Exploring the Surf in Sri Lanka

 Surfing at Arugam Bay, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Credit: Alex Frew McMillan

Surfing at Arugam Bay, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Credit: Alex Frew McMillan

ARUGAM BAY, Sri Lanka (The New York Times) — I blame Bethany Hamilton. Repeat viewings of “Soul Surfer,” the 2011 movie about the young surfer in Hawaii who lost an arm to a tiger shark only to return to competition, have left my two young children fearless in the ocean and enthralled with the sport.

So, with air miles to spare and vacation time to burn, my wife, two offspring and I made for Sri Lanka.

Best known for its tea and tradition, the island once called Ceylon has quietly become a destination on the Asian surfing scene alongside the better-known breaks of Bali and the Maldives — although its surf spots are definitely grittier and lower key.

On the country’s east coast, generally avoided for a quarter century during the brutal, 26-year civil war, the surf scene has not moved far beyond the time, decades ago, when the first Western surfers wandered off the beach in search of fresh water and some plumbing.

The country confounded our expectations from the beginning.

The A.T.M. machine greeted us out loud and, for some reason, with a light Scottish burr: “Please input your secret code” and then, “What would you like to do?”

What we wanted to do, after stocking up on rupees, was head quickly away from the southwest monsoon that sweeps the west coast of Sri Lanka in summer. Our destination was Arugam Bay. The east coast village, entirely dry in summer months, is the country’s surfing capital from April to October. Once the seasonal waves vanish, it reverts to its historic role as a tuna-fishing port.

Jordan Griffin, a sometime member of the New Zealand surf team and a barista, comes to Sri Lanka when his visa in Bali runs out. He calls Arugam Bay “one of the best spots in the world, maybe not for high-performance surfing but for long boards.”

The long rides, the relative lack of surfers and the sense of uncovering a new frontier make it worth the trip, he added.

“If I wanted strong waves, I would go to Western Australia. But that’s not really my gig,” he said. “This is Bali 20 years ago. It is a pretty special place to surf.”

As complete newbies to surfing, mellow sounded good. We decided to spend a week in “A-Bay” at the end of July, and another in the south coast town of Weligama. Its sheltered, mile-wide bay also offers excellent conditions for beginners and, although the area catches some of the west’s wet weather, it can be surfed year-round.

For a relatively small island of 25,330 square miles, not quite the size of Ireland, Sri Lanka has a remarkably diverse climate. We landed in Colombo, the lush, tropical capital.

A 230-mile drive that took seven hours — on these roads, the largest vehicles have the right of way — took us right across the island to Arugam Bay. With its acacia trees and lion-gold grass, the bay area looks more like the South African bushveld than a tropical island. Peacocks wander the parched rice paddies just outside of town, and the sea breeze, once inland, blows hot and dry.

 Krishantha Ariyasena teaching Max, 6, and Verity, 9, some theories of surfing while still on the beach at Arugam Bay. Credit: Alex Frew McMillan

Krishantha Ariyasena teaching Max, 6, and Verity, 9, some theories of surfing while still on the beach at Arugam Bay. Credit: Alex Frew McMillan

Arugam Bay is a one-road village lined with roti restaurants touting the national dish, rice and curry — a spread of dal, popadums and meat and vegetable curries that belies the generic name. It also is home to some two dozen shop fronts, really little more than concrete shells, where you can buy T-shirts or rent surfboards for about 500 rupees, or about $3.50, an hour.

About 2,500 rupees will get you an hour with a personal instructor who works on technique — and gives your board an extra push when he shouts “Get up!” Another 1,000 rupees will pay for a tuk tuk driver, who will wait for you during your lesson.

We sought out Krishantha Ariyasena, chairman of the Arugam Bay Surf Club, a loose-knit group of instructors who try to coordinate a business that, in practice, is run by the seat of its board shorts.

Mr. Ariyasena, known to everyone as Krish, is one of three Sri Lankans who has qualified as an instructor through the International Surfing Association. We took about 10 lessons — dividing our time among Krish, other club instructors including Chanu Anjana, and teachers from the Amigo Surf School, overseen by Johnson Ratnasingam — before attempting to catch our first solo waves.

First, there was a brief tour around the board — “rails” for sides, “fins” on the underside — and some beach practice. The main technique is the “chicken leg” maneuver: As the wave nears you, lying on the board and with your head up, you bend your weaker leg until its heel touches your other knee. Then, as the wave picks up speed, you jump up onto both feet with your stronger leg (or, as the instructors explain, your right leg if you are “regular” and your left if you are “goofy”) to the back of the board. That learned, we hit the water.

At this point in the story, you probably expect me to say that my children, who are in primary school, picked up surfing far faster than I did. And that is exactly what happened.

