Life as a Ukrainian Surfer at War: "We Must Protect Our Home"

Jason Lock

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Updated 261d ago

This interview was conducted on March 3 2022.

Vasiliy Kordysh has just returned home after helping arrange sea defences across his home city of Odesa, a port town on the Black Sea, along Ukraine's southern coast. “I'm tired right now,” he says. “But most of us who surf, we're all helping to protect our home. To protect our beaches. Our city, our country.”

Like many of the other countries that border the Black Sea, there's a tight-knit and underground surfing community in Ukraine – and Odesa is the country's big surf city. Though ask anyone who knows the area well and they'd likely identity Odesa as a cross-section of industry and leisure. There's a naval base and shipbuilding facilities – but also, streets punctuated with 19th Century architecture and beaches usually packed with holidaymakers and tourists.

A Ukrainian surf trip, on Vasiliy's YouTube channel, in much simpler times.

“There's six or so Russian ships off the coast right now,” said Vasiliy, who is the President of the Ukraine Surfing Federation. “They're near our marine border, and they've been cruising around - we are trying to get ready for their invasion.”

Even today, Odesa has been rocked by a missile strike. “We had the first attack on February 24, the day the war started,” said Vasiliy. “Most of the big cities of Ukraine were attacked by the rockets in Russia. I woke up at 5am from my mother's call and she said 'the war is started', she told me and my wife to keep all our documents and money together and be ready to go somewhere safer, as soon as possible – far away from Odesa.

“But we hear the alarms and we go into the shelter below ground. The rockets hit the airport here, the telecommunication towers and right now, the Russian's strategy is to remove all communication we have. But we know about their operation. We are ready. We had a few bombs on March 2. But we have a defence system to shoot them down.”

Ukrainians ready sea defences, images taken by a local new network in Odesa.

Ukrainians ready sea defences, images taken by a local new network in Odesa.

Yes, there's a surf community in Ukraine. There's even a reef near Chornomorsk, a former satellite town of Odesa. “It works a few times throughout the winter season,” Vasiliy says. “It's fickle, but it is our home and we love it.” Vasiliy has rallied with the rest of the surfers there to set about building defences, alongside a range of other civilians from all kinds of backgrounds. “The thinking is they'll come by sea or maybe from the Crimea. There's a beach near me that we are fortifying but it's happening all across the shore. We've been making sand bags and shipping them out everywhere. Organising transport to all around the town.

“We've been giving people warm clothes and food. The women are organising that and the men are readying the defences.”

Even with everything going on, the people of Ukraine remain resilient. “People are not scared,” Vasiliy said. “They were scared for the first 24-48 hours but right now, everyone understands that there is an attack possible for our city. Everyone is ok and sticking together, doing everything we can to win this.” Would I have fled if I could? Maybe? Yes? I think about it a lot. It is hard to stay here emotionally

It isn't a case of stay or leave, either. Ukraine is under strict martial law, meaning Vasiliy cannot leave the country even if he wanted to. “Some women and children have left. Would I have fled if I could? Maybe? Yes? I think about it a lot. It is hard to stay here emotionally as well, work has stopped completely. Some of the women have stayed too, to be with their husbands. One minute you think about 'we all need to leave', but then the next you're thinking, 'no we must defend our home.' Honestly? I'm thinking about Portugal, there's great waves there, it's been great recently.

“We miss the waves, of course. But it's hard to do anything right now – you wake up in the morning, check the news then plan what we're going to do. We wanted to build the defences earlier today but we got warning of an attack – so we just went down later. As surfers, this is our mission now. But it's what all the people from the country are doing too.”

Vasiliy, a man born to be on the water.

Vasiliy, a man born to be on the water.

It was 2018 that Vasiliy officially registered the Ukrainian Surfing Federation and then became members of the International Surfing Association (ISA) in April, 2021. “By May, we went to El Salvador to compete,” said Vasiliy. Shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the ISA and International Olympic Committee (IOC) imposed a strict sporting exclusion on the Russian Surfing Federation.

Celebrating Ukraine' first entry into the ISA World Surfing Games.

Celebrating Ukraine' first entry into the ISA World Surfing Games.

“We get along well with the Russian Surfing Federation... they're great people. But they have to be held accountable for what their president is doing.”

Despite the fickle nature of surfing in Ukraine, being around the sea has always been a part of Vasiliy's life. “I've been surfing since I was 8-years-old and I'm 30 now, 22-years. My dad was a wind surfer. Started surfing these 6'0” boards, 28 litres but now riding a 5'8” Firewire Cymatic, perfect for here with that round nose.

“My job is to organise surf trips for Ukrainians," said Vasiliy. "The day before the war started we were planning to go to the Maldives, Tenerife ... next day — war. Russia attacked.”

Home is home. Arcadia, Ukraine. Or, the place where Vasiliy won two Ukrainian championships.

Home is home. Arcadia, Ukraine. Or, the place where Vasiliy won two Ukrainian championships.

Surfing year round in Ukraine is no joke. Cold water, colder air temperatures. “There are only around 10-15 surfers in Odesa who have decent wetsuits for the winter,” explains Vasiliy. “There are more surfers but they're not as crazy as we are [laughs], they don't surf in the winter in 6/5mm suits and boots and hoods, good gloves. But it's growing. And getting things ready for the defences, most of us surfers are involved in this process.

“We've found a new spot around here too – that's been working for a different direction of swell, we're looking forward to surfing that when we win this war. The energy here in the Black Sea though, it's not like the ocean, you have to surf really different, practice on different boards and find out what works – but we can catch small waves, that's surfing for us.”

Vasiliy, not at home.

Vasiliy, not at home.

We asked Vasiliy about whether he'd like to use a pseudonym for this interview: “No, I'm not worried about the KGB or other stuff – as you've probably seen right now, we're winning. It's important to talk and the world should know the truth. Tomorrow though, I have go to the border and try to get my wife far, far, away. Small attacks are starting, the day-by-day situation is getting worse and we still need all the help we can get."

There are myriad ways to help people in Ukraine, and here are a few of the official channels.

Ukrainian Red Cross
Global Giving Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund
Vostok SOS (helping to evacuate Ukrainians)
Voices of Children
Ukrainian Association of Animal Advocates