With year round waves, warm waters and a laid-back beach vibe, Sri Lanka is one of the world's top surf destinations. Modest 3ft waves regularly roll in, creating ideal conditions for beginners, while pro-surfers flock to the challenging 'point breaks' for international competitions.
Enticed by the opportunity to upgrade my beginner-level skills, I booked an Easter escape to Sri Lanka, planning to split my time between sightseeing and surfing. Having had lessons in Cornwall and Morocco a few years back, I'd already mastered the art of standing up on foamy broken waves but was struggling to get to the next stage: paddling onto an unbroken wave and riding along it like a 'real surfer'. This, I decided, would be my goal for the holiday.
Choosing where to go
The southern half of Sri Lanka, where the majority of tourists stick to, has stacks of good surf spots, as well as designated 'surf camps' which offer lessons, kit hire and accommodation. The main decider when choosing where to go is the monsoon: shifting from east to west through the year, either side of the island has distinctly different seasons.
On the southwest coast, around 3.5 hours south of Colombo airport (CMB), the surf hub of Hikkaduwa receives its most consistent swell between November and March. Follow the coastline south then east of here and you'll find the beginner friendly beach break at Weligama and more challenging waves at Mirissa.
Heading further east along the southern shoreline, Matara, Tangalle and Talalla have surf schools and kite hire, but Sri Lanka's lesser-visited east facing shores are where it's really at. Here, around eight hours drive from Colombo, the most consistent wave season is between May and September, with the tiny town of Arugam Bay at the epicentre of the surf scene.
Visiting in April, I arrived in Arugam Bay, or 'A-Bay,' a few weeks before the season was underway. Booking my accommodation had been easy, and I hadn't bothered to plan ahead for surf lessons, but I was told that, once the main season kicks off in May, everything would be booked solid, so advance planning is essential.
Arriving in the late afternoon, I checked into my beach hut accommodation and walked onto the beach to survey the surf conditions. Colourful fishing boats were pulled up to the right, a handful of tourists were strolling along the shoreline and, out to sea, two surfers were straddling their boards, bobbing up and down as the ocean breathed in and out.
As a small wave peaked on the horizon, one of the pair paddled a few strong strokes then hopped up to catch the wave, skimming down the face. With the water glittering and the sun starting to sink in the sky, the scene was unbelievably serene.
Wandering further up the beach towards a smooth headland, more surfers were bobbing about on their boards. With every new wave that washed in, one of the group would peel off and start paddling, then hop up and carve a snaking path along its length.
Mesmerised, I stayed watching them as the sky turned from blue and silver to purple and pink. Finally, when darkness settled in, the full moon shone brightly enough for them to surf beneath the moonlight. Feeling inspired, I walked back along the beach to my hut and booked a surf lesson.
Day one on the waves
Early the next morning I met my broad shouldered surf instructor, Makam, on the beach. We were the only people about and sun was already starting to heat up the sand.
"It's not long until the main season starts."
Makam said, handing me a huge beginner board, he explained:
"In a few weeks time, when the waves get bigger, this place will be rammed. But there's always enough ocean to surf."
He smiled, gazing out towards the empty waves.
So my luck was in; for a beginner, I'd come just at the right time for empty waves. After a few warm-up stretches and a short talk to cover paddling and pop up (standing up on the board) techniques, Makam announced that we were ready for the water.
With an average year-round sea temperature of twenty-seven degrees, there's no need for wetsuits in Sri Lanka but I'd tied my bikini straps extra tight, to avoid any potential mishaps. I lifted my board over the breakers then paddled out a little while Makam waded in behind me, waving me over when he was 20 metres or so off the beach.
Bouncing up and down on his toes, with his shoulders just above the water, he held the nose of my board and gazed at the horizon behind me. "Ok," he nodded, "this one." Manoeuvring to the tail, he gave my board a hard shove, pushing me onto the wave. "Up up," he called from behind, so I jumped onto my feet and stuck my arms out for balance. I was surfing a green wave.
"Yeah!" I called out, as I rode it back to the beach. Success on my first attempt - albeit with a helping hand. Grinning from ear to ear, I turned my board around and paddled back over to Makam who was pumping his fist in the air.
Pulling the nose of my board towards him again, we waited for another wave. When one peaked behind us, he shifted to the tail again and pushed me onto another green face. "Woo hoo! Two out of two!"
By the end of our hour-long lesson, I'd lost count of how many waves I'd caught. I'd even started turning across them for a longer ride, rather than surfing directly back to the beach.
Waving Makam off, I stayed in the water to practice my new skills. Wave after wave bobbed beneath my board but without a helping hand to give me a push, I caught only one. Exhausted, I retreated to the shade for a watermelon juice.
I woke up the next day to a flame red back, learning an important lesson in Sri Lankan surfing: the sun in searing hot and no amount of sun-cream can protect you. Wear a rash vest (protective spandex top) or use an old t-shirt.
Meeting Makam back on the beach, a handful of early risers were already straddling their boards. As I paddled out, Makam waded in again, standing a little further away from me this time.
"Paddle, paddle, paddle" he called as a wave approached. "Keep paddling. Now up, up, up." Following his instructions to the second, I popped up and cruised the wave back to the beach.
By the end of my four days in Arugam Bay I was surfing green waves by myself. My success rate wasn't quite as healthy without Makam to coach me, but I'd reached a real turning point.
Other beginners I met out on the water were equally thrilled with their progress.
"We stood up on our first go."
A couple from Germany told me:
"We're definitively coming back!"
Some of more advanced surfers I spoke to weren't quite so impressed however – the swell wasn't quite big enough or exciting enough for them yet, so they'd only been in the water a handful of times.
But for me, Sri Lanka's surf conditions had been spectacular and, for beginners and improvers, I couldn't recommend it more – just remember to bring a rash vest.