By Ben Fowler
A common theme among the surfers of Sri Lankan Airlines’ ASP Pro 2011, when describing Arugam Bay, was seeing its similarities to other countries.
Brazilian-born Andre Derizans said the waves reminded him of his own slice of the ocean back home in Hawaii. Winner of the Men’s Longboard Tour Duane Dusoto (a native Hawaiian) agreed. “Just like Bali,” said his final-round rival Taylor Jenson.
American Lakey Peterson, the 16-year-old runner-up champion for the Women’s 6 Star World Tour, said: “The waves are a lot like the waves in California which I grew up on. It really helped my confidence.”
Though the Indian Ocean water at Arugam might curl and crash like its world-famous Pacific Ocean counterparts whether they be in Brazil or Bali, there’s more than the condition of the waves to consider when examining what’s unique about surfing in Sri Lanka, and the sport’s interaction with the culture at large.
Behind the waves
For one thing, the California coastline hasn’t been devastated by an 18-meter tsunami — Hawaii’s beaches haven’t spent the past three decades under the shadow of violence. When examining the culture behind surfing, especially in Sri Lanka, there’s just as much to examine on the land than on the sea.
Following the tsunami in 2004, Arugam Bay has had a tenuous relationship with development and assistance. Many fishing boats were donated to the locals and put to good use, but other projects have been announced and implemented with scant information about their outcomes or successes.
The major exception being Paddle4Relief, a charity organisation that has been actively developing the area — whether it be building roads, donating surfboards, or drilling fresh-water wells for local villages — ever since the tsunami.
The SriLankan Airlines Pro event itself has been the biggest boon to the area — both in stimulating the local economy and providing exposure to the area’s renowned waves. The ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) made the entire six-day event available worldwide with live-streaming coverage on their website. The event attracted both locals and foreigners alike, and this year’s had an even bigger turnout.
Although it was the sixth year Sri Lankan Airlines has partnered with ASP for the event, this is only the second year the event has been hosted in Sri Lanka — lingering fears of terrorism and violence kept the event in the Maldives.
“SriLankan Airlines is firmly geared towards making this year’s event a huge success and maintain Arugam Bay’s standing as a favourite among the top surfing destinations in the world,” said Chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines Nishantha Wickremasinghe. “We are also looking at other events, not necessarily water sports, like cycling and volleyball.”
Surfer Andre Derizans enthusiastically described how much help SriLankan Airlines had been, saying, “they’ve advanced surfing in Sri Lanka by five to 10 years”. They put in a great deal of effort to get these world-class surfers to come to the competition, even helping Andre with visa issues.
They also have a track record of donating surfboards to the locals, as well as offering lessons. Last year they donated a rescue tube which had been used to help save 300 lives from drowning. At the presentation following the finals, ASP Contest Director Dan Jordan was excited to announce that they would donate another two rescue tubes, as well as three brand new surfboards to the local surf club.
“The most important thing,” according to Derizans, “is to invest in the top and the bottom,” by which he means that it’s not necessarily enough for big organisations to come through for a few days a year and donate some of their equipment.
Surfboards are expensive to make and that price goes up even more for hopeful Sri Lankan surfers who have to purchase them from overseas. Big world-class events are great for implanting a desire to surf in Sri Lankans, and to give the waves their deserved exposure, but without their own board shops and a present year-long culture, the dream might seem to some to be too effervescent.
Surfing culture and attitude
Depending on who you ask, surfing can be a sport, a lifestyle, a religion, entertainment, meditation, an art form expressing profound inner truth, or an invasion of liberal western values on the youth — so it might be best to see what the ASP judges are looking for from their surfers in the event.
That would be a combination of traditional and modern manoeuvres, degree of difficulty, variety, and commitment — the judges want to see that the surfers are enjoying themselves, how many other sports look for the same in their participants?
That one’s sense of enjoyment is a criterion that the judges use for their score-giving reveals a great deal about surfing culture and attitude. Professional-level surfers are competitive, but also completely cordial and friendly.
For example, the final heat in the women’s event between the two Californians Lakey Peterson and Courtney Conlogue was between two friends who have been competing against each other for years. “I’m happy with the event. I would have loved to have won, but Courtney surfed great and second is a good result for me.”
Even other surfers who had failed to advance in earlier rounds could be heard clapping and cheering for their fellow riders.
More than a good time
However, there’s more to surfing culture than friendliness and having a good time. “Utilise the ocean, but take care of it,” said Men’s Longboard champion Duane Dusoto delivering his victory address “the ocean will provide sustenance, just like in Hawaii”. Aside from a message of environmental friendliness which surfers universally share (their sport does depend on it, after all), perhaps Duane’s remarks gets to the heart of what surfing culture represents. Surfing involves a specific connection to geography as well as a lifestyle and attitude. The best surfboards in the world won’t make a difference to a rider who can’t differentiate between which waves are worthwhile and which will collapse on themselves after a short distance. Whether regarding familiarity with the water, a sense of community, or equipment, location is key.
Striving for self-sufficiency
What Sri Lankan surfing is striving for, more than anything, is self-sufficiency — not having to rely on buying boards overseas and getting lessons from the professionals who happen to around. The Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka (SFSL) is making great strides towards that goal.
According to Overseas Funding manager and Principal Director Tim Tanton, 10 boys just completed the first stage of ISA surf instructor training. Also, Asanka, Sri Lanka’s #1 ranked surfer, has had one-on-one coaching sessions with Adrian Sorati, considered one of the best coaches in Australia.
Asanka officially acquired that #1 status in July by winning the Arugam Bay Surf Classic — an event exclusively for Sri Lankan surfers. It was the first-ever surfing event of its kind in Sri Lanka, and hopes to increase in stature and popularity for next year’s event. The event was sponsored by Arugam Bay Beachwear, a young company founded in 2009.
Regarding Derizan’s idea that development must apply to both the “top” and the “bottom”: if the ASP World Tour and SriLankan Airlines are working at the top level, then the bottom would be the SFSL, the Arugam Bay Surf Club, and Arugam Bay Beachwear — the ever-growing local institutions.
Arugam Bay Beachwear, famous for its use of bright colours, is expanding its market as well as its line of products — the proceeds of which go to the Arugam Bay Foundation, which focuses on youth empowerment and employment, keeping the beaches clean and marine conservation projects that cover a much larger swath of coast than just Arugam. More than anything, these local institutions are laying the groundwork for the future of Sri Lankan surfing.
Increasingly, that future seems more likely to bloom out from the inside than be pieced together by outside donations. When the professional surfers look at Arugam Bay and are reminded of their home shores, it’s about more than merely the water. They also see a culture with a friendly, welcoming attitude with a deep reverence for nature, and, of course, a passion for riding the waves.