UNDER the gaze of a colossal beachfront statue depicting the Hindu goddess Gajah Mina, a hulking right-hander is detonating into the Pererenan river mouth in southwest Bali. According to Hindu mythology, while the sky and the mountains are the realm of virtuous gods, the ocean is home to the ill-intentioned spirits of the underworld. These insidious entities prevent those occupying the middle world — us, that is — from traversing the oceans. But the Gajah Mina, depicted here in Canggu as a nearly 20-foot-tall elephant-headed fish, has long bestowed believers with the courage and spiritual fortitude necessary to navigate treacherous waters.
It seems fitting, then, that Gajah Mina should be watching the lineup on this overcast June day, with well-overhead waves shutting down over the sand-covered reef. A group of more than 30 alternative-surfcraft devotees from all corners of the Earth have converged here for a surf exhibition called the Deus 9 Foot and Single, put on by Bali-based surf/motorcycle brand Deus Ex Machina (Latin for "god from the machine"). At a glance, the conditions seem perilous for the surfers in the water, who are armed with wide, heavy, single-fin surfboards. Yet all day they've pushed their logs into critical positions, sweeping into the pocket with stylish cutbacks, driving through the trough with Windansea-style bottom turns and locking into perched noserides.
Surfers like Byron Bay's Jack Lynch, Kamakura's Yuta Sezutsu and Noosa's Zye Norris work the entirety of their longboards, gracefully connecting each maneuver with the aplomb of someone riding much smaller waves. Others, like California's Jared Mell and Newcastle's Lewie Dunn, opt for highlines instead, grabbing their outside rails and threading thick-lipped barrels.
As the wind turns onshore and the tide backs out, the competitors are punished repeatedly by the inside section, their leash-less boards catapulted onto the black-sand beach. Yet after swimming to their boards and inspecting them for damage, the surfers shake it off and paddle back out with resolute conviction.
Although not a cult in the traditional sense, the gathering here in Bali is certainly cult-like. It's a congregation dedicated to the exultation of single-fin longboards to a degree that might seem extreme to outsiders. I've spent the last week with this eclectic crew — teenagers to middle-agers, underground stylists from New Zealand, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Portugal, America and elsewhere. Beyond the sense of belonging that the event provides its participants, there's also a deep sense of purpose evident in this yearly pilgrimage, as surfers risk life and limb atop relics of surf design. It's part ritualistic self-flagellation, part worship of surfing's forefathers who rode Waimea, Sunset and Pipeline on similar equipment.
In his 1949 book "These Also Believe," religious scholar Charles Braden defines a cult as "any religious group which differs significantly in … belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as normative expressions of religion in our total culture." In other words, any group ascribing to a belief system outside of the mainstream.
While the word "cult" can bring to mind headline-grabbing organizations fronted by lunatics claiming to be prophets (David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and Jim Jones and The People's Temple in Guyana are well-known examples), most cults are not created or organized around nefarious ideals. Braden argues that the term cult means "nothing derogatory," and he sums up his view toward cults thusly:
"All roads that lead to God are good."
For those here for the 9 Foot and Single, the road has brought them to the Pererenan river mouth.
INDONESIA’S history of religious pluralism has made the country a bucket-list destination for the spiritually curious. With a population of more than 200 million adherents to Islam across Indonesia and nearly 90 percent of the population of Bali practicing Hinduism, the country has long held religious freedom as one of its core tenets. And the country's acknowledgment of disparate pathways to enlightenment permeates the ethos of the 9 Foot and Single, right up to its leadership.
"It's cool that it's caught on with more and more people," says Deus director of surf Dustin Humphrey of the burgeoning popularity of alternative longboard events like the Noosa Surf Festival and the Duct Tape Invitational. I'm talking to Humphrey in his upstairs office, which overlooks the courtyard of the Temple of Enthusiasm, an open-air compound in Canggu that serves as Deus' Indonesian headquarters. "I don't want to preach it, though. We get written off constantly, so I always just say, 'If you're into it, you're into it.'"
At taller than 6 feet and with broad shoulders, his arms and legs covered in tattoos, and an untamed beard that comes to a narrow point below his chin, Humphrey cuts an imposing figure. An acclaimed photographer, he's won awards for his commercial work and side projects like "Sipping Jet Streams," a book he published with his longtime friend, filmmaker Taylor Steele, who made a surf movie of the same name.
In the late aughts, burnt out on surf photography, Humphrey partnered with Australian entrepreneur Dare Jennings to bring the then-Sydney-based Deus to Bali and expand the brand's foray into surf.
