Events at an Arugam Bay surf contest suggest that Sri Lanka’s growing scene may be nearing an inflexion point
Story by Alex Frew McMillan
You could say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The most important competition of the year in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka’s prime east coast surf spot, had just concluded. A crowd had gathered to see the medals – and the much-needed prize money – awarded.
But first they witnessed something else entirely. The event, Red Bull’s second annual Ride My Wave, saw local and foreign surfers going board-to-board for the first time, with judges flown in from South Africa specifically. It was a branded event, and a chance to win hard cash: US$1,000 for first prize. That brought out the best in the performances – and the worst in the performers.
In the first semifinal, there happened to be three local riders and one foreigner. The Sri Lankans showed off some smooth moves, using experience gained over years working the break to catch wave after wave. They cut up to the lip and back down again and again, knowing just how much they could push each ride.
The foreigner, New Zealander Jordan Griffin, didn’t catch a wave at all until near the end of the heat. Then suddenly he caught two waves in succession, reeling off some dazzling skate-style moves. He was a flurry of motion and, in some feat of stamina given the long breaks here, he kept it up right through to the death.
It was enough to get Griffin second, with the top two riders progressing to the finals where he got the bronze. At the end of the entire event, one of the riders he eliminated in the semis – Siril Praneeth – could hold his frustration no more. He confronted the judges, virtually chest-bumping them, yelling at them to call out their bias against the locals. Egged on by his Western friends, he then broke his board over his knee in front of everyone.
The incident summed up the delicate position of Arugam Bay, and to a certain extent, surfing in general in Sri Lanka. The big brands are edging their way in bit by bit. An infant sport is maturing. But that means surfing takes on a different, more commercial dimension, that clearly brings its tensions too.
Praneeth’s tantrum was fit for a wealthy, spoiled pro with a sponsorship – not for a young surfer from a town that gets many of its boards as hand-me-downs from tourists who develop an attachment to the place. And not fit for a town that received desperately needed boards as part of the relief effort after the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Sri Lankan east coast, killing 375 in Arugam alone.
Kai Linder, the South African who flew in to provide commentary and help manage the event, told me that his impressions of Sri Lankans had been overwhelmingly positive. He knew the incident would blow over, as it immediately did.
Surf events are judged, and even with experienced judges that can only ever be subjective. Sometimes you lose, sometimes unjustly it may seem. Also there was no way Praneeth, himself in the heat of the action at the time, could have seen what Griffin pulled off. By nightfall, everyone was best buds again at the farewell party for the judges.
“They’re not used to competition surfing. People change when you’ve got US$1,000 on the line,” Linder said. “But they’re ready now. All they need is a bit of development and coaching.”
That’s where the real problem lies.
SriLankan Airlines used to sponsor another event in Arugam Bay: the SriLankan Airlines Pro. That contest was run by the World Surf League (until 2014, called the Association of Surfing Professionals) and included a six-star event on the women’s pro tour too. But after two years in A-Bay, the event was cancelled in 2012 with the airline citing the poor economy.
“The biggest problem is sponsorship,” Sharon Atapattu Tissera, who runs a boutique resort, The Hideaway, said. “We don’t have enough of an audience. For SriLankan Airlines, they ran at a huge loss. I don’t think it made sense for them by the time they flew the pros out. The surfers looked for lodging and everything, so it just doesn’t make sense financially.”
Tissera, like virtually everyone else in Arugam, thinks Sri Lanka deserves high-level surfing – there are constant rumors that the world tour is going to add a qualifying event there. But it never comes to anything.
“There’s tremendous potential. But I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not,” Tissera said.
It’s a Catch-22 seen in many up-and-coming surf venues. Sri Lanka doesn’t have the events that would draw in world-class talent. As a result, the locals are starved of high-level competition. That means there aren’t any serious coaches to bring on the next generation. So promising young surfers don’t fulfill their potential.
With no high-level competitions, there are no big-name sponsors, or Sri Lankan judges sufficiently proficient to officiate such events. Like the surfers, there’s no way for them to learn.
“They can’t hold competitions if they don’t have anyone to judge them,” Mandla Ndlovu, one of the South African judges flown in for the event, said. In competition, he was highly impressed by some of the younger surfers, in their mid-teens. And he recognizes that the industry is in its infancy. “The more the people are involved, the more the scene is going to develop.”
