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Riding Tides of Change: SeaSisters’ Journey of Resilience, Community and Hope

It’s time to revive our blog! We can’t believe it’s been more than three years since we shared our last article. Some of you may have been following our journey on Instagram, where we’ve kept you updated with news. For those who haven’t, we want to kick off this blog post with a proper recap of the last few years. So much has unfolded at SeaSisters, and in the backdrop of Sri Lanka. 

In this blog post, you’ll not only find a review of the recent years but also an opportunity to delve into our current situation and learn how you can support us. Read more how we navigated through the storms of the Covid-19 pandemic and Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis, coming back stronger than ever!

Riding the Pandemic Wave: SeaSisters’ Pause and Pivot

Our last blog post dates back to May 2020, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Let’s resume from that point. We were in the midst of a successful season of our Swim & Surf program and experiencing growth as an organisation, when the pandemic forced us to halt our operations. Sri Lanka went into lockdown, resulting in the closure of the international airport and schools. As we were unable to run our lessons, we explored alternative ways to support our community, organising small gatherings and delivering food packages.

While our local staff and SeaSisters participants faced restrictions, most of our international volunteers returned to their home countries. Also SeaSisters co-founders Martina Burtscher and Amanda Prifti eventually left Sri Lanka, starting new jobs in their home countries Austria and the United States.

Our SeaSisters program was put on hold, and the eagerness to restart grew day by day. When the international airport reopened and restrictions finally loosened, we were determined to bring back our swim and surf lessons!

We missed these smiles! Throwback to our last lesson before the Covid-19 pandemic

Bringing the Stoke Back: SeaSisters’ Pop-Up Month Adventure

After nearly two years, co-founder Martina returned to Sri Lanka in February 2022 to reignite our lessons with a team of dedicated volunteers. Co-founder Amanda, who had relocated to the US, supported from afar. 

Reuniting with our community was amazing! We kicked-off our “pop-up month” with a community event, sharing our experiences and celebrating our reunion. In the following weeks, we resumed our lessons, discovering that our SeaSisters still remembered their swimming techniques and enjoyed surfing more than ever. They were overjoyed to return to the ocean after being confined to their homes due to travel restrictions.

Motivation ran high, prompting us to extend our pop-up month. When Martina returned to Austria, our volunteering team led by Kalpa Gandhari and Lara Colwood, continued with the lessons, leading to a season full of joy! 

Happy to be reunited - Swipe to see more impressions of our pop-up month!

Another Storm: Facing Sri Lanka’s Worst Economic Crisis

During our pop-up month, we experienced signs of the looming economic crisis in Sri Lanka: daily power cuts, gas shortages and a rapid inflation of the Sri Lankan Rupee. 

The economic crisis had already begun in April 2019, as the result of multiple reasons: the 2019 Easter bombings, the decline of the tourism industry, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and mismanagement of the Sri Lankan government. 

But nobody could imagine what hardship was about to come: Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in 70 years, with skyrocketing food prices and shortages of medical supplies. This led to nationwide protests beginning in March 2022 and the eventual resignation of the national government.

Supporting each other in difficult times

Against the Current: Proving Resilience

As a small grassroots organisation, SeaSisters strongly felt the impact of the crisis, with inflation exceeding 67%. However, we refused to give up. Instead, we recognized that our community needed us more than ever, as the sea provided an escape and well-being benefits during these challenging times. 

We’ve always operated on a tight budget, building SeaSisters on volunteering, dedication, and determination. However, we knew that this was not sustainable in the long run. During the off-season, we made plans on how to continue SeaSisters in a more sustainable way.

The sea providing an escape from everyday worries

Building Strong Foundations: Our Commitment to Local Leadership

We believe that the key for long-term sustainability lies in strengthening and diversifying our income and, most importantly, local leadership. To kick off, we secured a grant from The Young Feminist Fund FRIDA, allowing us to hire our first full-time employee. We could not have found anyone better than Kalpa Gandhari, who had been supporting us as a translator for many years.

Kalpa took on the role of program manager, guided by co-founder Martina, who returned to Sri Lanka for another season. As executive director, Martina’s mission was to build a local team, pass on organisational knowledge, and strengthen SeaSisters’ program and income streams. Co-founder Amanda supported in her new role as strategic advisor, remotely from the US.

Building our local team: Thamali, Kalpa, Martina and Udani

Diving into Season 5: The Joy of Reunion and New Beginnings

In December 2022, we kicked off our fifth season. We were delighted to see many familiar faces and welcome new participants and volunteers, enjoying the freedom of riding waves together. Over the next five months, we hosted our weekly Swim & Surf program, while introducing new elements such as an educating Women’s Circle and the Swim Academy. For growing our program, we brought another new team member on board: Marine Science student Udani Hewamadduma, who started as a translator like Kalpa, and now serves as our ocean educator and a swim instructor assistant.

