Hitting the Bottom
For some, hitting the bottom is hitting the bottle, taking pills, or literally running into a wall. For me, I realized I was nearing the bottom while I was stuck in dead-stop traffic in Los Angeles.
I was in an action-sports job that most people would love, yet it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I sat in a cube, wanting to be outside, surfing and writing about things I was passionate about. Feeling guilty, I didn’t have the courage to leap.
Instead, I wrote on the side, did hundreds of headstands and ran miles to numb the boredom. The only way to describe what I was going through is by using a surfing metaphor: I felt like I was sitting on the beach, watching everyone else catch waves, afraid to paddle out, stuck in the sand. Soon enough, the bottom arrived in full-force when I found myself dialing my ex-boyfriend.
But then I got a phone call. Late nights of pitching stories until 2:00 a.m. finally paid off. Someone decided to give me a chance to write (and, by the way, go surfing with some of the best watermen in the world). I was invited to the Mentawais aboard the Indies Trader III, a famous surfing charter “discovered” by Captain Martin Daly, the guy who founded 90% of the waves in the region.
So I did what I had to do; I gave notice to my boss, promised him I’d train my replacement, and left a stable salary to pursue a writing career with no guarantees and a faster lay-off rate than the mortgage industry.
I’m on the plane to Taipei and my second bowl of ramen is churning inside as I realize what I’ve gotten myself into. I ask the stewardess for another soda water. With porcelain skin and eye shadow that looks like she took the pastel palette of Crayolas and dragged them across her eyelids, she brings me a bottle. It helps little. Here I am, a mediocre surfer at best, about to surf with the some of the best watermen in the world. I know I can play the “journalist” or “girl” card if I have to, but I’ve already taken one giant leap of faith. I know I won’t be able to just sit on the boat.
Someone once told me that, in Indo, if you have money, they think it’s theirs. I shouldn’t have been shocked when the smarmy little customs agent attempts to rip apart my passport upon arrival because he says I don’t have an entire blank page under “Visas.” I want to kill the guy, but as soon as I take out my wallet, he stops tearing. I give him $50, a small price considering most pay in the hundreds. Martin Daly is an expert at this by now, and had sent a porter to help negotiate should there be any trouble.
I meet the crew of guys I will travel with at a hotel in Jakarta. Todd Bradley is the one who invited me. He is a co-owner of C4 Waterman, a former champion canoe paddler, and the inventor of the first composite standup paddle. He is built like a rock, hence his Hawaiian name “Pohaku” (stone, in Hawaiian), and his mind is constantly running. He tells me I am much shorter in person than on the phone. I guess I talked big game. After all, they weren’t sure about having a girl aboard an “all guys” trip, so I had to lure him with my stories of being a journalist for a punk rock concert series, sleeping on a tour bus for 60 days straight. I promised I’d be able to hang.
Brian Keaulana was the most intimidating at first. He starts talking about his past day on set for a movie doing stunts, jumping out of cars, running off cliffs, and blowing up a jeep. Aside from being credited as the best lifeguard in the world, Brian is part of an elite group of stuntmen and coordinates most of the major water stunts in Hawaii. He is also the co-founder of C4 Waterman. Mike Fox is the CEO of Boardworks, which owns C4, and he was the youngest guy to be a lifeguard in Hawaii, at 15. He is the best dressed, wearing designer glasses and denim jeans. He buys us all $5 Indo massages and his inappropriate jokes make me realize we will get along well. The two filmers from LA are total dudes, really nice, but after playing a game of scrabble on the plane to the theme of sexual anatomy, I realize I’m going to miss having any other estrogen around. Kekoa Auwae is closest to my age. At 27, he’s a former pro longboarder turned standup paddler and says little, but surfs like he was born on a board. The photographer, Dana Edmunds, seems salt-of-the-earth nice and extremely professional. He’s shot everything from old Maui Jim sunglass campaigns to Kelly Slater at Teahupoo. The last guy to meet is Bruce Raymond, a former pro surfer and Quiksilver International executive who happens to be best friends with Martin. While he is built like a rugby player, I later learn he does a daily dose of handstands and yoga poses, which might be one reason he surfs like Gumby.
The guys have duffel bags of gear, fishing equipment, an array of paddles, a quiver of standup paddleboards, camera equipment, video cameras, an alaia, shortboards, big wave boards, and GoPro Hero cameras. I have a small backpack, my computer, and a 6’3 rounded-pin. I don’t say much,
just smile, and keep my heart from racing out of my chest.
The boat is more than I imagined. There is TV, all the beer and drinks you could consume, five-star meals, showers in every room, and beds bigger than mine at home. Martin arranges for his partner, a South African gentleman and real life treasure hunter, to pick us up in Padang. He tells us tales of recovering buried treasures worth millions, off Malaysia. I later learned that’s how Martin found the perfect waves in the Mentawais. He’d been searching for treasures off of Singapore and Indonesia, and had once surfed off of Nias in Northern Sumatra. Looking on a map, his gut told him there had to be more perfect waves around. Everyone told him he was crazy. After getting a boat and exploring the area himself, sure enough, he uncovered a treasure better than any porcelain or ancient artifact he could ever find.
