My first time surfing reef breaks
I’m panicked. Frantic paddling has turned my arms to noodles.
The water rises and falls. Each wave pushes me further from a safe exit. Rocks make it impossible to duck the white water, punish my feet, bruise my legs and threaten the deposit on my rental board.
Between waves I can make out one of Southern Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous “choon paans”. The small bakery van putters along somewhere in the distance, its speaker sounding out a sad 90s Nokia Ringtone version of Fur Elise.
Yesterday I chased that sound to grab a sweetbread.
Today I worry it’ll be the last thing I’ll ever hear…
…before paddling, without any real problem, across the bay and comfortably on to the beach. All in a matter of less than ten minutes. And from the sand, the waves look harmless.
The single most dangerous thing you can do when surfing is panic. Whenever you’re in a sticky situation, make focus your first priority. Take stock, don’t be dramatic. Concentrate, stay on the board, paddle in a sensible direction. Panic and fear are different things. Fear is good. Panic is lethal. There’s NEVER room for panic.
My girlfriend innocently looks up from her book for the first time since my nowhere-near-death experience began.
“How was it?” she coos.
Swollen with embarrassment, I flop down to watch the surfers I’d left behind effortlessly drawing lines on Lazy Right.
There are no words.
The south Sri Lankan surf scene
It’s April. We’re in Midigama, a small village on the South West coast of Sri Lanka. It’s the first country on our round-the-world adventure. Our surfer’s rite of passage.
Everything I’ve read about the beauty of the place is true; white sandy beaches and crystal clear water. The locals are friendly, the wildlife is novel and the food is awesome. But it’s been a journey of contrasts; bustling cities against lazy beach days, lumbering trains trading off for hectic tuk tuks, mangy dogs keeping us company for gob smacking sunsets.
There have been invigorating days, life changing days where my surfing is concerned. Other times I’ve found myself feeling like an imposter, longing to get back on 1ft waves with a foamie under my feet.
Midigama, surf capital of the south
There are hundreds of surfers in the area; the make-it-look-easy kind that us learners aim to be. Longboarders cruise effortlessly at one point while power surfers smash huge hacks and air reverses at the next. Young dudes, bikini lasses and old boys in loose shirts line the streets, wander with boards underarm, languish outside bars, chat on the roadside with locals.
We’re not alone on the beach. Pockets of surfers point excitedly at sets coming through.
Shopkeepers brandish pineapples and bottles of water from their rudimental setup in the shade of the trees.
From our spot I can see two breaks. Lazy Left and, my Everest, Lazy Right. They’re affectionately named for their supposed gentle take-offs and mellow faces. I’ve heard them described as longboard waves. After my run in, I have to disagree. Either way, “mellow” or not, it hadn’t been a rash decision. It’d taken days to build up the confidence to paddle out here.
The process started about 10km East. One of the other well-known spots as you work along the coast from Colombo. Mirissa.
Reef Broken In Mirissa
This surf was a momentous occasion. It was my first time in the water on the round-world trip and, poignantly, my first reef break.
I rented a board, watched the wave working, talked to a few locals and paddled out.
How does the wave break, are there any danger spots, how are people getting in and out, what’s the tide doing? Wait to see at least a couple of sets before you get going.
This is a lesson I’d already been taught, and a damn good job too. This break turned out to be known to the locals as “Urchin Feast”. We saw more than one person get spiked after entering the water from the wrong spot. That’s a painful way to buy yourself some lei-days.
The water was beautiful, impossibly blue and bath warm, but the crystal clarity was a constant reminder of how shallow it was. Even paddling I could see the rocks and reef below. As it was my first ever “reef experience” I had a lump in my throat and my heart was drumming in my ears. Images of horrible reef cuts and nasty flesh wounds flashed through my imagination even as I got into deeper water.
Needless to say, after half an hour of paddling around with a lump in my throat, I finally swallowed my pride and paddled back to shore, convinced that the crowds on the beach would be noting me as a failure.
I didn’t catch a wave. But, it wasn’t a waste of time. I’d at least at given my first reef break a try (and come out unscathed).
Even if a wave is lined with people, no-one knows you, nor are they interested in tallying your failures/successes. You’re not on parade, and frankly, you look exactly the same as everyone else in the line up from the shore. Every single surf session is a learning experience, so you’re benefitting whether you look good or not. Have fun, shake off the mistakes and keep paddling!
I remember asking one guy how shallow he thought the water was.
