Rusty Miller in 1968
Jan Vandendriesen, Jan Prins and Anil Amarasekara made up part of the
"surf gang" in Pinwatta beach near Panadura, circa1968
The Early Years
Due to Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, the development of surf culture on the island was greatly restricted for many years. Only after the war ended in 2009 has there been any real possibility for extended exploration of the island and the waves that form along its coasts. The history of surfing in Sri Lanka, however, dates back much further than that, with records of surfers having visited the island as early as the mid-1960s.
In 1964, Rusty Miller visited Sri Lanka for the first time while on a cruise around the world. Disembarking in Colombo, Rusty, along with his friend Patrick Goddard, met with renowned diver Mike Wilson (known later as Swami Siva Kalki) who volunteered to help arrange a surf trip along the west coast of the island then called Ceylon. They would make their way down to Kalutara and surf a left-handed wave that broke hollow and shallow along the reef, 20 yards to the south of Kalutara lagoon. Rusty would later go on to say that the experience was “too good to be real, with the green jungle growing close to the sparkling white sandy beach and the aquamarine water next to the blue, cloudless sky”
In 1968, a handful of locals from in and around Colombo found a little wave peeling off the Pinwatta beach near Panadura, just 30km south of Sri Lanka’s capital city. This pioneering group was mentored by Mike Wilson who was keen to encourage the locals to surf. Mayura Botejue, Jan Prins, Anil Amarasekera, Asita Tennekoon and Wendell Flamer Caldera were a few of the ‘surf gang’ that religiously followed Mike on his surf escapades in those early days. A pivotal moment for Sri Lankan surf culture came one evening when the gang were shown Bud Brown's 1964 surf film, ‘Locked In’. “From then on we were well and truly locked into the thrill of surf”, recalls Mayura. The surf gang would pile into Mike’s packed VW Kombi with four leash-less 10-12ft single fin elephant guns and head down to the beaches of Moratuwa, Unawatuna, Galle or Ahangama. The locals watching from the beach would call them ‘Kalu suddas’ (black foreigners) for performing daredevil acts on ‘planks of wood’ in turbulent waters. Often, the gang would borrow Mike’s quiver and traverse the South coast in search of waves and visiting ‘hippies’ also on the hunt for some good surf who could provide access to boards.
The 1970s & 80s
In the mid-1970s the hippie trail began to extend beyond Goa to the beaches of Hikkaduwa and Arugambay. Embracing the laid back "beach and surf" lifestyle, a small group of Australian surfers - predominantly from the East coast surf communities - found their way to Sri Lanka while seeking alternatives to the more frequented surf haven of Bali. Bruce Weller and Dave Fisher arrived in Hikkaduwa in 1973 and soon married two sisters from the village. Their frequent trips back and forth created a buzz in the Aussie surf community and by the late 70s, a small but dedicated group of surfers made up primarily of Australians, but also including Italians and French, arrived to enjoy the untouched offerings of the island.
“In those days travelling to Arugambay was wild”, Mark Faeila recalls, “travelling by CTB (the local bus service) could take up to three days because of frequent breakdowns and irregular services. Roads were more or less deserted because of the fuel rationing in 1977 and vehicles were only allowed to drive on alternative days as per their number plate”. Another option was the night train to Batticaloa, though it transitioned into a (all day) bus commute south to Pottuvil in the morning.
In 1983, after many successive trips, Mark bought a green Peugeot 203 to help with the commute. The trip from Colombo to Arugambay (360km) now took two days with an overnight stay at the circuit bungalow in Hambantota. Colombo to Hikkaduwa (115km) was a five-hour trip. According to Mark, the pay off for these arduous journeys were always worth it.
Back in the 70s, Arugam Bay was a little fishing village, with coconut trees and the odd cadjan hut dotted along the shorefront. “No hotels or guesthouses existed, only the government circuit bungalow and homestays of thatched huts and sandy floors.” There was no electricity or running water. Nothing was built above the tree line, and the sails of wooden fishing boats dotted the beach. “Five Rupees is what it would cost for your bed and dinner”, Mark exclaims. “There were very basic tea shops, no bakery. Just roti, fruit and tea during the day. Rice and curry at night. No cold drinks - Plenty of coconuts!”
Around this time, half a dozen local surfers from the East coast - Nagas, Upali and Jaya to name a few - started learning the ways of the water by borrowing surfboards from travellers. Boards were prized possessions at the time, only a lucky few were able to obtain one left behind by travellers when they returned to their homes. These local surfers would accompany their foreign friends by boat to Okanda, bicycle to Pottuvil point or by foot to Elephant Rock for overnight surf campouts.
With Sri Lanka's reputation as a prime surf destination growing steadily, the island would likely have attracted many more surfers to its shores in the following decades if not for the onset of civil war in 1983. Even the ongoing unrest did not stop a few diehards - hailing from surf communities in Japan, Israel and countries in Europe - from visiting the island. During ceasefire periods, surfers would swoop in to take advantage of the waves, fleeing the country as soon as the threat of war was imminent.
