Surfing in style in the Maldives
Life is swell when you're catchingthe perfect wave off a luxury yachtin the Maldives, writesAlf Alderson
If you are an experienced surfer you owe it to yourself to surf the Maldives. Many tend to look upon these exotic atolls as either a diving or honeymoon destination, yet take a glance at the seaward side of the atolls and you'll see incredibly consistent Indian Ocean swells thumping into the coral reefs that fringe them, creating some of the loveliest waves in the world.
In the 30 years I've spent surfing, nowhere has come close to the Maldives for waves that have intermediate surfers to world-class pros grinning from ear to ear. During a 14-day high seas adventure last month, sailing from atoll to atoll aboard the motor vessel Rani with six long-time surf buddies, we never had a day when the surf was smaller than head-high, and several sessions were double overhead, which was plenty big enough for most of us.
The swell had been coming through before we arrived and was still coming through when we left - we were told it never gets flat in the Maldives, even in the "flat" season (the main surf season is March to November, with the biggest waves occurring in July and August).
One of the reasons for using a yacht to access the waves is that very few of the best breaks in the Maldives 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. No, heading off on a yacht "surfari" is without doubt the best way to make the most of what the Maldives has to offer.
The Rani, on which we sailed and lived, has comfortable ensuite twin cabins, a sound and viewing system for down time (not that there was much of that) and an onboard chef to provide the huge meals needed 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 onboard spa, jacuzzi and opulent accommodation in 11 air-conditioned guest cabins.
Most charter boats head north from the capital, Malé, to a string of atolls from which perfect lefts and rights roll down either side of the atoll into deepwater channels. These also provide some spectacular diving and snorkelling spots.
Having a boat at your beck and call means that if one break isn't working or is too crowded, you can head to another. With one exception, all of the breaks we surfed were within an hour or two's sailing time of each other, so you don't waste time roving the high seas.
You won't necessarily get the waves all to yourself just because you're accessing them by boat. Some breaks can get pretty busy, with maybe 20 surfers on a peak. But since the peaks will shift a little, depending on the size of each set, there are still plenty to go around.
As for the surf - picture the perfect aquamarine barrel peeling flawlessly towards a palm-fringed shoreline and you have the typical Maldivian wave experience. The water temperature is a consistent 27 degrees Celsius, the waves are not too heavy, the reefs are not too shallow, so for any competent and experienced surfer this truly is as good as it gets. There's a fairly even distribution of waves that break left and right, too, so it doesn't matter whether you're "natural" or "goofy". You'll find what you want.
As a natural footer, my favourite breaks were Sultans, Ninja's and Cola's. Sultans is a world-class right that is consistent and long, with a super fast, hollow inside section. Ninja's is a short, "mellow" wave popular with Japanese surfers - although if this is mellow, then I'm not sure I'd like to experience "gnarly" - while Cola's is a heavy, exciting break.
We saw dolphins surfing (with far more grace than their human counterparts), manta rays flapping around in deeper waters beyond the surf zone, and parrot fish and turtles beetling about beneath our boards as we waited to catch a wave.
We left the boat only a handful of times during our two-week trip. Nowhere in the Maldives is more than three metres above sea level, making it the world's flattest country. It's also the country that's most under threat from global warming and tsunamis - even a big swell or major storm can cause mayhem along the coastline.
The only settlement of any size is the capital, Malé, a surprisingly affluent little city that makes for an interesting visit when your boat has to go into port for supplies. You'll struggle to find busy bars and nightclubs, since this is an Islamic nation and alcohol is banned except in resorts. But this doesn't apply when you're offshore, so a cold beer after a hot surf session will be readily available on board your boat.
Wandering around Malé also helps you appreciate living on a boat - the Maldives is only three degrees south of the equator and the heat and humidity are far more intense on land than at sea. Back on board your surf vessel, there's always a cooling breeze 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 some of the best waves of your life. We were already planning a return trip as we boarded the long flight home. firstname.lastname@example.org