The Fever Trail: Goodwill Hunting in Sumatra

From the bow of the Midas you can sight straight down the throat of the Mentawai's marquee wave, Lance's Right. Today it's small by Mentawai standards, but even at a relatively playful four feet, Lance's throws out a thick, full-body barrel.

This afternoon there are five charter boats, including Midas, anchored out at Lance's. An international crowd of 22 surfers — Aussie, Brazilians, Japanese and Americans — jostle around the tight takeoff zone known as "The Office." Conan Hayes picks off one from the outside and disappears for the length of the wave. He pops out far inside and glides into the flats with a shy but stoked gap-toothed grin.

The curio sellers, local woodcarvers from the nearby village of Katiet, dog the boats like pilot fish as each boat crew rotates in and out of the lineup. The bottoms of their slender dugouts are lined with an array of hand-carved art that runs the gamut from indigenous handicraft to cut-rate kitsch. This late in the season they knew that most boats would not be returning until March. They were blowing out excess stock at bargain rates. The going price for a trinket box was two dollars, or a decent surf-logo t-shirt.

This is the spontaneous ecology of tourist commerce created by the Mentawai surfer trade. Lance's Legacy. I'd seen similar surf symbiosis develop over the years between locals and gringo-god surfers at the campground fronting San Miguel's.

When Aussie surfer Lance Knight first surfed this shallow, near-flawless barrel in 1991, he had no concept that he was the pioneer scout of a global ant trail that would eventually support a multi-million-dollar international charter industry. Or spawn a thriving indigenous surf culture from a small Third World village hidden behind the wall of copra palms.

Sonny Miller, surf cinematographer and veteran of more than a dozen Mentawai trips, is on the debut Wave of Compassion trip this year. He's been able to track the epidemiology of introduced surf fever on an annual basis.

"The thing I've seen over the years is the rapid evolution," says Miller, who first filmed Tom Curren at Lance's Right in 1992 for The Search aboard the original Indies Trader. "For years it was just a crew of little kids out on the point watching the surfers. But then you came back one year and they're out there bellyboarding little inside waves on raw wooden planks. Then a year later you see them standing up on broken boards they've fixed up. This year I saw a couple teenagers going out to the main peak here at Lance's Right on small days. That's after only five years. Who knows, in ten years the world champ may be from the village here."

The inaugural Wave of Compassion (WOC) event is essentially a 10-day media trip but with a significant twist. First, the funds generated by raffling off two slots on the trip will go to SurfAid International to help fight malaria and improve the health of the Mentawai islanders. Second, for most of the surfers and media involved, it will be their first time ashore to meet the locals.

"Our surf culture has thrived off the Mentawai Islands for ten years now," says Strider Wasilewski, another WOC invitee. "It's also created a culture here that the people are now thriving on. So in a sense we (as surfers) need to help them take care of themselves because we're part of the reason they're here. It's a chance to give back because we've been sucking the nipple pretty dry."

We are aboard Midas, a 74-foot luxury motor yacht flagged out of Singapore. The Midas sports a living-room-size salon, four ensuite cabins, one skipper, two cooks, four crew, two massive diesel engines and a sustained cruising speed of 20 knots. At night we steam through these torpid equatorial seas sipping tea and watching Gladiator in Dolby Surround Sound.

By a week into the trip we've scored steady but by no means epic surf. But a trip this late in the season was a gamble to begin with. We've been grateful with what we got so far. We started in the north and gradually ticked off the list south: Kandui's, Bank Vaults, Pit Stops, Four Bobs, Lance's Left, Lance's Rights, Bintangs, Scarecrows, Macaronis, and Thunders. Each morning we awake to a new spot. The vibe thus far has been relaxed and professional, full of war stories, surf gossip and good-humored character assassination.

"I can't remember laughing so hard in my life," says the Wave of Compassion winner Jack Bunnell.
Besides Conan and Strider, the WOC lineup included Ben Bourgeois, Dave Rastovich and Keith Malloy.
The two WOC sweepstakes winners were Jack and Dani Bunnell from Kailua-Kona, Conan's hometown. Jack is a dentist with paramedic training. Dani skippers a sightseeing submarine out of Kona. Jack surfs, Dani bodyboards. They have a four-year-old son named Kaikea who is just starting to bodyboard.
Outside of a surf trip to Tavarua this year, however, this was the couple's first time traveling outside the U.S. "We had to look up the Mentawais in an atlas," admits Dani. "It was a heartbreaker leaving Kaikea but there was no way we were going to miss this."

At the outset Dani says they were somewhat apprehensive about spending 10 days afloat with a tight clique of A-List pro surfers and media journeymen. After a few days, however, she realized that surf stars need to light a match in the bathroom like everybody else.

"It's pretty cool to be a fly on the wall and get this inside view into the fantasy life of a pro surfer you only see in the mags and movies," says Dani. "They're real people with families, hobbies and other things going on outside of their surf gigs. Their lives may look glamorous, but it's work. They're on the road constantly and when it's good they have to go out and perform whether they're feeling up to it or not. But it's somewhat surreal to be reading about Dave Rastovich in a surf magazine and then turn to him and go, 'So Rasta, is this true?'"

By now the rest of the WOC surfers have joined Conan for a shift out at The Office. The dropping sun pops out of the equatorial murk for a half hour and bathes the scene in sweet golden f8 light. Our small platoon of cameramen — Justin Krumb, Jeff Divine, Sonny Miller and Scott Bass — patrol the channel in Midas's motor launch. Each time someone takes off they swing their lenses up with marching-band precision.

The Mentawais as a surf destination are in a subtle but profound transition. After a brief but steep dip in business due to 9/11 and the 2002 Bali bombings, surf charters are back at full capacity. There are now an estimated 40 boats — most of them Padang-based — working the 100-mile Mentawai archipelago during the April-through-October surf season. Business is booming.

Your Chance To WIN 2005

Preparations for the 2005 Wave of Compassion trip are already underway. Organizer Anthony Marcotti says the trip will be held in mid-September to increase the chances of finding good surf. The sweepstakes will start in early May with the winners announced by the end of July. This year's winners will include one U.S. and one international winner. Guest surf celebrities to be announced.

For information on Wave of Compassion go to:
or check the Web site:
For SurfAid USA: 760-753-1103

Under post-Suharto autonomy, however, the Mentawai people have been given a mandate to develop their own economy separate from Sumatra. Besides logging and their traditional copra and spice industries, this now includes tourism.

And more recently, land-based surf resorts. There are at least three land camps currently under construction and plans for a half-dozen more. While it doesn't spell the end of the surf charter trade, it does point toward a more profound intertwining — for better or worse — between surfers and their Mentawai hosts.

SurfAid Chief Executive Officer Andrew Griffiths is concerned about the impact surfers have culturally and economically on native cultures. What everyone — surfers, charter operators and land-camp operators alike — wants to prevent is the creation of yet another surf ghetto ala Nias or Uluwatu.