Red Bull has said it won’t be holding the Ride My Wave event in Arugam Bay in 2016. The event will shift to Sri Lanka’s south coast, either Weligama or Hikkaduwa, in December. Arugam’s surfers talk of the brand ‘pulling out’ of A-Bay and mutter darkly about the less innocent, more touristy scene on the other coast, where they say surfers are just pot-smoking beach jockeys.
But at the same time, Red Bull took 11 surfers from Arugam Bay to the Maldives earlier this year, where the surfing is, to be fair, superior and the tourist industry certainly much more mature. That sort of trip is beyond imagination for your typical Sri Lankan surfer and the participants painted Facebook full of photos of their surfboards and smiles.
Red Bull gave them a chance. It also asked Krishantha ‘Krish’ Ariyasena, the chairman of the Arugam Bay Surf Club, to write them a letter explaining how the trip went.
“For some reason I haven’t had a chance to do that,” he said. “I didn’t think that it would be a very serious thing.” He also says he is worried that his English isn’t up to scratch, after getting a subpar education during the country’s civil war that ended in 2009. Now the event has been pulled.
This lackadaisical attitude is pervasive in Arugam Bay. But this is surfing, after all, and most local surf coaches are lucky if they have lessons a couple of days a week. They make more money during the fishing season.
Krish is one of only three Sri Lankans nationwide who are currently qualified as instructors under the International Surfing Association (ISA). Quite a few more got the certification when the ISA sent a one-off scholarship development team. But they have all let their memberships lapse, not wanting to pay the US$100 annual fee, which was originally waived.
Krish says they could certainly pay that. “It’s like a driver’s license,” he said, the least a professional surf trainer could do. Meantime he has also been trying to petition the government to do more about surfing in Sri Lanka. But the paperwork, literally, is under his bed. Every time he tries to set up a meeting in Colombo, he gets shut down.
“I need to find somebody who has a big heart. Not Europeans. I’m talking about our people in Sri Lanka,” he said. “They see this as money, as big business. But we see this as community work.”
The breaks are there. Linder said the four- to five-foot waves at Main Point, the competition site for Ride My Wave, didn’t have anywhere near the deep-water power of those at his home in Jeffreys Bay, one of South Africa’s most famous surf spots. But at their best, the waves can be twice that high.
‘‘At six foot, it’s a really first-class wave,’’ he said, a long ride on an easygoing right-hand beach break. ‘‘I’m quite happy to be here and surf it. Tick it off the destination list.’’
Sri Lanka wants to be more than just a place on a destination list. Its surfing is grittier and lower-key than the high-octane spots in Indonesia. But the breaks are noteworthy for their mellow, long waves and that might ultimately be its selling point.
Near Arugam Bay is Pottuvil Point which locals say has the longest surf break in Sri Lanka, lasting up to a kilometre. ‘‘You can ride it, but your legs would be jelly,’’ Anusanth Anthrasa, an instructor with Amigo Surf School who goes by the nickname Babu, said.
The raw material is there. Linder would like to see a sponsor take some of the ‘grommies’ – budding young surfers with no fear – to challenging locations such as South Africa, where the coaching they need exists.
It may be too late for the older Sri Lankan surfers, he said. The winner of the Red Bull event, Asanka Waduge, is in his 30s already. The groms are still young enough to reprogram. But that will start slow and is a long-term project.
“It’s feasible you would have, in the next 10 years, someone from Sri Lanka who competes on the world tour,” Linder said.
One very good reason why the surfing and surf coaching lags behind is the war. Fought by Tamils seeking independence from the Sinhalese majority, it made sure that any sustained surf tourism was out of the question.
Tissera’s boutique resort is a former vacation villa built in the 1970s by her father. She says the place was abandoned most of the time between the onset of hostilities in 1985 and the end of the war.
What’s now a seven-hour drive to Arugam Bay, was double that back then. ‘‘There used to be 25 to 30 checkpoints to come here,’’ Tissera said. ‘‘We had to dodge parts of the road that were blown up by landmines. Looking at it in hindsight that was really stupid.”
