Sekar Patchai: Addicted to surfing

“You can’t do anything about it,” says Sekar Patchai, “It’s madness. Alcoholics drink everyday. Smokers smoke. And I have to surf.”

Sekar Patchai, who hails from a little fishing village in Chennai, is a 12-time national surfing champion.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Nothing keeps Sekar Patchai out of the sea for long. Not even the sea.

On an unusually murky morning in July 2015, Sekar, clad in black and red shorts and blue rash guard, was surfing near a pile of gravel-rich beachrocks in Kovalam. It’s a risky spot — no one else surfs there. But Sekar seeks thrill. He was riding across a ‘barrel’ — a tube-like wave that encloses the surfer in a curtain of water with an opening in front. Before Sekar could exit the ‘barrel’, he smashed on the rocks that abruptly broke the wave before it could culminate on the shore.

“For over 10 seconds, it felt like I was being stabbed non-stop by 10 people,” Sekar says.

His shorts and rash guard torn and washed away, he remained in the water for half an hour, bare and bleeding, till a friend found him. His left shin needed 13 stitches. The doctor advised Sekar a month’s rest before surfing. His family asked him to abandon it. But two weeks later, Sekar was in the water again.

“You can’t do anything about it,” says the 26-year-old, “It’s madness. Alcoholics drink everyday. Smokers smoke. And I have to surf.”

This fixation fuels his accomplishments, it brings him accolades, the latest of which came at the Indian Open of Surfing in Mangaluru, where he won the Men’s Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) and Senior Men’s titles in May.

This victory came seven months after he and 16-year-old Tanvi Jagadish participated in the International Surfing Association (ISA) World SUP and Paddleboard Championship in Fiji. They were the first Indian representatives at the event.

Unlike shortboard surfing, in which riders sit on the board awaiting a wave, SUP boarders stand on their longboards and use a paddle to propel themselves through the water. 

Sekar, a 12-time national SUP champion, finished 29th in SUP Technical and 32nd in SUP distance in Fiji. The Championship eluded him but knowledge he grasped. He learnt that Denmark’s Casper Steinfath won after practising for 13 months, across the world, away from home. Kai Lenny, former SUP world champion, advised him to get a better board. ISA president Fernando Aguerre asked him to bring more Indian surfers with him for the next tournament.

On his favourite dull white surfboard, his motto is inscribed: ‘No drinks. No smoke. Only sport. Life’s good’. Apt. His addiction for adventure is inborn, impulsive. He looks like he’s made for sport. His 5 ft 9 in frame is lean, strong and flexible. 

As a kid, when his uncle got him a seven-geared bicycle, he organised races and did wheelies for three kilometres on main roads. 

Last year, when his friend told him about the Devil’s Circuit — a 5 km obstacle run that requires wading through 15 tonnes of ice, snaking under barbed wires and other gruelling tasks — Sekar participated and finished fifth with zero practice.
 

“People from the city might tell you how thrilling it was (to surf for the first time). But we are always in the sea. We know it, its currents, its timing,” says Sekar.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

 

He doesn’t recall his first swim. Nobody taught him how to. He just did. 

Fishing, too, came naturally. His family did it. Most of his villagers did it. And, so did he. Partly because of ending formal education in fifth standard.

“Once, my teacher hit me with a stick for not finishing homework. Seeing the marks on my back, father hit the teacher when he came to pick me up from school the next day. My schooling stopped from then.”

Ask about his first surf, he replies, after a pause, “People from the city might tell you how thrilling it was. But we are always in the sea. We know it, its currents, its timing.”

For him, it was the joy of riding the seas, standing on a six-foot long surface. “I checked if there was a fan or a machine attached to the board. When you’re a kid, you think of boats — they move fast in the water because of the motor. So, you apply the same logic here. Then you discover how it actually works and feel great about it... Even you’d say the same thing after your first surf. You’d wonder how you’re moving (so fast) in the water.”

Surfing he took to, like several youngsters in Kovalam, after watching Murthy Megavan, the village’s first surfer. Murthy, also a fisherman’s son, used to bodyboard with a broken door as a kid. Over the years, he met surfers from several countries, acquired a few surfboards, and started teaching a few from his village, who shared his excitement for wave-riding. Among the proteges was Sekar.

“There were three boards and over 20 students. We had to wait for over an hour for our turns,” Sekar says of his early surfing lessons.

This fledgling feel-good tale reached TT group’s chairman and managing director Arun Vasu. He sponsored new surfboards and a surfing school, to be built on the shores of Kovalam.

In Kovalam, anglicised to Covelong, a port was built by Saadat Ali, the Nawab of Carnatic. French troops led by General La Bourdonnais conquered it in 1746 before English General Robert Clive wrecked it during the second Carnatic war in 1752. But without any major monuments, this history doesn’t attract visitors to Kovalam.

Those with lots of dough stop for a stay at Fisherman’s Cove, the misleadingly-named five-star hotel. Otherwise, Kovalam used to be an inconspicuous town that people cross to reach the rock-cut temples of Mahabalipuram.

But surfing, Sekar says, has increased visitors to the laidback fishing town. The Covelong Surfing Point (CSP), started in 2015, draws many. You can stay, dine and learn surfing in the airy two-story building, hearing the sea and feeling its breeze.

Sponsored by the TT group and supported by Yotam Agam’s EarthSync, CSP is run by Murthy, Sekar and other people from their community.

The place, in two years, has received over 4000 visitors. The list includes cricketers Jonty Rhodes and Murali Vijay, Tamil film stars and many foreigners.

Increase in visitors, he adds, has led to the springing up of a few shops on the beach. “Our village women, apart from household work, had nothing to do. But now they run these shops.”

“I don’t think the government knows much about surfing. They don’t know (its potential). If they can provide even a little of the support they do for football or cricket, a surfer can win an Olympic medal.”

 

Sekar and his surf school friends extended their services beyond their fishing community when Chennai was flooded in December 2015. “It was scary,” he says while recounting his experience of boating through gloomy streets in several parts of the city with submerged cars and constant cries for help.

“There was a risk of overloading the boat, so we had to leave a few people or come back for them later. It was very hard to do that.”

He recalls rescuing a student of SSN Engineering College, who was stuck on a mound of sand surrounded by water without food and water for two days in Kelambakkam. “He was pale, fully wet and on the verge of passing out when we found him… I don’t recall his name. But we rescued him, fed him, gave him clothes to change and dropped him (closer to his home) in Adyar.”

The profits from CSP, according to Sekar, is utilised for community development — educational funds and health camps — and salary and travel expenses for those who run it. Surfing lessons are free for those from Kovalam. “Arun Sir (of TT group) helps a lot. He encourages us to participate in more international events.”

Sekar expects the government to pitch in as well to develop surfing in the country. 

“May be they could bring trainers from abroad. We train only in one spot. But foreigners train in different places, on different waves. Our kids don’t have the sponsorship to do that.

“I don’t think the government knows much about surfing. They don’t know (its potential). If they can provide even a little of the support they do for football or cricket, a surfer can win an Olympic medal.”

Sekar’s favourite event, SUP, doesn’t feature in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But he’s trying to be among the 40 shortboarders (separated by sex), who’ll be the first-ever Olympic surfers at the Shidashita Beach, located about 64 km from Tokyo.

But he doesn’t need the motivation of an Olympic gold to surf. He does it because he’s addicted to it. It’s an obsession. It’s a madness. Alcoholics drink everyday. Smokers smoke. And Sekar has to surf.