At the Covelong Classic last month, veteran Indian surfer, Manikandan “Appu” Desappan took on the swell in the final of the men’s open category. By the end of the heat, he had finished in fourth spot, way off the winner’s score. But there was still a sense of satisfaction on his face as he walked out on the beach under the sultry afternoon sun.
For one, Appu was relieved that his dodgy knee had held up, having just about recovered from an injury suffered a few weeks ago. Besides, he was also delighted with the performance of the local boys from his hometown of Kovalam.
While Ajeesh Ali N took the top spot, 14-year-old Kishore Kumar finished in second place. They represent the next generation of surfers, who are looking to make their mark on the international circuit. At that moment, Appu knew that Indian surfing was progressing in the right direction.
“When I started in 2003, there was no infrastructure in place for surfing. We would share one board left behind by a German friend. And there was no other gear like a leash or a vest,” Appu says. In fact, what we did back then was bodysurfing. We even learned of the term surfing only a few years later,” he adds.
Growing up amid the fishing community of Kovalam, Appu had the Bay of Bengal in his backyard. But like most young boys from his village, he would set out with his family to fish post midnight and would return to the shore only by daybreak. It was only then that he and his friends had some time to play, swimming in the sea or exploring their limits on the new toy.
“There were no smartphones either, so we couldn’t really watch anything on the internet and learn like a lot of kids do today. All we knew back then was that we had to stay on the board as long as possible,” Appu says.
Things were slightly different for Rammohan “Ram” Paranjape on the west coast of India. He first dropped out of college and followed his friends to Mangalore. It was where he met Jack “Surfing Swami” Hebner, who established one of the country’s first schools, the Mantra Surf Club in Mulki.
“Surfing Swami mentored us and taught us a lot about the ocean and surfing. Back in the early 2000s, there were just a handful of surfers. And it was more of a recreational activity and a lifestyle. I think the sport aspect came in only over the last decade. And once it started growing, it needed structure to ensure that it was heading in the right direction,” Ram says.
A few other schools popped up along the coastline. But sourcing gear, most of which was imported back then, continued to be an obstacle for enthusiasts. There were few opportunities or resources for folks like Ram and Appu, who were looking to take up surfing full-time.
“My family didn’t really understand what surfing was all about. We had many mouths to feed, and it was imperative for young boys like me to help with fishing. But the sport fascinated me — there was this cool factor associated with it, new challenges, and different waves to catch each day. Fishing was real hard work. So, I stopped going out to sea when I was 14,” Appu recalls.
He faced stiff resistance back home. But soon, he started travelling across the country to surf at different spots like Varkala, Gokarna, and Puducherry. It’s where he met like-minded folks and realised that there were others like him who were looking to make careers around surfing.
The sport received some structure when the Surfing Federation of India (SFI) was established in 2011-12. The first major competition was held in the same year. Appu was eliminated in the preliminary round, but he got his first taste of what real surfing was all about.
“The guys who won were from Auroville and were really good. I was furious when I got home. But a couple of days later I decided to put my mind to training. Two years later, I was among the winners,” Appu says.
Around the same time, Arun Vasu, chairman of Chennai-based TT Group, got associated with the sport. A windsurfer by passion, he joined hands with another surfer from Kovalam, Murthy Megavan, to establish Surf Turf — a school that became the base for young dreamers like Appu once was.
Local boys like Kishore rode their first wave here. The older boys found employment as instructors, offering lessons to urban folks from nearby cities like Chennai. Promising youngsters like Ajeesh were sponsored by Surf Turf and sent to international competitions to gain exposure.
“I was part of a team that went to competitions in Thailand, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. Surfers there were at a different level — they had a routine, a coach, and even a video analyst to work with. It gave me a sense of where we stood,” Ajeesh says.
The pandemic in 2020 brought a temporary halt to all activities. But once restrictions were lifted, surf schools on either coastline experienced a boom. Surfboards also became more accessible after Indian shapers — these are folks who make boards — set up shop and started offering them at affordable prices. In fact, Ram, who is also into the business of importing equipment, observed a 400 per cent increase in the demand for surfboards.
“Everybody wanted to get out, and the sea and the beach were the safest places to be. A lot of people took up surfing and some 35 new schools came up on both coasts to cater to this demand,” Vasu says.
The inclusion of surfing as part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics further changed the profile of the sport. In fact, it will also feature at the 2024 Olympics in Paris and the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Once Vasu took over the reins of SFI as its president, he realised the need to organise the sport better. One of his first goals was to gain recognition from the sports ministry and the Indian Olympic Association.
“Only after surfing was included as part of the Olympics did people start looking at us a little differently. In Asia alone, we are up against the Indonesians and the Japanese, who’ve been surfing for many decades now. Though our guys have notched it up a few levels over the last two years, I’m not convinced we are ready for the Olympic level yet. That will take some time, but we are making a good progress,” Vasu says. “For the first time this year, we ran a course for judges and instructors that is approved by the International Surfing Association. We’ve also managed to host three competitions and the standard has been quite good,” he adds.
Kishore’s performance, one of the highlights of the Covelong Classic, is a case in point. The teenager took the top spot in the International Open category, finishing ahead of older and more experienced surfers from Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Japan.
“It was beautiful to watch some of the lines that Kishore was exploring. That’s a natural talent — you cannot teach these things. He’s a young lad, but I was shocked to see the maturity in his surfing,” says Gavin Hensler, head judge at the festival.
Hensler, who hails from Gold Coast in Australia, has been judging internationally for the last 25 years. Since his last visit to India in 2018, he has seen a dramatic spurt in the profile of the sport. “The level of Indian surfing has risen dramatically. They have better equipment and more instructors and consequently, I’ve seen the scores rising during competition. From a lot of average surfing, we now have more of good surfing and a lot of excellent surfing,” Hensler says.
“Countries like Indonesia have great waves, so surfers there have a lot of opportunities to develop their skills. Others like China don’t have the resources, but they’ve created artificial facilities to train and have all the necessary support systems in place to scout and train athletes. In India, it’s only grown over the last 5-6 years, and I can see this only get better in the time ahead,” he adds.
Many first-generation Indian surfers are today instructors, having finished their certifications from the International Surfing Association. Earlier this year, Appu was appointed coach of the Indian team — a first for the sport. In the time ahead, he wants to focus on the grassroots and looks to plan exposure trips abroad for those who’ve shown promise. And he’s glad to see the support young surfers are receiving these days.
“My father and brother go fishing every day, but they never insist that I go with them. They back me because they see a future when it comes to surfing,” Ajeesh says.
Image Credits: MovingImages