Lucky Pathiniya Durage remembers the exact moment he first saw someone surfing. He was nine years old, and he was with his aunty going to the vegetable market in the tiny fishing village of Midigama, on the south-west curve of the teardrop-shaped island nation of Sri Lanka. The market looked out to sea at a spot where a mellow left hand wave breaks over a deep reef. As Lucky watched, he saw a man on a board riding the wave towards the shore. At that moment, something inside him changed forever. Thirty-three years later, sat in the warm sun outside the Lion’s Rest Hotel, his eyes light up at the memory. “I just had this feeling inside me,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do this.”
Of course, in those days there was no surfing scene in Sri Lanka. This was long before surf schools, yoga retreats or the Lion’s Rest Hotel started appearing along this palm-fringed paradise coast. Lucky would learn later that the man he’d seen surfing – who turned out, predictably, to be an Australian – had been staying at a local home, sleeping on the floor.
That simplicity didn’t deter Sri Lanka’s early surf pioneers. By the following year, Europeans, Australians and Japanese visitors were all coming to surf Coconut Point, near Lucky’s village. He would watch them intently, still determined to surf himself. Soon he resolved that there was nothing else for it. He would take matters into his own hands. “My friend and I decided we should try to make our own surfboard,” he remembers. “We decided to cut it out of a big tree. It took nearly two months to get it right. When we first went in with it, the foreigners were looking at us like, ‘What are they doing? Crazy boys!’”
The board was a long way from perfect. Lucky and his friend would get splinters in their stomachs until they learned to tie sponge to the surface with fishing line. After growing weary of constantly having to chase after the board when it got away from them, they made themselves a leash using an old saline drip from the local hospital. All of it was worth it to get Lucky closer to his dream. “I was always in the ocean, always,” he says. “I knew where all the reefs were, and where the shallows were.”
The top beaches in Sri Lanka for surfing
That knowledge came in handy. One day he tried to warn an Italian couple not to go into the sea in a dangerous spot. Unable to understand his broken English, they went in anyway and soon the woman was being dragged under by a powerful current. Lucky chased after her through the shallow water he knew so well and pulled her to safety. He was still only 10 years old. It was around then people started calling him Lucky.
Nowadays, Lucky has achieved his dream of making his living from surfing. He is one of the few local Sri Lankans to be a qualified International Surfing Association instructor. “I’m always smiling,” he says. “Doing this makes me very happy. I see a lot of teachers who get angry with their students, but I don’t like that. I want to encourage them and give them confidence.”
As well as his own surf school, Lucky also offers lessons in conjunction with the Lion’s Rest Hotel, which looks out over Coconut Point, the same spot where he first started teaching himself to surf three decades ago. As we sit outside on the terrace we can hear the gentle, rhythmic sound of waves crashing on the beach. In front of the hotel, cows chew the cud as they stand about idly on the cricket pitch while colourful tuk-tuks buzz down narrow sandy alleyways. To hear Lucky tell it, there’s no better place on Earth to surf. “Sri Lanka has warm water,” he says. “Europe is very cold, so you have to wear a wetsuit. Also, there are many surf breaks here so they don’t get too busy. And the king coconut is native here. Did you ever drink a fresh coconut on the beach just after you finished surfing? That’s a very good feeling.”
It’s not just locals like Lucky who’ve fallen head over heels off a wave for Sri Lanka’s idyllic conditions. Today, people come to experience them from all over the world. South African Jelaine Hermitte is an instructor who’s spent the last two years working here on the southern coast. She argues that it’s the perfect spot for people who want to learn to surf. “The waves are very friendly here and quite soft, which is perfect for beginners,” she says, standing just a few feet from Weligama Beach. “You don’t get super powerful waves here like you do in Indonesia, for example, so it’s a great place to learn and build up your confidence. The whole place has a typical laid-back island vibe: surfing, shorts and T-shirts, huts, coconuts, turtles and warm waves. What more could you ask for?”
Indeed, part of the attraction of Sri Lanka is that unlike many surf destinations there’s a lot happening on dry land as well. There is plenty of charm to stumble across on your journey, as befits the country which the ancient Persians referred to as Serendip, from which we get the word “serendipity”.
Whether it’s spotting elephants in Udawalawe National Park or waking up early to experience the buzz of Mirissa Fish Market, where tuna, hammerhead sharks and even manta rays line the docks, the wild variety of the natural world is always close at hand. Alternatively, you can spend time rejuvenating your body with a holistic massage conducted in the ocean itself by Franco Rebagliati, the experienced surfer and masseuse who runs You Are the Sea. For many who come to Sri Lanka, the most natural companion to surfing is yoga. After all, assuming the cobra pose will prepare you perfectly for lying on a surfboard, while the warrior pose isn’t a million miles from how you need to stand to successfully ride a wave.
A few minutes’ drive by tuk-tuk from Lion’s Rest is Camp Poe, which offers simple safari tent lodging, meditative murals, a secluded pool and daily yoga and surf lessons. Sitting near the still blue water, yoga instructor Jessyca Eve Canizales explains why Sri Lanka stands out among the many yoga destinations she’s visited. “I think the melting pot of cultures here is really interesting,” she says. “The food is really remarkable, especially for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle because it’s all tropical fruit and vegetables. People really appreciate you being here. It’s such a smiley place and I feel it’s safe for my children. I find there’s a reverence for the philosophy of Buddhism here, a code of living, which extends beyond people’s specific religious beliefs. It’s a warm and textured place to be.”
For my own first-ever surf lesson, I head 50km east of Weligama Beach to meet Steve Taylor of Tropicsurf. An Australian from Melbourne who, like Lucky, has been surfing since he was 10. He was attracted to living and working in Sri Lanka in part because his mother is from the island. He is based at the Anantara Peace Haven resort in Tangalle, a five-star hotel sat on a rocky outcrop which offers the chance to stay in beautifully secluded villas that come complete with private pools.
Steve, however, has something more challenging in mind than a dip in an infinity pool. It doesn’t take him long to size me up. “Can you swim?” he asks seriously soon after we meet. “You have to be able to swim. My only rules are no life jackets…” his stony demeanour cracks into a cheeky grin “…and no budgie smugglers.”
We set off to find the perfect spot in an air-conditioned van, our surf boards following behind strapped to the roof of a tuk-tuk. We pass down unassuming lanes past shacks with grass roofs until we find a deserted beach. The only thing keeping us company is a solitary cow on the beach who enjoys licking the saltwater off our boards. As far as the eye can see, we have the ocean to ourselves. “Surfing is about freedom,” Steve says. “You’re getting out amongst nature, and best of all nobody can get on their damn phones while they’re surfing!”
Lying on the beach, Steve guides me through the basics of how I’m going to stand myself up: arms out like chicken wings, leg crooked like a lizard, then popping up to standing. Before I know it, I’m out at sea, riding my first wave. An hour later, back on the shore, Steve has a serendipitous surprise for me. He cracks open a king coconut as my reward and hands it to me to drink. Lucky was right. It’s a very good feeling.