The conflict only ended in 2009, hastened by the 2004 tsunami that destroyed much of what was still standing on the east coast. So the transition from fishing village to tourist trap is yet to pass. The surf scene is a time capsule locked in those first days when Western surfers wandered in off the beach, in search of fresh water and some plumbing.
Jaya Dissa, a leathery tuk tuk driver who often works for The Hideaway, remembers when the ‘white guys’ first arrived. It was the 1970s. He was 10.
“I used to give them coconuts, whatever I could find, and ask to ride on their board,” Dissa remembered. “Locals and fishermen knew all the breaks. But us kids just bodysurfed and used to mess around in the water.”
It was Australians who first put Arugam Bay on the international map. Israelis also came, and even trickled in during the civil war, themselves inured to constant low-grade conflict.
But Dissa had to leave his hometown during the war. There wasn’t any work, and he started taking on stints as a deckhand on a fishing trawler, spending 15 to 30 days at sea. He only returned to Arugam Bay in 2012. He used to be one of the best local surfers. Now, 54, he no longer has the lungs, and also little time, for surfing. “Now, I have this problem: income,” he said.
He doesn’t like the changes that he has seen, with the town beginning to modernise. The youngsters in what is a mostly Muslim and conservative part of Sri Lanka are changing. “It’s 99% different, 1% good,” he said.
But to many visitors, it hasn’t changed much at all. In Arugam Bay, thanks to its enforced innocence, there’s still a chance of that ‘I knew the band before they got big’ feeling.
“This is Bali 20 years ago,” said Griffin, the Kiwi at the heart of the Ride My Wave tempest. “It’s a pretty special place to surf.”
A sometime-member of the New Zealand surf team and a barista back home, Griffin only entered the Red Bull event on a whim, on a ‘visa run’ after his 60-day stamp in Bali ran out.
Arugam Bay ‘‘is one of the best spots in the world, maybe not for high-performance surfing but for long boards,’’ Griffin said. The long length of the rides, the relative lack of surfers and the sense of uncovering a new frontier make it worth the trip, he feels.
“If I wanted strong waves, I would go to Western Australia. But that’s not really my gig,” he said. “And here there’s not much in the way of crowd.”
Jake Mackenzie, a Hong Kong native who now runs Drifter Surf Shop in Bali, brings his family to Arugam most years. Mackenzie rents his own tuk tuk and takes off at 4am for Okanda – a tubing break next to a temple at the entrance to Kumana National Park. On occasion he says he rides past elephants or sloth bears en route.
He says he is spoiled for choice for waves in Indonesia. “If I want to crank it, I would do it there,” he said, echoing Griffin.” But I love it here because it’s great for the kids, and because of the people.”
However, although he is coming again this year, he has also started venturing to even more obscure destinations, like a deserted beach in Sumba where there are literally no facilities. In Arugam Bay, “you are starting to see some of the negative elements creep in.”
With Mackenzie, we’re talking about a full-time surfer with a full-time surf shop business – who still takes his family to A-Bay on holiday. There’s still time for Sri Lankan surf to develop in the right way. And you can still get there before the band gets big. AA
When to go
Sri Lanka has a tropical climate with two monsoons that bring contrasting weather to east and west coasts. In Arugam that means a dry season during the summer months from June to September, with more rain in the shoulder periods and an especially wet November-January.
How to get there
Fly to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines or SriLankan. Arugam Bay is as much as 10 hours away by road in the day. That can come down to six hours at night but with the roads just a single lane each way, it’s best not to pressure your driver.
What to take
The water is warm enough without a wetsuit. Bring your own rashie though if you plan to sign up for surf courses, the school will likely give you one. Rental boards cost about 500 rupees, or US$3.50, an hour, with personal surf instruction around 2,500 rupees an hour.
Buy a local SIM at the airport as roaming is expensive.
Amigo Surf School, www.amigosurfschool.com
Arugam Bay Surf Club,
Safa Surf School, www.safaarugambay.com
Where to stay and eat
The Hideaway – a boutique hotel regarded as one of the best options with a good restaurant, bar and roadside juice counter.
Arugam’s main road is lined with roti restaurants selling ‘rice and curry’ – a generic term for a spread of dal, papadums, and meat and vegetable curries.