Riding a wave of social surfing

Riding a wave of social surfing

At Mamallapuram on a Saturday morning, young fishermen in board shorts are lugging surfboards down the beach, weaving their way through piles of nets, beached boats and tourists gingerly dipping their ankles in water. They plop the boards into the water, start paddling, and stand to ride the waves. About a decade ago, fishermen in lungis hung out on the beach after bringing in the day’s catch, mending nets or smoking. Now, the younger generation spends its free time surfing.
Foreigners have been surfing in India for years, mainly in Goa, Puducherry and Karnataka and Kerala, and many schools offer package holidays for tourists. Over the last 10 years, surfing schools have risen on the coast of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but the difference is these schools are run by the local fisherfolk who learnt to surf from tourists. In their hands, surfing – a new way to work with the familiar sea – is a means to bring about social change, improve the local economy, and keep children in school and off drugs.
Leading this wave is Murthy Megavan, 36, a fisherman and co-founder of Covelong Point Social Surf School in Kovalam, about 36km south of Chennai. “I borrowed a board for the first time from Surfing Swami Jack Hebner (an American who moved to India in the 1970s and runs a surf retreat in Mangaluru) here in 2001. Those 20 minutes changed my life.”
Murthy used a broken door as a surfboard for a while, and then managed to buy one off a tourist. In 2007, Israeli expat Yotam Agam came by. “I used to make friends with all the surfers to get tips on how to improve,” says Murthy. A year later, Yotam gave Murthy a surfboard. When he returned after six months, he was both surprised and moved to see teens in the village surfing. Yotam introduced Murthy to TT Group CMD Arun Vasu, who helped them open the surf school in 2012.
Today, 15 boys from Kovalam are national surfing champions, the village has about 40 surfers, and Kovalam has caught the attention of former South African cricketer and avid surfer Jonty Rhodes. Fees paid by wealthy patrons to learn to surf finances not only surfing classes for fishing children but also the education of 30 children in Kovalam. Murthy has just one condition – no school, no surfing. It’s a model that’s caught on along the coast and a number of surf schools insist that the kids will get boards only if they attend school, stay off drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and help keep the beach clean. “And it works because surfing is addictive,” says Vasu.
About 20km away at Mamallapuram, where former fisherman Mukesh Panjanathan runs Mumu Surf School, the rules for the fishing community’s children are the same. Further down the coast, in Auroville, Shankar has just started Mother Ocean Surf School in a 10x30ft shack he built himself. “I’m saving to get boards so I can train the local children the way Murthy is doing,” says Shankar, who has done two stints as a surfing teacher in Bali. “I would have been doing construction work or driving a cab or something if I hadn’t learnt this. Surfing opened up the world for me.”
On the western coast, on Lighthouse Beach in Kerala’s Kovalam, surfer and former fisherman Shahul, 27, is just back from a nearby village where he’s been convincing parents to send their children to school and to surf. He runs Kovalam Surf Club, set up in 2005, with Belgian surfer Jelle Rigole and two former fishermen Varghees and Mani. Fees from students cover the cost of teaching 40 fishing children to surf. “My dream was to be a teacher but I was too poor to study further so went fishing,” says Shahul, who learnt to surf 10 years ago. “I am a surfing teacher now and try to get kids to stay in school using that.”
They get about 20 paying customers a day but there are days when no one turns up. “There are ups and downs. We have sponsors from Belgium who help. Every year, we take one child to the Andamans to surf. They go on a flight and see a new place. It’s good, it makes them dream,” says Shahul, who has international instructor certification.
For fisherfolk, balancing on boards comes easily from the hours spent on boats, and they’re physically strong yet lithe from casting and hauling nets. “Fishermen aren’t afraid of the sea yet they respect it,” says Dave Hearn, 38, an Australian surfer who moved to Mamallapuram eight years ago and has been helping Mumu Surf School.
As trawlers edge artisanal fishermen out, people like Hearn and Vasu are hoping surfing will provide an alternative source of income. “Surfing, surf schools, board making, surf tourism – all these can augment income from fishing,” says Hearn. “Surfers love the sea, so do fishermen. In a way, it’s why we take to one another so easily.”
The Surfing Federation of India, founded in 2011, is doing its bit by running training and certification programmes for instructors, liaising with International Surfing Association, and organizing competitions. “We want parents to see that children can learn surfing safely, that it can teach discipline and create alternative life paths,” says Kishore Kumar, SFI president.
By the time the 2020 Olympics rolls around, surfers from India might just be able to make it to international waters. Surfing is one of five sports proposed for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Games. The final decision will be made in August 2016. Another reason why Kishore says with confidence: “We aim to have a national team eventually, maybe even an international one. The talent is there. It is just a matter of time.”

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