Back when the Parthenon was still freshly buffed marble, Greek mariners shared tales of seductive creatures that lay on the shores of the Mediterranean. They had porcelain skin and hair of silk, but it was their voices that made these Sirens irresistible. When their sweet melody made it beyond the waves, passing sailors were drawn to the shore, wrecking their ships on the rocky coast to be stranded within earshot of the ineluctable sound. Like the ancient Greek sailors, surfers are willing to risk everything once they find what calls to them. Perfect waves are our siren song and many a career, relationship, and bright future have been dashed to pieces on the rocks that front them.
When Jim Banks set sail from Bali in the mid-'80s, he didn't know he was charting the course for the rest of his life. "One of the guys on the boat had heard there were supposed to be waves on the tip of Lombok, but we basically rocked up with no idea…and no company. There was no one there, although we discovered later that there were three guys from Northern California who'd bought a turtle boat in Bali and converted it, and they'd already been surfing it for seven years. It was a dream come true. My whole concept of riding the barrel changed. I went back to Uluwatu to surf parts of the reef I'd formerly thought were unmakeable. Deserts changed my whole concept of what was possible inside a barrel, how deep I could be and still make it."
Indeed, kneeboarder Peter Crawford, an old surfing buddy of Jim's, once claimed to have been barreled at Deserts for over a minute, traveling through space and time in the process.
Deserts became hard to sail away from. "On my second trip back there, I went on another friend's boat. We were just going for a couple of days and this was before the Internet so we had no idea if there was swell coming or not. There were just waves for days. We were sleeping in the boat, which we'd anchored in a small cove to the north, catching fish and buying veggies from the locals. We'd already stayed five days and we were thinking, well, we can't leave now. We hit Day 10 and I was starting to think, well, I told my wife we were going for two days. There were no telephones or radio, so she was surely thinking I'd gone down in the Strait and I was thinking maybe I should go home. So on Day 10 we decided to bite the bullet and up anchor and sail back to Bali, but not before I had one last quick surf. The waves were tiny but fun, then all of a sudden I looked up the point and there was a shoulder-high set. Then within an hour it was head-high to double-overhead and every single wave was absolutely perfect. Just me and my two mates, and eventually they got surfed out and I was left out there on my own with 10 waves in every set."
In the years and decades since, Jim has continued sailing east, island hopping through the archipelago from Sumbawa to Sumba to Timor. He's camped on the beach at Nihiwatu. He's found waves he'll take to the grave. "They were magical times," he reminisces. Jim lives in Bali these days, and is preparing to once again set sail. "There are still waves out there, there are waves everywhere…but I don't think you'll find another Desert Point." —Sean Doherty
Sometimes life is only as big as your imagination. In his mid-20s, Mike Dobos was working 14-hour shifts, six days a week, in a Florida milk factory. He says if he hadn't made the right decisions he'd "still be milking cows in Florida." Nowadays, he says, "Most people know me as the grumpy night watchman at the Hotel Mundaka."
In 1995, Mike scrapped together savings from the gig at the dairy and used it to visit an airline stewardess he'd met in the Caribbean. She was living in Madrid at the time, and knowing how much Mike loved to surf, she booked him accommodation right next to a wave she'd heard about in the north of the country. The hotel turned out to be the one-year-old Hotel Mundaka, and the goofyfoot arrived to meet a run of swell he just couldn't believe. Ten days later, he still hadn't had enough, and canceled plans to meet the stewardess back in Madrid. About that time Marco, the hotel owner, was working night and day. In broken English, he mentioned to Mike how, if Mike could learn Spanish, he'd have a night shift available for him. At the time, Mike says, he knew enough of the language to order a beer and ask for the bathroom. So, he returned to Madrid, and then to Florida, where he hit the books and taught himself.
A year later, Mike returned to Mundaka and asked for a job. In the end, things didn't work out with the stewardess, but Mike says, "I ended up falling in love again, except this time with Mundaka." When your vacation becomes your life, he says, you end up leaving a lot of the familiar things behind. Mike doesn't often speak English or see his family or childhood friends. But he lived through Mundaka's golden age, witnessed the wave's competitive history unfold, and is now on a first-name basis with its champions. "If you told me 20 years ago what I'd be doing now," Mike says, "I would have laughed in your face." Well, he's still laughing. —Kimball Taylor
In the age when the oceans belonged to explorers and conquistadors, a pirate named Andrés Drake made his way down the Mexican coastline attacking ships, hunting for riches, and generally acting like a real asshole. In very characteristic fashion, the band of scallywags kidnapped a beautiful young woman from the village of Santa María Huatulco and held her captive as they continued on their dubious voyage. As the creaking hull sliced through tropical waters, the girl's fate looked dire.
But then Drake pulled into an uninhabited bay to lay in wait, hoping that a Spanish galleon might cross the horizon so they may give chase. It was in this pristine bay that the crew got sloppy—or sloppier than usual, that is. Ale was swilled and eyelids grew heavy, and suddenly the young beauty was gone. She had snuck out on the deck while her captors were stilled in their stupor, and she dove over the railing into the warm swells without making so much as a splash.
The arrival of sobriety coincided with a wave of panic through ranks of the crew. Drake ordered his men to take the skiffs ashore and scour the beach for the most beautiful hostage he had ever taken—and he had taken many. They searched tirelessly across the beach and into the jungle, and all for nothing. The woman was nowhere to be found, and for the rest of their days, the crew would call her La Escondida—the hidden one.
