Life & Style

This is Chennai’s favourite sport for surf, sun and social distancing

Kids learning to surf at Ocean Delight Surf School in Covelong   | Photo Credit: Barath

Trust a surfer to know how to navigate through troubled waters. At a time when the pandemic had forced surf schools across India to temporarily shut down, Palani, from Covelong village, seized this opportunity to set up his own school.

Bidding goodbye to his job as head instructor at Surf Turf, he launched Soul Mate in April. This new addition takes the tally of surf schools along ECR (Chennai to Mamallapuram) to six.

This is Chennai’s favourite sport for surf, sun and social distancing

“People wonder why I launched in the middle of Corona,” says Palani. “I felt a surge of confidence. Starting this school had been my dream for three years,” he says. For now, he stocks equipment at his home and commutes to two nearby beaches to teach. His is a one-man army. Starting with two students in April, the numbers rose to 30 over the past few months. On some days it is a 13-hour shift: 5 am to 6 pm. But the waters are therapeutic, he states.

Just like Palani, the pandemic could not put a brake on Murthy Megavan’s plans either. The fisherman-turned-surfer, who is one of the catalysts of Chennai’s surf scene, now has a school with 10 instructors — nine from his fishing village and a new recruit from Tiruporur. Along with surfing lessons, the enterprising Murthy also serves breakfast. “During lockdown, the nearby restaurants were shut. The surfers were hungry. I discussed this idea with my wife. She makes idlis and prawn curry or dal and chutneys. The day I started, 12 people booked a surf-and-breakfast-on-the-beach package,” he says and adds, “In a way Corona altered my life. I will build a formal structure for my school on a piece of land I bought. For now, my house doubles up as the storage unit.”

This is Chennai’s favourite sport for surf, sun and social distancing

Murthy’s regulars are trickling back, averaging around 50-60 a week. During lockdown he taught his sons — aged seven and 12, his wife and a number of children from Covelong village to surf. The sport has become a community activity. “Village kids know the ocean well because they are from fishing families. Over the years they have observed the other surfers here... I just give them tips.”

Ever since surfing picked up in 2012, this is the first time that the East Coast has seen a lull during surf season: April to September. November is usually a slow month but it picks up in December, says Appu, a former fisherman, who in 2015 started Ocean Delight Surf School in Covelong, along with his friend Vicky. With lockdown now lifted, he is thrilled to have his clients back, but is careful about how many he takes at a time. “It’s three people in one session,” says Appu.

The good thing about surfing, he says, is even though the trainer is with the student in the water, they are positioned behind the student. The surfboard is around nine feet, so that ensures there is distancing too. “Even if it is 20 people in the water, they can spread out. The ocean is vast. And in this sport, you don’t have to physically engage with each other.”

Till early March, Ocean Delight received nearly 50 clients every month. Now it is limited to 25. Appu has also noticed a surge in new clients. There are families, entrepreneurs and professionals in their twenties. Among his regulars is a French family that turns up every Thursday. “With work from home (WFH), people have more time to explore activities they hadn’t earlier thought of,” says Appu.

During lockdown, Appu’s student Madhumita Rangarajan, a freelance photographer, unlocked an achievement. That of balancing on the board, without falling, for about 700 metres into the sea. The last two months have made her a better surfer, she says, adding “I see a remarkable difference.”

Twice a week, she drives from T Nagar to ECR, with her younger brothers to partake in what they describe as a wholesome family activity. “After all these years of being born and raised in this city, I am finally using the beach,” she says.

For a lot of people, any sport in a closed room is still not an option, given the threat of COVID-19. Plus, there is the added pressure of wearing a mask. “The view that confined spaces and air-conditioning may not be good, is helping us,” says Arun Vasu, managing director, Surf Turf (and owner of the legal trademark of Covelong Point Surf School). After a temporary closure of almost four months, Arun reopened the school in July and the bay view restaurant in August. Many of his clients, after surfing, now settle down with their laptops in the open air restaurant and work.

The team at Surf Turf has been tested for COVID-19 and the management plans to keep testing every month. Clients are taken through bookings. “The ideal number is three per instructor and five if it is a family,” says Arun.

This is Chennai’s favourite sport for surf, sun and social distancing

Surf Turf just opened out their freshly renovated rooms. Even before the formal launch, Arun says there were queries to book rooms for stays of longer durations. “This is something we are encouraging. I prefer guests like these in times like these. It is easier to control things as they are confined to one place,” he says.

Covelong village’s homestays are normally bustling with guests from Mumbai to Melbourne, this time of the year. Though 2020 is quiet, Murthy and his neighbours are not disheartened. “It is better for them to come after the vaccine arrives,” says Murthy.

Besides, the coast is gradually filling up with local surfers, mostly from Chennai. “We’ve also got people driving down from Coimbatore and along the Madurai belt,” says Arun.

Murali Panjanathan of Mumu Surf School in Mamallapuram says locals from surrounding villages kept the surf scene buzzing last month.In the last few weeks people from the city have started to come in. “Though majority of them are diners at restaurants, when they see others surfing they get curious and try their hand at the sport,” he says. His regulars also include doctors from Christian Medical College, Vellore, who drive down 135-odd kilometres on weekends just to surf. “This is de-stressing for them,” he smiles, adding “And they need to do this now more than ever.”

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 11:48:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/surf-sun-and-social-distancing/article32676434.ece

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