One For The Ages

I think about a lot of things before going on a surf trip. The first factor is usually the surf. This isn't a problem for most destinations since I like almost any kind of surf. However, I will admit that some waves definitely light me up more than others. Next I think about the crew I'm going with. Are these people I can have fun with or not? Then I consider the accommodations. I may be in the water a lot, but not all of the time. Am I going to be comfortable or sleeping in a leaky hut dodging malaria-carrying mosquitoes? The answers to these questions form a tally of pluses and minuses that factor into the more pervasive decision: Should I stay or should I go?

In the case of my latest adventure, it all started with a phone call from Laird Hamilton.

"Uncle, we got a trip going and we like you come with us."

As he went on to explain the destination, logistics, company and goals, all those doubts that arise before any surf trip were immediately dispelled. I was going, and how. The only thing I had to worry about was what I was going to tell my wife and what surfboards to take—in that order.

Turns out Laird was immersed in a movie project about him and his gang's extraordinary wave-riding exploits. The subject of the film is a boat trip to Sumatra's Mentawai Islands with all his toys and boys. The toys included tow-in boards, foil boards, 12-foot monsters designed to paddle with an elongated canoe oar, a body-surfing suit, and some aqua device called a pump-a-bike. The boys included surfers Dave Kalama, Brett Lickle, myself, all three Malloy brothers and Rob Machado. The film crew read like some kind of all-star list: Don King, Jeff Hornbaker, Tom Servais, Sylvain Cazenave, Sonny Miller, Dave Homcy, Scott Soens and Penn Jones. I would be in the company of giants on both sides of the camera and was totally stoked to be invited.

Our "ride" was, to say the least, far above any standard I ever imagined. Veteran Mentawai explorer Martin Daly would personally drive us on the lndies Trader IV, the latest addition to his surf charter fleet. The Indies IV is the ultimate surf-exploration machine. Basically a surf-charter cruise ship, it offers the finest accommodation, gourmet dining, longest range, most toys and fastest, most comfortable means of getting to the waves. "Armed and dangerous," in Commodore Daly's own words, it even had its own helicopter that rode up on top and was available at all times. Needless to say I wasn't going to pass on the opportunity to go on this boat, with this crew.

While not the ordeal it was when I first began traveling to Indonesia for waves over 30 years ago, it's still no picnic getting from my home in Bend, Oregon, to Padang, Sumatra, with surfboards and sanity intact. The fact that the airlines temporarily lost my boardbags, and that while on a brief stopover in Seoul, Korea, I fell asleep and missed my connecting flight to Singapore, certainly added to my frazzled state. But when I was finally reunited with my equipment and eventually got on the right flight, I deplaned in Jakarta, Indonesia, with a new spring in my step. I thought back to my first trips in the early 1970s where I found all sorts of amazing wonders: vestiges of ancient civilization, intriguing culture, an appealing, slow-moving lifestyle and most amazing, the people, with little money but rich in dignity, pride, sense of purpose and always ready with a big, warm smile of genuine friendliness. The passing years, the rapid growth of tourism bringing big changes to the places I liked to go, had all conspired to make me forget the little things that are often the most wonderful. I remembered how I used to feel every time I set foot onto the sandy shore of G-Land. There was a sense of belonging, a feeling like I was coming back to someplace I was meant to be, a wave of nostalgia so intense my eyes would water and a warm, giddy feeling would seep through my entire being. Suddenly, seated in a hard plastic chair at a crowded boarding gate in Jakarta Airport, I began to feel all those things again, and with the same reaction. I found myself glancing around to see if anyone noticed me acting weird.

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Arriving at a brand new airport in Padang was a surprise, but it had opened only a month before. One of Martin's deckhands met me and we drove to the Hotel Bumiminang, staging point for most surfers going out on the charter boats. The bellmen have prodigious memories and greeted me like a long lost friend. I would have to kill the rest of the day waiting for Rob Machado and Dave Homcy to arrive the next day. We would all spend the next night on Martin's nearby island hideaway and leave early the following morning on the speedboat to rendezvous with the I.T. IV off one of the Mentawai islands.

Martin Daly suggests to me he is a soul sailor who has been a man of the sea in every one of his reincarnations. In one of those past lives, he must have been a pirate, maybe even Blackbeard himself. Instead of the Queen Anne's Revenge, this time around it is the Indies Trader. The treasure he liberates is golden surf, infinitely more valuable to a surfer than any other booty.