A beginner’s soft-top surf board, which is 8-feet, 8-inches long, is like a raft to a young child, so Verity, 9, and Max, 6, were standing up and riding waves almost immediately.

On the other hand, I am a 44-year-old who weighs in at 185 pounds on a good day. My knees were scraped raw as I struggled just to get my balance on the board. But, by the end of my first lesson, I was able to spend at least a few seconds on my feet before falling back into the waves.

Besides beginners, who can learn while surfing waves that break easily on the beach itself, Sri Lanka draws long boarders and surfers who hang five, take waves while doing handstands and enjoy very long rides. The biggest and best surf spot, the Point, is within walking distance of Arugam’s village; other sites are just short drives. Anusanth “Babu” Anthrasa, an Amigo Surf School instructor, said his longest ride at the Point was 70 seconds, “riding up to the lip and turning all the way along.”

Locals say Pottuvil Point, a 15-minute tuk tuk ride from Arugam Bay, is the longest surf break in the country, more than 1,000 feet on a good day and about a minute-long ride. “But your legs would be jelly” from the exertion, Mr. Anthrasa added.

Mithun Madushanka, a surf trainer in training, surveys the waves with his longboard

Mithun Madushanka, a surf trainer in training, surveys the waves with his longboard – Credit: Alex Frew McMillan

A-Bay, where you can count the two-story buildings on one hand, has not been spared development by choice. The country’s lengthy civil war cut access to the east and north of the country, home to the Tamil Tiger rebels. Even locals struggled to make what was then at least an 11-hour trip from Colombo.

Sharon Atapattu Tissera, who runs the Hideaway resort in her former vacation home, said the place was abandoned for much of the time between the onset of hostilities in 1983 and the end of the war in 2009. “There used to be 25 to 30 checkpoints to come here,” Ms. Tissera said. “We had to dodge parts of the road that were blown up by landmines.”

Perhaps one of the most important events that led to the end of the conflict was the 2004 tsunami that swept the eastern shores of Sri Lanka on Dec. 26, killing 375 people in Arugam Bay alone. “Whole families got decimated,” Ms. Tissera said. “They know adversity.”

The region is still recovering, but for now retains its small-town charm, with wild elephants occasionally coming to drink at the lagoon, and langur monkeys and macaques roaming in the forests.

“The best thing about this place is it’s so wild and raw and undeveloped,” Ms. Tissera said. “Even if it’s a bit selfish, I feel really, really grateful.”

Jake Mackenzie, a Hong Kong native who runs Drifter Surf Shop in Bali, has brought his family to Arugam Bay for a vacation four of the last five years. Mr. Mackenzie rents his own tuk and takes off at 4 a.m. for Okanda, a spot with a tubing surf break near the entrance to Kumana National Park — literally the end of the road.

Okanda “is very raw, there’s nothing there, no shade,” Mr. Mackenzie said, but he noted that the tube is perfect for more-experienced young surfers. “To be honest, I’m spoiled when it comes to waves, living in Indonesia. If I want to crank it, I do it there. But I come here because it’s great for the kids, and because of the people.”

Given its trading past, eastern Sri Lanka has evolved into a blend of populations. En route to one surf lesson, our tuk tuk contained a Christian Tamil surf coach, his Buddhist assistant and this foreigner, all being driven by a Muslim.

Still, it was Australians who first discovered the waves in Sri Lanka and started to surf there regularly. Jaya Dissa, a tuk tuk driver, recalls his amazement when he saw his first “white guys,” back in 1971. As a 10-year-old, he tagged along wherever they went.

The local boys used to bodysurf, and the fishermen knew all the breaks. But they hadn’t seen surfboards before.

“I used to give them coconuts, whatever I can find, and then ask to have a ride on their board,” Mr. Dissa, now 54, said. He became one of the best local surfers, but he left during the war, returning home only three years ago. “Now I don’t have the lungs or power for it.”

Surfing in Sri Lanka is surprisingly seasonal. The monsoons bring rain to one side of the island while the other is dry. The resulting tides shift the sand throughout the year, so what once was a surf break gets washed away, only for the sand bank to build back up the following season.

Most of the Arugam Bay surf instructors teach for only half the year. The rest of the time they revert to catching tuna. They may make more money fishing with their fathers, but to a man (and in a culturally conservative country, the surf coaches still are all men) they say they vastly prefer teaching newbies.

“I’m making friends, that’s what I love about surfing,” Mr. Anthrasa, the Amigo instructor, said. “I love my job, and I’m having the most fun ever.”

By the end of our trip we could, more or less, catch our own waves. Max decided he could dedicate his life to the sport. He wanted to put in a call to our relatives. “Let’s tell them we are going to stay and live here forever,” he said, “and then we can come and play on the beach every day.”

A version of this article appears on October 12, 2015, in The International New York Times.

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