With our international volunteers, we chose to work with a smaller but committed team. A big thank you to our amazing instructors Gerdien, Lucy, Sabrina, Fay, Cleo, Carina and Naia for sharing their passion! We also extend our gratitude to The Surfer Surf Camp for their continuous support in letting us use their swimming pool. 

Tharundya expressing her gratitude. Impressions of a fantastic season!

SeaSisters 2.0: Innovating Seas and Launching New Experiences

Behind the scenes, we worked hard to improve as an organisation. Sometimes, progress felt slow, especially amidst an economic crisis, with power cuts and fuel shortages. ‘Simple’ things, like reactivating a bank account, could take up weeks, including lots of paperwork, patience and perseverance. However, step by step, we made improvements. 

A significant accomplishment was launching our new experiences for tourists: the SeaSisters Experience Day and the Full Moon Women’s Circle. Both experiences have a ‘double empowerment’ effect, connecting tourists and the local community meaningfully, with all profits supporting our Swim & Surf program. We’re thrilled that these events became a success, enriching the perspectives of many tourists. Let us share one review: 

“This workshop is exactly what Sri Lanka tourism needs. It opens your eyes to the culture of surfing, women and what it’s truly like in Sri Lanka. Thankful for their drive to change surf culture for Sri Lankan women and thankful for these workshops that widen tourists perspectives.” (Omaya)

SeaSisters Experience Day & Full Moon Women's Circle

Thank you to Outpost Weligama and Jamu Surf Lodge for hosting our events!

SeaSisters’ Products Set to Resurface

Before the pandemic, we successfully launched our first product line in collaboration with the fair trade social enterprise Rice & Carry. This was our first step towards becoming a ‘social enterprise’ ourselves, which was abruptly halted by Covid-19. 

When running our fifth season, we didn’t plan to bring the products back, as there were many other things to focus on. However, this changed when we met Thamali Arachchi, who started learning how to surf with us. Impressed by her proactive approach and expertise in social entrepreneurship, Thamali joined our team as product manager in May 2023, and is preparing to relaunch our products next season. Our primary focus, though, remains on extending our Swim & Surf program, letting the product line grow organically. 

Bringing back our beautiful handloom bags

Surf Trips, Community Events and Remote Work: Off-Season Highlights

One of the greatest advantages of having a local team is that we now run our program all year-round. Introducing our new membership, we’re growing as a community of ocean-loving women from all over Sri Lanka. We’ve begun organising monthly community events, such as a trip to the Galle Maritime museum, yoga and mental health sessions at Island Sisters, or a beach clean in Weligama. Our highlight was a surf trip to Arugam Bay for a few days, connecting with the women surfers from Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club and Girls Make Waves.

Our first surf trip. Meeting up with the women surfers from Arugam Bay!

Behind the scenes, we worked on establishing a remote work culture. Our core team regularly met online, connecting across five time zones. We also had another Sri Lankan power woman, Mahishaa Balraj, joining our team as the Finances & Fundraising Lead. Mahishaa had been volunteering at our lessons before, and, having successfully built her own non-profit, Hashtag Generation, she enriches our team now with her leadership skills. Surf instructor Fay Cleaver from the Netherlands kept supporting us with our social media. It’s been a joy to grow as an organisation, exchanging intercultural perspectives and professionalising our work flows.

Our team - connecting across five time zones

Sneak Peak into Season 6: Follow our Next Chapter

Our next season is just around the corner: we’re launching the sixth edition of our Swim & Surf program this weekend. We are incredibly proud that despite all the challenges, we never gave up, and our program is now fully run by our talented local team. Kalpa and Thamali are now serving as co-directors, leading the future generation of empowered women! Coming back even stronger is giving us hope, and we're sure that our work will make ripple effects!

Getting ready for the season - last week's beach clean

For this season, we have lots of exciting things planned and we will share regular updates with you on our blog and Instagram. This Friday, we will launch our GoFundMe campaign, which will help us to successfully run and grow our Swim & Surf program. Your support would mean the world to us.

To be the first to be informed about the GoFundMe launch and other updates, sign up for our newsletter!

We can’t wait to tell you more!

Lots of love from Sri Lanka. 

Your SeaSisters team 

Our comeback would not have been possible without the help of so many dedicated individuals. A big Thank You to our team, volunteers, mentors, partners, donors, experience visitors, ambassadors, and of course our SeaSisters, for your continious support!

Written by Martina Burtscher

Photos by Amanda Prifti, Lizzie Goldsack, Aline Arnold, Lasse Sahlin, Marina Mantalon, Siriwan Champorn, Nora Stalder, Ruaridh Kidd


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