Travel Photography – Surfing

Travel Photography – Surfing

Travel Photography - Surfing
Yoga on a surfboard

This article has appeared in Terrascape Magazine, May 2015 issue (Title: Yoga on a Surfboard). Besides being a travelogue, it also provides useful tips for Travel Photography – Surfing.

Good News!

“Just wanted to give you a heads up – you are the winner!” said the voice on the phone. I had just won a photo essay contest by National Geographic Traveller! With ‘water’ as the theme, it was fitting that the prize was a ‘3-day introduction-to-surfing’ trip to Mulki. That was the first I had heard of Mulki.

On an early morning flight, I flew into Mangalore’s Bajpe Airport. A 40-minute taxi ride later I had covered the 21-kilometre distance to Mulki.

On reaching, there were many surprises waiting for me, the first of which was at the home-stay’s gate. It proudly proclaimed ‘Surf Ashram’, and before I could get over it, my taxi reached the end of the short driveway. As I eased myself out of the cab, the second surprise stared me in the face – I noticed a pile of footwear outside the main entrance to the Ashram. The realisation slowly but surely dawned on me then – this was not a surfing club I was expecting it to be, but was truly an Ashram!

Many surfboards stacked for the guests, while one hangs in the verandah flaunting Ashram's meditative lifestyle
Surfboards waiting for the next adventure!

A young man stepped out of the Ashram and helped me with my bags. The first floor room was basic but clean, large enough to look spacious despite the three beds plus a study table and the rear door led to a verandah overlooking the mouth of River Shambhavi. The view was simply breath taking.

Shortly, I was called down for lunch. The only other guest, Greg from UK, had also arrived that morning. A quick look at the fare and I instantly realized the place was strictly vegetarian. Young men from the Ashram explained that for them, surfing is a meditative way of life and the discipline that went with it was the key to Ashram’s value system. It included yoga, vegetarianism, decency in attire and behaviour, cooking for themselves and guests, self-help, et al.

The meal was simple, but delicious nonetheless – fresh fruit juice, rice, kadi, sprouts salad, curds and predictably, a dessert. Table talk revolved around surfing and surfing meccas around the globe. Little wonder that it turned out to be an extended lunch.

Travel Photography - Surfing
Almost a snap!

During the course of the day, I learnt that the Ashram had been started by a bunch of avid young surfing enthusiasts (Rammohan, Shyam, Kiran, Dhruva and Kishore) and a 70-year old Swami Ji who has been surfing for 50+ years. The Ashram is also called Mantra Surf Club.

Swami Ji, as Jack Hebner is popularly referred to in the Ashram, had taught surfing to this group of young men ever since they were children. In 2003, they decided to set up the Ashram for themselves. They opened it up for enthusiasts and learners as a homestay in 2005. Today, they get guests from across the globe. The Ashram also doubles up as the headquarters of the Surfing Federation of India.

Travel Photography - Surfing

After the harsh sun had simmered down, the late afternoon took us out to the river Shambhavi that flows just outside the rear exit of the Ashram. The 20-metre walk had a quaint coastal view of some native hutments, a few coconut groves, a small well covered with water-lettuce, a tiny barnacle-encrusted jetty and a vast river in front. The drill was to do stand-up pedalling, on a surfboard, if you please!

While doing my dishes in the evening, I pondered over the story of the Ashram boys – under the guidance of Swami Ji, these young men had started small, stared unflinchingly in the eyes of overwhelming odds, had established the Ashram that has put India on the surfing map and were turning out to be true pioneers. I recalled their twinkling, genuinely happy eyes and could not help but feel a surge of admiration for their dynamism!

Off we go surfing!

Next morning, the call time for the surfing lesson was 7.15am. Before getting on the boat to cross the river, we had some fruits as pre-emption against likely dehydration. The inflatable speedboat took us across in minutes and then, carrying our surfboards, we walked across a narrow strip of land. Voila, the stunning view of the endless ocean made me stop dead in my tracks! We walked a few hundred metres and reached the spot where the surf (waves) seemed satisfactory to Shyam – our surfing instructor for the morning.

Working out before surfing
Yoga before you surf!