"It took off right away," Humphreys remembers. "People were like, 'Single-fins in Indo? What's going on out there?'"
Less than 10 years ago, when the Temple of Enthusiasm was first established, Canggu was just a rural outpost of rice paddies and a stretch of beachbreak accessible only by dirt bike. This isolated stretch of Bali, far away from the Westernized hustle of Kuta, would have seemed a perfect place for the Deus crew to insulate themselves and explore their single-fin-centric ideology.
Though the company made waves early on, Deus's emphasis on retro surfboards and vintage, custom motorcycles led some to deride the company as a "midlife crisis brand" appealing to older, nostalgic surfers fetishizing the craft of their youth. But one man's crisis is another man's opportunity to be born again. And it was during surfing's own rebirth — which began around the dawn of the millennium, when Thomas Campbell released his watershed 1999 longboarding film, "The Seedling" — that the seeds for alternative events like 9 Foot and Single were planted.
In the years that followed, as the alternative-surfcraft movement slowly began to take hold across America and Australia, Humphrey began to feel the pull toward single-finned boards himself while accompanying El Segundo, California, surfer/shaper Tyler Hatzikian through Indo to work on Campbell's follow-up to "The Seedling."
"That was the first time since surfing San O with Robert August as a kid that I'd ridden classic, single-fin logs," Humphrey says of the trip for 2004's "Sprout." "That changed my outlook. It felt more authentic and interesting than anything else that was happening at the time. After that, I really only wanted to take pictures of classic surfing on single-fins and twins."
At the Temple of Enthusiasm, Humphrey has made a kind of incubator for the creative minds drawn to alternative modes of surfing. He's outfitted the Temple with a shaping bay and glassing room, a motorcycle workshop, a photography studio and an editing bay.
As Canggu has grown around it, the Temple has become a kind of cultural locus for the area, luring in more converts with an open-air restaurant that caters to Western palettes and a retail store that sells apparel, motorcycles and a wide range of alternative surfcraft. In the back, a smattering of two-story villas encloses a large courtyard where patrons sip cocktails on padded patio furniture.
"It could have easily been just a little storefront," Humphreys says, looking down at Temple's courtyard from his office. "But I'm kind of an all-or-nothing guy."
LOOKING around the contest this morning, there is at least one conspicuous absence. Standing a touch above 6’7″, Newcastle surfer Luke "The Flapper" Flanders would certainly be hard to miss. A few hours earlier, unable to find Flanders for his heat, contest organizers bounced him to a later one. They are just about to do it again when Flanders comes scurrying up the beach. A half-smoked Marlboro Light between his lips, Flanders's panic is hidden behind the black ovals of his feminine-looking shades as he meets his fellow competitors on the beach.
"My alarm never went off," he exclaims to no one in particular before setting down his 9’4″ noserider, which looks more like a midlength next to his oversized frame.
After waxing up his board, Flanders pulls on a jersey and paddles into the lineup. In the water, he impresses with a mix of powerful turns and a graceful footwork surprising for someone his size.
Five years ago Flanders was bartending at a nightclub in Newcastle — an establishment he describes as a kind of "tacky, trashy place that everyone loved for some reason." One evening at the club, a local surf shop showed a short film about the 9 Foot and Single contest. Flanders thought it looked fun, so he contacted Deus, sent a few clips of him surfing longboards and was promptly invited to the next event.
Covered in tattoos, his earlobes stretched from his years of sporting gauge earrings, Flanders typifies the underground, counterculture surfer to which the contest opens its doors. The event has also managed to attract a few well-known alternative-surfcraft devotees over its seven-year lifespan, like Alex Knost, Tyler Warren and Devon Howard. This year, Harrison Roach and Mell are probably the closest to household names, but there are plenty of wildly talented lesser-known loggers also on hand. There are Californians like 17-year-old up-and-comer West Adler and surfer/shaper Forrest Minchinton. Enrico Goncalves is here from Portugal, and Tetsu Ogawa traveled from Japan. Ambrose McNeill is the lone Kiwi, while Indonesia is well represented by Java's Deni Firdaus and Husni Ridhwan, as well as several members of the local Canggu surf community. The roster is rounded out by the Noosa contingent, with Roach, Norris, surfer/shaper Thomas Bexon and his 16-year-old protégé Tom Morat, and Matt Cuddihy.
"It's just a hell time," Flanders says of the event. "I don't do contests. But I'll do this one. At home there are cliquey scenes and egos. That's not what goes on here. It's all about single-fins and having fun."
