I arrived in Sri Lanka with a few travel goals in mind – safari with elephants, visiting the ancient ruins in the north, diving, some quality beach time. But learning to surf in Sri Lanka? It had never crossed my mind until my Colombo hostel buddy Katie recommended it. “Go on, give it a go. I couldn’t surf until a month ago. And it’s so much fun” were her words to me.
A week later I found myself in Mirissa. And with Katie’s words still ringing in my ears, I decided to give it a go.
Weligama was the place to go, apparently. A gentle beach break, no rocks, no reefs, perfect for the beginner. And only 10 minutes from Mirissa by local bus. Sounded ideal.
So what to do if you’ve never surfed before? No problem, you’ll find surf schools everywhere on the south coast of Sri Lanka offering very reasonably priced lessons. So that’s exactly what I did. I caught the bus to Weligama and headed to Lucky’s Surf School (based on a recommendation from the amazing Ru at Colours Hostel in Mirissa). They are amazing guys, very friendly and patient. They even have the current Sri Lankan surf champ among their crew, although they were hardly going to waste his talents on a newbie like me.
We began with a little beach work. A surfboard on the sand, being shown, and then practicing, how to stand up. A few stumbles aside, I picked up the general idea of it. I’ve done a little yoga, so it helped I recognised 3 basic moves in the way I was taught to stand.
Before long it was time to hit the water. A big difference between standing on sand and standing on water apparently! Lots of slips, lots of falling off. Help from my instructor pushing me onto waves (and by waves I don’t mean big breaking waves – at this point you start by catching the white foam that forms after a wave has broken). And only a couple of successful rides. But that was OK, first day, right?
I returned the next day for another lesson. More of the same, a little beach work then out to the waves. Unfortunately, it was more of the same, lots of falls and not many rides. On the local bus back to Mirissa, I became a little disheartened – what if this was as good as I could get? What if I was not cut out for surfing?
Luckily I returned for a third lesson. Now or never, I thought. I’m not sure what changed but from the first wave I was consistently standing. Soon my instructor was encouraging me to paddle onto my own waves - being from a swimming background, I figured this would be something that I should pick up quickly and I was right. Being able to stand more than fall was a great boost to my confidence; maybe this surfing thing was something I could continue with?
Four weeks later, northern and central Sri Lanka under my belt and a one month visa extension in my passport, I headed back to Mirissa with a plan to head to Weligama each afternoon. This time I was on my own – no more lessons, just hiring a board and seeing if I remembered what I’d learnt a month earlier.
A few false starts at first, but I was quickly back into the swing of things, albeit still at a beginner level – catching the white foam rather than green waves, falling off more than I would have liked. But the most important thing was that I was having fun - even a bad session was pretty enjoyable and I was meeting some great people out on the waves.
As luck would have it, I then picked up a month of volunteer work at a hostel further up the coast in Unawatuna, perfectly situated close to Dewata Beach – a similar beach break to Weligama but with a quarter of the people. For a beginner, this was a much more enjoyable experience – the waves were nowhere near as crowded as Weligama which meant catching more waves, a quicker paddle back out with hardly any surfers to dodge, no catching a wave only to be forced to jump off because someone was paddling back in front of me.
Up to this point I’d been using a soft board – great for beginners due to its buoyancy but limited in its ability to turn and more difficult to catch a breaking “green” wave. Much like a kid having the training wheels taken off their bike, I realised it was time to move to a hard board so I could take on some breaking waves. I quickly adjusted to the change in balance and buoyancy by catching a few familiar walls of white foam. Feeling good so far so I headed out a little further. A lot of falls but several waves conquered. Time was getting on, so I started searching for my final wave of the day. I saw a wave forming behind me and started paddling. The board rose as the wave reached me. Damn, going to miss it! I pushed down out the front and felt myself slide down the front of the wave. I pushed harder and began to rise; before I knew it, I was standing and managed to ride the wave all the way in. Such a great way to finish a session - definitely the most memorable wave so far in my newfound pursuit!
So how’s my surfing now? Still very much at a novice level but still having a lot of fun. Working at the hostel has given me the chance to run weekly surf trips to Dewata, with most participants also at a beginner level – a great way for me to continue improving while hanging out with some awesome people from all over the world.
If you’re considering learning to surf, Sri Lanka is a great place to try it for the first time. The south and east coasts of Sri Lanka are dotted with beautiful beaches, many of them with amazing surf breaks to suit all abilities. Almost all will have surf shops to hire a board, and many of them will offer lessons. Throw in great food, friendly locals, a range of landscapes and plenty of history and you have a country that you really need to experience.
So my final advice to you. You might take to surfing like the next Kelly Slater. You probably won’t, I definitely didn’t. But if not, don’t let it put you off. Persevere, you’ll get there. Because if I can do it, anyone can.