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Surfing; a traditional pastime

Ruby Amir
01 December 2023, MVT 09:10
DHIVEHI SURF LEAGUE 2023 Rannamaari Challenge / Sports
Ruby Amir
01 December 2023, MVT 09:10

Raalhaa Elhun

The Maldivian people, deeply rooted in their oceanic heritage, have a strong connection to the sea in various forms. It is fitting that surfing, known as Raalhaa Elhun in Dhivehi, holds a distinctive place among the few locally named sports in the country.

The roots of Maldivian surfing is shrouded in the sands of time, yet ample evidence points to its ancient roots. Woven through folk stories, poems, and the narratives of elders, the tradition unfolds with tales of men, women and children challenging the waves—whether through body surfing or mastering the art on wooden planks known as 'Malhu'. These stories stretch across the nation, reaching as far north as Kulhudhuffushi in Haa Dhaalu Atoll and as far south as Fuvamulah in Gnaviyani Atoll. The ocean has consistently been a part of the lives of women, children, and men—exploring its depths and embracing the ocean-centric way of life.

Emergence of Modern Surfing

When Australian surfer Tony Hussein Hinde first stumbled upon the North Malé Atoll's uncharted surf frontiers in 1973, little did he know that he was about to catalyze a cultural and social revolution in the Maldives.

Tony's journey to the Maldives took an unexpected turn when he found himself shipwrecked on the reef at Helengeli while en route to East Africa.

Tony had been in search of the perfect surfing paradise, and upon discovering the remarkable left and right handers off Thanburudhoo island, he felt as if he had stepped into a surfer's nirvana. At the tender age of 20, Tony Hinde became the person responsible for introducing modern surfing to the island nation. Three and a half decades later, he passed away doing what he loved the most; surfing.

Tony Hinde was selective on who should know about the waves, keeping the secret of Maldivian surfing closely guarded for 15 years. But, by the late 1980s, the allure of the Maldivian waves could no longer be concealed and surf tourism began to take root in the island nation with the establishment of Atoll Adventures, founded by Tony and his wife Zulfa. Surf tourism and tourism in general was at its infancy, and this would be the beginning of the Maldives to become what it is today; a global brand.

The capital city Malé witnessed a surfing renaissance with the advent of modern surfboards. Tony's local connections were among the early adopters, giving rise to the surf travel industry in the 80s, marked by surfers mastering new techniques. The introduction of fiberglass surfboards turned surfing into a spectacle, inspiring the youth to crave the adrenaline rush that comes with riding the waves.

Surfing Culture

The Maldivian youth and cultural landscape experienced a gradual yet transformative evolution. In its initial stages, Raalha Elhun posed a challenging pursuit for many young individuals hailing from traditional families. The cultural norms and societal expectations often made it a tricky pastime, creating a hesitancy among the youth to actively participate in this emerging water sport.

As time unfolded, a subtle but powerful shift began to take place, marking the rise of a more open-minded approach towards surfing. Surfing as a sport gradually gained acceptance and recognition, becoming a symbol of the changing dynamics within Maldivian youth culture. The stereotype surrounding surfers changed dramatically, shifting from the derogatory label of 'Vakarugey Kudhin', meaning delinquents, to a position of admired athletes recognized in international competitions and national leagues.

While the surfing scene was taking off among men and boys, the road for women surfers wasn't a walk in the park. The traditional vibes in Maldivian culture didn't exactly cheer on women who wanted to catch some waves. Surfing as a female wasn't greeted with open arms; it was met with disapproval and raised eyebrows. The usual cultural norms and expectations didn't leave room for women to ride the surf, making it a bit of a challenge for those who wanted to break the mold and ride the waves.

The early 90s witnessed the rise of Navaal Ahmed, female surfer, hailing from a sea-loving family on Naifaru, Lhaviyani Atoll. A daring bodyboarder, she fearlessly tackled treacherous waves, driven by her intense passion for the sport.

Navaal's legacy is like a roadmap for a small group of women entering the surfing world, encouraging the younger generation of aspirational surfers to ignore the usual expectations and dive into the sport that puts smiles on their faces.

Expanse of Surf Exploration

The contemporary surf culture found its hub at Varunulaa Raalhugandu in Malé, uniting surfers from various regions of the nation who had converged in the capital for educational, vocational, or medical considerations.

