How a small fishing village in Tamil Nadu became a surfing hotspot

Surfers ride the waves at Kovalam. In August 2011, the surfing school Bay of Life was opened here in collaboration with local youth. VIVEK RAJU
01 April, 2013

THE FIRST TIME VIGNESH V TRIED to catch a wave, he failed miserably. A 23-year-old from a fishing family in the village of Kovalam, around 30 kilometres south of Chennai, Vignesh recounted how, almost ten years ago, he, along with his friends  D Manikandan and P Venkatesh, and others in the village, were inspired to imitate some Australian tourists, who visited Kovalam regularly to surf the smooth, steady waves that broke on its beaches. “We wanted to try what they were doing,” he said. “So we took some old planks of wood and went to swim in the beach. We couldn’t stand up on them though.”

Noticing the boys’ attempts, the tourists gifted them a surfboard. “We started playing with it every day,” said Manikandan. “All we knew was that to surf with the boards, you have to stand on it first. We would take turns to try and surf, before school, after school, on holidays. If there were waves, we would go surfing.”

Over time, sharing the single surfboard, Manikandan, Vignesh, and a few other boys of Kovalam taught themselves how to stand up without slipping. Then, they learnt how to catch a wave. Gradually, they became better at timing waves and controlling their own direction, flow and speed. Videos on the internet became a prime source of information on surfing technique.

Over the years, as the surfer boys became a fixture on the beach, their enthusiasm came to the attention of Showkath Jamal and Madhumathi Ravi, software engineers who were involved in rehabilitation efforts in Kovalam following the tsunami of 2004. “The village was in a bad shape,” recounted Manikandan. “Showkath and Madhu were among those who helped in whatever way they could. They’ve given some families fishing nets, helped with boats, and education of a few children.” Jamal and Ravi found another way to be of assistance to the surfers—in August 2011, they recruited Manikandan, Vignesh and Venkatesh to launch Bay of Life, a surf school in Kovalam.

Jamal and Ravi built a website, and spread the word through social media, and soon, people began to stop by at Kovalam to learn surfing. Now, the school has over 100 regular students, including expatriates, tourists and working professionals from the city. “Showkath and Madhumathi bought us our first proper surfing boards,” said Vignesh. “We have a shack on the terrace and we live here now. They run the business end of the surf school and they encourage us to get better and participate in competitions.”

Working at Bay of Life gave the surfer boys the time and freedom to hone their skills. “Our families are fisher-folk,” said Manikandan. “Our fathers and uncles go to sea. If it wasn’t for surfing, we’d be going to fish too.” The boys work on their craft in the morning before conducting classes, and then continue practicing after their students have left for the day. During the January to March festival season, they also volunteer as lifeguards on the beach.

The Bay of Life surfers have showcased their skills and won prizes at surf festivals in Odisha in 2012 and 2013. “Our parents don’t know what the prizes mean,” said Manikandan. “When they see newspapers covering our achievements and they see us doing well, they feel happy. They used to scold us for playing in the water all the time. Now they are proud of what we do.”

Manikandan feels that surfing has changed the way he and his friends approach life, and made them calmer. “You are alone, surrounded by water and waves, and your mind just becomes serene,” he said. “You cannot take the rest of your life with you to the sea. You leave everything, your ego, your anger and all your pain behind when you go into the water. It makes you more open and happy.”