Twelve surfboards floating on the water near the end of the Santa Monica Pier Saturday, January 15th, formed a unique ceremonial tribute to the victims and survivors of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia.
The 12 ceremonial surfboards — 11 representing each of the countries affected by the tragedy, and the 12th representing an unknown victim — were part of a “paddle-out” memorial service, a community effort to come together and express grief.
The tsunami memorial was organized by Surf Academy, a Redondo Beach-based company that runs surfing schools and camps, as a way to honor the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the disaster, but also to celebrate survival.
“We’re still grieving the loss,” said Mary Setterholm, a memorial organizer and founder of Surf Academy.
“The memorial was mainly for our spirits, but as it evolved it moved toward a celebration of survival.”
Setterholm said she decided shortly after the Sunday, December 26th, tsunami to organize the memorial and she wanted the service at the Santa Monica Pier to allow for more people to attend.
Originally scheduled for Saturday, January 8th, the memorial was rescheduled due to rain, and this time the warm, sunny weather brought out a diverse group of people who came to express their concern.
Representatives from three charities, including the Red Cross, Save the Children and UNICEF, spoke before the paddle-out and accepted donations for the international disaster response efforts.
After pre-memorial speeches finished, six men and six women dressed in wetsuits carried the ceremonial surfboards over their heads, preparing for the paddle-out portion of the service. Signs with the names of each of the affected countries and their respective death tolls were placed before each board.
Rob Hoover, a surfer since 1964, was one of the 12 surfers selected to take a ceremonial surfboard out to sea for the paddle-out.
“It’s an honor to be able to represent one of the countries,” said Hoover, who has taken part in previous paddle-outs.
A “paddle-out” is a surfing term for a ceremony in which surfers paddle out to the water and sit in circle formation while participating in a scripted communal dialogue with people on the pier. The unique ocean ceremony is “part of the surf culture,” Hoover said.
While a main reason for Hoover to attend the event was to provide a conch shell that was sounded during the service, he also wanted to pay his respects to the lives lost.
“The surfing community needed to do something,” he said. “It’s real important that we come out and acknowledge what happened.
“We’re people involved in the ocean. It’s something close to us and we’re showing our concern.”
While surfers can find their home in the ocean, they also realize that it is “life and death sometimes,” Hoover said.
The surfing community was not the only participant in the tsunami memorial, as a number of different groups took part, including the Ventura County Harley Davidson Owners.
“I wanted to enjoy a day at the pier and also support the tsunami effort,” said Don Dougan, a member of the Ventura Harley group.
The memorial even attracted participants more closely related to the tsunami tragedy, including Ananda Amarawansa, a native of Sri Lanka, which was one of the most devastated countries with over 29,000 killed.
Amarawansa, a resident of Venice since 1984, saw firsthand the devastation of his native home when he visited it December 29th, three days after the tsunami.
When Amarawansa helped take supplies to Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, he said there was an “eerie feeling” when he witnessed the destroyed fishing village, boats in the land, buildings destroyed and refugees looking for food.
“I’ve never seen something like that,” he said. “It was very sad to see, when I saw the people who lost their homes.
“I could see the hopelessness in their faces and we assured them that help was on the way.”
The sights that Amarawansa saw with his own eyes may not register with the participants of the tsunami memorial, but during the service, they sent a message of “rest in piece” to the lives taken by the sea.
A Chumash Indian chief led the “Four Corners” prayer to conclude the memorial, and the sound of a conch shell was heard in the background as flowers were tossed into the ocean.
Amarawansa, who came to the memorial to honor Surf Academy for its effort, said it was “a very heartwarming thing” to see the surfers and people who care.
Amarawansa may have been able to directly make a difference in the lives of his native people, but he said the memorial showed how the people from his adopted country have come together to contribute in their own way.
“I can see we are one family,” he said. “I am very proud the community pulled together to do this event.”