In her book "Cults in Our Midst," psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer takes a stab at identifying what draws people into cults and what coheres them once they join.
"Cults come in all sizes, form around any theme, and recruit persons of all ages and backgrounds," Singer writes. "Their reasons for existing may concern religion, lifestyle, politics, or asserted philosophies."
As Singer notes, cults tend to offer a sense of belonging to individuals who are "temporarily unaffiliated."
The group that has decamped here to Canggu seems particularly transient, with little connection to the surfing mainstream or any other form of competition. Their only unifying thread is an appreciation for left-field surfcraft.
Artist Paul McNeil — whose whimsical, surf-inspired artwork has been on display at the Temple during the contest — notes, "Years ago, these guys were about as popular as poets without a home. They didn't have anywhere to go where they could be around their people."
As alternative surfcraft, especially longboards, have gained cultural cachet in recent years, the contest has grown, putting a spotlight on the community that congregates here each year.
"Now," McNeil adds, "what they do is more accepted."
DOWN the street from the Temple, at a small open-air restaurant called Canteen, I meet Steve "Monty" Montell, head judge at the 9 Foot and Single. Inside, Montell shows me his assembly of hallowed icons lining the restaurant's west wall: a late-'50s Barry Bennett with a parabolic stringer, an all-white, stringer-less Midget Farrelly, a red-and-yellow Lightning Bolt, a Mark Richards twin-fin and a couple of '70s-era Hot Buttereds.
For years, Montell headed up the Noosa Boardriders Club (also known as the Noosa Malibu Club), where he helped groom an entire generation of classic stylists like Roach, Norris, Cuddihy and Jai Lee.
A longtime visitor to and then resident of Canggu, Montell fell in with a small, well-connected group of longboarders here that included Jennings and Humphrey. Because of his experience organizing contests, Montell was tapped to help bring the 9 Foot and Single to life.
"We thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we surfed a premier, world-class break on these classic longboards?'" he continues. "'Could we surf it? Would we surf it? Should we surf it?'"
Heavily inspired by Joel Tudor's Duct Tape Invitational contests, Montell says he was hesitant about putting surfers on single-fin logs in waves that didn't seem to call for them.
"We had to figure out if it was appropriate," he says.
Montell's alluding to a strongly held belief among those in the alternative-surfcraft movement that longboards should be ridden only when the waves are under head-high. That school of thought can be
traced back to Campbell's "The Seedling," where he posits on screen, "The Seedling figures if it's overhead, ride a shortboard. Logging is really an under-head-high trip …"
Earlier, at the Temple, Humphrey told me a story about the time when San Diego's Devon Howard came to surf in one of the first iterations of the 9 Foot and Single.
"The swell was supposed to be huge, so I suggested that if it's over head-high we just ride smaller single-fins," Humphrey recalled. "Devon was like, 'No way. In the '60s, they had one board. They rode it at Pipe and they rode it at San O.' That solidified it for me. It made perfect
sense once Devon said that."
A spiritual ethos was born. Participants would have to channel their forefathers, pushing longboards to their functional limits, safety and conventional surfing wisdom be damned.
THOUGH he's been seen napping between heats, Lynch is no slouch in the water, advancing to the finals with powerful gouges in the pocket atop a thinly foiled 9’2″ with a displacement bottom contour that he's been developing with Gold Coast shaper Cory Munn. The strange design appears to work well with Lynch's casual approach, as he slides down the face of each set wave, grabs hold of his outside rail to project up the face, then moves to the nose to lock into a picture-perfect cheater five, the deep nose concave providing crucial lift.
Lynch's is a unique design, but it adheres to the contest's simple set of guidelines: All boards must be over 9 feet. One fin. No leash.
Beyond those simple parameters, anything goes. And while a log may seem a log to the undiscerning eye, the equipment being ridden here is vastly diverse. Virtually every rail and tail shape is on display. Concave and convex contours are carved into every imaginable portion of the boards. If Canggu is a laboratory for design ideas, all the competitors came prepared to experiment.
But, like many cults, this group of zealots is also committed to a singular, common goal, which they see as bigger than themselves. In this case, that cause is the advancement of the single-fin log.
"We are trying to find that happy medium between tradition and progression," says Bexon, who has shaped boards for at least a third of the surfers competing here. "I think we're picking up where they left off in the 1960s."
At home in Noosa, Bexon has been tinkering with Magic Sam–inspired designs — traditional pig outlines with narrower noses and a wide point set back from the middle, allowing better turning ability. Bexon argues that boards like the Sam — created just before the shortboard revolution — represent the last era of widespread experimentation in longboard design.