The next day, I was taken to the little island outside Padang harbor that Martin calls home when he isn't aboard one of his ships at sea. It's an idyllic spot and a familiar vessel, the Indies Trader II, was dockside for an engine rebuild. I climbed below to my favorite cabin and in icy air-conditioning read myself to sleep. Hearing voices when I awoke from my nap, I found Rob and Dave had arrived. Everyone was jet-lagged from the long flight and went to sleep early. We got up at 3 a.m. and Aussie Dave, Martin's chief engineer, warmed up the Sea Ray. Half an hour later, we motored out in the darkness. Dave was familiar with his course but going slow and carefully lest we should run into a loose teak log. We passed the Indies III on her way back in to drop off one charter, re-provision and be ready to sail again later that night. By radar, we crept our way past the myriad of little islands until we were in the open sea between Sumatra and the Mentawai Islands. A few hours later, when we could see our way, Aussie Dave opened the throttles and we beat into a running sea and a southerly headwind. A nasty depression had moved ashore several days before we arrived, making a mess of the ocean with choppy westerly winds. The Sea Ray pounded into the short interval swell and not until we were well out to sea did the ride smooth out. Soon we could see signs of a ground swell running and anticipation of waves began to grow. Pilot whales, schools of spinner dolphins and other sea life entertained us as the hours slid under the hull. Finally Dave pointed out our rendezvous spot. This island has a consistent left that I had ridden before. Another one of Martin's charter vessels, the Komodo, was anchored nearby, but the Indies IV was nowhere in sight. We could see perfect-looking waves in the 4- to 5-foot range and asked Aussie Dave if we had time to surf. Ever the good surf guide, he smiled and said, "Why not?"

There is really something special about the first surf after the long journey and huge effort to get to this place. The sun was shining, the winds lightly offshore combing the waves into perfect texture, only four other guys spread around the lineup; it was a moment to be savored. The first wave rolled in and Dan, an old friend from the Komodo charter, smiled at me and said, "It's all yours." I looked over at Rob, who was poised like an arrow in a drawn bow, quivering to be released, and gave him a nod. "Oh yeah," was all he said as he launched himself into the wave. Watching Rob Machado surf from behind a wave is almost as exciting as seeing it from the front. Dan and I imagined the tight bottom turns that flung him up through the lip in an explosion of whitewater before he disappeared down out of sight only to reappear a little further inside again and again. The waves were inconsistent and we had plenty of time to talk between sets. Rob's surfing may have had the pent-up energy of youth but his lineup manners, reserved and relaxed, kept the pace smooth and gentlemanly. As the tide dropped, the waves increased in size and consistency and Rob dialed it up, treating us to a show of tube-riding mastery. The waves curled nicely but were not especially hollow. Nevertheless, from the stand up, Rob would tuck into a tight crouch and stall himself back into the tube on every wave. Dan and I found a couple of hollow sections to duck into but Rob would ride each wave from start to finish buried in the tube. He did it 20 times in a row without a bobble, an unbelievable display of tube-surfing. Some other boats arrived and more guys came out but everyone was in a good mood, got waves and had fun. Some murmuring from the crowd caught my attention and I looked up in time to notice a ship slip around the back of the island.

It was our ride eclipsing the horizon. The Bell Jet Ranger helicopter on top looked like a toy. We watched as the anchor dropped and a flurry of activity began on the stern as the crew winched the tin boats off their berths on the upper deck and into the water. Laird paddled over standing upright on a big board, said "Howzit," gave us hugs and then dazzled everyone with his standup act. He would stroke in early, way out the back, fade deep right, then using his long legs and the paddle for leverage, whip the huge board around the other way like it was a toy, putting himself into one radical position after another. Dave Kalama came out on his longboard and rode it like a shortboard. The Malloy brothers trickled out one by one and turned up the heat even more. These were the biggest waves they had seen so far on the trip. Rob heard there was lunch waiting on the boat and bee-lined for the food; our bouncy morning ride out didn't do much for his appetite and I had only seen him eat a single slice of white bread all day. The waves were still good, and everyone was talking about where they had been the past few days, so I just stayed out and surfed. Gabby, Laird's statuesque wife, paddled over on another standup board with their baby daughter. She handed baby Reese to Laird and I thought for a moment that he might try to catch a wave with his little girl, but they just sat on the edge of the channel and watched the surfers. Reese seemed to enjoy it, and with a father and mother like Laird and Gabby I don't expect it will be long before she wants to get out there herself. Don Wildman, 72-year-old founder of the Bally Health Clubs and Laird's close friend and workout partner in Malibu, joined Gabby on his standup board and together they paddled off. Finally as the sun began to sink toward the horizon, I got a ride from another boat's dinghy and made my way toward the I.T. IV.

