The Southern California filmmaker is dead set on exploring frozen frontiers
It was a defining moment in modern surf exploration. Alex Gray stood on a rock shelf along the frozen coastline of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, hands raised in rapture as a double-overhead tube reeled down the reef 10 yards in front of him. Gray, along with Josh Mulcoy and Pete Devries, were the first to ever paddle out at the Arctic slab, and for the next four hours, it would be all theirs.
But while Gray and the rest of the crew were threading icy barrels, Ben Weiland was unceremoniously tucked into the cliffside 200 yards above, steadying his tripod against gusts of stinging wind while trying not to disturb the herd of elk grazing nearby. You didn’t see him in the magazine feature or subsequent film, The Cradle of Storms, because he was the one behind the lens. But the discovery of this perfect wave was all his.
“Ben was the backbone of that trip,” says Gray. “He’s obviously so passionate about what he does. As a surfer, I just bring boards and jump on a plane, but he must have put in years of research before we even left.”
Norway, Russia, New Zealand, The Faroe Islands…Weiland’s passport is chock full of stamps from distant shores. His passion for all this cold-water adventure began back in college, in his dorm room, located just a stone’s throw from the reefs of Sunset Cliffs in San Diego. He’d spend hours watching live camera feeds from Alaskan shipping ports while his roommates went surfing. Weiland would watch as northern tempests pulsed in from the Bering Sea, and he’d imagine how these storms might wrap into bays and onto reefs along unexplored coastlines. Weiland hypothesized that he’d find surf in the Aleutian Islands more than five years before he boarded a cargo plane to venture into that Arctic abyss.
Weiland is a rare bird, to say the least. He hardly has the patience to sit in a crowded lineup at his local break, but has no qualms about scouring Google Earth for hours in search of a tapering pointbreak setup in Iceland, Chile, or Antarctica. He’s an avid member of fishing, boating, and scientific forums online, studying photos of foreign harbors or penguin migrations in the off chance he might see waves breaking in the background. He’ll wake at odd hours of the night and traipse through the moonlit, weed-ridden backyard of his ranch-style house in North County, San Diego, to his work shed, just to Skype about long-range swell patterns with a marine biologist in Norway.
“There aren’t a lot of places anymore where you can come across a perfect wave and have it all to yourself,” says Weiland. “Well, maybe there are, but they’re definitely not easy to find. I think that’s a really important part of surfing; that mystery and exploration aspect. I get restless surfing the same breaks at home in California, so I’ll look on a map and find some exotic, far-off, setups and try to put the pieces in place to get there. The potential is addictive.”
Does Weiland have an obsession? Probably. And it’s fueled by a trait not many of us surfers can relate to: he’ll put in the work, the months of planning, the financial risk, and the burden of travel with cameras and palettes of gear to get to some of the most remote and untouched waves in the world…and he won’t surf them once. He doesn’t need to—the discovery is enough of a rush in itself.
That rush has taken Weiland on these journeys to every corner of the Earth, trips where he somehow convinced pro surfers to turn down their typical strike missions to dreamy, warm-water lineups in favor of thick wetsuits and bitter conditions. And every time, they found themselves standing in awe of some perfect, empty wave on an unforgiving coast, wondering to themselves, “How the hell did he find this?”
“To me, a great trip doesn’t hinge on finding good waves,” says Weiland. “Although that might not be the case for the surfers I convince to come along. I’m just excited to enter these extreme environments and experience them for myself. To be able to tell the story of what it took to get there, and what we found. That’s why I do all this."