"Longboards like the ones we're riding here stopped progressing in the mid-1960s," he says. "Meanwhile, the shortboard now has had over 30 years of refinement."
Bexon's surfed in the contest every year since its inception. While he says he wouldn't typically ride a longboard in the kind of waves on offer in the river mouth, he says the 9 Foot and Single helps advance or debunk theories he might have.
"Taking a design to an extreme or putting it outside its comfort zone is very instructive," he says. "You can really see why certain design elements work."
"Longboarding is pretty easy, as there's kind of a low entry level," says frequent 9 Foot and Single finalist Roach. Roach shaped his own board this year, basing his narrow-railed, pintail shape on boards he'd worked on with Bexon. "Where I'm from, there are so many young kids now riding longboards who haven't been doing it that long but are surfing so well. But put them out in conditions like this and you see the difference between a person who can hang heels in small waves and somebody who is really an accomplished surfer."
Days prior, I found noted California master shaper Rich Pavel at work in the Temple shaping bay. It's somewhat of a revolving door for shapers here, and boards waiting to be glassed line the bay's walls, ranging from sub-5-foot fishes to 10-foot-plus logs crafted by the likes of Neal Purchase Jr., Josh Hall, Bexon and Pavel.
"When I see this group of people gathered, I think of enlightenment or awakening," Pavel tells me. "What's available to us in any moment is not limited. There is room for progress with all boards — the single-fin longboard included."
After nearly losing me with an analogy about genomic expression in freshwater salmon, Pavel brings it full circle, arguing that the gathering is about something much bigger than this yearly competition.
"Today we're talking about riding classic longboards in heavy surf," he reminds me. "But this contest is part of a burgeoning consciousness allowing for more outside-the-box thinking. I think it's going to lead to more breakthroughs and positive changes. When it comes to the definition of what it is to ride a longboard, these guys here are helping to redefine what that is in terms of potential."
OUTSIDE the Temple, a Deus employee is busy placing Canang saris in strategic positions around the property. The palm-leaf baskets hold offerings — colorful carnations, cigarettes and money — meant to appease powerful gods and acknowledge a common desire for peace in the world. In Canggu, like in many other places across Bali, Canang saris can be found scattered along roads and in front of driveways, at the entrances to businesses and restaurants, at the feet of altars, even on the dashboards of taxis.
Inside the Temple, those who'd participated in the 9 Foot and Single are enjoying the post-contest festivities in the courtyard. I'm sitting with Humphrey and several other competitors as Montell announces the winners from the stage. Roach barely edged out finalists Lynch, Mell and Norris. Fresh from accepting his first-place prize package — an original piece of art by McNeil, a Bexon longboard (which he gifted to Adler) and a bottle of Jose Cuervo — he approaches the group for a round of tequila pulls. A tray of shot glasses arrives shortly thereafter, containing a clear, mysterious liquid ordered at the behest of Humphrey.
Tonight marks the end of the event, but more than that it means many of these surfers will soon leave this place of single-fin worship and scatter across the globe. Roach, Flanders, Dunn and a few others are planning to meet an impending swell elsewhere in Indonesia. Bexon will spend a few weeks shaping and spreading his gospel of the traditional log across Europe. Many of the competitors will have opportunities to reunite at one of the similar longboarding competitions that are popping up around the world, as the traditional single-fin ethos continues its rapid revival, claiming a stronger foothold within the broader surf culture with each passing year. It seems possible that the cult of the single-fin may eventually become just another sect of mainstream surfing. If it did, would these homeless poets still need the 9 Foot and Single?
Though many may view them as the prophets who helped bring traditional logging back from the grave, no one in this group seems to revel in his role as revivalist. Despite finding common ground in Canggu, their inclination for experimentation means that they're bound to diverge over time, each seeking their own individual version of surfing enlightenment along the fringes of board design.
But for now, as the surf world at large closes in around the Temple of Enthusiasm, Humphrey tries to gain the attention of the group while I stare at the glass of mysterious liquid in front of me with mild suspicion.
Humphrey offers a simple "Cheers everyone. See you next year." As we ceremoniously touch our glasses together, we still have no idea what we're about to drink. Ultimately, it might not matter. It seems that we've all drunk the Kool-Aid already.
[Top image: Utilizing only single-finned equipment and loads of inherent style, contestants like Matt Cuddihy (pictured here) make an annual pilgrimmage to Bali to surf in the Deus 9 Foot and Single event. Photo by Gooch]