Schooled by India's surf

An Indian man rides the waves outside Melvilles surf shop in Visakhapatnam, India. Melville was an early convert to the sport. Local reaction to watching Melville or his friends surf was usually amazement, he said. "It was a surprise to them. No one knew what surfing was. ... They were astonished. ... In Vizag nobody dreamt of surfing."
An Indian man rides the waves outside Melvilles surf shop in Visakhapatnam, India. Melville was an early convert to the sport. Local reaction to watching Melville or his friends surf was usually amazement, he said. "It was a surprise to them. No one knew what surfing was. ... They were astonished. ... In Vizag nobody dreamt of surfing."

As the sport gains a toehold in the country, a novice struggles to come to terms with his board.

Posted: August 27, 2012

VISHAKHAPATNAM, India - When I started planning my trip across India, I had visions of ancient, towering monuments, sojourns in remote wildlife sanctuaries, and spicy, flavorful meals on the streets of local villages. And surfing. India wasn't Hawaii or Australia, but it had thousands of miles of coastline and I'd read that surfing was possible in a few spots. I was desperate to learn, and doing it on the road would be way cheaper than in the States.

Then the annual monsoon slammed into India's western coast, torpedoing my Point Break dreams there, turning the waves into frothing beasts, laden with mud washed seaward by all the rain.

I'd heard that a "Melville" taught surfing and rented boards in Vishakhapatnam, located about halfway up the country's eastern coast (unaffected by the monsoon), so I left my dingy hotel in Cape Comorin (on India's southern tip), hopped aboard a bus, and struck out northeast for "Vizag."

Instead of the scruffy beach town I'd been expecting, I found a bustling seaport. Vizag, India's "City of Destiny," was a sprawling metropolis, a massive sensory assault, with traffic-choked streets, high-end cars, American fast-food restaurants, and a sea of people. I piled my gear into a motor-powered rickshaw and headed about six miles northeast to Rushikonda beach, which looked more like the half-moon bay of khaki-brown sand and emerald blue waves I'd envisioned.

At the south end of the beach I found Melville Smythe and his surf school in a stone-paved yard. Here, too, my expectations proved wrong. I'd imagined a 20-year-old in board shorts and wild hair, but a trim, dapper gent in his mid-40s with a carefully maintained mustache greeted me instead. The surf shack was a long open hut with coconut-palm thatching, and a couple of gazebos were scattered about the place, offering respite from the sun.

Inside the shack, I found a mysterious pile of cardboard boxes in the middle of the room, along with a table littered with cooking utensils, some lawn chairs, and a collection of boogie boards and surfboards.

After chatting for a few moments, Melville asked me, "Well, do you want to get in the water?"

Although it was pretty late in the day, I'd just spent 19 hours on a bus, so some movement sounded like just the thing to reinvigorate myself. I changed into my swimsuit and grabbed the long, wax-marbled board Melville offered me, strapped on the leash, and headed into the lukewarm waves.

Despite my fantasies of becoming the next Kelly Slater, Mother Nature and my inexperience conspired for a lesson in humility. Melville's other students and I had started near the shoreline, where the waves looked tame and easy. My mistake. The dunkings began immediately. This was no little ride and then a cute little stumble off the board into the water, but rather huge, ungainly drenchings that sent me tumbling, curled in a ball, while I prayed that I wouldn't end up impaled by my board or a rock on the seabed.

I emerged from the waves an hour later, chastened, spluttering, and exfoliated, but energized.

My next days went similarly. After just a few minutes in the water, my shoulders were limp and sore, about as useful as two large, uncooked hams. My travels the last few months had left me weak and out of shape, not up to the task of paddling my heavy board through Rushikonda's strong currents.

During those first surfing sessions, I flailed about as waves broke above me, trying to keep my rebellious surfboard from skewering me and to avoid downing gallons of saltwater. And while I struggled, Melville and his students darted through the foam like swordfish.

But the exercise felt good, the sun was warm, the fish curry from a nearby canteen was fresh, spicy, and delicious, and Melville and his students were friendly and encouraging. "When we were kids, we didn't learn to walk right away," he told me after watching me slink out of the water in discouraged defeat one day. "We crawled, then stood up, then grabbed something and walked a few steps. That's what it's like with surfing."

When he wasn't surfing, Melville kept busy promoting water sports in India. He's been teaching local boys, and also promoting body boarding, sea kayaking, and even kite-surfing from the palm-thatched hut.

"I had some magazines from abroad," he said, explaining how he learned to surf. "I used to see pictures of people surfing, but I didn't know what it was at the time. . . . Then I sailed in the merchant navy, so I went abroad, saw the surfing, water skiing, and windsurfing. I said, 'We should have this in India.' "

Success didn't come easily.

Melville received his first surfboard - donated by a foreign friend - in 2005. After watching Melville surf, a couple of policemen decided to try using the board, and immediately broke its tip. Now, he has five boards he uses regularly, and several more in various stages of repair.

Local reaction to the surfing of Melville or his friends was usually amazement, he joked.

"It was a surprise to them. No one knew what surfing was. . . . They were astonished. . . . In Vizag nobody dreamt of surfing."

But surfing here (and elsewhere in India) has grown over the last five years. A few hundred yards down Rushikonda beach, Anudeep Doppa, 23, also runs a surf school. Every day, I spotted a few of his students zipping through the surf on their training boards.

I talked to him a few days later. He was wearing a red surf shirt, aviator sunglasses, and surf shorts. He had a round face and a mass of curly hair that the sun had bleached brown-orange.

Like Melville, he had learned from a foreigner. "I used to paddle him out [in my kayak] and he'd teach me how to surf."

Anudeep bought his first board in 2010. Now, he has his own surf shack in the Sai Priya Beach Resort, seven boards, and 10 more on order. He speculates that the sport will grow rapidly over the next five to 10 years.

"[Before], I was the only guy surfing. Now I see about 15 guys in the water every day," he said.

Anudeep said that pockets of surfers exist in several other spots around the country, including Pondicherry, Mangalore, Kovalam, Varkala, and Mahabalipuram.

Surfers even held a national competition last year, Melville told me, attracting fans and competitors from across the country. There will be another this year in September, on the west coast after the monsoon. Both Anudeep and Melville said they would be going.

I sure won't be, though. A few days later, after watching flat water that was making me crazier by the hour, I got back on my board. Nature was stubbornly unhelpful, offering sporadic surf. In peak season, the three- to six-foot waves run in long, even lines off both sides of the beach's submerged sandbar. But during my visit, the waves stayed just a few feet high, and they broke in schizophrenic disjointedness, weird clumping of weak waves that died around me just as I was preparing to chase them down. When I wasn't surfing, I'd walk down the long, mostly abandoned beaches, and explore a nearby village called Sagar Nagar.

During my last days, my arms started to toughen up. The surf was a little better, the weather clear, and Rushikonda beach looked like tropical paradise. Hundreds of tourists splashed in the weekend sun, body-surfed, or rode two prancing ponies that until then I'd only seen munching on corn husks.

I spent an hour splashing around in the water before lunch, and an hour afterward. My board still kept flying into the air (and hurling me into the depths) with alarming frequency, but my arms were strong, and I was moving. I popped up off of the board, and for a second, just before the wave died and slipped back into the sea, I was vertical, standing tall.

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