The New Local Motion – Weligama’s Unknown Pioneers
I land in Sri Lanka with an Australian 9’4 and a Hawaiian 6’4 in search for what I call the Ceylon “waves for days” swell. I have been in Weligama for six months and have never seen the ocean not deliver. Small or large, rain or shine, there are waves to ride. Over the days, as I paddle out in the sandy bay, my eye becomes familiarised with a few individuals that show remarkable command in the water. It is not purely their surfing skills; it’s the confident presence they exude that captures my eye. In a nation that favours ground sports and the ocean has remained the realm of fishermen, I wonder how this rather young post-tsunami surf tribe generated. Unlike Hawaii and Polynesia, surfing in Lanka was not an integral part of the local culture, and the sport was gradually introduced over the last decade by foreign surfers looking for empty rides. But, with the recent affluence of surf seekers, the village has been transforming its simple, water-beaten village structures to accommodate tourism: a myriad of guesthouses and rooms are being built in a somewhat chaotic rhythm of hurried cement block constructions, with residents seizing the opportunity for growth. The landscape of this popular beach break has completely changed over the last few years. Once peacefully lined with colourful hand-carved fishing vessels that fuelled the local economy, the bay is now the hub of a booming surf-related industry.
These are not pro-surfers nor world class icons, so why shine the spotlight on them? As I see it, Weligama surfers, who earn their living in jobs related to the sport, are the link aiding the village’s growth into the next decade. As I set out to get to know some of them, I think of how the ocean can deeply impact our lives, yet remain all too thankful for the common element that bonds us surfers.
“Surfing is my life. I am not afraid of the ocean or whether another tsunami occurs. I feel a little fear when I wipe out. But I enjoy the freedom being a surf instructor brings me, however, I must admit that I am not too keen to teach all day. I’d rather be surfing — not necessarily competing; and have a chilled, happy life. I like to keep it simple – sometimes, competitive surfing can turn you into a bighead. That is not for me. Travelling to Indonesia and Australia is.”
Tharindu, one of my favourite surfers in Weligama, is like a bullet: he is either in total motion or dead still. A popular instructor at Ama Surfcamp, I come to meet him there for a chat. He brushes the red beach chair in two swipes, and sits next to me. His bright eyes peek from behind a few sun-dyed locks that cover his face, and tells me of that day when the hellish wave changed all he had known and held dear into memories claimed by the ocean.
“I was 5 years old — my mom was in the bathroom and I was on my bed, sleeping. My cousin came in the room and rushed me on to the roof. I saw the waves come in, and there was water all around me.”
Despite this, Tharindu began surfing about five years ago when he took to the Indian Ocean with a salvaged wooden plank. I seldom see him let a wave go by, and he shows a playful passion on every one he rides. On smaller days I think to myself, if he catches these with a Rockwell 5’6, I certainly can in mine. I ask him for tips to improve my surfing, but a few days go by without a response. On a quiet morning, out of the blue, I hear, “You paddle like a turtle.” Tharindu had been observing; and point blank, the comparison hit me in the heart. Effective, I must say. I now catch a lot more waves.
VISION AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
NUWAN LASANTHA WIJEWICKRAMA, 33
“I saw guys coming to surf on my bay, and I felt like trying it. I was using a piece of wood to paddle out until someone eventually left me their board.”
Nuwan was 15 when he took to the water. With a classic style, today, he rides a vintage single fin Town & Country, which reminds me of the Great Kahoona in the 1959 surf movie Gidget. He is only out on the big days though, so one has to be lucky to witness his poised prowess.
One of the bay’s surf forefathers and first surfcamp entrepreneurs, son of a fisherman and brother of three, he spotted the commercial need to supply an up and coming market demand and started repairing fins and boards in 2006. With earnings from this, he founded My Surf Camp in 2011, inspired by a German who was giving lessons on the beach. A man with a vision, and a charming gap between his front teeth (a sign of luck and prosperity), he smiles while telling me of his startup struggles.