As Tony's passion and discovery created surf enthusiasts, a new challenge emerged. These aspiring surfers found themselves contending with the growing demand for waves in their own backyard.

In the '90s, when surfers from around the world flocked to the Maldives, they mainly rode the waves of North Malé Atoll. But a trio of adventurous friends—Big Mo, Hassan Ziyad, and the charismatic Amin Didi—decided to explore the unknown. Sailing into uncharted waters in 1993, they stumbled upon pristine, unridden surf breaks, surging a wave of excitement.

This discovery opened up new surf possibilities in the southern atolls, expanding beyond the familiar spots. At the time, there were three major surf tour operators—Atoll Adventures, Noomara Holidays, and World Surfaris—each contributing to the growing surf culture in the Maldives. Surfing became decentralized to zones north, central, and the south, where surf breaks varied from mellow peelers to gnarly barrels, offering diverse experiences for surf enthusiasts.

Competitive Surfing

In 1996, Maldives hosted its first-ever surfing showdown, the Inaugural Pasta Point Invitational, brilliantly orchestrated by Tony Hussain. This exciting event unfolded at Pasta Point on Kanuhura Island (now named Cinnamon Dhonveli Maldives), featuring a thrilling competition exclusive to local surfers. The title was claimed by Hussain "Iboo" Areef, who, at just eighteen years old, seized victory. With numerous National Surfing Championship trophies to his name, Iboo remains one of the country's finest surfers.

In 2001, the Maldives Surfing Association was established as the governing body for surfing, actively involved in organizing local competitions and promoting the sport to a broader audience. In the same year the then Association of Surfing Professionals, now known as the World Surf League, held one of their World Qualifying Series (WQS) events in Lhohifushi known as the O’Neill Deep Blue Open.

The pivotal moment arrived in 2004 when the Maldives hosted the Asian Surfing Championships, strengthening its reputation as a premier surfing destination on the global stage. However, it was the 2007 Four Seasons Maldives Champions Trophy that stood out as a watershed moment, showcasing the Maldives' world-class waves and elevating its profile among the international surfing community where select Maldivian surfers have battled the world’s best surfers at the most iconic surf spot of the Maldives, Sultans; commonly known as Thanburudhoo.

In 2011, Abdul Ghafoor Ali, better known as Gabbe, opened a surf school right by the surf point in Male’ and provided children and individuals with much needed opportunity. The opening of the surf school in Malé City in 2011 provided children and individuals with the opportunity to embrace the art of surfing.

In the 'Raalhu Edhuru' program launched in 2015, Ismail Miglal (Kudaissey), Dhafeena Hassan Ibrahim (Dhafy), and Saazu Saeed collectively taught children the joy of surfing. The initiatives had a far-reaching impact, leading parents who were initially hesitant to allow their children into the sea to reconsider. Raalhu Edhuru conducted surf camps in numerous islands; inspiring children to pick up surfing and giving them a chance to feel the thrill of one of Maldives’ greatest pastimes.

What the future holds

In the times before Covid, the Maldives Surfing Association had its share of struggle and yet, in true surfer fashion, the association paddled back out stronger, initiating a reboot that spread the exhilaration of surfing to the far corners of these island communities.

At present the Dhivehi Surf League hosts five competitions in various parts of the country with the final contest being held in Malé. These competitions are scattered to various areas of the Maldives and also helps to spread the joy of surfing across the nation. In addition to surf competitions they also conduct development programs for youth in these islands who are interested in learning to surf.

Local surfers have also become global ambassadors, showing off their agility with the waves in Japan's World Surf Games and even China. Surfing in the nation has hit a new level, attracting more groms (young surfers) who are soaking up the surf vibes.

As more surfers choose Maldivian shores, the economic landscape is seeing favorable shifts. This uptick brings in additional revenue, strengthening economic growth. Beyond that, it opens up avenues for surf enthusiasts to turn their passion into professions, taking up roles like surf guides, instructors, school operators, coaches, photographers and more, ensuring a thriving and diverse surf community.

With seasoned surfers ruling the peaks and the next generation charging, the surf scene is flourishing, breaking down barriers and advocating for the health of the oceans into a promising legacy that will hopefully uphold generations.

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