First stop on the boat is Martin’s storage unit. Imagine the vision of an island you want to get stranded on after a hard day at the office. This “storage shed” where Martin keeps his boat parts and tools could hold the cast of Gilligan’s Island. We anchor a few hundred yards away and swim over to play in the shallows. Brian tells me he is going to teach
me every waterman sport there is during the next two weeks, from riding an alaia and standup paddleboard to fishing, sailing, hydrofoiling, and even tandem surfing. He asks if I dance or do cheerleading. He couldn’t have asked a bigger tomboy. I tell him I do every sport but dance. Regardless, he lifts me onto his shoulders and tries to get me
to do the splits mid-air. I am so horrified of embarrassing myself… but alas… when in Rome, or the Mentawais, you just go with it. At night, we eat grilled salmon over a fresh bed of veggies with homemade crème Brule and vanilla ice cream for dessert. I taste my first sips of Bintang (aka Indonesian Gatorade or Budlight) and watch the sunset as we embark for an overnight voyage to find surf.
It’s 5:00 a.m. and Bruce Raymond is making fresh-pressed coffee. The other guys are lying around watching a DVD of Laird Hamilton surfing Jaws. Adjacent to the screen is a corkboard with 3×5 pictures of Laird alongside Andy Irons, on the same boat we are drinking coffee on. I ask Brian about Laird. He says he is not watching Laird. “I’m watching the waves,” he says laughing. Brian trains with Laird. They’re all good friends. The rocking gets heavier. “We’re here.” The boys run out like it is the last day of school. We’re at a break with three- story high righthanders breaking loud, hence the name “Thunders.” They grab their boards, jump in and catch their first Indonesian barrels.
The first few breaks were all triple- overhead. We have still not seen another boat, or another person, for the last three days. We’re now at a place that’s Aussie slang for female genitalia. It’s a lefthanded wave that breaks over an island less than 100 yards wide. The first day I paddled my 6’3, potato chip surfboard and got rung out to dry, going over the falls every time.
But I wanted to paddle out again; I wanted to feel alive. I wanted to get worked, but I also wanted to catch some waves. I am undergunned by a large margin. Finally the filmer tells me to go in and grab someone else’s board. I think he is a total dick, but I listen. One of the boatmen gives me his 6’10, 20-inch-wide Tim Bessell carbon fiber surfboard. Tim is my neighbor in La Jolla, so I am stoked. I paddle for my first wave and miss. Brain Keaulana is SUPing next to me. He jumps off his board and shoves me into a giant wall of water.
“WAhoooo!” I careen down the face. It feels like I am riding my skateboard down a steep hill in Colorado and I wobbly ride it out. I let out a scream. The guys cheer. As a former surf instructor, I can’t believe I had to be pushed into a wave. I taste that feeling and I want to catch one on my own.
Jokes about how much I love “Mutz” (the spot named for a female organ) are endless. I love Mutz. I want to get deep inside Mutz. It’s too obvious to make fun of and by a week into the trip the guys are what the Aussies call “a bit Randy.” At dinner (fresh caught fish speared off the back of the boat) Martin says I’m the best surfer here. Those Aussies sure know how to put the charm on. I tell him I know the adage, “The best surfer in the water is the one who has the most fun.” At Surf Diva, where I taught surfing, that was our line. I go to bed every night with a permanent grin I can’t wipe off my face.
Every time I’m done surfing there is a fresh-pressed towel and juice awaiting me, the guys happily apply sunscreen for me, and everything besides waxing my board is done for me. They drop me off at the break, help me get waves, and we are the only ones out every time. Martin knows these waves so well, he has us spoiled. I get why the guys are craving some other females. Personally, I am in heaven being with all these guys.
I stay up late chatting with Martin about treasure hunting, about the choice to go out and make a life
taking surfers to perfect waves, about the inundation of other boat operations in the Mentawais. He has books full of stories. In fact, someone just made a movie about his boat. From all of his travels he said he realizes we’re all after the same thing. Muslim, Jewish, black, white, poor, rich – we all are after love, simple lives, and the ability to live with passion. I’ll never forget that.
