x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Maldives is a paradise for surfers

Lifelong wave-rider Alf Alderson hires a yacht for a sea safari around the Maldives’ many atolls and finds surfing that rivals the best in the world, not to mention his perfect wave.

A surfer scouts for a spot to get in the water. Courtesy Visit Maldives
A surfer scouts for a spot to get in the water. Courtesy Visit Maldives

This isn't exactly the perfect start to my surf trip. Tumbled over and over by a big set before I've even caught my first wave, I then find myself being held underwater before I'm bundled all the way inshore to eventually end up thrashing around in waist deep water like a stranded sea turtle.

Things can surely only get better after this - and they do. After all, this is the Maldives, where the surf is among the best on the planet.

When I finally make it "out back" and take off on a wave, it is, for an average surfer like me, as good as it ever gets. A two-metre aquamarine wall of water approaches and lifts my board gently as I make a couple of easy paddle strokes before springing to my feet. Warm offshore breezes fan my face as the board drops to the bottom of the wave, where I lean into a turn to skim almost silently along this glassy smooth pulse of raw ocean power. A few turns, a hoot of encouragement from a friend paddling out and the ride is over.

But while I'm riding that wave time stands still, so intense is the experience, and as I paddle back for more of the same it occurs to me that, after years of surfing all over the world, I've finally achieved every surfer's dream - I've found my "perfect wave".

The experience isn't unique to me though. I'm visiting the Maldives for a two-week "surfari" aboard a 75-foot motor yacht with five other friends, all on the wrong side of 40 and all with a lifetime's experience surfing. And every one of us is in agreement that these are the best waves we've ever ridden.

Sure, they're not the huge beasts you see booming onto the shores of Hawaii, but then the majority of surfers are not that interested in riding waves the size of houses. The swells we're surfing are between head high and double-overhead, which is big enough to excite most waveriders, and best of all the swells that produce them are incredibly consistent - we don't have a single flat day during our midsummer visit.

One of the crew, Chris "Buzzy" Payne, a former Welsh surfing champion, sums it all up when, towards the end of the trip, he says: "Y'know guys, I've had more good waves here in two weeks than I'd get in a year back home in Wales."

And yet, the Maldives was virtually unknown as a surf destination until the end of the last century. I well remember being on a surf trip to nearby Sri Lanka in 1984 and enquiring about the waves in this isolated Indian Ocean nation, but no one knew anything about surfing in the Maldives; in fact, it was a bit of a mission to even get there from Sri Lanka, despite it being the Maldives' closest neighbour. Plus, I was told there would be nowhere to stay anyway since, of the 1,192 islands that make up the Maldives, only 200 are inhabited, and at that time they had little or no visitor accommodation.

Things have changed considerably in the intervening years, although a surf yacht charter is still the best way to make the most of the wave riding options since very few of the best breaks can be reached any other way. Some surfers do base themselves at island resorts such as Lohifushi, but this restricts you to the waves that break in front of the island.

Our locally built and owned motor yacht, the Rani, has comfortable en-suite twin cabins, a sound and viewing system for downtime and an on-board chef to provide the kind of huge meals you need after surfing all day. At the higher end of the market you can go for a vessel like the Princess Rani - the royal tag means luxury comes as standard in the form of an on-board spa, Jacuzzi and opulent accommodation in air-conditioned guest cabins.

Living aboard the Rani enables us to readily access a huge range of surf breaks. We sail north for just a couple of hours from the capital Malé to hit the surf breaking in front of a string of atolls with tongue-twisting names like Meerufenfushi and Viligilimathidhahuraa. Some of them, though, don't have names at all. Perfect waves which have travelled all the way from the Southern Ocean roll down either side of these atolls to peter out in deep-water channels, which can also provide some spectacular diving and snorkelling if you want a break from surfing.

Having a boat at our beck and call means that, if one break isn't working or is too crowded with fellow surfers, we can head to another. In some instances we can actually see better waves across the deep water channels between atolls, so it's a simple matter of just a few minutes to sail over and surf them.

The day's surfing ends when we sit down with the crew to enjoy a slap up dinner, which usually comes fresh from the ocean and is eaten literally within minutes of being caught. One of the crew hangs a line over the side; within minutes a fish is hooked and, as rice is prepared in the galley, said fish is dispatched to the frying pan. Add good company, a warm equatorial sea breeze and no end of tall surf tales to while away the evening, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow will bring yet more quality waves, and it's about as good as it gets if you're a surfer.

Overnight we anchor in the sheltered lee side of whichever atoll we've chosen to surf the following day, almost within touching distance of the palm trees that line the shores, with the warm fragrance of the nearby land drifting languidly across to us. It's a matter of moments to fall asleep to the "slap" and "plink" of wavelets bouncing off the side of the Rani.

Waking next morning to the brilliant sparkle of dawn sunlight on the ocean and rainbows beaming in the spray from the crests of waves breaking just a few hundred metres away, it's sometimes hard to tell whether you have actually woken or are still in a dream.

After about 10 days of perfect waves I ask our surf guide Fayez if it ever gets flat here. "Not really," he replies. "Even in the 'flat season' of November and December we still get some surf, although now is really the best time for consistent waves."

