At 7.15 am, there were about two dozen surfers bobbing in the waters off Sasihithlu beach, just outside Mangaluru. The wind was strong, the tide was coming in and soon enough these surfers began hopping onto their boards and riding the waves – some expertly zigzagging across the water, others wiping out. This was the scene each morning during the second edition of the three-day Indian Open of Surfing held in Karnataka from May 26-28.

The event is one of a handful of surfing competitions that take place along India’s coast through the year. These contests, often hosted by local surf clubs in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha, attract budding and professional surfers from around India; sometimes international tourists participate too.

For many in India, surfing is a new concept, and competitions for surfers even more so, but the growing number of participants and visitors who come to these events indicates a growing awareness. The Indian Open of Surfing this year saw about 120 Indian and international participants and over 5,000 visitors. Ram Mohan Paranjpe, vice president, Surfing Federation of India said the event has really helped transform the coastal villages around Sasihithlu. “Now the Karnataka government and local authorities see surfing as a gateway to more coastal and adventure tourism and a must-try activity for those who visit Mangalore,” he added.

How the Surfing Swami rode India’s waves

But surfing wasn’t always this popular. The sport has unofficially been around in India since the 1970s when Jack Hebner, aka the Surfing Swami, first tried surfing along India’s coasts. Hebner, an American, was visiting the country to learn yoga and Sanskrit, but he also indulged in his passion for surfing in places like Rameshwaram, Mamallapuram and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. He enjoyed his time here so much that he never left, and in 2004 he set up the Mantra Surf Club, India’s first surf school, in Mulki, near Mangaluru. Together with his team, Hebner teaches local kids and visiting tourists the basics of surfing. Mantra was one of the main organisers of the Indian Open of Surfing.

Hebner was also responsible for bringing surfing to India’s east coast. In 2001, while surfing at Covelong Point, outside Chennai, he caught the eye of Murthy Megavan, a then 21-year-old fisherman who lived in one of the villages along the beach.

“I used to bodyboard on an old wooden door that I took from my grandmother’s house,” Murthy said, kitted out in a bright rash guard and an even brighter smile. “I didn’t know what surfing was, but one day I saw this man gliding along the water on this board and I wanted to try it,” he recalled. He introduced himself to Hebner and borrowed his board for a quick trial. Unlike most other beginners, Murthy could stand and catch a wave in his first attempt and that caught Hebner’s attention. “I am a fisherman and I know how the ocean works so it was easy for me,” Murthy said.

Murthy and Hebner lost touch for about eight years, during which time Murthy managed to get his hands on a couple of surfboards: some were bought off travellers and others were donated. With the help of sponsors, Murthy set up the Covelong Point Surf School in 2012, introducing locals to the sport. Today, thanks to external support and a growing interest around surfing, Murthy has over 100 surfboards and has trained some of India’s top surfers.

The last decade also saw the establishment of other surfing institutes like the Shaka Surf Club in Udupi, the Kallialay Surf School in Puducherry, Soul & Surf in Varkalaand the Surfing Yogis club near Puri. These groups offer accommodation and classes in not just surfing, but other activities like stand-up paddling and kayaking.

‘An exhilarating addiction’

Surfing is now a popular adventure sport, with students and professionals from cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai making a beeline for the nearest surf school for a quick getaway.

Fabiola Monteiro, 24, first tried surfing on a graduation holiday in Varkala, Kerala. “I’d read about Varkala being great for surfing and it looked like such a badass sport that I was really looking forward to trying it,” she said. For Rohin Samtaney, 29, it was a combination of wanting to try the sport and having friends who run a surf school in Karnataka. “Being able to just stand up on a surf board comes with countless falls, but when you do get up and catch that first wave, it’s exhilarating,” he said, “I’m definitely going back.”

While some prefer an occasional tryst with a surfboard, others find their calling in the waves. The thrills that are felt with each swell and the bond with the ocean are what keep surfers like Sekar Pachai, 27, and Vilassini Sundar, 21, coming back for more. They both trained with Murthy in Covelong.

Sekar’s story is a lot like Murthy’s. They’re both fisherman, both caught the surfing bug when they saw someone else (in this case when Sekar saw Murthy) surfing in the waters near their village and they both managed to stand up on the board on their first attempt. Many of Sekar’s friends from his community also got hooked on to surfing and now are amongst India’s best surfers. These fishermen have an inherent knowledge of the waters and waves that helps them pick up the sport quickly. The fact that they live by the water and can practice everyday also works in their favour.

For others like Vilassini, who lives in Chennai, surfing is restricted to a weekend activity but there are ways around that. “I’m here every weekend and when college is on, I bunk once a week, so that I manage to get three days at the surf school,” Vilassini said. During vacations, she practically lives at Covelong. What makes surfing so special, I asked her. “It’s like an addiction,” she explained, “I’ve been pursuing this seriously for about two years now and still each wave is a new high, the adrenaline rush is amazing.”

Creating ripples

Surfing also provides these athletes with an almost meditative experience. For Shrishti Selvan, a 19-year-old surfer from Chennai, it’s a way to clear her mind. “When I’m surfing, I don’t think about anything other than catching the next wave,” she said. Sekar echoed a similar sentiment. “If I have a headache or am stressed about something, I don’t bother with tablets, I just grab my surfboard and head to the water,” he said.

It’s encouraging to see that surfing has a growing number of female athletes. Vilassini and Shrishti both spoke being inspired by other professional Indian female surfers like Ishita Malaviya and Aneesha Nayak. “When you see these girls manoeuvring the waves the way they do and participating in competitions, you get motivated to try it,” Shrishti said.

Divya Ghanshani, a 21-year-old student from Pune felt the same way. She’s keen on learning how to surf and was at the Indian Open of Surfing to get an idea of what to expect. “I saw an ad for the event in the paper a few days ago and decided to come see the surfers compete in the flesh. They’re incredible!” she said. The Mangaluru surfing event saw a range of athletes competing, from masters like Murthy to juniors like eight-year-old Tayan who’s been surfing for most of his life.

Surf’s up

Everyone I spoke to at the Indian Open of Surfing was optimistic about the sport’s future in the country. Each year the number of surf schools and surf enthusiasts goes up, so much so that surfboards are now being manufactured in India. The Kallialay Surf School is connected to a production workshop, called INDI Surfboards, where boards are crafted by hand. Sponsors like Decathalon have started helping these schools by providing basic equipment and accessories like surfing t-shirts and beach tents.

There are a few hurdles though. For one thing, surfboards can be quite expensive, with a beginner-level board costing approximately Rs 30,000. For another, the waves in India are not as challenging as the waves seen in places like Australia and Hawaii. Christian Noel, a 23-year-old surf instructor at the Bay of Life Surf School in Covelong, said surfing differs from other sports in one aspect: “When you play cricket or football, you get better when you play with tougher opponents. But in surfing, the waves are your opponent. So, for Indians to get really good and compete globally we will have to practice abroad to get a real feel for big waves and challenging conditions.”

Competing globally is on every Indian surfer’s mind, especially after surfing was accepted as an Olympic sport and will feature in the 2020 games in Tokyo. Shrishti believes that it’ll take a lot of work but it could be easier for athletes to get recognised by national selectors in India, given the country’s nascent surfing scene, than in places where surfing enjoys mass popularity. Murthy is a little restrained about India’s 2020 prospects but is excited about the future. He’s focused on working with the next generation of surfers, like Tayan, who are already showing promise at an early age. “If surfers like him start competing internationally by the time he is 16 years old, eventually he can win gold medals. That’s what I want.”