The Surfer Interview: Martin Daly

Even if it hurts to admit, you have to admire Martin Daly. He has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, every surfer’s dream: finding perfect, unridden waves far from the teeming hordes. And in his wake many have followed, adopting his frontiersman-like spirit. Despite having the most renowned surf-charter business in the Mentawais with his Indies Trader fleet, Daly has just a handful of boats among scores of others combing the archipelago, all looking for a slice of how Daly lived for years. Some blame him for selling out, exploiting natural resources and stiff-arming the competition. But Daly, now 45, doesn’t bother with the pettiness, keeping his eyes cast on the horizon. He still operates his Mentawai venture but he’s years deep and worlds away with a new project. Since 1999, The Crossing, sponsored by Quiksilver, has taken him through every ocean and passed countless waves with no one else in sight except the lucky few who get onboard–yet another source of wrenching envy for the rest of the surfing population, as perfection and solitude seem further out of reach than ever. As he motors his way through the Americas, stopping next in Brazil, Daly braces for the next discovery. Part visionary, part lucky, he beat myriad obstacles and political tangles over the years to maintain, in its purest form, an end goal: to be able to surf at the end of the day–alone. And who could argue with that? — Carl Friedmann

SURFER: Give some general background on where you grew up and how you got involved in the surf-charter business.

MARTIN DALY: I was born in the northern beaches of Sydney and started surfing on a balsa board. Then my parents moved to waveless northern Queensland when I was about 11. I was pretty mortified. I stayed there for five years, got into boats and diving as a surfing alternative, and as soon as I was 16, I went straight back to the Gold Coast.

SURFER: So you got your sea legs early?

MARTIN DALY: Yeah. I was always diving and spearfishing when I was a kid. We used to go to the Barrier Reef all the time and I got a crew job as a young fella and that was the lead-in to boats. And the diving and surfing businesses evolved from there.

SURFER: Was the coming-out party for Mentawai boat travel the trip you took with Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll in 1992?

MARTIN DALY: That was mainly the first public version. Since the first trip in 1983, we worked with the Indies Trader I. I was part of a crew of six, all surfers of course. We found all these waves and on blood oath weren’t going to tell anybody. You can imagine having the Mentawais to yourself. It preyed on our minds all the time. But we had an insane trip with Ross and Tom. It was full on, some of the best surf I have ever seen. And they said, “Don’t tell anybody!” And within three or four months a picture was sold to an Australian surf magazine and then a video came out. The rest is history.

SURFER: Do you regret that first trip?

MARTIN DALY: No.

SURFER: And the ensuing exposure was inevitable?

MARTIN DALY: Well, kind of inevitable. There were many compromises, so I sold out for a lifestyle–I get to go surfing whenever I want. I think initially we tried really hard to work together with the magazines. And for years you would see photographs without saying “Sumatra” or anything. Then we did the Quiksilver Surfers of Fortune video and everyone wanted to come here. What do you expect?

SURFER: You are also one of the controlling parties in the Mentawai surf-charter industry?

MARTIN DALY: I wouldn’t say I control much these days. If it’s out of control I try to inject a little bit of positive in it. We try to set an example as surfers if we can, to be a little bit more mature.

SURFER: That seems to be essential, especially how the Bali bombing last year seriously derailed the surfing businesses in Indonesia. But when did you realize there was a New World for surf travel?

MARTIN DALY: Around when Indonesia started going sideways with the change of government and riots in 1998. Since then, there is more awareness with the rest of the world. There is just a lot to get your head around to go surfing, whereas before there was never a second thought. Indo is actually a lot safer now then it was when I first went there in the 80s. It was a lot sketchier then. We were living in Jakarta and at night you could hear gunshots from our house and in the morning there would be dead bodies in the streets.

SURFER: Your latest global voyaging project, The Crossing, is a huge endeavor. And two parts of its mission statement are to be socially and environmentally conscious wherever you go.

MARTIN DALY: That’s right. It’s a sort of extension to the early Mentawai frame of mind. That’s how we proposed it to Quiksilver in 1994.

SURFER: Who was that?

MARTIN DALY: Bruce Raymond and myself. We met in Bali and started dreaming. Quiksilver just did Surfers of Fortune and I wanted to keep going. We made all these discoveries, like it was a gold rush. But we thought within the following five or 10 years it will be done–no stone unturned and everybody’s secret spots will be found.

SURFER: Do you think that’s true now?

MARTIN DALY: It’s getting close. Ten years is long time; things were a lot different and now this is the deal with The Crossing: it’s not about going out and destroying the surf or exploiting it. It’s basically to inspire people to explore and not get discouraged. There are still heaps and heaps of uncrowded, perfect surf out there. You just have to get off your lounge chair and look for it.

SURFER: So that’s The Crossing’s motivation? To pick up the stone, look underneath and put it back down, not telling anyone where it is?

MARTIN DALY: I’m basically allowing the next guy to come along, pick up the stone and feel like he was the first one to discover it. What I really want to achieve with The Crossing is not to spoil it for the young, feral guys who get the maps and do it on their own.

SURFER: What about the stones you have turned?

MARTIN DALY: There have been a lot. In the last two months we found one classic right hand point. It’s similar to Jeffrey’s Bay. I’ve always wanted to find the great right point and I think we found it.

SURFER: Can you give a general vicinity?

MARTIN DALY: Africa.

SURFER:How long has this global mission been going on?

MARTIN DALY: Since March 1999. But I was in an initial meeting in 1994 with Quiksilver’s Bruce Raymond and Rip Curl while they were involved with The Search. They lost faith in the program and Bruce, who was the visionary in my opinion, took up where they left off after things quieted down. I remember this meeting we had in Hawaii in 1994. I stood up–I was a loudmouth kind of guy–and said, “You guys are going to pay me to drive my boat around the world and go wherever I want and look for surf.” It didn’t go down very well. They weren’t too impressed, thinking, “Who is this cocky prick we never heard of?” But it still happened.

SURFER: Aside from the surf, what other mission does The Crossing have?

MARTIN DALY: This trip is a great opportunity to study these remote locations from an environmental standpoint. Originally, Rick Grigg came up with something called “reef check.” The idea was to take pictures everywhere we went to monitor the reefs, but we’re not scientists. We just go out and have a look and say, “Okay, this is what’s here now” and try to be as accurate as possible. But then it became obvious we needed qualified scientists. So when it’s appropriate, we have a marine biologist on board. It’s pretty overwhelming, the state of the ocean environment and coral reefs. They’re being exploited mercilessly by fleets of commercial fisherman. I can only think of three or four of all the places we’ve been that are unaffected.