The first time Tanvi Jagadish tried surfing, she did it on the sly. She had seen her friends practicing at the local beach and wanted to give it a shot. But as a tiny 10-year-old who didn’t know how to swim and suffered from light asthma, she knew her parents would not approve of her trying to ride the waves near their home in Mangaluru. So she asked the one person she knew would say yes – her granny.

After a week of initial surf lessons, her life changed significantly. For one thing, she claims her asthma seemingly disappeared and for another, the seas became her playground. “But weren’t you afraid of drowning when you first went out into the water?” I asked Tanvi during a telephone interview one afternoon.

Gliding along the water

“No, I had no fear at all. I’m an ocean addict and I love being in the water, so I didn’t think about it,” the cheerful 17-year-old said. She had just finished an intense surf session that morning and was taking a break before heading out to her evening physio-training sessions.

Tanvi started training and learning how to swim at the nearby Mantra Surf Club, one of the first surf schools in India and soon enough she was gliding along the water. But the ocean wasn’t done with her just yet. Around the time Tanvi was 12, a guest at Mantra named April, introduced her to Stand Up Paddling. The activity is exactly what it sounds like – you stand on a large, broad board and use a paddle to navigate the waters.

Tanvi finished third at the West Marine Carolina Club Stand Up Paddle Board Race in USA. Image credit: Surfing Federation of India

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Tanvi recalled. “We had the boards at Mantra but we’d never tried it and after I saw how fast April moved in the water I wanted to give it a shot.” That incident introduced Tanvi to a sport she has now made her career – she is India’s first professional SUP racer. She’s also a national SUP racing champion and the first athlete to represent India internationally at SUP racing events.

Surfing is still a relatively new sport in India. The country’s warm waters and natural surf spots (often near estuaries, where rivers meet the seas) make it a great place for newbies to find their feet and for professionals to test their skills. Surf schools have existed in Goa, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for about a decade now, but it’s only recently that people have embraced surfing as a lifestyle adventure sport, along the lines of river rafting or scuba diving.

Riding the waves

However, compared to surfing, Stand Up Paddling is practically unknown but Ram Mohan Paranjpe, vice president of the Surfing Federation of India is optimistic about its future. “It may take some time to become as popular as surfing is in India but it has a lot of potential. It can be done on any water body, by anyone, of any age and requires less effort than surfing,” he said.

"I’m an ocean addict and I love being in the water" - Tanvi Jagadish. Image credit: Surfing Federation of India

These surf schools often organise competitions, drawing surfing and SUP enthusiasts from across India. For the SUP races, organisers lay out a course in the water, similar to a track, with tight curves and challenging routes. Competitors must complete the course (distances vary between 1 and 18 km, depending on the level of the competition) as quickly as possible, while battling tides, currents, winds and the sun.

It was at these events that Tanvi honed her skills and made a mark on the nascent Indian surfing and SUP scene. She claimed the top prize in her first competitive SUP event, the 2015 Covelong Point Surf Classic and continued that streak at the Manapad Classic Surf and Sail Festival and India Open of Surfing fest in 2016.

The water champion

Prepping for these events is hard work. Tanvi and her team at Mantra, where she continues to train and learn, work on breathing, endurance, sprints and strength. “I used to watch SUP videos online before competitions and try learning techniques from that,” Tanvi said. The folks at Mantra have also campaigned for her sponsorships and often travel with her for events.

In 2016, Tanvi began competing internationally in SUP races. She placed third at the West Marine Carolina Club Stand Up Paddle Board Race, in USA, and represented India at the World SUP and Paddleboard Championship organised by the International Surfing Association, in Fiji, where athletes from 26 countries competed in events like SUP distance race (18km) and SUP technical race (3km).

“In Fiji, we had to race 18km in the hot sun and with strong currents,” she said, “I didn’t know what to expect and I remember my competitors were like robots, they were so strong!” In addition to allowing Tanvi to pit herself against the world’s best SUP racers, these competitions also taught her how much she still has to learn.

Up next for Tanvi are the Indian Open of Surfing, beginning on May 26 in Mangaluru, and the 2017 ISA World SUP and the Paddleboard Championship, scheduled to take place in Denmark in September. She’s got a tough road ahead of her, but she’s up for the challenge. Her parents support her unconditionally (her dad shares her racing videos with all his friends), she’s got a new sponsor to help with funds and unlike other teenagers, she isn’t worried about the latest gadgets or trends – “Who needs all that when you can connect with the ocean?”