Surfing in the Maldives
The Maldives isn't all tranquil lagoons: its atolls rock some gnarly waves carving a burgeoning surf culture. Top to southern tip, CAIN NUNNS catches a break or two.
Published on Apr 9, 2015
Go ahead—you try keeping your balance on Yin Yang.
Inside Laamu Atoll, it's a nasty 2.4-meter barrel that splits in two and is, on the best of days, one of the premier reef breaks in the entire Indian Ocean. "I flew 18 hours from L.A. to get here. It's barreled all day—just a beautiful wave," Mike, a 28-year-old Californian who looks like he sauntered out of a Hugo Boss catalogue, told me. "There was a guy from Colorado who was getting slammed. I think he'd surfed for about a week total. Every time he got hammered, he got straight back up. What a rock star."
As for me, I am a rapidly aging and weight-ballooning amateur, who hasn't been out on a board in years. I'm pretty sure I'm getting rolled out there.
I may not like my chances on the waves, but I'm reveling in finding yet another way to enjoy the so-fine waters of the Maldives. Sure, this nation of nearly 1,200 isles built its reputation on an ocean that runs the blue-green spectrum of paint-shop color swatches. But those coral-filled waters are famous for comprising one of the planet's premier dive destinations, life and history teeming beneath the placid teal lagoons, not for breakneck activity above on the waves crashing against the atolls. As it turns out, swells in the Maldives are some of the most consistent in Asia, and serve up some truly sublime long-ride point breaks. The best of these occur during the monsoons from March to October, when the Roaring Forties that also whip up Indonesia's surf-tastic storms and swells roll in.
Surf's up at Laamu Atoll. Courtesy of Six Senses Laamu.
Only a 30-minute speedboat ride from the international airport, North Malé Atoll hosts enough quality breaks for an entire vacation. There's Honkys and Sultans, which both break off the government-owned Thamburudhoo Island. Separated by about a meter, Sultans breaks right, while Honkys, a super-long left-hander that has a jacked-up inside section, dishes up superb 2.4-meter barrels on perfect days. Elsewhere you'll find the famed Pasta Point, as well as Ninjas, Jailbreak, Chickens and Colas throughout the atoll. Access to these waves, plus its frangipani- and hibiscusscented resorts, make North Malé ground zero of the Maldives' flourishing surf industry. "There certainly are more guys in the water than there used to be," says Aussie surf coach Matt Lindsay, who has seen an uptick in newbie tourists taking his classes recently, but adds, "surfers have known about the Maldives for years."
Or, since 1973, to be exact. That's when two 20-something Sydneysiders, Tony Hinde and Mark Scanlon, were working as crew on a yacht heading from Sri Lanka to South Africa. Before long, their boat lay battered and broken on one of the pristine Maldivian reefs that, though boasting blindingly bright beaches and luminous waters, were then a no-go zone for foreigners during the country's oft-troubled 30-year dictatorship. The many-months-long salvage of the vessel gave the pair time to realize they'd stumbled upon one of the world's last great surfing secrets. "I paddle into the see-through waves. The coral bottom seems to bend up to meet me," Hinde once described his daily baptism. "Carving my first few waves, I have to tear my eyes away from the reef below in order to beat the curl above. Not that I'm complaining."
With the exception of locals he taught to surf to keep him company in the water, Hinde kept the secret closely guarded until the late 1980's, when he opened Atoll Adventures, where his son, Ashley, now works. This is the man to meet if you want to conquer Pasta Point, a long barreling left-hander wrapped around a multi-colored reef in North Malé Atoll. For his is the in-house surf operator to Chaaya Island Dhonveli, a resort that owns the exclusive rights to (and keeps surfer numbers capped on) this most consistent and classic of Maldivian breaks.
A tribe of Atoll Adventurers. Courtesy of Dara Ahmed.
It's five minutes from Pasta Point to Thamburudhoo. Uninhabited and open to all, its end is wrapped by the long right-hander Sultans, the most surfed break in the chain. One look at Sultans, with 20 liveaboards buzzing around it like moths to a light, sends Ashley Hinde into a fit. "Surfing needs to be regulated," he says. "It's not the 70's anymore—all love and freedom. It's critical to make a sustainable product by limiting the numbers and charging a higher premium."
Enter the Four Seasons, which is taking the concept of premium surfing and really running with it. The Four Seasons Explorer is the world's premier surfing vessel, a 39-meter, three-deck catamaran that sleeps up to 22 guests in 11 absurdly opulent rooms. The Australian-built super yacht, which you can cruise on multi-day surf safaris as it hunts the archipelago's outer atolls for secret breaks, comes stocked with surf photographers; wind, wave and swell forecasts; a wine cellar, a fine dining restaurant and two bars; and, of course, an onboard masseuse. But if that's too languid and not rockstar enough for you, you can charter the resort's Seaplane Surfari. Take off from the hotel and break-hop out in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no one but up to seven of your intrepid surfer pals and a guide to witness your wave-riding glory.
