Vignesh and Manikandan, fishermen-turned-surfers, who won top honours at the country's first Surf Festival held in Orissa recently

Vignesh is confident that I'll love the sea if only I would try paddling on a surf board. I shake my head furiously, stepping away from the gushing waves at Kovalam beach, but he is unperturbed. “That's what they all say at first,” he remarks, “but as soon as they get used to it, they never want to come back to land.” Easy for a reigning stand-up paddling champion to say!

I first spot V. Vignesh and D. Manikandan as lanky silhouettes on surf boards paddling through the sleepy waves at Kovalam. They are children of the sea, born in the fishing villages that dot the shore of Kovalam beach. “Our fathers are fishermen. We've been good friends since school and would usually pick up a catamaran and go out to the sea during summer vacations,” says Vignesh while Manikandan adds, “sometimes, we'd untie the logs and just pick one to balance on. This was before we knew of surf boards.”

Their time was divided between school and helping their fathers with fishing when they spotted a few tourists surfing. Curious, they enquired about it. “That's the first time we ever saw the board,” says 21-year-old Vignesh, “we asked them if we could try it out and they gave it to us for a while.” Manikandan, 22, says, “We learnt how to use it and when they took their boards back, we tried surfing with catamarans. Eventually, we learnt to surf by ourselves.”

The two along with their friend P. Venkatesh met Showkath Jamal to join his surfing school Bay of Life (started in August 2011) as trainers.

Says Showkath, who has been visiting the village of Kovalam for the past 14 years, “when the tsunami struck in 2004, we were involved in a lot of relief work in the area and this brought us closer to the fishing community. We trained these two boys along with a few others in surfing. Later, when I started Bay of Life along with friend Krishna Chidambaresh and wife Madhumathi Ravi we decided to involve the local community and help the youngsters earn an income by employing them as trainers. We trained them in life support, stand up paddling, surfing and took them to a surf ashram in Mangalore for further training. Venkatesh, Vignesh and Manikandan now work as trainers at our school.”Recently, Vignesh and Manikandan participated at the first India Surf Festival held in Orissa. They even trained fishermen in Orissa a day before the event began. “The surf festival had only stand-up paddling competitions where 30 people from all over the country qualified. It was the first time we were participating in any competition and we were a bit tense,” says Manikandan. “But Showkath gave us the confidence to go on. We made some mistakes in the beginning because we didn't know the rules but some good Samaritans pointed them out to us and we did our best after that.”

Vignesh came first and Manikandan second. “Five finalists had to go 5 km into the sea and return to shore. Many people there were surprised that we could paddle so well and encouraged us,” says Vignesh. “NSP (New Surf Project, a brand of Global Surf Industries) has offered to sponsor us for other competitions.”

Says Showkath Jamal, co-founder, Bay of Life, “In December, when I first brought down Stand Up Paddles (SUP) to Chennai (we were the first to introduce SUP in Tamil Nadu, and currently, the only school here), I knew these boys will do well. . But, coming first and second at the National level was a pleasant surprise. It was a proud moment for us.”

While Bay of Life looks forward to hosting a similar competition in Chennai in the near future, Vignesh and Manikandan are training children and young adults in their village in surfing. “We want these people to get the same opportunities that we did,” says Venkatesh.