You Are Here: Fred Netzband-Miller, Tsurvivor

posted by / Blogs, Editorial / May 5, 2011

Fred serves free G&Ts during any tsunami — also known as “Unhappy Hour.” PHOTO: Myers


You Are Here, Nathan Myers

“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


Don’t let the kook boards fool you (newly donated for training and lifeguarding) — these A-Bay locals rip. Surfers have been leaving boards behind since the ’60s PHOTO: Myers

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  • Josh Roberts

    Cool story. Kinda random…but cool.

  • Ned Needleman

    You know there was a tsunami is Japan recently. Why not write about that, instead?

  • Denver

    Fun waves around there for sure. Tragic what happened…and yeah, strange how they’re still struggling to get over it. Hoping to get back there this year if I can get the time off. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Bon Iver

    Cocktails for the end of the world. This is where I want to be in 2012. Standing on this guys’ porch.

  • Fred

    #Bon Iver:
    You are most welcome, at any time, dude.
    The little Siam View will sure be still here.
    Perhaps for ever.
    Weather I will still be around remains to be seen.
    Random articles and unintended interviews with candid opinions like mine not make us popular in this militant neighborhood….;-)
    So what!
    Lets enjoy a cool blonde, together when you come across; the first round is on me. If you see me around that is.
    Cheers & Greetings from the remote Bay,

  • NM

    Fred informs me that the local board doctors are making death threats over the above article, but that I should leave it up anyway. Just another tsunami to weather, I guess. What time’s happy hour again?

    Dear board rental guys: ain’t karma a bitch.

  • Stu

    Just noticed these guys actually getting pretty gnarly on each other on Facebook. Check this out…kinda scary actually:

  • Ben Davidson

    Yea, I stayed in Arugam a while back and the surfboard dudes were full hustlers. But lotta good people there too. Local surfers are super cool, and my tuk tuk driver was a total bro…shot photos of me while I surfed. Cool place, just bring your own boards (duh).

  • benj

    damn that FB thread is heavy. shit sounds tense round those parts. i thought the war was over.

  • H-Upton

    This weird controversy on Facebook continues.
    First the local militants picked on old Dr.Fred – blaming the alleged messenger for their own bad deed sort of.
    Now, Nathan Myers has been warned that he’d be “killed” if and when he re-visits Arugam Bay.

    Perhaps he should carry his own board with him next time;-)

    Read the entire dialog here, on the “Discussions” and report the guys to Facebook.
    Should you agree – like I do – that this has gone too far:

  • DilsiriW

    Having read the article and thread on facebook, I feel that Nathan should have been a bit more diplomatic in his approach. People from the West sometimes fail to be sensitive in nations like ours.

    Yes, you are upset, but it was not professional the way you approached it Nathan. Now my friend Fred, who has been so helpful to a number of us and only meant good (even though his direct approach is hard sometimes) is in a bit of soup due to the careless and insensitive journalism by you.

    If I were in Jo’s shoes I would actually file a defamation case against NM and Surfing Magazine.

  • Todd Johnson

    @dilsiri says Nathan should be more sensitive to guys who say they will “kill him if he visits arugam bay again.” I barely see where the above story is defaming on his part. isn’t he suggesting people visit the town and bring extra gear for the locals? sounds nice enough to me.

  • Surfer Joe

    I admit I like to rent the broken board. What can I say: English surfers are so stupid.