Women surfers in India are not only participating in a relatively new sport in the country, but are also facing challenges due to their gender.

Sinchana Gowda (Image courtesy: Pazhani Vijayan)Sinchana Gowda (Image courtesy: Pazhani Vijayan)
Features Sports Thursday, August 26, 2021 - 10:34

Shrishti Selvam was paddling on a surfboard in the Bay of Bengal off Mahabalipuram six years ago. The sun beat down on her, and the sea spray stung her eyes. The waves were huge. Shrishti loves the water, but this was her first time participating in a surfing competition. She saw a wave coming in at the horizon and paddled towards it. She pushed herself up on the board to stand, catching the wave. And then, she lost her balance, hit the water face first and went under. Her board went flying behind her. Shrishti wiped out in truly spectacular fashion. “I remember being under the water for a good 15 seconds. It was like being inside a washing machine, the water whirling all around me,” says Shrishti. “I told myself I am never going to surf again.” Though she did win her first medal, even if it was for best wipeout.

Looking back on that fateful day years ago, Shrishti, who is from Chennai, never imagined she would actually end up becoming a surfer. As a 17-year-old at college in Coimbatore and far away from her beloved sea, she recalled looking up images and videos on social media of water sports, especially of people surfing. “I wondered whether there was even a way to learn to surf in India, it seemed like a far-fetched dream,” she says.

That summer when Shrishti went home to Chennai for the holidays, she saw a small write up in the newspaper about surfing classes at Surf Turf in Kovalam near the city. The very next day, she went and started lessons with Sekar Pachai, a surfer who has also represented India in stand-up paddling at international championships.

“When I caught my first wave the feeling was inexplicable. It was only for a few seconds but it was amazing and I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.

Surfing in India

Varkala beach with its unique sea cliffs, the pristine shores of Little Andaman and the peaceful beaches of Manipal are more than just places to holiday at. These are the seas where India’s surfers are being made.

Over the last 15 years or so, on the coasts of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Odisha, small surf clubs have come up–places where anyone can go and learn how to surf. The country’s first surfing club, Mantra Surf Club in Mulki, Karnataka, was started by Jack Hebner known as the ‘Surfing Swami’ who was visiting the area in the early 2000s. As the number of homegrown surfers has increased, competitions and championships have started being organised -- Summer Swell in Puducherry, the Indian Open of Surfing in Karnataka and India Surf Festival, Odisha, to name a few. Even the Asian Surfing Championships came to India as part of the Covelong Point Surf Competition, which gave Indian surfers a chance to compete against their international counterparts.

Ishita Malaviya, India’s first female surfer and probably one of the country’s best known surfers, started The Shaka Surf Club in Kodi Bengre, Karnataka in 2007 with her partner Tushar.

The sport is still in its nascent stage in India and women surfers in the country, especially those who compete professionally are still finding their footing.

To promote and encourage surfing in the country, the Surfing Federation of India (SFI) was established in 2011.Started by surfers from Mulki, the not-for-profit organisation is the recognised National Governing Body for surfing in India. It is organising events at different locations in the country and is trying to get a ranking system into place for the surfers, something that’s been missing.

Surfing classes to championships

Fast forward to 2021 and Shristhi, 24, is surfing along the same coastline, taking part in the women’s open category at the Covelong Classic at Kovalam near Chennai. Points can be scored for maneuvers, how long she rides the wave, and how she takes off. She gets past the heats and the semi-finals, till all that’s left is the finals. This time, she doesn’t face-plant, but she wins first place at the national competition in the women’s category.

At the same Covelong Classic competition, where Shrishti placed first, Sinchana Gowda came in third. The 19-year-old from Puttur in Karnataka has been surfing since she was 11 years old.

Sugar Banarse (left), Shrishti Selvam (middle) and Sinchana Gowda (right) win at the Covelong Classic 2021 (Image: Praveen Jayakaran)

A state-level swimmer, Sinchana was being coached by Partha Varanashi, who has trained a number of competitive swimmers, in Puttur when her coach’s friend Dhruva Das of the Mantra Surf Club visited. “He had a surfboard with him and was showing the swimmers how to balance on it and paddle,” says Sinchana. It was the first time most of them were seeing a surfboard. “I wanted to try too, but they felt I was too young,” she says. She held her ground and got on the board and was able to balance on it without falling off. Her swimming coach was impressed and suggested that she try surfing.

