Land of Contrasts // Surf Sessions Mag

A piece I wrote about our time in the Maldives last summer was featured in Surf Sessions Mag. If you speak French go grab a copy here: https://www.surfsession.com/. If not there’s a translation is below …

Translation

It was dark and we were about to jump overboard into dangerous waters. Luckily it was a full moon and we could see the shore a few hundred metres in the distance.

Our little ‘dhoni’ boat had run aground on a shallow offshore reef in the Maldives and we had to sacrifice ourselves – the heaviest ‘cargo’ on the boat – with the hope that our lighter vessel would rise to safety with the next swell. I only weigh 55kgs so I wasn’t sure how much me going overboard would help, but I plunged into the ocean with my surfboard. The other surfers all followed me in.

The water was warm, like a bath, and thankfully I was still in my swimmers having just finished a session. We stayed close together as we cautiously paddled back to land. I was nervous but excited, the adrenalin sufficient to mask the fear that we might be swept out to sea, stung by jellyfish or encounter one of the sharks which reside in these parts. Ten minutes later we were all on land and sheepishly traipsing half-naked across the island to reach the harbour, where our boat had been safely recovered. A little original adventure to add to the list of those that enamel surf-trips. The next day, we were operational again to chase the waves as if nothing had ever happened.

We were in the Maldives with Torq surfboards testing their new range of boards and shooting photos for their latest catalogue. I was the only woman, alongside a dozen men including French pro surfer Remi Arauzo and Australian big-wave enthusiast Chris Crooke. It was my fifth visit to this special part of the world. 

The Maldives are made up of about 1,200 coral islands, hanging from the southern tip of India like a pearl necklace. The country is aesthetically magnificent and each corner, each island and each atoll I encountered was somehow more beautiful than the last. The surf can be equally epic.

We were chasing rumours of perfectly-sized waves in 30-degrees Celsius turquoise water in the northern atolls, and we found them. We rode longboards, shortboards, funboards, fishes, quads, and even soft-tops. The point breaks were flawless and hollow ranging up to eight feet; the reefs shallow and vibrant with marine-life.

On one day, thanks to our local surf guide and Torq-sponsored rider Ahmed Agil, aka Ammaday, we discovered a really playful right-hander that I hadn’t surfed before, hidden around the corner from the famous ‘Cokes’ wave. There was only one other person out there when we we arrived. 

There were several different take off spots – enough for everyone – and the sections were fun with no risk of being slammed into the reef by a freak set. Riding those waves gave the photographers the chance to capture something beyond the typical barrel shots that can dominate catalogue shoots, and gave me the chance to finally link some turns together.

It was also here that I had my first surf with local surfer Naaisha Haneef. The 29-year-old is one of a small but growing group of female surfers in the Maldives and she joined us half way through the trip because I’d wanted to have a local female representation in Torq’s catalogue – I’m an advocate for reshaping the visual narrative of surfing, evolving it’s image and integrating a healthier, more diverse and global vision of our sport.

Haneef was quietly nervous she wouldn’t be good enough to ride some of the waves we planned to surf because she’d only been surfing for a year, but by the second day of our trip she was throwing herself into 4ft bombs and staying in the water longer than anyone.

On one humid morning between surfs, Haneef and I took the dinghy to the nearest land to buy supplies. As we walked through the colourful island with its small, brightly-painted, single-story homes, I noticed the walls of any unkempt properties were covered with political posters campaigning ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. 

To be honest, I hadn’t previously thought much about the political landscape of the Maldives but as I’ve come to learn this is an Islamic country where adherence to the faith is mandatory – there is no alcohol, no dogs and the death penalty for some crimes. 

Plastic pollution is an evident problem which I hope the politicians are addressing. You see bottles, straws, flip-flops, shopping bags, cotton buds, broken toys, food wrappers and more lining the beaches and floating in the channels. It’s an overwhelming sight. Such is the scale of the waste problem – to which tourism is obviously a big contributor – the government has created entire islands dedicated to the processing of trash.

Haneef told me that the habit of throwing pollutants into the ocean is part of Maldivian culture. In the Maldivian language, the word for 'beach' is ‘gondudhoh’, which literally means ‘place where you trash’. This was fine 100 years ago when trash consisted of banana skins and coconut shells, but not in the 21st Century when waste constitutes materials such as plastics which may never biodegrade.

Zooming out, the Maldives is under existential threat from rising sea levels caused by climate change. The land is on average around four feet above sea level, and the highest point in the entire nation is only eight feet (about 2.4 meters) above sea level. Climate change will cause the displacement of millions of people; Maldivians will lose their homes, their identity, their culture and their country.

As we made our way back to the boat, Haneef and I discussed how global action is needed. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in their 2018 report that the terms of the Paris Agreement are no longer sufficient to limit climate change and save island nations like the Maldives. I started to wonder if it will become like the nineties film Waterworld, where land is so scarce that soil and plants become the most valuable currency.

Back in the water and with thoughts of the Maldives’ perilous future weighing on my mind, I was joined for a surf by Arauzo, whose child-like energy deflected my attention. He intentionally sprayed me in the face as he carved his way past me on the waves, and playfully photobombed some of the shots I was asked to pose for. Arauzo was a new addition to our crew for this year’s catalogue and he sure knew how to make the most of the waves.

He gave me plenty of encouragement in the water, calling me in and making sure I held my own in a line-up dominated by men. With his support I caught some of my most challenging waves of the trip.

Arauzo, who’s currently ranked eighth on the World Surf League Men’s Longboard Tour, also had an annoyingly good talent for snagging the best wave of every set. While the rest of us were squabbling over who would get to ride our favourite board, the Torq TEC M2 – a board which flew in all conditions – Arauzo rode any type of board regardless of wave-size and was still normally the best surfer in the line-up.

One day midway through the trip, Arauzo, Crooke and Agil went off to the nearest island with our videographer and made a spoof film called ‘Where is Ammaday?’ I’m not sure what sparked their creativity – it’s not like our our guide was known for going missing. Perhaps they just had boat fever after a week at sea and needed to do something silly. In the film they ran around the island supposedly looking for Agil but he kept running away. Music was overlaid to make it seem like an old Benny Hill sketch. 

They premiered it on our final night and we were all sat together at the back of the boat collapsed with laughter. An atmosphere that contrasted with that of the night earlier in the trip when we had all jumped overboard in panic. If only the cameras had been rolling then.