“I was at the beach with my young cousin that day; we ran for cover and found my mother clinging from a tree canopy several hours after; nothing we owned was saved. We had nothing — we wore the same clothes for about a year, and had to rebuild everything.”
His camp offers guided tours, lessons, board repairs and accommodation. Nuwan is also responsible for beach cleanup movements, supporting environment conservation initiatives, and is an avid participant in the surf event scene where he sponsors aspiring athletes in the competitive level. Rookie Sachin was one of them when Nuwan signed him up for his first competition at the age of 14.
“The tsunami? I was too little, but I remember my mom and I clinging from a tree. I get upset when I miss a wave. I want to become a world champion and own the Sri Lankan title. Nuwan sent me off to my first surf competition at Rams. That was crazy. I paddled out and didn’t know what I was doing, the waves were huge, the bottom was a reef, and I felt real fear. He also gave me my first surfboard.”
When I watch him in the water, there is a regal calmness about him, like Neptune, or some other ocean god. Patiently waiting for his catch, he rests his hands crossed on his lap and focuses on the incoming sets. In the blink of an eye, he snaps out of that calmness, unleashes the god and turns into a wild storm on the wave. Fascinating.
Sachin sits and faces me directly, sipping a citrus juice after carefully putting his lunch away. I am very intrigued by him, but language is a barrier here. Struggling to find the words, he takes a breath and deposits the empty glass on the chair behind him. “The sea”, as he replies, is not the only thing he is thankful for. The lack of English words doesn’t stop me from seeing the appreciation he holds for the world around him: the way he respectfully faces me, his willingness to participate, how he handled the photo session, his demeanour and the manner in which he lovingly carries his brandless 5’3 around speak volumes. One does not need a large vocabulary to carry oneself with dignity.
Still one of the youngest competitors in Sri Lanka, Sachin recently placed in the quarterfinals at Sion and SFS (Surf Federation of Sri Lanka – a national event that will send the first surf patriots to represent the country at the 2020 Olympics in Japan). So we can expect to see a lot more of him in the years to come.
“I don’t remember the tsunami. It was a long time ago — but it’s fine now, no? I like surfing best. I started off with a wooden plank and Nuwan mentored me. My goal is to keep improving and to have a surfing career, become pro and surf at a competitive level. The ocean is my love – I am free there.” If you are out in the water and see a quick slither trimming, cross-stepping, hanging ten, in aerial and ripping rad with a wide impeccable smile, it’s Kavi. There is nothing this kid can’t do on any board type. The first time I met him, unfortunately, I snaked his wave. Kavi looked at me, took a breath and softly said, “That was my wave.” He didn’t shout or pout, but his tone did the job. That day, I learned to never snake anyone again.
It is this precise attitude that helps Kavishka get ahead in the competitive world. There is a lighthearted approach in his style — it stands out from the crowd, beside his unmistakable hair. He reminds us that, even in competition, the goal of the sport we practice is to enjoy the art form above all, and remain truthful to the reason we commit to it: our love and passion for surfing. He placed in the quarter finals at the SFS shortboard competition in Hikkaduwa, and won 2nd place at the Sion Camp Ahangama event with one of the most jovial and inspiring longboard sessions I have seen.
There is a fundamental difference between a surfer and one who visits the activity occasionally. In essence, a surfer is largely defined by his/her interaction with the water. The sea is an extension of the person. And while there is no doubt that the 2004 natural disaster left many scars, these Sri Lankan surfers exemplify the internal commitment required to surmount life’s discrepancies.
Last year, local government officials tore down all camps and forbid permanent structures on the beach, thus hindering their work and income. But, they rebuilt and continued with their jobs. There are far more lessons here than those taught in the water.
A resilient bunch, I see them as pioneers of the Weligama era. As the sandy bay replaces fishing boats with surfboards, we must acknowledge them as the influencers of this new economy that keeps connecting us to the ocean. And while I make my way into the localism, I go home with a newly bestowed nickname that I will carry on with pride. So, this is not a mere anecdote; we ought to give them credit for the positive effect they inspire in us. It is time Sri Lanka took notice. So here’s to you, Ceylon Surfer! Yours truly, Barrel Akka