The marine-blue of the ocean shimmered with the roaring whites of waves. Far away, an ancient colossal vessel floated like a spot on this breathtaking landscape. There raced myriad surfboards in a sporting frenzy at Kovalam. The hands clutching those boards were not mature but young, the whiteness of their smiles palpable and their energy infectious. They are the young members of Kovalam Surf Club, brainchild of Jelle Rigole, an avid surfer hailing from Belgium. When the Spice Coast saw its first ever Surfing and stand up paddle (SUP) competition, this team of surfers displayed their skills on this alien device before the world.
When Jelle Rigole visited Kovalam to do an internship with SISP (Sebastian Indian Social Project) in early 2000s, these surfers were destitute children of Kovalam fishermen who were earning much below the poverty line. Not many wanted to study and those who did go to school dropped out sooner or later. SISP, which was working towards getting these children inside the school rather than leaving them abandoned on streets, was active in the area from the year 1996. However, their struggles were not finding the expected results. Jelle, who happened to witness these children’s pathetic conditions came up with the idea of a surf club with a slogan ‘No school - no surfing’.
“The children from the Thiruvananthapuram coastal areas were not keen on studies. Most of them dropped out before completing class 10 so SISP was started about 15 years ago by another Belgian man, with the intention of granting these children a better lifestyle by providing free education, financial support and even medicine. But that alone did not prompt these children to come to school. Hence, I have come up with this idea of a surf club. I started Kovalam Surf Club in 2008 and made it clear to the children that only those who make it to school on weekdays will be allowed to attend the surfing lessons on weekends,” says Jelle.
The companionship and familiarity this white man shares with his group of disciples, while spelling out one or two Malayalam words just like a Malayali is indeed an overwhelming sight. The boys of the club count this man as their buddy. When the older boys of the club started coaching, Jelle who used to spend 6 months in India every year has shortened his stay as 3 months.
“Jelle is our surfing coach. With surfing boards he gave us beautiful dreams as well. I have been studying surfing for the last 3 years and it has given me immense confidence,” says Shibi.
The Club which started with three old boards and very few kids has 35-40 members today. Soon children from Vizhinjam, Poovar, Manakkad and many other parts of the city started coming to this club. From mastering the surf board techniques to maintaining it are taught here in the club.
Varghese, one of the best surfers in the Kovalam Surf Club, is taking an off these days because of a knee injury. However he imparts his knowledge to his peers. “I started surfing about 8 years back, from the time Jelle started the club. Today I am acting as one of the trainers,” says Varghese. He wanted to perform representing their club in the surfing competition, but hid his pain in a sweet smile. “I wanted to participate but this year with the knee injury, I could not but I am hoping that the surfing competition is an yearly event,” says Varghese.
Eleven-year-old Ramesh, who had cleared the first round of ‘under sixteen surfing competition’ arrived amidst the loud cheers of his club-mates. The older members embraced him hardly and began an account of their younger surf-mates. Ramesh and Krishna are among the few who had started their training when they were three or four years old. Ever since surf board has been their playmate.
‘‘The ultimate gain of surfing is of course the ‘high’. We are gliding through water not land. We are challenging the waves when we are struggling to stand on a board,” says Praveen.
“I have been training this little guy from the age of 3 or 4. Now he is one of the best in India,” says Jelle while holding Ramesh affectionately.
Jelle continued narrating his future plans for the club, “This year two of the older boys are finishing school so we want to send them to college. We are trying our best to find some scholarship for them. Our older boys have started working as surfing coaches, board mechanics and tour guides and we also have a small tourist shop as well. So we have started giving salary to the older boys and we take care of their families as well. What is left of the money is being used for maintaining the surf club,” says Jelle.