Kovalam’s organic, home-grown, spontaneous surf culture had an unexpected effect: keeping the village’s young people away from alcohol and narcotics

The fishermen enter carrying surf boards. Bare-chested with washboard abs and low-slung board shorts; they’ve acquired the casual swagger of seasoned surfers. It’s 7 a.m. on Kovalam beach. For half an hour, as I wait for Murthy and his crew to arrive for my first surf class, I watch a typical Indian beach scene unfold.

When the fishermen arrive, however, the air gets electric. As they lay out surf boards in a neat row, set up a brightly striped umbrella and hoist flags that flutter in the sea breeze announcing ‘Covelong Point’, Murthy walks over to say hello.

The focal point of Kovalam’s quiet, but powerful, surfing revolution, Murthy taught himself to surf when he was 10 years old using a broken wooden door. “People thought I was mad,” he chuckles. Years later, in 2003, he finally managed to buy a surf board from a neighbour in the village. “An Australian gave it to him, and he didn’t really do anything with it. I bought it for Rs. 1,500,” he says. (A board costs an average of Rs 40,000.)

In about four years, by the time Yotam of EarthSync — also an enthusiastic surfer — met Murthy, the village had about 15 young surfing fishermen.

That was not the only remarkable thing about Kovalam. As it turned out, this organic, home-grown, spontaneous surf culture had an unexpected effect: keeping the village’s young people away from alcohol and narcotics. It also began drawing surfers from across the world. Finally, with the help of Yotam and industrialist Arun Vasu, a wind-surfer who started to surf after meeting Murthy, the movement was formalised and Kovalam’s ‘Covelong Point — Social Surf School’ was officially born in November 2013. (Though Murthy’s been teaching people since 2012.)

As Murthy begins my ‘sand-surfing class,’ showing me how to ‘paddle’ and ‘pop’ (learning to stand on the board) on the beach, little boys from the village efficiently set up a shamina to hold the steady stream of students beginning to arrive. It’s an eclectic crowd: students from Ramachandra Medical College, four young professionals who car pool from the city every Saturday for classes and two doctors who come with their own boards. As it gets warmer, the expatriates begin to arrive.

So far Murthy says he’s had about 400 students, ranging from children of the village fishermen to expats (namely French, Japanese, Australian and American.) As the school gets more popular, it’s beginning to draw people from as far away as Mumbai and Delhi. Former super model turned running evangelist Milind Soman learnt surfing here last month. Former South African cricketer Jonty Rhodes was here last year. And, locally, Tanvi Shah, is a fan.

The water is warm and gentle when I finally get in. Murthy holds my board steady while I clamber on. With his help I propel it deeper into the water. The other students follow, each accompanied by one of Murthy’s crew — some of whom are still just little kids with toothy smiles and oversized shorts. They swim like fish and surf like pros — showing us how it’s done every once in a while. There’s an air of bonhomie, as we lie on our boards, soaking up the sun and enjoying the relaxing swell of the waves. “No matter how stressed you are. No matter how sad. Or tired. When you surf, the waves wash it all away,” says Murthy, promising us that riding our first wave will be unforgettable.

As a suitably sized wave arrives, he gives my board a push and yells ‘pop.’ I obediently jump up, only to tumble into the water — head first. Murthy is indefatigable. “Get on again,” he says, pushing my board towards me. I obey. And fall. “Again”. I fall. Then, suddenly, I catch a wave and manage to stand unsteadily — riding it towards the beach. As performances go — it’s hardly impressive. I’m upright for barely five seconds. But the other surfers whistle and clap earnestly. Murthy’s right. It’s unforgettable. It’s also addictive. Murthy grins, and gives me a high-five, “Now you’re a ‘Surfer Dude!”

Discussing how the adventure scene in India has changed over the past five years, Arun Vasu talks of how people now crave adrenaline through sports. He predicts that surfing will be big in India in the next 10 years.

Pointing out that Covelong Point is a pioneer, as it’s the only surf school with a social angle, Yotam says he sees it triggering off a movement. Besides creating an alternative source of income for the fishermen who now teach, the school also educates 25 children from the village.

In a few months, Covelong Point, which currently operates from under a couple of umbrellas, will have a proper brick and mortar structure, complete with a café. Arun sees this setting off a culture of home stays and restaurants in the area.

Already Covelong Point is getting attention because of its team. “We win surfing competitions. Lots of them,” says Murthy. He adds that they’re special because of the location. “Best in India,” he says, adding, “I didn’t say it. We had a competition with 120 surfers from around India, and they did.” He rapidly sketches a semi circle in the sand. “This is our rock formation. It keeps sand bars constant. So the waves are super. Always.” There’s one more advantage. “Over here you can surf all year. Even in the monsoons. It’s semma jolly in the rain!”