After some yoga and stretching workouts, we waded into the ocean with our surfboards. The basic idea was to keep lying on the surfboard till you sense a wave building up and then springing into a crouching position. Once the wave gets on to you, jump up and adopt a traffic cop stance! Sounds simple? Well, it isn’t when you are all shaky and unbalanced, thanks to the waves.

Here, I must point out a remarkable difference – usual practice at rafting, safari, rock climbing or any other adventure-activity camp for that matter, is to create a fear in the garb of instructions passed on as precautions to be taken. Surf Ashram and its instructors do not create and in fact, openly discourage any such scare-syndrome. Their calming statement is to make friends with the ocean.

Travel Photography - Surfing
Hunting for the right surf!

As a first time surfer, I attempted all that was suggested. Best I could manage was to get to a crouching position and glide. Standing up made me fall repeatedly.

However, I took their suggestion of making friends with ocean seriously. As the waves gently rocked my surfboard, I was singularly successful in dozing off on it till someone shouted – “wave!” Before I could react, it had toppled me over. That little wave sure spread a giant wave of mirth amongst the group!

After 3 hours of little success (while others were gleefully surfing), the group and I made our way back to the Ashram. My body felt as if it had been through a tumble-wash cycle in a washing machine. A long, leisurely shower interspersed with vehement scrubbing ensued on reaching my room. We realised how ravenously hungry we were only once we got down to have our brunch.

Community beach shoes for the guests
Community beach shoes for the guests

Next day, I was planning to do some specific travel photography (surfing). But the skies suddenly turned overcast. I anxiously looked around for any signs of disappointment amongst the group and wondered if surfing would be cancelled for the day. Instead, what I spotted delighted me – seasoned surfers of the group were thrilled with the weather. Their refrain was – “Today, the waves will be better for surfing and we will catch them without much struggle!”

The waves were definitely better, though nowhere close to what you may find in Hawaii or Australia. Surfers thoroughly enjoyed them. And, I managed to catch the piece of action on my camera.

Travel Photography - Surfing
The trio takes off

Upon exploring the Ashram, I spotted a jet ski. Rammohan told me that it was a gift to the Ashram from Bollywood star, Suniel Shetty. Suniel is from Mulki and wanted to do something for the Ashram that had prominently put the town on the surfing map of India.

Travel Photography - SurfingDuring my Mulki exploration, I realised that the town is an island carved by river Shambhavi branching and flowing around it (see map). Since Mulki is at the mouth of the Shambhavi, the river here has saltwater. Like most parts of Konkan region, even this town has many Naag (Snake God) temples, in addition to a large temple dedicated to the local goddess. Despite being a small town, the literacy rate is high and the people, prosperous.

A fishing boat in Mulki backwaters
A fishing boat in Mulki backwaters

Ours is not a land of freeways, but we should sure feel obliged for some free waves. Water lovers, summer is here. Plan your visit to Mulki – for surfing and for surf Ashram. Even though you would be doing your own dishes after a meal, the Ashram will grow on you in a typical ‘3-day surf lessons’ period. Those of you who claim to not love water should visit Mulki to fall in love with the river and the sea. Your tans may fade but the experience will linger on!

How to shoot surfers (Travel Photography – Surfing)

Movement of waves is whimsical. So is the movement of a surfer. This makes for an exponentially high degree of unpredictability. And that is the key challenge when you are doing travel photography – surfing. Besides the usual drill of getting the right exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance), you need to ensure the camera focus is where you intend it to be. For higher chances of getting crisp, in-focus images, change the auto focus settings as below:

Travel Photography - Surfing
How to shoot surfers AF Config Tool
  1. Switch from ‘One Shot AF’ (Canon) or AF-S (Nikon) to ‘AI Servo AF’ (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon)
  2. If your camera allows it, switch to AF Configuration Tools preset to Case 5 (Canon 5D Mark III) or whichever is relevant to your specific camera model. This specific case is configured for auto switching of AF point/s when the subject is involved in fast, erratic action (see image). You can read about it in greater detail here.

This box item is useful for those who want to do Travel Photography – Surfing.

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