May 23 2013
I was initially nervous about the seaplane ride that headed south across the Maldives’ 1,190 low-lying islands strung along the Indian Ocean. Our destination was unknown to me, and three far more experienced surfers than I were on board. Still, I was in the safe hands of Ross Phillips, founder of Tropicsurf, the Australian luxury surf operator leading this adventure. He had been awake since sunrise studying the day’s wave and weather patterns, and, from our great height, was now checking swells and directing our course to find the best breaks.
We were seaplane surfing, an activity known for drastically cutting the time surfers spend getting between breaks. It has become the choice of champions, as well as “corporate surfers” – the so-called demographic of urbanites who are increasingly taking up this booming sport.
Over the past 20 years, Tropicsurf’s team has scouted the Maldives’ 90,000sq km of seas (only 1 per cent of this nation is land) in search of the finest “mechanically peeling walls” and “double overhead tubes” – surf lingo for waves that rise upwards to form sheer cliffs of water. The Maldives’ maze of reef passes and changing winds create a surfer’s nirvana, but much of this area has remained inaccessible until Tropicsurf and the pilots put their heads together.
I have come a long way since another Tropicsurf teacher first coaxed me onto a board around six years ago, at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa in North Male Atoll, one of the few of the 200-plus Maldives resorts to offer surf instruction.
At first I wobbled before standing on a long board, then I paddle boarded, and after several return visits eventually worked my way up to surfing the eight left and right breaks accessible by speedboat from Kuda Huraa, with names such as Sultans, Jails and Honkys.
Today, surfing is a major draw among the resort’s clientele and Tropicsurf operates a retail outlet and surf shack, where guests can take theory lessons and be inspired by photography of the Maldives’ most epic waves or reruns of classic surf films, such as Endless Summer.
There is serious science behind these thrills (and in my case, plenty of spills). For several days before our most recent outing, Phillips monitored a low-pressure system travelling westwards from Madagascar on both surf and weather forecasting websites. He showed me the chart predictions he had cross-referenced on four sites and convinced me to hop aboard.
Anticipation soared as we flew high above the azure waters and their white faru, or underwater reef rings. At the sight of a perfectly peeling right break, our pilot swooped down and anchored the aircraft in a deep-water channel. Slathered in sunscreen, we paddled out to glassy waves curling as much as 5ft above our heads. At least 100 miles separated us from any other surfers, as it did at a further three secret breaks we winged in to catch over the next five hours. We were, in a word, stoked.