Faroe Islands: A place of hidden lakes and weird thermals…

Words by: Graham Howes
Photos by: Craig Howes

Graham Howes once more heads into the unknown – both in terms of geography and in terms of wearing a 6mm wetsuit – and finds strange winds and a new kiting frontier…

Turquoise water, coconuts and palm trees are trending. People flocking to paradise to fill their Instagram feeds with smoothie breakfast bowls and bikini shots… Well, one thing was sure: we wanted none of that.

The idea came about in Cape Town over summer, everyone was booking their tickets to Bali, Tarifa, Cabarete… Don’t get me wrong, spending a week in boardies and a Bintang tank top is tempting, but we wanted something new, something real, something to remember…

It’s hard these days to stay above the crowd, everyone now has a camera, a drone, two Instagram accounts, and considers themselves a videographer or content creator. And with thousands of ‘adventure’ and kiteboarding videos being uploaded each day, you really have to step out of your usual zone and take some big risks to capture and experience something new.

But even in this context, flying six people halfway around the world to a place we knew absolutely nothing about – and with only a five day window – would be considered borderline insanity. Now throw variables like wind, weather, and accessibility into the equation and you have an idea of what we would be dealing with. This was certainly not guaranteed Instagram fodder…

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I just needed to find the other five people who were also up for a wild adventure, and thankfully they didn’t take that much convincing. I rounded up a crew of myself, Nick Jacobsen, my brother Craig Howes and three of our mates/videographers/photographers in the form of Jop Heemskerk, Dean Cothill and Shawn Ogulu.

We were heading to the Faroe Islands (and if you haven’t heard of the Faroe Islands then don’t worry, neither had I). They are made up of 18 volcanic islands, fully exposed in open ocean between Iceland and Denmark in the North Atlantic. It is just a stone’s (or a snowball’s) throw from the Arctic Circle. Cold, wet and very far from Cape Town. Thick, full-body wetsuits are required to survive the freezing cold water and the climate is far too harsh to support agriculture, so the Faroese get by on a diet of mostly sheep and fish.

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What we did know about it was the images we had seen of the ‘floating’ lake above the ocean, surrounded by some 1000 foot high sea cliffs and waterfalls. Our plan was to kite on top of that lake, and above the waterfall and many other unridden spots around the islands. You may think the freezing temperatures and weather would be the biggest challenge, but that was by far the least of our worries. The islands are small and very remote and you have to get around to the spots we had spotted mainly by boat or helicopter – or in some cases hiking for four hours with all our gear. It is fair to say that we encountered our fair share of dead ends and challenges.

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On one particular day we found a lake with perfect 15 knot wind, so we packed our 12m kites along with all the gear plus food and supplies for a day to hike to a spot we had seen on a map, where the waterfall falls off a cliff into the ocean. After hours of hiking, we got nearer to the spot, but as we got closer to the waterfall, so the wind increased, and by the time we reached the waterfall it had increased from 15 knots to 40, gusting 60 knots. This was due to the Venturi effect (a wind acceleration created by air having to be squeezed through a narrow space; in this case mountains and cliffs). We had the perfect set up and all the cameras in position to kite above the waterfall (and Nick had been planning on jumping off) but there was no chance of any of this happening, as it was impossible in that wind with a 12m kite. So after a quick discussion and with a few hours of daylight remaining (it was 9pm already but this far north the sun doesn’t set until 11pm) we decided to run back along the route we had come in on until the wind was manageable to launch a 12m. We then put all our dry gear in our kite bags and tried to tack upwind to the car, planning to swap out our 12s for smaller kites and then kite back down to the waterfall where the guys would still be waiting in position to film. The plan worked out great until I was about 500m from the car and the wind died completely… Nick just managed to reach the beach and I ended up downwind on the wrong side of the lake having to walk back around the lake to the car in my wetsuit, in the dark, with no pics or footage from the day’s missions…

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It was one of those ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’ bullshit things that we try to convince ourselves of but, sometimes, you just want an epic session like you’ve been dreaming of. By day five we had succumbed to the fact that no matter how many boat rides, helicopter flights and hours-and-hours of carrying gear up and down mountains you do: if the wind doesn’t want to play ball, there’s not much that can fix that. The weather in the islands changes so quickly and frequently that a well-known Faroese saying is ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes’. This turned out to be true when we gave up our search for wind and headed back to the place we were staying, only to pass a lake between the mountains with perfect 25 knots blowing down the valley with blue skies. Needless to say Nick and I were in our layers of rubber and on the water quicker than the guys could change lenses…

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We sessioned the little lake for about 30 minutes and then followed the flow downstream, kiting down a little river connecting the two lakes. By the time we were in the second lake the weather changed drastically again, the rain came bucketing down, leaving the crew with the cameras scrambling down mountains to find shelter. Some weird thermals and turbulent mountain wind started playing tricks with us, and at one point we did a double jump and ended up getting stuck in a thermal about 20 meters up. It carried us across the length of the lake and just before it was going to blow us past the beach and onto dry land we started flying backwards upwind (which neither of us had experienced or heard of before). At that point I gently touched down, while Nick hovered in a static position for about another 10 seconds. All in all it was about 25 seconds hang time. Of course it was at the time the rain started so the video guys were back in the car getting rain protection for the gear. But they did manage to capture a couple more thermal flights later after the rain stopped. We had to end that session shortly after that; it became too risky and unpredictable and with each jump we had no idea where we would land which was as exciting as it was scary.

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That turned out to be the only proper session of the trip and we boarded the plane the next morning. As we took off and looked out the window, we were almost as excited seeing all the potential and unridden spots below, most of which will never be kited or surfed. It opened up a new world to us, of travel and exploring, even though we ran into dead end after dead end. It just made those few sessions that much more exciting. We are lucky enough to live in a world with tools like Windguru, webcams and forums, where you can plan pretty much every aspect of your trip. But sometimes you just need to pull out the old map and dig deep for those instincts we once used to use to navigate through life’s challenges. Maybe board a boat with a crazy Viking captain you met in the local bar, telling you stories of secluded beaches, uninhabited islands, unseen waves and waterfalls over the ocean. Maybe his stories will inspire you, open your mind. And if you dare, maybe you’ll have a taste of what it was like to be an explorer, or a pirate.

Or maybe you’ll just keep watching everyone else’s movies and keep dreaming.

This article originally appeared in TheKiteMag #27. To subscribe, go here.

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