Australian surf legend Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo narrowly defeated seven-times female world champion Layne Beachley yesterday in the single fin division of the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy.
Beachley knocked out two-time world champion Damien Hardman in the semi-final, while Occy defeated world longboard champion Josh Constable to go on to face Beachley.
The first day of the invitational event saw the six surf legends – Occy, Beachley, Constable, and Hardman, as well as four-time world champion Mark Richards and Nat Young, compete at the Sultans break near Four Season’s Kuda Huraa resort.
“This morning I surfed with Mark Richards and I kept on falling off in front of him and he said ‘I’m hexing you’, but it was the pressure of competing against my idol,” said Occy, following his win.
Speaking to Minivan News between heats, Beachley explained that it was unusual for female surfers to compete against men at such an elite level of the sport.
“The ability and depth of skill has really improved in women’s surfing and has helped bridge the gap in performance [at the professional level], but it’s not really fair to pit a lightweight boxer against a heavyweight,” she said. “One big difference is that our hips get in the way when we turn – it’s an anatomical disadvantage. It’s not a worry for recreational surfers but it matters at a professional level because women can never have the technical finesse of the top guys.”
Despite the camaraderie between the champions there was, Beachley noted, a very strong competitive undercurrent.
“When you’re surrounded by world champions there is a mutual respect because we know what it takes, but when we’re paddling out no one’s there to lose,” she said.
“It’s very competitive. No guy wants to lose to a girl. The boys are amped. Their pumped up, even if they’re pretending to play it down.”
Female professional surfers, Beachley observed, tended to take not just the sport but also their responsibility as role models for other female surfers very seriously, and most were “well-spoken ambassadors.”
Beachley herself was on a board at Manly beach in Sydney Australia by age four, competing in mens heats at 15 and turning professional just a year later. By the age of 20 she was ranked sixth in the world, and in 1998 went on to win the world championship for six consecutive years.
“I always took pride in training harder than anyone else. I would be doing boxing, swimming, dune running, weights and yoga. I had a very strict cross-training regime,” she told Minivan News.
Asked about developing the female surfing scene in the Maldives, Beachley suggested that female surfers should “band together, and make sure the guys understand that girls have as much right to be in the water as them. Then work your way up the food chain. Don’t cry victim, it’s not the best way to get respect. Instead show tenacity and confidence and let the guys know it.”
Beginner surfers, she noted, faced not just the technical challenges of learning the sport but also the unspoken etiquette and rules that could only be passed on by other surfers.
“Beginner surfers really need to utilise a surf school,” Beachley said, “not only to because they teach the fundamentals but also the unspoken etiquette. One of the problems with surfing is that the rules are unspoken.”
In contrast to many famously territorial surf destinations, Beachley said the Maldives had a reputation for hospitality and the breaks for being “playful, fun, user friendly, more relaxing and peaceful than places like Indonesia and Tahiti.”
The country’s reef breaks, she said, were more predictable than beach breaks in that they followed a certain shape, and were easier to read.
“With beaches you have to quickly adapt to changes. The advantage to a beach break is that a sandy bottom is softer to land on,” she laughed.
Local surfer ‘Bongo’ was on hand during the Four Seasons competition to help out with conditions.
“Sultans is a right-hander, a very good wave for beginners and intermediate surfers. It has an easy takeoff and a slow first section, with time for 1-2 turns, and a nice barrel inside. On a big day it’s still a challenge. I like hollow right-handers, because I’m a natural footer,” he said.
The day saw offshore winds and 2-3 foot waves, “clean and glassy”, according to Bongo.
The competition, he predicted, would be “good for tourism” given the international publicity the big names would generate.
“Apart from that, we’re lucky to be out here seeing the legends of surfing ripping,” he said.
The Maldives has “2-3 guys like Ibu and Issay who might be able to bust a few aerial maneuvers and maybe challenge these guys, but Occy is tough competition,” he said.
“There’s also the matter of the handicap in the scoring system – older guys get more time in the heats, so I reckon the younger surfers stand no chance.”
He acknowledged that the Maldives had few female surfers dedicated to the sport, “which is really sad.”
“We’ve had a few girls try out, and some of them did very well. The problem is that it’s not easy for them to be out surfing every day, and you take a lot of bumps in a shallow reef break. All surf breaks in the Maldives are reef breaks, which makes it difficult for beginners.”
Despite the laid-back reputation of the sport, surfing remains largely a male-dominated sport with a reputation for being fiercely territorial and hostile for beginners. This was less of a problem in the Maldives given the seclusion of most breaks and the country’s dependence on tourism, he suggested.
“The locals are much more laid back than other places like Hawaii or South Africa, you don’t see scenes like the Hui or Black Shorts here. It’s mainly because all these breaks are secluded and the country is dependent on tourism – everyone is really friendly,” Bongo said.
Dhonveli’s Pasta Point and Huduranfushi’s breaks were exclusive for tourists, he said, “although if we want to surf them we just need to give the resorts a ring and ask. There’s no problem for local surfers.”
Modern surfing was famously introduced to the Maldives by Australian national Tony Hussain Hind, who was shipwrecked in the country but on his departure saw so many perfect surf breaks that he turned around and made the Maldives his home.
“He introduced modern surfing, but before that locals would body surf using planks of wood,” Bongo said. “Really, the full history of surfing in the Maldives is unknown.”
The Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy continues over the next few days with the double fin and triple fin events.