Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXII No. 20, February 1-15, 2023
Madras Musings chatted with founder Arun Vasu, who told us the story of Chennai’s first surfing school Surf Turf, the remarkable milestones it has reached and its aspirations for the future.
“It would have been great to have you come down and meet the team – and, of course, take a surfing lesson!” said Arun Vasu ruefully as I explained why we were chatting over the phone rather than at the beach. I felt the pinch of remorse myself; Arun’s enthusiasm about what he has built at Surf Turf over the years is infectious, and rightly so. Chennai has a rich sporting history and is well-known for its prodigies in chess, cricket, squash, tennis and carrom, but water sports lies in the realm of unchartered waters – a rather strange thing for a city that lies on one of the longest coastlines in the world. Arun’s Surf Turf has been quietly building a brand for both the city and state as a key destination on the global surfing map. Arun is ardent about watersports himself – he began windsurfing when he was thirteen, an experience that he says changed his life. He is also the current President of the Surfing Federation of India and his company, TT Group, is the primary sponsor for most of the surfing and stand-up paddling events in India.
“I started Surf Turf – formerly called Covelong Point – purely as a CSR project,” revealed Arun. “My family has been involved in many social causes over the years, but I wanted to do something that was close to my heart.” Surf Turf began with the aim to provide fishermen with an alternate livelihood to fishing. “We started with a handful of them – Murthy, Appu, Palani, Vicky, Venket, Sekar, Dharani. We rented a small place in the village and stayed with 10 boards. The response was amazing and in a few years, I invested in our own place and started Surf Turf, which today has the surf school, a restaurant and a few rooms,” reminisced Arun, adding that the Covelong Classic Surf, Music and Yogi festival that they began in 2013 to promote surfing has grown from an initial crowd of 1,500 to nearly 20,000 in 2022.
I wondered what sets our coastline apart as a surfing destination. “Kovalam and Mahabs are great surfing spots, but both are very different. It’s the rock reef that lies a kilometre outside that creates the sandbar which creates the waves,” explained Arun. “The best season is from May to October. Covelong, as we surfers call it, is a very quick wave known for its barrels. Mahabs is known for its consistency and long rides.” He added, with pride, “We have sent 20 surfers abroad to date for competitions.” Struck by the vistas of opportunity that have opened up for the local community, I asked about the public response to the school in the early days. “Initially, we had a lot of resistance from the village,” he admitted. “They saw a lot of city folk come out to surf and wanted us to pay. I had to meet 200 villagers and explain how they should look at the long-term benefits of creating a surf village.” It was when the surf festival grew bigger that attitudes started changing. Surf Turf allowed twenty stalls from the village during the surf fest, which netted the local community sizeable incomes. They even brought down trainers from overseas to teach local fishermen, training them to become instructors.
“To date, all proceeds from Surf Turf,” said Arun, “go back to the village as a CSR initiative.” The organization does more than just that, too – they clean the beach and sponsor education for some of the children in the village, too. “We have executed sewage projects for a few streets and run regular life-saving programs for the fishing community,” he added. “Today, from one surf school that we started, there are nine. Most of them worked with us and have moved on. That was the intention. I wanted to make Kovalam a surfing Mecca.”
Arun’s part in bringing the State’s skill in watersports to the global limelight is creditable. His initiative has discovered talented sportsmen from the fishing communities of Kovalam and Mahabalipuram: Sekar, I am told, is the undisputed stand-up paddle national champ for ten years and has participated in four world games in Fiji, Denmark, China and France, bagging the 18th world rank in 2018; fifteen other newly-minted sportsmen have attended surf competitions in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Bali, and Surf Turf itself has hosted two Asian-level competitions. “Presently, for the first time ever, an Indian surfing team has been selected and will be going to the surfing world games in El Salvador in May, which is sponsored by the TT Group,” said Arun. “We have a South African coach called Patrik Renaud, a former pro-surfer who is training the team in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. We are focusing on the kids and have two very promising boys we are working on.” When asked whether the government supports the development, he said, “The TN government has been very supportive since the last year and we are working on the Centre for more support – which we’re confident to get, as Surfing is an Olympic sport.”
It is clear that Arun’s remarkable passion for watersports is the driving force behind Surf Turf and its continuing success. “I truly believe that India can be a surfing nation with its vast, beautiful coastline. Surfing changes lives and we have proved that in Kovalam,” asserted Arun. His words have solid facts to back them – there are now over fifty surf schools in India and the number is still growing fast. The sport is seeing interest from more women and children, too, a demographic that Arun himself is keen to woo to the waters. Mahabalipuram, he revealed, may well host a world surfing event this very year. Arun’s final words in our little chat ring full of hope: “Madras has been the driving force for tennis, squash, cricket etc. I am proud that we can now add surfing to the list.”
I for one, am excited about the city’s future in watersports.