On the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, a small band of surfers struggles to keep the sport afloat

Krisantha Ariyasena, chairman of the Arugam Bay Surf Club, with a friend at his guest house at Arugam Bay; Surf boards wait in his guest house for another day. DAYNA EVANS FOR THE CARAVAN
01 June, 2012

BY THE LOOK OF HIS MUSSED-UP HAIR, 24-year-old Krishantha Ariyasena, wearing a canary yellow T-shirt emblazoned with a green Hurley logo and multicoloured boardshorts, had just stepped out of the ocean by Arugam Bay. To either side stretched miles of uninhabited sand dotted with overhanging palm trees and lined by cerulean, clear waters. The popular surfing destination on the far southeast coast of Sri Lanka appeared to be more like a quiet beach town—more locals than tourists, more crab curry than burgers.

“The reason for tourists to come to Arugam Bay is that it’s all about surfing,” said Ariyasena, who was born and raised in the town and started surfing when he was 15. But in December 2004, when the tsunami that followed the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake decimated a large portion of Sri Lanka’s coastline, Arugam Bay was ravaged beyond recognition. When the giant wave hit, Ariyasena was in the water. “I can’t believe I’m still alive,” he said, shaking his head. “The wave was 12 feet, 15 feet. The water, it came up to here,” he pointed to above the roof of his guesthouse. “The tsunami changed people.”

Ariyasena is the once secretary and now chairman of the Arugam Bay Surf Club, an association of about 35 Sri Lankan surfers working to improve their skills, while offering surf lessons, participating in beach clean-ups, and, most importantly, trying to get sponsored (surfing is not yet recognised as an official sport in Sri Lanka). After the tsunami, they’ve also helped spread the word that the waters are safe to enter.

Like countless other locals, Ariyasena lost family members to the tsunami and is still trying to pick up the pieces left after the destruction. His family’s guesthouse near the main surfing point was washed away. It has taken years to rebuild.

Before the disaster, Arugam Bay was a tourist haven for avid surfers, mostly from the UK and Australia—“pinks”, as the locals call them. But tourism all but came to a grinding halt when the big wave hit. And since then, there has been slow progress in attracting surfers and even families to the town.

Yet it wasn’t just the tsunami that kept people away. For years, as Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war raged on, the road that led directly from Colombo to Arugam Bay was gravely potholed and lined with checkpoints. It has finally been paved. “People in Colombo were saying, ‘Don’t go to the East Coast,’ since the East Coast is primarily a Tamil area. But we don’t have any fires, any operations. We see soldiers carrying guns, but that’s normal,” Ariyasena, a Sinhala, said. “In my life, I’ve never seen anyone die in front of me.”

Despite the tsunami’s damage and the war’s hindrance, Ariyasena bemoaned most of all the need for additional monetary support for the club. The money that club members make individually from teaching surf lessons supplements their families’ incomes. But it’s not enough to turn surfing into a career. For many of them, fishing remains their day job.

Unlike the tourist-driven sport of cricket, surfing gets little attention from the Sri Lankan government. “We have very good contacts in Australia and England, but we need support from the government,” Ariyasena said. “If the government could support board-shapers to come here to teach us how to shape boards, we wouldn’t have to pay a lot of taxes [to ship in surfboards from overseas].” He is sure things can change with a little support from the authorities: “If fishing boats can be built in Sri Lanka, why can’t surfboards?”