The Lost Surfers of the Black Sea

What do you associate with Turkey? Perhaps you see it as the crossroads of Europe; a historical meeting point of Christianity and Islam. You might picture the ubiquitous ruins of fallen civilisations, or the tragic mining disaster of May 13. It is unlikely, however, that you identify this country with a surfing culture dating back more than a millennium.

Somewhere among the folds of its heterogeneous past, a population of Pontic Greeks once thrived in north east Turkey, arriving in the region around 700 BC. From this community emerged the tradition of Viya, in which fishermen from coastal villages took to the water and bodysurfed during the frequent storms of winter. Unbeknown to mainstream surfing, the tradition has been maintained through the centuries, and today, committed pockets of bodysurfers can still be found at the reefs and points of the Black Sea Coast.

Viya is a tradition passed on from father to son, originating from the Pontic Greeks who inhabited the eastern Black Sea region before the Turks. Tunc Ucyildiz

“While modern surfing has only existed in Turkey for three to four years, the history of wave-riding in the country actually dates back hundreds, even thousands of years to the days before the Ottoman Empire,” says Tunc Ucyildiz, Turkey's sole ISA representative, who drew our attention to this fascinating community. “Viya is passed on from father to son, originating from the Greeks who inhabited the eastern Black Sea region before the Turks. These people accept themselves as Turks now, but still have their own language with mostly Greek rooted words. Viya is one of these words, meaning “wave” in the Greek dialect."

These are not children enjoying a sandy shorebreak, but skilled watermen who check forecasts and understand the dynamics of their spots. There are local heroes who only charge on big days, legendary swells, sub-cultural language and orthodox techniques. The community is comprised almost entirely of fishermen living on the Black Sea Coast, a surprisingly consistent area which abounds with high quality spots (many of which were identified and mapped out long before the arrival of stand-up surfers). As conventional surfing gains popularity, these two communities have increasing come in contact, resulting in a unique convergence of the two sea-faring traditions.

According to Ucyildiz, the shallow righthand reef in village of Rumeli Feneri, to the north of Istanbul, is widely considered the epicentre of Viya culture. On any given swell you can expect to see a dozen bobbing heads in the lineup, and it has been this way for as long as living memory can recall. The potential fetch for this coastline is around 600 miles, double that of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, and more than large enough to produce solid waves throughout the year.

Two Viya surfers at the at Rumeli Feneri, a heavily localised bodysurf spot to the north east of Istanbul.

Two Viya surfers at the at Rumeli Feneri, a heavily localised bodysurf spot to the north east of Istanbul.

Hakan Ozan, another member of Turkey's fledgling standup surfing community, is a regular visitor to Rumeli. "They call their style of bodysurfing 'shoulder Viya' because they use their shoulders to give a direction to their bodies" says Ozan, who interviewed the locals about the history of their sport. They explained that that Viya incorporates two distinct techniques: Kapaklama (meaning to fall down) which is used in close outs, and Sulun (Floating) which is employed on mellow open faces. In the past they used small wooden boards, much like the modern handplane, but the Viya purists prefer to surf without assistance. “They bodysurf like planks, using their arms to raise their torsos from the water,” says Ozan. “When they get a good wave they give a soldier salute to each other, and the others yell compliments at him.”

On the bigger days, elderly men from the village come down to the spots and tell tales of the huge storms of years past. Often the whole village gathers to pray, sing and warn the surfers of oncoming sets. “The older surfers always say the same thing” says Ozan; “that the seasons have changed for the worse and there used to be four metre storms every week. They say the waves now look like the 'ripples in the sink where you wash your face.”

On the bigger days, elderly men from the village come down to the spots and tell tales of the huge storms of years past. Often the whole village gathers to pray, sing and warn the surfers of oncoming sets.Hakan Ozan

As with any popular surf spot across the world, the Rumeli locals manage a highly regulated lineup: “It's an old bodysurf spot where there's plenty of localism,” says Ozan. “If you're from outside of the village you have to get permission to paddle out from the oldest bodysurfers. They're a nice and respectful people, but they have certain rules which you must obey. You can't hang around in the village half naked. You have to respect the older body surfers in the line up and you have to let them go for the big waves. Young ones have to stay on the side if the oldest body surfers are out there.”

There is plenty of potential in Turkey, both on the Mediterranean and Black Sea Coasts. This is a pulled back view of the wave at Rumeli. If you make the trip, be prepared to share your waves with a pack of protective bodysurfing locals.

There is plenty of potential in Turkey, both on the Mediterranean and Black Sea Coasts. This is a pulled back view of the wave at Rumeli. If you make the trip, be prepared to share your waves with a pack of protective bodysurfing locals.

© 2014 - VikiPicture

Tunc Ucyildiz first encountered the Viya surfers after retuning from New York, where he had lived and learned to surf. Their wave knowledge and composure in turbulent seas intrigued him, and after a few shared sessions, their story began to unravel.

The spot was a point break in between two hills with a sharp reef underneath. There was a strong outgoing current and the waves were slightly over head high. Despite the current, a couple of these Viya guys joined me in the water without any board, catching wave after wave and cruising the clean face. Tunc Ucyildiz

“One of the first times I went to surf in Black Sea region around Istanbul, I met a couple Viya guys in a small village," says Ucyildiz. "They saw me in the water with a surfboard (for many of them this was the first time they had seen modern surfing) and quickly whistled loudly to gather around 30 people, watching over the hill with curious eyes. The spot was a point break in between two hills with a sharp reef underneath. I started to get ready but down the hill looked really sketchy with a lot of current, reef popping up everywhere and we didn’t know where the shallow spots were."

"There was a strong outgoing current and the waves were slightly over head high. Despite the current, a couple of these guys joined me in the water without any board, bodysurfing the clean face. Whenever we got a wave the crowd on top of the hill was whistling and cheering. They knew how to read the wave and had developed their own surf language. When we got out of the water we chatted about surfing and it felt like we'd been friends for a thousand years; it really felt like finding your long lost brother.”

When a good wave is made the surfer throws a salute to those around him. Slightly more subtle than an arms-up claim.

When a good wave is made the surfer throws a salute to those around him. Slightly more subtle than an arms-up claim.

Concrete information about the origin of Viya is sparse, and we are forced to rely on anecdotal evidence to piece together its history. The Rumeli locals say the word originates from the technique of keeping a boat rudder straight, however, the word Viya (meaning wave) also exists in the language of the Laz people of Georgia, begging the question: how far did the tradition spread? Some accounts suggest that the sport first started in eastern Turkey, but the community was forcibly moved west following first world war.

“Who knows when they started to bodysurf, or how far it reached,” says Ucyildiz, “but it is assumed to have originated from before the arrival of the Ottomans. The Turks were a mostly landlocked nation until those times, without water skills, and still we don't have a great seafaring tradition, despite being surrounded by water.”

When we got out of the water we chatted about surfing and it felt like we'd been friends for a thousand years; it really felt like finding your long lost brother.

Regardless of this void of information, the mere existence of an established bodysurfing community in Turkey shines a new light on this part of the world, elucidating an often ignored region in the cultural geography of surfing. Here is an autonomous wave riding community, which shares many of the same traits and ocean knowledge of modern surfers, and which has potentially been cruising waves since before Cook set eyes on the Polynesians. These boardless brethren may not have have heard of the thruster revolution, and likely know little of Kelly Slater or Mike Stewart, but their wave knowledge and refined techniques show an intuitive relationship with the ocean with which all surfers can identify.

The local contingent at Rumeli Feneri.

The local contingent at Rumeli Feneri.


Struan Gray

Writer and Content Manager