So, Partha and Dhruva took her to Bekal Fort to catch some waves.  “I was petrified when the first wave came towards me, I was lying on the board screaming,” she says. “But with their encouragement I gave it a go. And when I started surfing I felt this immediate connection with the sea.” 

Sinchana joined the Mantra Surf Club and surfed with them for four years. Later, she joined the Mangalore Surf Club.

“I first competed at age 12 and came second in the women’s category in that year’s edition of the Covelong surfing competition,” says Sinchana. She has taken part in numerous championships and even made it to the semi finals of the Asian Championship when it took place in India. 

A wave of challenges

Suhasini Damian is one of India’s better known women surfers. The 29-year-old from Auroville has won many national competitions over the years, even placing third in the Asian Championships in Covelong Point Surfing Competition in 2019.

She says that around that time she started learning to surf in 2011 at Kallialay Surf School in Puducherry, she watched a surfing competition and realised there were no women surfers at all. In fact, the first time she took part in a competition at Summer Swell in Puducherry in 2013, there were barely 4-5 women surfers participating.

“Now, we see at least 12-15 women participating in surfing competitions,” says Suhasini

But there is still a long way to go. The male surfers have multiple categories, based on age and experience, at competitions. There is only a single open category for women. 

And being a woman in a sport dominated by men can be challenging at times.

Shrishti has been lucky to learn and be part of a tight-knit community at Surf Turf. “Being part of the surf school, I have never felt uncomfortable or been picked on for being a girl. And the male surfers have always been supportive and helpful,” she says.

However, at competitions there have been times she has heard guys say, “we should have taken part in the girl’s category, we would have easily won.” There have also been stray comments passed by strangers and people taking her picture without her consent.

Sinchana says she has had people tell her this sport is not for girls and commented about her wearing shorts.

Suhasini, who goes to beaches near Auroville to practise, has had men stare, whistle and say lewd things. “I go to a beach near my house to surf, a couple of times some men there exposed themselves to me. Since then I make sure never to go alone. I always take someone along with me when I go to practice,” says Suhasini, matter of factly.

Suhasini Damian (Image: Nico Erni)

Surfing is not a cheap sport either. The lessons are expensive, at around Rs 1,500 and more for each class. “When I started we had to import surfboards,” says Suhasini. Now, they are available locally, but still cost Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 upwards. There are also expenses involved in travelling for events and finding accommodation. 

While Sinchana would like to continue surfing and competing, she isn’t sure financially if she will be able to manage it. She is contemplating doing an MBA after her B.Com, she is in her second year in a college in Puttur. The early-morning practices, while balancing day jobs can be taxing for the surfers as well. 

Surfing competition winners don’t get fancy sponsors like in other sports, as the sport is new in the country. “But in the 2020 Summer Olympics, surfing was one of the events, so maybe things will change and I could get a chance to represent India internationally,” says Sinchana, hopefully.

More than a sport, a lifestyle

For these young women, their lives revolve around surfing. It is not just a sport for them, it borders on something mystical. “The first time I surfed, I realised it was more than just a hobby,” says Shrishti. “I have had many interests -- dancing, singing, football, but when I surfed I knew this was what I was meant to be doing. I understood what real passion is.” 

There is a real sense of camaraderie and community between the women surfers as well. “Over the years, we’ve all participated in the same competitions, Ishita, Sinchana, Vilassani, Shrishti-- we all push each other to do better,” says Suhasini. Shrishti adds, “We are all friends first, supporting each other. The only time we are competitive is during events.”

And they all want to get more girls surfing. Suhasini, who designs surfwear, is also a certified surfing instructor who trained at Mantra Club in a course organised by SFI. She wants to mentor and help young surfers. 

“At Surf Turf, we are working on a project  to get the girls of Kovalam village into surfing. Most of the boys do as they are used to the sea due to fishing. But the girls are kept at home,” says Shrishti. “We are trying to make the families comfortable with sending their girls to learn by getting the boys from the same family who surf to teach them.” 

Why is it so important girls learn to surf? Sinchana says, “There’s freedom when you’re surfing, It’s just you and the waves and that’s all you’re focussing on.”

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