Surfing in Sri Lanka

Shortly after we arrive at our beach-side villa for the relaxing part of our Sri Lankan holiday, one of the staff tells me he can arrange things like surf lessons. Despite my California roots, my first time on a surf board was just a year prior as part of a corporate retreat. I jump at the opportunity to do it again.

I also rope in my 11-year-old daughter, Fiona, her 8-year-old friend, Patrick, and his father, Mark. The four of us are booked for 9am the next day.

30 December 2017

We are picked up in an open air, safari-style truck and driven about 10 minutes to the beach, where we are greeted by Bandula Gardiyawasam, namesake of the Bandula Surf School. His body is a muscle-covered scalpel and his face is ageless. He could be 35 or 55.

After being given rashies (surf shirts to protect against rashes caused by rubbing on the board), we head out to the beach for some preliminary stretching and land-based instruction. The board is described to us with solemn precision: nose, rails, tail, fins.

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Still on the sand, we lie on our boards. Feet hang off each the side, near the tail. Our noses line up with a spot on the front centre of our boards. Arms hang off, ready to paddle.

The solemnity is broken and things lighten up as we are walked through the requisite steps to go from floating in the ocean to surfing: (1) check your nose, (2) paddle, (3) chicken-wings, (4) lizard foot, (5) stand up/Robin Hood.

Checking our nose is just a matter of ensuring that our faces (and, as a result, the rest of our bodies) are at the right position in the board. Paddling is a matter of reaching our arms deep into the water and pushing all the way back.

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Chicken-wings requires us to place our hands flat on the board, under our chests. Doing this provides the downward pressure necessary to drop into the wave as well as providing half of the position required to stand up.

Lizard foot is the act of pulling forward the knee of what will be our back legs and placing their big toe on the board. It results in a position that looks like one leg is pulled up high and the other is extended straight.

Finally, in one smooth motion, we stand up. With our feet planted at 45 degree angles out from the board, we sit into a deep squat and draw back an imaginary string of an imaginary bow with our back hand. Our front hand extends forward holding the bow and also taking a flat kung-fu shape. As Robin Hood, we look out toward the shore.

After running through these steps ten times, it’s time for the real thing. Mark and I, being the two adults, are assigned one instructor, and the kids another. The kids are pulled out on their boards; Mark and I swim for it.

For the first two waves we go only as far as chicken-wings. For the third wave we are told to perform every step of the process and we all comply. We’re surfing.

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For the rest of our two hour session, we are all quickly improving through great instruction. Mark and I are turning. The kids are swapping feet whilst standing on the board. It’s all white water surfing, meaning that we’re riding the waves after they break rather than as they break. The latter, we’re told, are the green waves. And they’re at a different beach.

The kids are smiling. After riding a wave in to the beach, their eyes search for ours to ask “did you see that?!”

The instructor pulls the kids back out after each wave and Mark and I dig deeply into the water propel ourselves back out to start again. After each ride, the prospect of swimming out becomes more and more daunting.

Our falls aren’t bad and we are given specific and useful corrections after each ride. A calming phrase pops into my head: “you do your part, let the wave do it’s part.” Every moment—swimming out, waiting for the wave, riding in, falling—is bliss.

We are given cold bottles of water as we drop our boards on the sand. Fiona beams at me and I tell her, “now you know why I ride a motorcycle.” She asks me explain.

“It’s taking all of these steps together and internalising them. It’s throwing everything else out of my mind: past, future, worry, pride—it’s all gone. I am present in the moment and focused on a single thing.”

After showering off we are given ice cold washcloths for our faces, then fresh pineapple and passion fruit juice. Every detail has been considered by the surf school.

Anxious to come back, I book the only remaining opening for the duration of our stay: 9am on New Years Day. What better a way to start the new year?

1 January 2018

On New Years Day we are taken to the green wave beach and given more manoeuvrable fibreglass boards. Standing up feels more natural and less mechanical.

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Our initial instruction had us pointed straight at the beach and once the wave broke, we lost all momentum and fell over. But with some coaching I ride a wave as it breaks, cutting lateral to the beach, riding all the way in. By the time I see the two twelve-year-old boys near the shore, it’s too late for me to avoid them and I clunk into one of them. He isn’t hurt and accepts my apology while laughing with the other boy. I’m laugh too, as the humbling moment took me from what felt like perfect execution to absolute bafoonery. As if I’d learned how to fly, but not how to land.

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The water is crowded and we sit floating on our boards between sets, learning a bit of surf etiquette—that’s her wave, not yours. We search the horizon for the next swell with the silence broken by the waves reaching the shore and Buddhist chants playing from a distant tuk tuk. Grateful, I take a full breath, check my nose, and begin to paddle. This next wave is mine.

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