“Uh, maybe about a meter” he offered, screwing up his face and paddling quickly away. I realised I’d had a reaction like that before. It said: “you look like you’re out of your depth but I’m not taking responsibility”.
It got me thinking about other times I’d asked for advice in a line-up. I realised that questions like “how deep is it” or “have there been any big sets”, questions that sound perfectly reasonable to us learners, signal to confident surfers that you might not be quite up to the conditions.
It’s a gamble as to whether you’re going to get a grunt, some useful advice or a reminder that some surfers have real problems with beginners. The guys who would rather you weren’t in their line-up, thank you very much. But if you get even the smallest tid-bit it’s worth it. If an accomplished surfer advises that you could be in a dangerous situation for example, that you’re better off out, it’s probably worth taking it onboard.
Some comments might bash your confidence, others might give you a kick up the ass. Either way, you’re going to learn something. Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given has come from angry surfers in the water.
With the failure of Mirissa fresh in my mind I started looking for a local surf guide. I set up a lesson two days later with a Sri Lankan dude called Madhu.
In the meantime I headed to Weligama, the only wave in the area to be pipped as “beginner friendly” online. Here I rekindled some of my confidence. It wasn’t too big, the bottom was sand and I caught a couple of fun waves. Just the reminder I needed that I wasn’t a complete “kook”.
Madhu – Life Changing Lessons
My time with Madhu was the single most profound surf I’d ever had. If I ever manage to become half decent at this surfing stuff, then I’ll remember the 2 hour session with this dude as the turning point.
We paddled out to a wave that backed onto his back garden. I had a constant lump in my throat and my arms gave up without much of a battle, but I carried on.
It was a reef, but much deeper than Mirissa, and there were only 6 of us in the line-up. I spent the first 20 minutes practicing my duckdive, Madhu critiquing as I went. Then something alien happened. Something staggering. He started telling me where to go; how hard to paddle, which way the wave would break, how to position my body. It might sound simple, but the effect it had on my surfing was huge.
I caught some of the cleanest, quickest, steepest, biggest waves I’d ever been out in. They weren’t much more than 3-4ft and I didn’t accomplish anything more fancy than heading straight down the line, but I was on the shortest, thinnest board I’d ever tried and it felt like I was really shifting.
Later Madhu and I shared some home-cooked food, chatted about the session, Sri Lanka and the world.
“If you want to keep improving”, he said, “You just need more time in the water”.
Aside from a few more attempts at Weligama, you already know how my surfing went from here. Whether you count the stories above as successful or not, it was plain that the confidence instilled in me by guided surfing was just what I needed.
Surfing Sri Lanka – General Tips
If you’re heading to Sri Lanka, be warned that Colombo airport is way out of the city. We weren’t carrying boards so it was relatively pain free, but if you plan to take yours it might be worth considering pre-arranged transport to take the edge off.
That said, if you avoid the trains you’ll be missing out on some of the best parts. Indiana Jones style bridges, lush countryside and village after village flashed past us on the British colonial rule train route.
Oh, and if you do get on a train, be wary that women refrain from contact with men, so if you have a choice (on buses too) sit next to your fellow men/women.
Mosquito spray, sunscreen and surf parts are expensive and tough to find. If you’re taking a board, it’s not a bad idea to stock check the surf bag; take a spare fin or two, plenty of wax and a tube of UV resin.
If you’re staying anywhere near a busy beachfront (Unawatuna, Mirissa) taking earplugs isn’t a bad idea. It’s all good when you’re out drinking until the early hours, but when you fancy an early one the next day, you realise how thin the walls are.
Southern Sri Lanka is a chain of surf spots. Some are easy to find (Ram’s Right, Plantations, The Rock), others take a bit of hunting. The first well known spot is Midigama. From here, just keep heading East and checking in through the gaps in the palms for quieter spots.
If Sri Lanka’s on your list to visit, I suggest you go as soon as possible. When I find my feet I’ll definitely be heading back one day. The waves are incredible, even for those awkward learner stages, but the word is out.
For more info on Sri Lanka, including more info on surf spots, check out my guide to surfing in Sri Lanka.
If you’re planning on heading out, you can get your hands on some really useful guides. Internet is patchy when you’re flying along the coast with your trusty scooter, so it;s a good idea to have something in the backpack.
Here are a couple of recommended guides:
Orca is a publishing house just up the road from me in Cornwall. They’re a bunch of surf-obsessed nuts, so their guides are usually on the money.
Stormrider are the original guide publishers. They usually publish quotes from locals or big-name surfers who hang out at the spots they review.