kamchatka that we were gonna be in good hands.” There was also the weight of the project. If they didn’t get on that plane, it was two years and 30 grand down the drain. Russia might take years to open back up. “To have that moment where it was as simple as saying, ‘Yeah, let’s not go.’ We’d come this far. Like, this is what we want to be doing with our lives. Imagine the thought of turning around and going home? It was a heavy call to make, either way.”
They would be amongst the last Westerners let into the country, and even though they couldn’t document it – Russian and Western journalists were being thrown in jail for covering any dissent for the war – they would be living amongst everyday Russians and would get an insight into how they saw the war. That was something.
The decision was almost made for them. They sat on the tarmac at Abu Dhabi for five hours waiting to take off. With the outbreak of war, flights into Russia were being cancelled, or flight paths changed to avoid the warzone. A flight tracker showed flights into Moscow had virtually stopped. The scene on the plane was tense. Some passengers disembarked. But then just when they were preparing for the inevitable, the captain announced they had a new flight path and they’d be taking off for Russia. The boys wouldn’t learn until later that their flight had been escorted across the Russian border by two fighter jets.