You know your sport has reached a tipping point when Chanel throws Giselle down a perfect tropical tube ride and Beyonce sings about riding her surfboard in a half filled bathtub. Surfing has turned mainstream, and there’s no looking back.
What that means for us everyday surfers is more bodies to navigate and fewer waves than you’d fancy. The only way out is a bit of a game plan so you can carve out an optimal session for yourself.
The teardrop shaped island of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean was first reportedly surfed by the adventurous surf legend, Rusty Miller in the late 60s. Back then the “pioneering surfer on a foreign coast rode without anyone on the beach watching.”
But ever since, warm tropical waters, head high friendly waves, surfing on the fringes of national parks, tuk tuks through green lush paddy fields, and easy going locals have made this a mini surf mecca in the South Asian waters that is increasingly hard to resist.
We arrived in Arugam Bay one late afternoon, after a seven hour drive from Colombo. Frothing to paddle out, I was hoping to sneak in a sunset session. But as I walked around to Main Point, my excitement turned to exclamation. Locals zipping through sections, nifty surfers dodging, amateur boards flying–it was chaos out there.
It took me a few days to figure out the ins and outs and work out a way to get the most out of my surf sessions. Finally I was clocking a solid 5-6 hours a day, getting the waves I most wanted and ending the day tired and happy.
From my Sri Lankan notebook to yours, here are a few things you’ll want to work out at any popular break.
1. Know when to go.
From May to October, the South West Monsoons smash against Sri Lanka’s western coastline bringing on-shore winds, rain and rendering the west coast a no-go for surfers. This creates a distinct season for sunny Arugam Bay on the east coast with consistent head high waves. Some of us have flexible jobs and lifestyles to pick out when to go on that surf trip, but many others have less wiggle room. Typically July-August tends to be around the summer vacations, packed with local families, casual vacationers and surfers that have taken time out from full time jobs. No matter where you’re surfing, if you’re looking for more waves and less crowds and have time on your side, avoid the months in the middle and get there early or in the tail end of the season.
2. Don’t be afraid to explore.
Arugam Bay or Abay’s Main Point protrudes out into the Indian Ocean and attracts consistent swells and larger waves than surrounding areas. Typically waves are between 2-6 ft with clean offshore conditions. Situated on an old coral reef, it’s a non-threatening right hand point break with long faces and occasional barrels. Sections can be made with speed and floaters and a good ride can be up to 500ms. So it’s easy to imagine why the spot is a quality crowd magnet. But while you’re on the best waves of the region, you are also likely to share it with twenty to thirty others, ending up with a less than satisfying wave count.
So, on some days, you’ll want to venture out looking for a less crowded break that may not have optimal waves, but still offers lots of fun rides, without too many fellow surfers or flying boards. Talk to a few locals, check out some swell reports and grab that quintessential surf tuk-tuk and head out of Abay. The friendly taxi drivers, often surfers themselves, will take you through windy, sandy paths, past lagoons, emerald green rice paddy fields, past peacocks, water buffaloes and the occasional elephant to relatively secluded beaches. And even if you’re not somewhere with elephants and water buffaloes, venturing off the beaten path is never a bad idea.
3. Figure out off-peak hours.
Outsmart your fellow surfers. The good news is that tides in east Sri Lanka don’t affect the breaks much. And, given the mostly off-shore conditions through the day, you can surf at any time. While dawn patrol and sunset sessions attract most surfers and the 9-5’ers, they often translate to big crowds and jostling for waves. If you’re not scared of the mid-day sun glaring down on your shoulders, paddle out then. Guaranteed there’ll be fewer people out there. And if you’re the fearless kind, why not experiment with pre-dawn, post sunset or even moonlit surf?
And, here’s another bonus tip: keep your ears peeled for the mid week beach parties which extend late into the night and often into the next morning. Typically that means less people on the dawn patrol line up the next day. So make your call. Party or dawn patrol?
4. Find local surf reports.
Discover your own surf report treasure.The Surflines and the Magic Seaweeds of the world are not really consistent with their forecasts around Sri Lanka. I didn’t think I had any other choice but walk up to Main Point every day, a good 20 minute walk from the tiny Abay stretch, just to check out what the break was doing. That is, until I discovered that the friendly guys at Upali Surf Cafe on the point post daily surf reports and videos on their Facebook Page. While I still relied on the report giants for long range, I checked Upali Cafe’s page before figuring out my plan for the day. So, regardless of where you are, look out for that local cafe, restaurant or shack is capturing exactly what you need.
5. Make friends
Share stories, get inspired. You could easily find yourself surfing 6-7 hours a day on the wave friendly breaks of eastern Sri Lanka. You’re likely to see the same faces in the water every day and then again floating through town at breakfast and sunset. Here’s where you’ll find out what the swell is looking like for the next few days, whether there were jellyfish in the water that morning or who made it through in the WSL comp. When the day ends and you are beaming that tanned, content smile, have a native inspired cocktail at the Hide and Chill Bar. You’ll find local surfers, the expat community and the odd local surf legends all hanging out. They’ll have loads of stories that’ll leave you inspired to get out there and catch the waves of your life.