The last of the competitive standup paddlers finish their laps. The sun begins her slow descent. Then, the drumming begins.
The cajons, and didgeridoos follow, all played by one man, coaxing revellers closer to the stage. Among them are professional surfers from across Asia, unwinding after a long day of competing under the intense Kovalam sun. It is day two of the seventh edition of Covelong Point Surf, Music and Yoga Festival and in that moment, it is Israeli musician Yogev Haruvi is determined to ensure everyone has a good time.
Today, the festival attracts professional surfers from different countries year after year, competing, partying, mingling with athletes and partygoers from across the country.
A major driving force is the enterprise of the home team, most of whom are fishermen from the village. “One of our students from last year was a medallist at the National Under-16 level this year,” says Sekar Patchai, pointing out one of the many success stories of Covelong Point Surf School founded by Murthy Megavan with Arun Vasu of the TTK Group years ago. A product of the school himself, Sekar is an international level standup paddler and a Kovalam boy through and through. As he speaks in the quieter confines of a “board room” that stocks surfboards, muffled away from the raucous chatter of people feasting, drinking and enjoying the night, it is clear that he has seen the festival grow before his eyes.
Seven years ago a casual discussion between Arun Vasu, Murthy Meghavan and Yotam Agam resulted in this fest, fusing surf, music and yoga. “In the early years, we had to have big musical names and yoga to draw people in. Now, though the music and yoga are still good, people come here for the surfing,” he says proudly, adding that international participation has risen steadily. Sekar’s statement is backed by Arun: “We’ve had 200 surfers participating this year, of whom 35 are from outside India.”
What does the presence of global athletes mean to the local talent participating here? “Well, people like me can teach the children to an extent. We need guidance and tips too, and just sitting back to interact with surfers from other countries for a couple of hours helps so much,” says Sekar, rattling off a list of manoeuvres that surfers from Maldives, Bali, Thailand, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have taught him. “Cut back: which is in the shape of an eight; bottom turn: where you go down and turn a 360; aerial: where you go riding ahead and hit a point that lets you jump…” His list goes on and his fingers keep tracing out move after move on his palm, as if it were the sea.
What’s going on?
- Balance the wind
- On the beach, over three days of the festival, were setups for spike ball, obstacle course racing, Ultimate Frisbee, slacklining and trapezing.
- Trapezing is a sailing technique, and was being demonstrated by Asian Games medallists KC Ganapathay and Varun Thakkar, on their trusty 49-er sailboat perched on the sands. “Most boats have one line, but this one is twin trapeze since the boat is so powerful, with its massive sail,” explains Ganapathay. “Trapezing is basically hanging from the trapeze line, to help balance the boat against the wind” — a challenging task that involves putting your weight against the taut line.
- Wild Warrior Races also set up a 100-metre, 10-obstacle long course. “Approximately 200 people attempted to qualify on Saturday, and the eight fastest were selected among men and women [for the finals on Sunday],” says Varun Gunaseelan, co-founder of Wild Warriors. “The hardest obstacle was a floating peg board leading into a warrior transfer, which contained a rope and hanging rings at different heights.”
- Go local
- Looking up from the roasting a corn cob at her stall in the Village Santhai, Shabana Begum is waiting for the bands to take a break, so that she gets more customers. “I live nearby,” she says, “ And I have been seeing this festival take place for the last two years. This time, I thought I could also set up a stall here, and earn more money.” Having consulted with Sekar Patchai, she invested ₹5,000 in the stall. Much like Shabana, there are many others from the fishing community here with stalls selling ice golas, spring potatoes and chaat. The most popular stalls, however, were those selling freshly caught and fried fish, calamari, praws and crab, all slathered in the local red masala and dusted with chilli powder.
Former South African cricketer Jonty Rhodes is attempting to convince surfers from Australia to participate in the fest. Rhodes has been an ambassador of the festival right since its inception, and never misses an edition or a chance to ride Kovalam’s waves. While local students sometime seem unimpressed by the waves here, “when they see people from outside India doing great in their own backyard, they realise they can’t make any excuses for not performing just as well,” Rhodes says, perched on the arm of a chair on the balcony of Surf Turf, which offers a vista of the beach and the main stage, from where tunes of musical performance after performance float up.
Arun is proud of the surfing possibilities this stretch of the East coast offers: “India is still mystical to a lot of the surfers coming here,” he says. Andaman and Lakshadweep have “world class” waves, but access to them is still difficult. Which is where, Kovalam comes in.
Sekar says the waves make Kovalam and Mamallapuram “very special” for surfers. “The rocks underwater at Kovalam are structured such that big waves get created when the sea hits them,” he says. The sunken temples around Mamallapuram also create the same impact, he adds.
It also helps that the fest is associated with Surfing Federation of India (SFI) and the International Surfing Association, the latter being recognised by the International Olympics Committee. “So this is an Asia level contest, and those who win here officially have the standing to compete in events abroad,” Sekar says.
The festival has boosted the economy of the area; local markets see crowds 15,000-strong, homestays find takers and local autorickshaws are hired to ferry participants. This, according to Rhodes, is a big reason for the festival’s success: surfers simply feel welcome here. “We can never be sure of the waves in a place, but we can always be sure of the Indian hospitality.”