Mid-day cooldown at Upali's, 1978
"Hippies" in Sri Lanka, circa 1978
The only wheels in town with a stack of slide sticks. Peugeot 203, 1984
No transport, walking back from Elephant Rock,1984
Lakshita Madushan, Lesitha Prabath and Praneeth Sandaruwan representing Sri Lanka at the World Surf Games - Miyazaki Japan, 2019
Officials and judges paying close attention to the final heat at the third National Surf Contest - Arugambay, 2018
1st Lesitha Prabath, 2nd Praneeth Sandaruwan, 3rd Asanka Waduga and 4th Nadeen Sampath, at the third National Surf Contest - Arugambay, 2018
Contemporary Surf Culture
Sri Lanka's first known surf competition was held in 1993 at Hikkaduwa's main surf break. Organised by Channa Nawarathna, the event was supported by a group of Americans visiting the island who were keen to document some of the local surf talents on video. First place went to Mambo, a young and talented local surfer who, together with his Japanese friend Haru Fukushima, would go on to open the iconic A-Frame beach bar and surf shop at the turn of the millenium. Mambo is now the Vice President and Event Director of the Surf Federation of Sri Lanka (SFSL).
Arugam Bay and Hikkaduwa were the first two surf destinations to receive consistent visitation after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. During the course of the following years, these areas saw increased interest and participation from the local community. An important turning point for the local surf scene came in 2011 when the first major World Surf League, Qualifying Series event was held in Arugam Bay. Sri Lanka was on the world stage, and the locals were exposed for the first time to the potential of surfing as an international sport. The subsequent years saw a spike in visitation and a period of development and investment in surf related business opportunities, which continues to this day.
In 2017 the Surf Federation of Sri Lanka (SFSL) was created, encouraging the formation of various national surf clubs. Soon after, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the inclusion of surfing at the 2019 Olympics, sparking hopes of higher achievements amongst young surfers from the across the island. The first National Surf Contest was held in 2018 with competitions taking place annually ever since. At around this time, Sri Lanka's burgeoning surf culture went international with visits to both India and the Maldives for contests. Later in the year, the island's top three surfers travelled to Japan to participate in the World Surf Games (WSG), competing for the first time on the world stage alongside the world's best, including the Championship Tour elite.
Sri Lankan surf culture has come a long way since the days of Swami Siva Kalki and the Pinwatta surf gang. Today, surf shops and schools as well as a slew of surf-orientated guest houses, camps and retreats dot the island's coastline. Boards and accessories from major international brands are imported allowing local surfers access to all the latest hardware. Despite its stunted growth, the future of surfing in Sri Lanka seems promising.
Women in Surf
With a largely conservative and patriarchal society, contemporary Sri Lanka is an imperfect environment for the development of women's surfing. Due to a regressive perception of the role of women in society, many families see women as best suited for more 'traditional' female roles - such as motherhood and household duties.
When Shamali Sanjaya began to surf in 2011, she was the only local woman in the lineup and her newfound hobby was met with plenty of pushback. Sneaking out of the house under the cover of darkness to avoid being seen by members of the community was the only way to catch some waves.
In 2015, Tiffany Carothers along with visiting surfers organised a women's surf event, which caused resentment from the local community. It took some time for things to start changing, but momentum has been gained over the years and the idea of Sri Lankan women taking to the ocean has become slightly more palatable to the locals.
In 2018, the first female surf club was formed in Arugam Bay. Young women across the island were encouraged to take part in an attempt to normalize surfing amongst women. In September 2020, Sunara Jayamanne made history by being among one of the first three Sri Lankan woman to take part in a surf competition organized by the Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka, going on to win third place in the open event.
Members of Sri Lanka's first female surf club, 2018. Photo by Maxwell Gifted
Sunara Jayamanne expresses herself on a wave in Arugam Bay during the semi-final heat of the 2020 women's competition. Photo by Amanda Prifti
Franco drops into one of his favourite setups - Peanut Farm, Arugam Bay.
The East coast season begins in the months leading up to May and lasts till the end of October. It is marked by the end of the northeast monsoon at the beginning of the year. In this six month period, as the ocean ebbs and flows to its rhythm, the swell from the south and south-east starts shifting sand, beginning the process of reshaping headlands and sand bars for some dreamy setups. The waves on the east coast improve as the season progresses and more sand fills in, resulting in prime surf during August and September. Winds come up around midday and blow heavily onshore before disappearing in the early hours of the evening.
The South (West) coast season starts as the south-west monsoons come to an end, typically from the month of October till March. Heavy onshore winds no longer accompany the long period southwestern ground swells that push in deep from the Indian Ocean. This coastline of potential surf setups is far larger than that of the east coast, with numerous bays, reefs, slabs, beach breaks, point breaks and novelty waves on offer. Despite the midday winds, many of these setups are protected, and all it takes is a quick Tuk Tuk ride along the coast to find another suitable wave.