Palm trees, down jackets, and neoprene might seem a bit of an odd mix to some. Not so for Mikhail Demeshkevich and the handful of other surfers on the Sochi shore.
For Mikhail, there’s no place quite like the cold waters of Sochi, the former Olympic city on Russia’s Black Sea coast. He’s at the epicenter of a small but impassioned local surf culture, and has taught himself to shape boards and ride the frigid swells. The 43-year-old was born in neighboring Abkhazia and moved to the Sochi region at the age of five. Now a family man and an electrician by trade, he’s one of the most welcoming individuals any stranger here could hope for. And today, he’s nothing but smiles—there’s a swell coming in.
“Khosta Rica” is the light-hearted name that Mikhail and his surf buddies have given their favorite spot. It’s lies a few minutes by train from Sochi’s town center, with its harbor front to the North, and the former Olympic stadiums of the South. Behind the beach sits Matsesta, an old Soviet sanatorium with sulphur springs and a VIP spa unit, custom-built for Stalin. Outside, the waves loom tall, dark, and unforgiving. Well, for the few days a year when it’s big, that is.
Most of the time, things are a little less dramatic on the pebble stone shore. This isn’t Hawaii, after all. But there are a few palm trees. It’s laid back here, and that’s what got Mikhail hooked on the sport. He and his friends first started surfing in 2010. Back then, it was mainly as an alternative to freestyle snowboarding in the incredible backcountry of Rosa Khutor, where the Olympic Alpine events took place in 2014. But surfing quickly took pole position, pushing snowboarding more and more to the side. “You plan your days from swell to swell,” Mikhail says. “Surfing takes up the best part of my life and soul. I don’t think that’s ever going to change for me.”
“Surfing takes up the best part of my life and soul. I don’t think that’s ever going to change for me.”
In the early days surfboards were expensive and difficult to come by. So Mikhail started building his own in a makeshift workshop. After a fair share of trial and error, he succeeded. He shaped his boards slightly wider and longer than your usual short-board but not as heavy or sluggish as a beginner’s foam-board. Together with his friends, he tested the DIY-boards, and they turned out to be ideal for Black Sea waves. They were also perfectly suited to keen novices like themselves.
And that is, very roughly told, the story of how surfing arrived at Russia’s Black Sea shore. In 2016, with the Olympic tremor gone and $51 billion worth of infrastructure left mostly vacant, the number of local surfers is growing. Surfers from all over Russia, who usually flock to warmer waters, are starting to arrive in Sochi. Mikhail hopes that his small community’s open-hearted ways survive the latest surge in popularity and that commercial interests never overshadow the free-spirited innocence of Sochi’s surf culture.