Traditional bodysurfing survives in Istanbul’s Black Sea coast – FT

Unknown to foreigners, and much of the locals as well, one of the oldest surf cultures in the world is continued by fishermen in the small village of Rumeli Feneri at the northern end of Istanbul’s Bosporus strait. 

The bodysurfing tradition called “viya” consists of “men hurling themselves head first down steep and fast-breaking waves,” travel writer Tom Allan wrote for the Financial Times.

Viya was likely developed by Black Sea cultures other than the Turks, surf school owner Hakan Ozan told FT, as Turks are “not naturally water people,” due to their roots in Central Asian steppes. It could be the Laz people, millennia-old natives of the eastern Black Sea coast, who developed the sport.

Another possible source for the sport is the Pontic Greeks, who lived in the Black Sea region until World War One, when exiles and massacres drastically reduced the population. Survivors mostly relocated to Greece, all but ending Greek presence in the area.

Some women also do viya, but the three regulars had veered away due to family responsibilities, locals told Allan. According to Mustafa Aytaç, the owner of a hardware store, one has to be “a bit crazy” to do viya.

Injuries are common for the sport, as “viya riders tuck their arms by their sides and take on the wave head first,” having dived off flat rocks on a cliff by the wild waters of the Black Sea.

Practitioners of the sport are happy bodysurfing, and do not wish to use boards. “Whenever I’ve lent them boards they just break them on the rocks,”said Ozan.

The locals also refuse to wear wetsuits, which limits their viya season to the few warm months of the year.

One of the threats facing the sport is development along the Black Sea coast. The Black Sea Coastal Highway has already destroyed the home wave for Barış Beşli, the president of the Laz Cultural Association. Istanbul, with a population of more than 15 million, also constantly creeps ever closer to Rumeli Feneri.
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