Not that Dave "Rasta" Rastovich shies from attention. In August 2014, the 34-year-old won the Four Seasons Surfing Champions Trophy, an annual event that pits six of the world's best surfers against each other. But you don't have to be a pro to appreciate these waves. That's why you hire Matt Lindsay, a flaxen, bushy haired lookalike for Mike Hynson from seminal surf classic The Endless Summer who remains unflinchingly upbeat despite the limitations of even his least proficient students at Tropicsurf, the go-to luxe tour operators who run a school out of the Four Seasons' 4.8-hectare, thatched-roof-villa-laced, Maldivianvillage-inspired property. On this particular morning, I witness a honeymooning Korean couple in matching outfits, a 30-something Japanese salaryman who doesn't speak English, and a chain-smoking and overweight (not that I'm judging) Kiwi all flail about in the electric-blue waters of Four Seasons Kuda Huraa lagoon. But Lindsay is a grinning picture of Zen-like patience. He doles out kind words of encouragement while putting the rookies through their awkward paces. Watching him brings to mind a story local surf legend Abdulla "Fuku" Areef told me about the elder Hinde—"Tony taught us to stand up. Before that the old-timers would use lumps of wood to boogie board the waves. I miss him. We were really close"—and I realize that it's not just the coral that Ashley Hinde wants to protect, but also this intimate, close-knit surf culture.
Sunny Garcia and Dave Rastovich at Surfing Champions Trophy in 2014. Courtesy of Four Seasons Maldives.
It's a rackety 40-minute flight on one of Maldivian's aging Dash 8s from North Malé to central Laamu Atoll. The low-slung tree house-y, ultra-sustainable Six Senses is the lone resort in the atoll. But there are three waves: a learners' break, offshore Jetty C—a pumping offshore left-hander that holds up well up when there's enough offshore wind—and Yin Yang. "There are guests that come all the way out here just for the surf," says Marc Zaalberg, a fiftysomething New Zealander who has spent decades in the Indian Ocean and runs surf trips here via Ocean Dimensions. Stalking a southern trek, Maalifushi by COMO in the Thaa Atoll has also teamed up with Tropicsurf to offer packages from beginners to more advanced riders looking for a respite from the crowds up north. There are four breaks near Thaa, including Farms. Farms churns out a 180-degree wrapping right-hander equally suited to both long and short boards.
Even farther south (a 70-minute flight from Malé) at Addu Atoll, the last finger of the island chain and, until recently, underdeveloped, hundreds of spinner dolphins and swordfish dominate what locals say are the country's richest waters. Tony Chen, a Singaporean banker, who picked up surfing to break the monotony of boozy weekends in Jakarta, has come back to Shangri-La Villingili Island Resort since discovering the waves here a few years ago. "My wife and daughter were out with the dolphins, while I got to feel mortal and old for a week or so," he says of the clean right-hander that has hammered him over the reef wrapping around the east coast of the island. "The waves are democratic. They don't care where you work."
Learning to pop. Courtesy of Dara Ahmed.
Looking out at Yin Yang breaking over a multi-hued reef of epic proportions, my back to swaying palms and beaches surpassing the 'Best of' reel of tourism-board marketers at every turn reminds me of a quote from The Shawshank Redemption, when long-suffering Andy Dufresne tells Red that the right ocean at the right time washes away the troubles of yesterday, and the days before that. "They say it has no memory," he says. "That's where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory."
Maybe I've found exactly that kind of place, because these waves, the ultimate equalizers, live only the present. They don't care how well you think you know them; familiarity is no match for mortality. The godfather of Maldivian surfing died in 2008 apparently from a heart attack he suffered right after surfing Pasta Point at age 55. It was perhaps the most fitting way to go for Tony Hinde, who had converted to Islam and stayed among his beloved waves, and once said: "Hardly a sunrise goes by that I don't thank Allah for that shipwreck." All the surfers who ride in his wake most certainly give thanks as well. The warm waters of the Maldives, swelling with the promise of untold adventures, are not meant to hold memories, but to create them.
Four Seasons at Kuda Huraa North Malé Atoll; +960 664 4888; fourseasons.com/maldiveskh; Tropicsurf takes surfers to local breaks; Four Seasons Explorer rates vary across seasons, check with the hotel; Seaplane Surfari.
Shangri-La Villingili Resort Villingili Island, Addu Atoll; +960 689 7888; shangri-la.com/male/villingiliresort.
Six Senses Laamu Olhuveli Island, Laamu Atoll; +960 680 0800; sixsenses.com.
Chaaya Island Dhonveli and Atoll Adventures North Malé Atoll; +960 644 0055; atolltravel.com.
Maalifushi by COMO Thaa Atoll; +960 678 0008; comohotels.com/maalifushi.
Water Villa, Six Sense Laamu