Nov 20, 2015

Bay of Life Surf School staff save people during Chennai floods

Surfers from Bay of Life Surf School used fishing boats and paddle boards to rescue 1200 people stranded in the floods.


Melvin Michael

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In the wake of the recent Chennai floods, the surfing community has taken upon itself to tackle the calamity head-on. After surfers of Covelong Point Surf School took to the flooded waters of Chennai last week, the Bay of Life Surf School carried out a similar rescue operation using fishing boats and stand-up paddle boards in the worst flood affected areas of the city earlier this week.

South India’s Kovalam-based surf school in Chennai rescued approximately 1200 victims on 16th and 17th November, 2015. A team of six surf instructors carried out the rescue operation on the 16th in Pallikaranai, Perungalathur and Tambaram areas of Chennai. These are low-lying marshland regions of the city and have been worst hit by the floods due to improper drainage and unplanned construction over the marshlands, the surfers said.

Paddle boards were easy to maneuver for search and rescue ops.

Showkath Jamal, co-founder of the surf school and a NOLS certified Wildlife First Aid responder, told The Outdoor Journal, ”We got a tip-off from the Coastal Security Group (CSG), and in response to that we deployed a team of six instructors (Showkath, Sumeet,  Selvam, Siddharth, Noel and Krishna) including myself in the worst affected areas. We used fishing boats and paddle boards to gain access into these areas.”

He added that the team also managed to rescue an additional 60 people on 17th November in the Mudichur Mookambikai area. The area was highly inaccessible due to eight feet deep rain water clogged in very narrow streets.

“The team used stand up paddle boards to reach out to the victims,” Mr Jamal said.

“We did a survey on Google Maps the night before to learn about the inaccessible areas with narrow and congested lanes. So we knew that our fishing boats will be of no use in these areas, that’s why we decided to use paddle boards to gain access and rescue people,” said the zoologist turned surfer.

Challenges Faced

The team was exposed to water clogged streets brimming with sewage water. They had to wear face masks and later take medication to avoid exposure to water-borne diseases. The rescuers also used neoprene footwear (rubber shoes) to avoid getting electrocuted by fallen electricity posts or wires.

Free Rescue Training

The Bay of Life Surf School has announced a free rescue training course starting 25th November. The aim is to educate individuals about natural disasters and make them self sufficient in case of such calamities. ”We have trained NOLS wilderness first-aid responders and NIWS (National Institute of Water Sports) certified lifeguards; who will train people. At the end of the day, the best rescue is self rescue”, said Mr. Jamal.

Poor Urban Planning

India’s southern coastal areas on the east coast along with Sri Lanka have been witnessing a high intensity of rain since the past week, triggered by a depression in the Bay of Bengal.

Reaching stranded residents in Chennai.

After 2005, this is the first time that Chennai has experienced such high rainfall, the MeT department has said. Chennai has received more than average rainfall in the past week. According to the Regional Meteorological Department, the city has received an average rainfall of 449.9mm in the last week, where as the normal rainfall would be 104.9mm.

Kumaran.M, a geologist for Cairn India and a paddler/advisor to the Bay of Life Surf school told The Outdoor Journal that the main reason for the Chennai floods was poor urban planning, rapid urbanization in the last 10 years and degradation of natural drainage networks in the city.

Worst Affected Areas

Mr. Kumaran identified the main affected areas as: Pallikaranai and Perungalathur, low lying marshlands and the southern Kanjipuram district which is also called as the ‘lake district’.


Pallikaranai is a marshland area situated on the west of the city. The marshland which was around 50-60sq km of geological depression in the last decade has been reduced to 4-7 sq kms due to excessive urban development. “The National Institute of Ocean Technology and Centre of Wind technology campuses have been built on the marshland. The marshland also has a one of the biggest garbage dumps in the country which covers 10% of the marshland and is ever increasing,” said the geologist.

Click here to see satellite images of how the flood-affected areas of Chennai changed over the last decade.

He explained that the catchment area in the marshland remained the same but the receiving area had to reduced almost 1/10th in the marshlands. Mr Kumaran added that the marshland is also home to approx 120-130 species of birds out of which many are migratory birds.


The airport is built on the Adayar river flood plains and gets flooded during excessive rains.

Kanchipuram District

The other badly affected area is the Kanchipuram district in the south of the city. It is also known as the lakes district of the city. “The lake district has over 1000 lakes. Due to encroachment and heavy urbanization in the Lake District the areas have been flooded heavily,” Mr. Kumaran added.

Images and video: Bay of Life Surf School

Satellite Images: Kumaran.M