“I lost a million dollars in a half an hour, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world.”
On Boxing Day 2004, Fred Netzband-Miller faced down a tsunami. Like many tsurvivors, he has a story to tell from it. He pours me a fresh mug of his outlaw homebrew Octoberfest before he begins. It is cold and delicious on a blazing hot afternoon on the edge of the world. We’re sitting on the picturesque deck of his Siam View Hotel in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka — the same wooden deck where he and 150 guests faced Mother Nature’s great and sudden fury. “The waters came right up to our feet,” he recalls. “That room you’re sleeping in now was entirely underwater.”
Fred came to Arugam in 1977. He parked his motorcycle across the street, surfed the wave out front, met a girl, bought this land and never left. He opened his little hotel a few years later — one of the first in town — but 2004 was the first year the venture actually turned profitable. Sensing a boom in tourism, Fred returned to Europe, sold everything he owned and invested nearly a million dollars into building 24 new bungalows and upgrading everything in the hotel.
When the project was complete, they threw a big party. There were bands and booze and much drugs, and the full moon rager lasted two whole nights. On the morning of the second day, just after sunrise, the bay in front of them sucked out nearly dry and a massive wave appeared on the horizon.Fried, wasted, exhausted, Fred and some 150 partygoers retreated to the second story balcony of the Siam View Hotel. They served complimentary gin and tonics as the waters rose and washed away neighboring hotels. The 24 bungalows disappeared in the rushing tides — never once occupied. An estimated 40,000 Sri Lankan people died that day, but Fred and his guests merely wet their lips and blew their minds.
“To witness the power of Mother Nature in such a way was the defining experience of my life,” says Fred. “I stopped partying after that and have been much happier since then — even if I’m broke. At least we can honestly say that this hotel is tsunami-proof.”
SURFING: I thought after seven years the tsunami would be old news, but it still feels very present in this town.
Fred: Seven years is not a long time to a child who lost his family. People are very much still recovering from that event in this town. I think a lot of people expect more when they come here, but it’s still quite rugged.
Yeah, it still feels pretty Wild West out here. I snapped a rented board this morning and the owner nearly killed me. Made me pay way more than it was worth.
You were smart to pay — they’ve made a lot of trouble for people who put up a big fight. That guy actually repairs old boards so that they’ll break. That’s how he makes his money: not renting boards, but making people pay for broken ones. In engineering they call it “sacrificial components.” He brags about it when he’s drunk. It’s quite clever, but it’s also very bad business.
That’s a little scary.
What’s scary is [that] the tuk-tuk drivers who can’t even swim are teaching surf lessons to tourists. Or the cheap fishing boats donated after the tsunami snapping in half out at sea. Now the fishermen are scared to even use them.
What’s the solution? I mean, it seems like this town really relies on surf tourism for its survival. But stuff like this is bad news.
Yeah, Arugam Bay is still one of those places you can visit “before it gets too touristy.” But the local surfers need to come together to look after their beaches. We’ve recently donated a large space beneath the hotel here for the surfers to start an Arugam Bay Surf Club. They need to be the ones renting boards, giving lessons and overseeing their beaches. They’re the ones who can look out for scams like this guy with his pre-broken boards. But they still need some help.
Arugam Bay is currently a stop on the ASP World Tour. It’s also a pretty radical third world adventure where you can hire tuk-tuks out to remote breaks and see wild elephants on the road along your way. (I even petted one…which I’m told is a terrible idea.)
Arugam Bay is an extremely long, fast, easy-to-surf pointbreak in the main stretch of “town,” but there are nearly a dozen other points tucked up and down the coast. Super fun stuff, and good adventures to access (check out World Stormrider Guides for complete info). The civil war is over, the tsunami was a freak accident, and Sri Lanka is on the verge of blowing up…in a good way.
But if you are headed to Arugam, we suggest you bring along a few supplies you’d be willing to leave behind. Boards. Fins. Leashes. Wax. Magazines. It’s all as good as gold out there. Just make sure you donate it to the local surf club, and not the crooks renting surfboards. I’d also recommend staying somewhere with decent homebrew and a good “tsunami proof” track record. —Nathan Myers