Ocean’s 7: Kovalam’s quiet surfing revolution gets a boost as new surf schools open

Despite the stillness of lockdowns, a clutch of schools run by surfers from Kovalam’s fishing village launched. Now, this coastline attracts enthusiasts from across the country all year

It is high tide, on a grey afternoon. Frothy waves gently caress the shore. At Kovalam beach, clad in bodysuits, two amateur surfers are trying to catch a wave. Nudging them along is a young boy in a yellow uniform: their coach.

The men paddle into the water on surfboards, turn to face the beach and wait. As soon as a wave hits them, they attempt to ‘pop’ (stand on the board) and strike a superhero pose. A few seconds in, they topple over with a splash. On the shore, their family enthusiastically tries to catch the few seconds of action on camera.

It is a typical, slow weekday afternoon at Kovalam, along the Coromandel coast. However, the scene revs up on weekends, and early mornings. As the crowd swells, students line up behind their instructors with boards laid out on the sand, learning to ‘paddle’ and ‘pop’ before hitting the waves. Then their instructors, chest-deep in water, guide them carefully, coaxing them to catch each oncoming wave.

About a decade ago Kovalam had just a few local surfers, today it is part of a quiet, yet significant Indian surfing revolution.

The coastline | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The fishing village is now home to seven independent surf schools — Surf Turf, Kovalam Surfing School, Soulmate Surf School, Coco Surf School, Yellow Fin Surf School, Ocean Delight and Bay of Life — and is a popular destination with surfers from around the world. Why is it so special?

“Kovalam has some of the best waves on the East coast. The rocks outside and the sand bar creates great waves during the surf season every year,” says Arun Vasu, founder of Surf Turf, chairman of TT Group, and an avid windsurfer with 40 years of experience in the water.

Murthy Megavan, a fisherman-turned-surfer from the village who now runs Kovalam Surfing School, agrees, “You can surf here all through the year, even in the monsoons. And for our boys (instructors), safety comes first. You are playing with Nature, after all.”

Seven schools strong

Arun is one of the pioneers of this movement. He started Surf Turf (then, Covelong Point Surf School) in 2013, with musician Yotam Agam and Murthy. “It was started as a way to give back to the fishing community of Kovalam, and meant as an alternate source of income other than fishing. We started with a small rented place in the village first. The response was really good and that’s why I decided to buy a plot and set up a more permanent school,” he recalls. Though the village already had a few surfers, including Murthy, who had learned surfing from visiting foreigners, with the setting up of the school, a formalised way of training came into being: all those who were part of the school were certified and trained by International Surfing Association (ISA) coaches.

Surfer Murthy at his school which is under construction | Photo Credit: Sweta Akundi

Murthy, who has been teaching children from the village since as early as 2012, is at the centre of this once fledgeling, now mature revolution. He learned to ride waves atop a broken door at the age of 10. Sporting a pair of sunglasses and a never-waning smile, he walks though his under-construction surf school pointing out the rooms for surfboard storage, pantry and shower areas. The white building, located a stone’s throw away from the Covelong Point beach is nearing completion. “If everything goes well, we will inaugurate it in November this year,” he says, adding that he has 10 instructors in his crew.

“The office space will also double up as a counselling centre for people in need, especially from the village and even nearby villages,” says Murthy, adding, “It will be good to watch the beach and talk, don’t you think?”

Will this facility (done in collaboration with counsellor Sheena Ramanalukkal) be available for surfers too? “For us, a good wave is enough to clear the mind,” he adds with a laugh. Be it surfing or counselling, he assures that such features will always be provided free of cost, for people from the village.

As borders open up, each school is drawing interest among surfers from across the country, especially Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The schools, most of which are led by surfers who trained under Murthy, have also identified five ideal points along the coast for training: referred to as Covelong Point, Rock Area, Village Point, River Mouth and New Point. “Rock Area is not for the weak-hearted. Only for professionals!” specifies Murthy as he points to the coastline.

As borders open up, each school is drawing interest among surfers from across the country, especially Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi. “We did get a lot of expats before the pandemic. But after, it’s been mostly Indians,” says Arun.

Ride with the times

While Murthy and Surf Turf evolved to be household names over time, new establishments like Soulmate Surf School, helmed by 33-year-old National-level surfer Palani Vijayan, had to take the social media route for that much-needed jumpstart. It was around the 2020 lockdowns that he decided to start over. Before that, he was an instructor under Murthy for almost 10 years.

“All I had was the money to buy one board. And the confidence to do it,” recalls Palani, “I began by starting a YouTube Channel and posting videos on surfing. Then followed it up with Instagram and Facebook pages. Slowly, I started getting messages on these platforms.” Many were from those who liked Palani’s way of teaching. His YouTube videos also share a glimpse of the community and the village, along with information on surfing safety.

Beginners train on the sand before hitting the waters | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Right now, Palani says there are about 200 students training under him. Apart from this, a floating number comes for individual sessions too. He adds with a chuckle, “Some of them are very interested in getting photos clicked, especially for social media. So I have bought a camera.”

For now, his school doesn’t have a formal physical space, “I have rented a house close to home to keep extra boards. Depending on the conditions at sea, I take the boards on my bike to the respective spot and pitch a tent there.”

As more enthusiasts discover Kovalam, it is likely that Mamallapuram, another important surf spot on the East coast, might also see more takers, says Arun. “Around 2008-2009, Mahabs used to be the most famous spot, especially for expats. Right now, even during competitions, surfers from Kovalam and Mahabs are always neck to neck,” Murthy adds.

Arun, who is the sitting president of the Surfing Federation of India, believes that surfing as a leisure sport will be “huge in the next five to 10 years” in India. “My vision for Kovalam has always been to make it the surfing mecca of India. More schools coming up is good for the sport,” he says. As the day winds down and learners walk up the shores carrying their multicoloured boards, Murthy exclaims, “In the village, there are 100 or more surfers now — right from small children to grown-ups. And you will see me on a longboard at least till I’m 75 years old!”

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