To Andrés and his gang, the Mexican coastline was a fine place to plunder, and plunder they did. But every time their travels brought them near Bahia de la Escondida, the obsessive captain ordered his men to search the beach and the jungle just beyond it for the lost beauty. She stayed hidden.
About 400 years later, people are still drawn to the same stretch of beach, now called Puerto Escondido. Although heavy tubes drill surfers into the sand time and time again, something continues to call us back into the maelstrom. —Todd Prodanovich
A career, a house, a wife, and kids are good reasons to stay put. But when you have nothing to lose, a siren is that much more seductive. "When you are 25 years old with no wife or children, the decision to leave and go search for perfect waves in exotic locations is an easy one," says Todd Lee who, in a previous life, was a native of Coolangatta, Australia. "In fact, it was the best decision I have ever made."
Twenty years ago, Todd booked tickets, said goodbye to friends and family, and fell in love with one beauty after another: Honolua Bay, Sunset Beach, Puerto Escondido, Jeffreys Bay. Each spot was a siren in their own right, but he was truly seduced when he reached the indulgent land of baguettes, brie, and barrels: Hossegor, France.
"When I arrived in '88 it was just at the end of the summer vacation period," says Todd. "During that year, the months of September, October, and November were all time. It was a new world. Everything was new. But it was never a conscious decision to move and stay in Hossegor. I was on a world surfing pilgrimage and, honestly, there are many places I visited where I could have settled, but Hossegor had it all. The waves are phenomenal when all the conditions are assembled, the social life is nothing short of amazing, and the cultural diversity living in Europe was a total change from Australia."
After 22 years, Todd did end up with a wife, kids, and all the responsibilities that keep you from looking for your siren. Lucky for him, he already found his. —Todd Prodanovich
"I remember coming out for the first time and being on the bow of the boat before dawn as the outline of the Mentawais came into view," recalls Ray Wilcoxen. "By the time we pulled into the Playgrounds area, the sun was shining and it seemed like we had found paradise: blue water, empty white beaches, coconut trees swaying in the wind, little waves bending in every direction. I was in love with the place before I ever caught a wave."
Three years later, Wilcoxen found himself shuttering his business in California, selling everything he owned, and moving to that very spot to build a luxury surf resort. But the romantic dream of relocating to a tiny, off-the-grid island—complete with warm barrels, white-sand beaches, and hammocks rocking in the breeze—was far from the reality.
"Looking back at it, we really didn't know anything, and should have been road kill," says Wilcoxen. "None of us had spent time on land there. We didn't know the language; we didn't know the culture. Everyone told us we were going to die of Malaria or Typhoid or get swept away by a tsunami."
Jordan Heuer, another one of Kandui Resort's founders and more recently the founder of Kandui Villas on the other side of the island, can also attest to the harsh realities of the island: "We've gone through so many trials and tribulations to get the resorts off the ground—from being completely broke, penniless, and not knowing where our next meal would come from, to having our lives threatened, and more. We have had hoards of locals with machetes, hassles dealing with authorities, earthquakes, tsunami scares, and even a bomb thrown at me once when we tried to get some photos of some dynamite fishermen destroying the reef."
The complications are now mere speed bumps in the rearview mirror, minor distractions from the dangling carrot out front: a right and left that offer up the kind of perfection generally reserved for daydreams.
"It's no coincidence that my house faces Rifles at just the right angle so I can sit on my rickety balcony with all the spiders and geckos to watch the waves spin down the entire reef," says Wilcoxen. "You can't tell how ridiculously fast and long that wave is from the boat angle. All you do there is go Mach 10 and look for the barrel. My kind of wave. Sometimes I'd like to trade in my 53-year-old body for a younger version of itself when I'm out there, but it's all good. I had no idea I'd be this lucky to be getting so much tube time at my age." —Janna Irons
The love affair with the heart-shaped island of Tavarua began in the early 1980s, when an American yachtsman sailing through the isles of Fiji saw a reef pass lighting up without a soul in sight. The gossip about this tropical beauty spread fast, and in little time the island had suitors flocking from every corner of the world to sample her offerings. It has since become an exotic nymph for touring surfers, a trophy wave flaunted in mags, brags, films, and contests. The temperamental mistress draws them in, giving worthy beaus the barrel of a lifetime and grilling overzealous expats on the shallow reef at Shish Kebabs.
Jon Roseman first surfed Tavarua in '89, and he fell in love, hard and fast. "I came down for a week back when it was a rustic surf camp," says Roseman, "and I realized very quickly that I didn't want to leave." This warranted a move from Southern California to the Southern Hemisphere, from condos to tree houses, Bud Lights to Fiji Bitters. Roseman is the co-founder and managing director of the Tavarua Island Resort, but he's first and foremost a goofyfooted saltwater addict whose nirvana exists in the hollows of Cloudbreak and Restaurants.
"A lot of people envy my setup, and I imagine that is easy to do looking in from the outside," he says. "In reality, there are good days and bad days—you see a lot of raw life, with the life-threatening injuries, high local-mortality rates, cyclones, tsunami alerts, floods…but it's all part of it, right in there with the sun and great surf."
"After 24 years, it's become home," he says. "It was the easiest call I have ever made. I immediately fell in love with Fiji, the waves, and the people. The staff and villages have completely become my family; they are truly what make Fiji paradise. Of course, the wave is amazing too." —Josh T. Saunders