Can You Go On The Surf Trip of A Lifetime if You Haven’t Surfed in 12 Months?
Dispatch from the Indonesian archipelago.
Life can take you away from the surf.
Sometimes willingly, often not. But whether it’s a job, a girl/boy (they/them), tedium or just a yearning to explore life away from the coast (it’s out there), you can’t surf all the time. Or maybe you can, but it’s a pretty one-dimensional existence.
However, assuming, for the sake of this experiment, that your excommunication from surfable coastlines features a conjugal visit to hit a prime surf zone (say, shoulder season Indonesia) could you still have some of the best experiences of your surfing life?
If, of course, you were smart and organised about it – boards, waves etc – could you potentially rock up green, have a few weeks of adjustment (aka surfing “fun” waves), strike mission some tubes and be back in Bangkok before anyone realises you’re gone?
Well, I tried. And here’s what I learned.
The infinite surf industry backscratch has gifted me the Onboard network top brasses’ emails, and with a little gentle persuasion, they agreed to donate a couple of crafts to this experiment, provided I gave them back before I got on the plane. Aka, the perfect surf travel crime.
I’ve had a few Merricks over the years but none I’ve truly loved. And my most recent run at the Byron store was a disaster. I strode in with the always fraught, “Just rock up, they know you’re coming…” to much confusion, and by the time the subsequent phone calls were made to verify my identity, I awkwardly grabbed a board that I’d need to weigh 10% less and surf 35% better to ride.
So safe to say that I was determined to not make that mistake again, breaking the habit of a lifetime to actually ask a few questions, take some time to dial in the quiver properly.
I was thinking a clean shooter that’ll float me easily and a mid-length would be the perfect two card trick for this situation. The mid-length to ease back into the feeling of riding waves, gradually build the paddle fitness. Then the shooter for taking off early, scooping, getting pitted. Turns be damned.
Charlie, formerly of Onboard Hq in Oz, met me at the original Onboard Bali store in Seminyak (now complimented by two in Canggu and one on the Bukit) at the sociable opening hour of 10 am. My first reaction after rocking up on Sunset (a street I hadn’t walked for over a decade) was – “Where the fuck is everyone?” Not at Onboard specifically, they opened on the dot and Charlie’s beaming smile showed up shortly after. But everyone in Seminyak? Tumbleweeds is hyperbole, but knowing the endless funds and endless development that had reportedly been plunged into this little island of late, the former heartland of drinking slightly cheaper than what you get in Australia cocktails and eating Tex Mex – was quiet. Too quiet.
Charlie hooked me up with a 6’10 CI Mid off the rack, then pencilled me in for a 6’3 Christensen OB3 with grey rails, inspired by a sleek rack of them taking pride of place in the store. We were just about to head out to check out the factory down the road when Charlie said, “I think there’s a hole in this quiver – you need a fun board.” The CI G-Skate had literally just dropped and I remember perusing the CI IG and thinking, “Man that’s an ugly surfboard.” But, gifted salesman as he is, Charlie regaled me with tales of how much he liked his G-Skate on a recent Ments trip (complete with a screen grab of him standing in a hefty pit) and I was sold. I’m 6’2 and 5’5s freak me out, so Charlie tweaked the stock dims for me. And what that involves is contacting Papa Merrick at CI’s Santa Barbara Mecca and requesting permission to access the (locked) shaping file in order to stretch her out a little. Which made me fee special, and also offered an interesting insight into this whole shaping under license thing.
The first destination of the trip was easy. Mid-length, Balian, one week, one objective: feet in wax, life back in the shoulders. And, as with Seminyak, my first reaction after arriving was, “Where the fuck is everyone?” I first went to Balian at 14, and have been back every time I’ve been to Indo. It’s always been a sanctuary of sorts, far from the intense arenas and intense clientele that surfing in Indonesia is synonymous with. And, it’s barely changed infrastructure-wise, which is remarkable in the Wild Wild West (that’s actually in the east) that is Indonesia, Bali in particular. The surf was as empty as I’ve seen it. And as consistent as ever. There’s been a few bull shark attacks recently — which might explain the lack of other people — but when you’ve spent as much time surfing the mid-north coast of NSW as I have, that doesn’t garner much more than a shrug.
If you’ve never been, the wave’s pretty similar to Trestles, especially at high tide when it makes the absolute most of whatever swell’s running. A classic cobblestone A-frame with a long right that breaks way out the back and on a good day runs right into the rivermouth (where the Bulls like to hang out) or a shorter, bowly left that you can jump on from a number of different peaks. After a couple of go-arounds, my mediocre surfing ability — as in the time spent perched on the deck ± came back pretty quick.
The CI Mid and a bowly A-frame in warm water is as stress-free as surfing gets, without being boring. Catching waves is easy even with arms filled with lactic acid (which we’ll get to), but what impressed me most was its ability to set a rail when required. High-lining past the money section and wrenching it as hard as you can on the shoulder isn’t good surfing 101, but it makes you feel like Margo when you’ve been 1000 kms from the ocean for a year.
After a promising start, the rest of the trip was an outright skunking of Herculean proportions. As in two months in Indonesia in (admittedly) shoulder season, where I saw crowds unlike I’ve seen anywhere apart from the Gold Coast and maybe Byron, and not a wave over three foot. The only tubes I saw the inside of were at, wait for it, Kuta Reef (it’s still there), and by far the most fun I had surfing was in the first week at Balian, which seems true to form for any skunking in my experience. The first few days give you a taste and conjure those, “man if it was only a bit more… then it would be so fun” — and then you spend the rest of your trip going, “Man I wish it was like it was the first few days we were here.”
The body does not like performing tasks that it’s not used to. Ever. Whether that’s bowling in the nets for the first time since last summer, helping your mate shift a load of bricks, circuits, whatever. If you’re not used to it, it’s gunna hurt. And no matter how fit you are (I ride a bike a lot), if those wings aren’t used to paddling, you’re in trouble — as I was after two days when paddling quite literally burned. It took a good week to be able to paddle around for an hour, muscle into waves, and generally peruse the line up as “normal”.
So my advice, in hindsight, for anyone wanting to tap back into surfing after a hiatus is: as boring as swimming is, to hit the pool. Being quote/unquote “fit” must help somehow once you can feel your arms again, but it’s not enough. I reckon if you can swim a km of crawl comfortably then you’ll be golden. And, even though they feel (and look) weird as hell when you first try them, those surf-specific mobility training routines, a la Luke Stedman’s Black Ball program, would definitely put you ahead of the curve.
Can you go on the surf trip of a lifetime if you haven’t surfed in 12 months? I think so, yes. And I think that the plan — treating it like skiing and progressing through the slopes and equipment gradually — was a sound one. But, if you’re stuck in a wave-starved archipelago for two months with hordes of wave-starved surfers, then that’s just one of those Ls you’ve got to cop in this surfing life.
I rode the G-Skate four times and was blown away by how good it felt under my feet, after literally years since riding a board sub-six feet. Fast, drivey, forgiving. Channel Islands have really mastered that high-performance yet user-friendly surf craft thing. And then there was the Christensen. Six three, pulled in swallow, powdery grey rails, my name on the bottom; I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t the most handsome surfboard I’ve ever had. But I never rode it. Gave it back without even a lick of wax, hopped on my scooter and almost wept. Beauty like that deserves more than three foot, Superbank-crowded Temples.
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