The Atomic Atolls

The first time I had an opportunity to go to the Mentawais was back in 1992. It was a trip with Tom Carroll, Ross Clarke-Jones, and some mutual friends on the Indies Trader, before it was a charter boat and when only a handful of people knew about the waves up there. The crew on that original trip were the only surfers in the Mentawais at the time, experiencing a sense of isolation and adventure that few will ever share again. For reasons I can no longer remember, I didn't make it onto that trip, and I didn't make it to the Mentawais until 1997. By that stage the surf-charter business was growing quickly; the days of scoring waves alone with only your fellow boat passengers were long gone, and most sessions were usually spent with one, maybe two, boats anchored off the best breaks. Of course, things have changed dramatically over the past decade; the once-secret islands have evolved—or devolved—into the most photographed and filmed surf studio in the world. The result? Land camps, dozens of boats, and 40 surfers out at some of the breaks. For the Mentawais, the days of being Mysto Indo have vanished.

"You'll get seasick for sure,"
said Ben with a disconcerting
amount of glee in his tone.

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Fortunately, the world is a big place, and there are still plenty of virgin and uncrowded waves to be surfed. When I heard that the original Indies Trader was again on a voyage of discovery, this time searching for waves within a group of 100 islands in the Pacific, I wasn't going to repeat my mistake of '92. The surf potential of the islands is vast, and little is known about what's out there, thanks to the expansive distance and its history as a military no-go area for the past 50 years. It's evidence that the opportunity to surf new waves in pristine tropical waters—with absolutely no other surfers, apart from those you are with—still exists. The Indies wouldn't be plying a 10-day charter in hopes of getting a few decent waves. No, it would be in uncharted territory and I couldn't let the chance to see what's out there pass me up again.

They say you have to work for your rewards, and that certainly applied to this adventure. The journey from Sydney—a stop-start affair of Pacific island-hopping that took 26 hours to reach the harbor where the Indies Trader was waiting—was the easiest part. The port town was typical of an island urban environment: dusty, ramshackle buildings, street-side stalls, electronics stores (there's always at least two), rows of neatly swept bungalows, and, of course, the token ex-pat watering hole that offers hints of the Cantina scene in Star Wars. It was here, over a couple beers and fresh shrimp, that Ben Dunn, Adam Wickwire, and Kyle Ramey excitedly told me about a ledging right-hander they'd discovered a day earlier. They nearly sailed right by it, but, upon checking it closely upon the insistence of photographer Jon Frank, they'd lucked into a perfect barrel. Spend enough time with Jon Frank and you'll learn he can be a bit persistent, and it's usually easier to give in. But, as usual, this time his instincts were spot-on, as the wave was a big, open barrel they quickly dubbed "Maybes" due to its fickle makeability.

"As far as we know, we're the only guys to ever surf it," Frank told me. "You've gotta love that."

They'd been out on the boat for a few weeks, their tales of great waves, no people, and islands of untouched beauty tempered only by the wind and the 18-hour boat trip from hell we were about to endure to reach the outer atolls.

"You'll get seasick for sure," said Ben with a disconcerting amount of glee in his tone.

"Nah, you'll be alright, mate," a gravely voice said from behind me. "As long as you don't vomit in your bunk."

I turned to see an old Burleigh Heads boy, Tony "Doris" Eltherington, a surfer/shaper and great goofyfooter who was featured in a number of mid-'70s surf movies. It turned out he was our skipper.

"Doris, haven't seen you for a while."

"Probably 15 years," he answered. "What have you been up to?"

We left port the next afternoon, heading west. It was the only time I've been on a surf trip where I really had no idea where I was going. It was a great feeling. The next day, I woke at dawn. It had been a long night sailing, the motor clunking incessantly as the boat lurched in the uneven windswell. In the brightening light, I vainly searched the horizon for any hint of land. Doris reckoned it would take 12 hours to reach our first destination, an atoll where they'd recently discovered a good right. We'd been at sea for 11 hours, and the wind was howling through the rigging. The rest of the crew was still asleep, the exception being Paul the Pom, an exuberant character who rolls well with the punches, providing a psychological even keel for the frustrated.

"Birds," he said, pointing to a couple of sea terns to the west. "That means we're within two hours of land."

To my surprise, it turned out he knew his stuff, as the distant shade of land was visible 30 minutes later. Who'd have thought this strange Euro would know about the ocean?