Fayez, in his 20s, is a first-generation Maldivian surfer, as is every other local surfer. He makes a modest living as a full-time surf guide, a job that his forebears could never have imagined; and a job that most other surfers of his age would pay to do.

Indeed, it must have been quite an experience to stumble across this surf paradise for the first time, as did Aussie surfers Tony Hussein-Hinde and Mark Scanlon when they found themselves shipwrecked here while sailing from Sri Lanka to Réunion in 1973. They were the first surfers to realise the region's enormous potential as a surf destination when they were forced to spend several months here repairing their boat after their mishap on a reef.

There were no local surfers; in fact, the sport was unknown to Maldivians, and when his friend Scanlon returned to Australia, Hussein-Hinde stayed on, married a local woman and effectively kept the waves a secret for 15 years, riding them with just a few Maldivian friends whom he taught to surf. He eventually opened a surf camp in the mid-1980s, after which the secret gradually made its way around the surfing world. Unfortunately Hussein-Hinde, who is now considered the "father of surfing" in the Maldives, died in 2008 while surfing at a local break called Pasta Point.

Now the area is well established as a world-class destination for intermediate to expert surfers (there are no easy beach breaks here on which novices can hone their skills). This, of course, means that you can't expect to have the waves to yourself like those two Aussie surf pioneers, even if you're accessing them by boat. Some breaks can get pretty busy at times, with as many as 20 surfers on a peak. But since the peaks will shift a little depending on the size of each set, you can still catch plenty of waves.

And the crowds tend to fluctuate a lot - we found that if we sat it out while a particular break was busy the numbers would invariably thin out as people paddled in for a refreshment break or because they were tired. And on some occasions it just seemed that some surfers had a herd mentality, surfing a break simply because there were other surfers on it, while an equally good wave on the other side of the atoll was going unridden.

As for the surf - well, picture a perfect jade green barrel peeling flawlessly towards a palm-fringed shoreline and you have the typical Maldivian wave. The water temperature is a consistent 27°C, the waves are not too heavy, the reefs are not too shallow - clichéd as it sounds, this is probably as close to a surfer's paradise as most wave riders will ever get. There's a fairly even distribution of waves that break left and right as well, so it doesn't matter whether you're "natural" (surf with your left foot forward) or "goofy" (right foot forward) - you'll find what you want.

As a natural footer, my favourite surf spots were the right-hand breaks of Sultans, Ninjas and Colas. Sultans is a world-class wave that is consistent and long, with a super-fast, hollow inside section; Ninjas, according to the surf guide books, is a "short, mellow wave", although I found it to be pretty fast and pretty heavy; and Colas is a powerful, exciting break that picks up plenty of swell and is rather mundanely named for the Coca-Cola plant on the atoll in front of which it breaks.

Even on the one day the swell is a bit on the small side, we don't get bored; apart from the fact that it's actually rather pleasant to sit in the shade on deck and simply chill out after surfing five hours a day for several days in a row, there's also the option of snorkelling on reefs that are as colourful and full of life as any in the world, or fishing for your supper.

And when we're surfing the marine wildlife usually puts in an appearance too - we watch dolphins surfing the waves one day, regularly see manta rays flapping around in deeper waters beyond the surf zone and, every time we're sitting on our boards and waiting for a wave, there are brightly coloured parrot fish and bemused looking turtles beetling about in the gin-clear waters beneath us.

The only settlement of any size in the Maldives is the capital Malé, a surprisingly affluent little city where we wander around for a couple of hours on the two occasions that the Rani has to go into port for supplies. As an Islamic nation, visiting bars and nightclubs isn't on our agenda when ashore, although we do have the occasional beer aboard the boat. That said, with regular dawn starts to our surfing day, no one is in a rush to knock back too much alcohol of any sort.

Wandering around Malé also helps us appreciate living on the boat. Since the Maldives is only three degrees south of the Equator, the heat and humidity are intense; back on board the Rani, there's always a cooling breeze from the sea to take the edge off the sun's intensity.

And back on board is where you'll want to be, because it's from there that you're going to find the best waves of your life. In fact, we're already planning a return trip as we board the flight home.

The flight  A return flight from Dubai to Malé with flydubai (www.flydubai.com) costs from Dh1,735 return, including taxes. The flight takes four hours The cruise  The Princess Rani (princessrani.com) offers full board accommodation in twin, air-conditioned rooms, a surf guide and support boat plus return airport transfers. Tea, coffee, mineral water and fresh fruit are available, and taxes are included. Rates are from $137.50 (Dh505) per person, per nightThe waves  The prime season for surfing the Maldives is summer, in particular July and August, which has consistent swells and generally calm winds

The flight A return flight from Dubai to Malé with flydubai (www.flydubai.com) costs from Dh1,735 return, including taxes. The flight takes four hours

The cruise The Princess Rani (princessrani.com) offers full board accommodation in twin, air-conditioned rooms, a surf guide and support boat plus return airport transfers. Tea, coffee, mineral water and fresh fruit are available, and taxes are included. Rates are from $137.50 (Dh505) per person, per night

The waves The prime season for surfing the Maldives is summer, in particular July and August, which has consistent swells and generally calm winds

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