The Business of Surfing in India

You’d think a pandemic isn’t the time to experiment. That searching for a new job or exploring offbeat opportunities when the economy appears to be on the verge of a recession wouldn’t be a sound idea.

You’d be surprised how wrong you’d be. Uber and Airbnb were conceived when the world was in the throes of the last recession. Facebook had begun just a year prior to that, and even giants Google came into being before the great Dot Com crash. Human ingenuity, amazing, isn’t it?

But the COVID crisis and the corresponding recession is a tad perplexing. It’s been a boon for Big Pharma and IT, but the tourism and sports sectors have been crippled by it, such was the nature of the contagion. Opportunities in sports have been few and far between, and even businesses which have pivoted well are playing catch-up and vying for shrinking numbers. In such a situation, looking at a niche and offbeat sport such as Surfing seems almost churlish, eh? But perhaps that way opportunity lies. On the road less taken.

With a 7,500 km coastline, India offers a host of surfing hotspots. From the waters of Varkala and Covelong to the coast of Ashwem and Arambol, the country has destinations aplenty on both coasts. In fact, with its low to mid-sized swells, it provides the perfect opportunity for beginners to partake of the sport and begin on their surfing journey. With its enormous, upwardly mobile populace starved for rehabilitation activities, surfing has the potential to be a billion-dollar industry in India.

Though surfing has been present in India in some form or the other since the 70s – courtesy of one Mr Jack Hebner, affectionately known as the Surfing Swami in India. Much like his compatriots, Jack came to the subcontinent to learn Sanskrit and Yoga in his youth. The waters of Rameshwaram and the south-eastern coast caught his fancy, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jack took up residence in the country and taught the locals about the wonders of Surfing, until finally, in 2004, he began the Mantra Surf Club. An ashram where he teaches youngsters about surfing 101.

Since then, the sport has slowly taken its fledgeling steps in the country. Other surf clubs have opened up across the country, and now that the sport has been given Olympic status for 2020 (postponed to 2021), it has only made budding surfing enthusiasts look at it more seriously.

And when the conversation goes to surfing professionals and entrepreneurs in the country, the names Ishita Malaviya and Aneesha Nayak immediately pop up.

Ishita started the Shake Surf Club after studying journalism at Manipal University. In a recent interview, she spoke of how the aforementioned ashrams helped her get into the surfing scene, eventually making her India’s first pro-surfer. She said, “It was through him (a German student) that we discovered an ashram, where the devotees were actually surfers from California. They were surfing at a spot that was only an hour away from us. A small chat and we found ourselves amid the waves.” Since then, she’s had two docu-movies shot and a host of brands and charities have wanted to tie up with her, sending her propelling into the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list. Now, she’s also started Camp Namaloha (a combination of Namaste and Aloha), which brings together travelling and surfing in harmony with nature. For her part, Ishita is concentrating on the lifestyle aspect of surfing, instead of looking at winning competitions. More sustainable business than ultra-competitive sports for her, but it could be just what the country needs to pivot and reposition itself as a glorious surfing destination.

As for Aneesha Nayak, it’s all about the sport. The teenager has represented India at numerous international events and has dedicated her life to surfing. Moving away from education after finishing 12th grade, Aneesha is an advocate for equality. Part of the Paddle Paddle Charity Project, she travels to different countries to spread the message of surfing and empower people. Having represented India at the Asian Surfing Championships in 2015 and in the Indian Open of Surfing, she plans to continue doing so, with plans of opening her own surf school in mind.

From education to travelling, to competitive surfing as a spectator sport, the Indian surfing scene may be on the crest of a big, hopeful wave, and you’d better be ready to catch it.

Surf’s up, folks.

Pritesh Patil

Purveyor of stories, hope and rebellions. Often found exploring the nooks and crannies of the city searching for adventures and gaps between worlds. You can find him on Twitter as @TheQuillseeker.

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