Watch: Tamil Nadu takes to windsurfing: Why this Olympic sport is gaining popularity in Chennai

Watch: Tamil Nadu takes to windsurfing: Why this Olympic sport is gaining popularity in Chennai

We board a yacht at the port, and brave the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal to watch windsurfers race each other. Learn more about the Olympic sport gaining popularity in Chennai, thanks to our ideal winds and waters

Updated - June 12, 2024 03:18 pm IST

Published - June 12, 2024 11:42 am IST

At first glance, they appear to be butterfly wings. A closer look from a nearby passenger boat confirms that the ‘butterflies’ in hues of red and pink are in cahoots with the wind to cross a finish line between an orange buoy and a flagged boat on the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal. These are sailboards carrying windsurfers; all vying for the top spot at the All India Windsurfing Championship that wrapped last weekend at the Chennai harbour. 

While a half-metre swell in the ocean is enough to throw the distant observers (safe in a boat) off-balance, windsurfers deftly combine the techniques of surfing and sailing to find their sweet spot on the waters; with the wind as their guide. They don’t always follow, they fight it too. The sailboard carries the weight of the windsurfer who uses their body weight to determine the movement and direction.

A windsurfer in action along the East coast

A windsurfer in action along the East coast | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In a city celebrated for its dynamic surfing community, windsurfing is slowly but steadily seeing an uptick in interest. “You are looking at more than 20 windsurfing training institutes across the country, so the accessibility has definitely improved,” says kite surfer Jehan Driver of Quest Adventure Sports Academy in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu which is widely regarded as one of the ideal locations to windsurf owing to steady winds, and relatively flat waters.

While cities like Mumbai and Goa have for long been touted as strongholds, this is the second time Chennai is hosting an all-India competition. 

All India Windsurfing Championships 2024

All India Windsurfing Championships 2024 | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

Last year, the event was held between the curvy shoreline of Kovalam beach and the fishing hamlet nearby, with an eager crowd of spectators. This year, windsurfers from 14 states and nine different clubs were in attendance at the Championships organised by the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association, Chennai Sailing Academy and the Indian Coast Guard, of which many young Chennai athletes clinched silver and gold medals in different race classes, like the Raceboard, Techno-293, RS-X and IQFoil. 

While the movement is slowly picking up in competition circles, the adventure sport will also be a preferred leisure activity along the East coast for the next five months, thanks to ideal wind and water conditions.

“Along the coast, we have a completely open ocean, with no land formations till the Andamans, which means we have steady winds, and good, clean waters. We also have swells ranging from half-metre to three and four-metres, and that’s the challenge. I would say this is one of the best conditions for windsurfers and sailors,” says Ajit Diaz, founding member of the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association and International Race Official appointed by World Sailing. 

Windsurfer Arun Vasu

Windsurfer Arun Vasu | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Ebb and flow

Arun Vasu, president of the Surfing Federation of India, has been windsurfing along the East coast since 1983. He started when he was all of 13 years. “Back then, apart from a few locals who were already sailing, there were expats who stayed in the city for two to three years, windsurfing.” The scene did burgeon for a brief period then, but was followed by a lull. 

Today, Arun is able to track a steady interest in the last five years. As someone who swears by the sport, Arun offers courses at their property, The Alampara in Marakkanam and Quest Academy run along with Jehan. “Every week, we get four to five people who come to learn windsurfing, which is a good number.”  In addition to this, windsurfing bootcamps that span three to four-days are extremely popular, says Jehan. While the Kovalam beachfront is not ideal for launching, the deep waters see windsurfers trying to pick up the skill.

Arun continues, “In the last 10 years, every outdoor sport has grown. In the next three to five years, we may be able to see more windsurf competitors from here as well.” 

While the sport has always had an audience long the East coast, the reasons for its popularity is multi-fold in the city. Increased visibility via social media is one. Dedicated competitors and their aspirations to take the country to international competitions, is another. The fact that it is a green sport, and uses no fuel is yet another huge draw, not to mention the gear’s evolution to becoming more beginner-friendly.

Twenty-one year old Ishwarya Ganesh’s journey to being the first Indian female RS:X category windsurfer to qualify for the Asian Games 2023 started with a sailboat that traversed the waters of Chennai. “I used to sail a Class called Optimist. After I turned 15, I chose windsurfing. Initially, people used to say that I can’t make it as a windsurfer in Chennai, but now look at all of us. I am so happy to see so many windsurfers in these waters,” says Ishwarya who also clinched a gold medal in IQFoil, Womens U-23 category at the recently-concluded All-India championships. 

Sumant Arunachalam, on the other hand, took up windsurfing only a month back. He has already clinched a silver medal at the T-293 class, and is touted to be a noted Chennai name in the years to come. Ishwarya believes that she can go far with the sport: “Now that I have seen the Asian Games platform, the ultimate goal would be the Olympic games.” 

Ishwarya Ganesh, Gold Medalist in IQFoil, Womens U-23 category and Asian Games 2023 participant

Ishwarya Ganesh, Gold Medalist in IQFoil, Womens U-23 category and Asian Games 2023 participant | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

A lifestyle sport

Competitive circuits aside, windsurfing’s demeanor as a lifestyle sport for health and fitness, seem to have found the spotlight now. “The overall demographic change in those who take up sport has also changed, with more parents understanding what the sport is all about,” says Jehan, adding that he gets students between the ages of 20 and 40, and sometimes even over 50.

The interest is not tourism-oriented as seen with surfing. “It has to do more with fitness, sport development, and skill-building,” he adds. 

The affordability (with imported equipment) is perhaps its major deterrent to mainstream. For example, an IQFoil board can cost anywhere between ₹4 to ₹6 lakhs. “It’s still an imported gear, not made in India as yet,” reminds Jehan. 

Windsurfers return after a race

Windsurfers return after a race | Photo Credit: Shiva Raj S

Ajit is steadfast in his aspirations to promote the sport in the city. “We want more youngsters to try out this sport, and want it to grow. People who love adventure, and have a certain level of fitness can definitely try windsurfing. Most don’t know where to start, and that’s what we are trying to change through such competitions.” 

Back at the port, after an afternoon of racing which sometimes involves the unpredictable wait for steady sea breeze, the swarm returns in leisure to the timber pond area of the harbour, wielding their large butterfly wings. What follows is careful upkeep of their most prized possession, the sailboard, followed by a warm meal of vadas and dosas.  

Ten-year old Naavya Nirav Kaku from Mumbai says as she catches a break, “I feel alive whenever I am on the board. It is freeing. If you windsurf here, you can do it anywhere.”

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