A Long, Lovely Cruise

Senegal, West Africa, 1973
The Mabella swayed uncertainly on the docks. A tramp freighter that would be doing the maritime world a favor by sinking. The Greek captain was doing us a favor by agreeing to take us on board-for a price. We’d been stewing in the port city of Dakar for a week, trying to press ahead into West Africa for as little coin as possible. Suddenly, our ship came in, and now was not the time to ask whether that ship was seaworthy. The captain sized up the blond haired, fair skinned surfers standing before him. He was not at all encouraged by what he saw.

“You have knives?” he asked.

We showed him our Swiss Army knives, the kind with all the gizmos you never use. He suppressed a laugh, shook his head and in his eyes you could see him debating if he should go through with the deal. But he smelt those fresh dollars and reconsidered.

“Wait here,” he said, disappearing into a cabin.

Moments later he reappeared, holding three machetes.

“You’ll want these,” he said handing them to us.

“For what?” I asked.

He nodded toward the crew that milled about on the deck. All of them were big, muscular Africans. They had the look sailors get when they’ve blown all their money and only have hangovers to show for it.

“They’re from Ghana, so you shouldn’t have any trouble with them,” he said. “If they were Nigerian…” he made a slicing motion across his neck.

I tried to get a feel for the machete as quickly as possible.

“You’ll be sleeping on the deck, and the rats come out at night,” he said. “Keep your machete in hand’s reach.”

“I’m already sleeping with one hand on my camera gear,” Craig said as he awkwardly handled the machete. “Are you sure I’ll need this?”

The captain walked off, recounting his money. “Oh, you’ll find a use for them all right.”

At that moment one of the crew unzipped his pants and took a long, arcing whiz right over my surfboard and down into the ocean below.

I looked at Craig. “What makes him so sure they’re not Nigerian?”

Sumatra, Indonesia, 2003
The Seimoa I, our charter yacht for exploring the Mentawais, was moored a short distance off the shore outside the port city of Padang. Thirty years later, I was about to embark on another boat trip to a foreign shore, but the similarities ended there. This was no rust-bucket freighter. It was a 61-foot luxury motor yacht, custom fitted for surfers. Seven of us waited on the dock for the Zodiac to come skimming across the bay and pick us up. In rapid succession we arrived in Sumatra from various parts of the globe, had a poolside layover at a plush hotel and were now embarking on a surf trip that was, like the yacht before us, customized.

I was recruited by Scott Bass, SURFER’s online editor who wanted to see how today’s surf trips measure up to past adventures. Craig Peterson and I saw our fair share of those adventures. And like all travelers, I’m always up for another trip. Only this trip wasn’t going to be as feral as our past searches for surf. Bass lined up the Seimoa I, then organized the pro surfers and legendary surf photographer Jeff Divine. Bass felt that my years of chasing down tramp freighters and groveling on the road were just the sort of qualifications needed to comment on the current state of surf travel. I agreed.