Up close, the ship looked even bigger. A swim-step ran across the entire back end, making it easy to climb aboard. One of the crew took my surfboard and pointed out the freshwater showers to rinse off the salt. At the top of the stairs where the mountain of surf equipment was stacked, another deckhand handed me a warm beach towel and a glass of ice water. This was a classy operation. Martin found me and gave me the 50-cent tour of his new boat. He was quite proud and understandably so: the IV was splendid. Rob and I settled into our new home for the next nine days, loving life at sea in this lap of luxury.

The next morning the surf was bigger yet. All the surf forecasters had called for a big swell—giant according to them—but it looked to be about 6-foot to us.

We stopped at a shifty peak that mostly broke left. Laird and Kalama went out on the standup paddleboards and I paddled out on my little board. The sets were bigger than they looked from the boat and Laird and David were taking off on a peak that was easily double-overhead if not more on the big ones. The wave wrapped into the inside and on the good ones, doubled up and barreled all the way down the reef. Laird caught one from the outside that stood up really fast. I never thought he could make the drop but somehow he got way back on the tail, leaned his paddle into the water and pulled it off. Racing down the line, the wave paused for an instant while it seemed like another separate wave formed in front. Laird paddled furiously, launched himself over the lip of the inside double-up and did a layback planing on the blade of his paddle, totally barreled. My jaw hit the deck of my board with a thud as he flew by making brief eye contact. I thought I could see him laugh at the look on my face.

Back on the boat after this session Martin pulled me aside and in a conspiratorial whisper informed me that one of our favorite spots nearby was perfect; he had just taken the tin boat and checked it out. We grabbed our surfboards, quietly slipped into the tin boat and were all set to motor off. Laird, who never misses anything, noticed our somewhat furtive behavior and asked where we were going. This was his first trip to the Mentawai Islands and he was eager for the whole experience. I said we were going up the way to the spot that Martin and I liked the best and that was all he had to hear. He jumped aboard just to go see. Don Wildman joined us.

Martin turned the helm over to Laird while we jumped straight into the lineup. This wave broke off a tiny island that shrinks each year. It has one coconut tree left and is maybe 50 feet from one side to the other, but the waves wrap around the outer reef breaking both left and right until they meet again on the far side. The left has a better-shaped reef and the wave peeled around it in a long, perfect arc. We rode for almost an hour before the big boat showed up. The wind had shifted slightly, blowing up into the tube, bumping the face up so we decided to eat lunch and wait for better conditions. Back aboard over a big feed on fresh fish burritos, everyone was excited about the tow-surfing. I offered to drive for Rob, too full from lunch to do anything else. I guess Rob can do just about anything on any kind of surfboard; he made it look like he had been riding the tow-board every day. Meanwhile Brett came out with Keith Malloy on the end of his rope and our two tow-teams worked over the lineup. Rob suggested we go back to the boat and get older Malloy brother Chris on the rope. Chris was just finished shooting an interview on the bow of the boat where he had kept his eyes and part of his attention on what was going on in the surf. He had just walked to the stern when Rob and I arrived. We called to him to get a tow-board. We didn't have to ask twice. Within 60 seconds of standing in the bow wishing he were on a wave, Chris was whipping into a serious backdoor section on a double-overhead wave. The wind direction was still not perfect, the faces were rough, but Chris didn't hesitate to pull himself deep into the tube. He came flying out the other end, his face lit up with a huge smile. We put the handle right in his hands and raced back outside to find him another one. Six solid waves and 15 minutes later we took a break outside the lineup during a long lull. Chris was ecstatic—he had never gone from high and dry watching waves to riding the pick of the sets so quickly ever before and was trying to process the whole experience. Rob and I just smiled and nodded. Yeah man!