I can officially die now. I know that sounds horrible, but all I have ever wanted to do is get a real barrel. It finally happened. Brian and I are sitting outside while the others are eating lunch. He tells me about training Kate Bosworth for the movie Blue Crush. He gives me a million tips. The best one being to stop bailing and start saying, “Make it, make it, make it” while on a wave. Just as he tells me he took Kate Bosworth out in 20-foot Waimea, a set comes and he asks me if I want it. I know if I say no, I’m blowing it. I accept his offer and with lightning speed I am up riding down the crystal clear green face. “Make it, make it, make it,” I say to myself, ignoring the coral reef ahead that looks like it’s about to eat my skin for lunch. Just then, the wave jacks upright and spits its lip out and the world stops, my eyes open wide, and I scream. It’s only for a few seconds, but I am standing in the clear green tube for the first time in my life. Dana Edmunds is there sitting inside with his fins on, camera clicking at the perfect moment. Not only do I catch the ride of my life, but I have proof for memories that I will share with my grandchildren. My metaphor completely plays out: I paddled out; I got worked; I caught the ride of my life.
Just when I start getting comfortable in overhead waves, we migrate to a heavy righthanded break with a name that’s foreboding. I have to call it IDKs, as in “I Don’t Know,” and Martin says when it’s good it gets like Teahupoo. Before Indonesia, the biggest wave I’d ever surfed was Bird Rock in La Jolla on an overhead day.
The guys are in hog heaven. All regular-footers except Todd, they ride their standups; Mike Fox in his Speedo, Brian and Kekoa with the prowess of Hawaiian warriors. Bruce and Martin are experts at this break and catch more waves than most do in a year. They are calling it 8- to 12-foot Hawaiian, and the energy of the wave is so great we have to leave the big boat at the anchorage and take the tin boat to get there. Still not another person in sight, I stay and fish, bodysurf, and sit inside. That wave seems beyond my limits and I no longer feel the need to prove myself. I go for a standup paddle around the open ocean. Todd takes me on a PWC ride. Then, he teaches me to hydrofoil, something Brian tells me only a dozen girls have done. “It feels like a cross between being a bird and a dolphin,” says Brian, who goes into the surf with Todd on the foil. I don’t think there could be a better feeling.
We are still at the righthander and I finally paddle out. Two waves were enough for me. The third wave around, I thought the boys yelled, “GOOO!” But Kekoa Auwae was really yelling, “NOOO!” It was the first wave of the set. I was caught inside. Luckily Brian and Mike Fox were bodysurfing inside. “Shelby, you gonna bail your board and dive deep,” Brian says. As I see a mountain of water (they later claim it was triple-overhead) coming at me, I take a breath and bail my board, wondering it if will be in one piece when I come up.
I use a trick Brian taught me to use when I am held underwater.
He tells me to sing a song, a happy song. I pick, “You Are My Sunshine.” It rings better than “Before You Die,” or every song by Bad Religion, which is what I initially had stuck in my head. I am getting closer to the reef. Worse case scenario, I decide I am going to ride the wave onto the rocks and risk scrapes and a $1000 to repay the boatman for his board. Two more sets on the head and I am getting sick of the song. After the fourth set on the head, there
is finally a lull. I am out of breath, puffing faster and harder than I have in any triathlon race. I burned off every Bintang I drank on the boat and paddle furiously to the channel, back to safety.
Mike Fox is sick. He complains of a stomach ache. We know it’s bad as we are passing perfect waves and he doesn’t want to surf. The guys trick me by telling me I have to take his temperature. The only thermometer they have is an anal one. I don’t know what to say. The guy could die. I go along, but don’t think I’ll actually have to administer it. I obviously don’t, but they film the prank on camera. Bastards.
We power a few hundred miles straight to the nearest island. Martin arranges for a jet to fly Mike to Jakarta, then to Singapore by another Lear jet where an ambulance awaits him on the tarmac. Without Martin’s knowledge and connections, Mike may have suffered an appendicitis rupture on the boat. He later emails us that he awoke in the hospital in Singapore to find his “family jewels” completely shaved.
A day of surfing goes by. Scrabble games get heated. We watch Big Wednesday. Just as he is about to pass into a snore, Bruce Raymond perks up and points out his wipeout scene, recounting tales of getting paid $2K to take off on a 25-foot wave, enough money to feed himself and buy his friends drinks for an entre winter on the North Shore in the ’70s.
There are only a few days left in the trip. We finally see other people at Lance’s Left, a famous wave known not only for long rides but for its bloody encounters on “the surgeon’s table.” Kekoa gets one
of the longest rides on a standup Daly has ever seen in all his years surfing there. I’m already nervous about having to deal with a crowd, and after the dawn session, Bruce Raymond comes back to the boat missing a large layer of skin on his left side. Watching this happen to a pro surfer and an amazing paddler, I am full of fear. I paddle out, catch only two waves in two hours then come in. “I’m surfed out,” I say.
Brian looks up at me. “You not surfed out, you freaked out,” he says with slight pigeon in his voice and a giant grin. He already knows me too well. I have no choice but to paddle back out. I watch Todd Bradley get some of his best waves of the trip. His paddling experience gives him an advantage in these lefthanded waves. He cheers me on and gives me more waves. I keep bailing early in fear of looking like Bruce. Brian calls me out again and tells me to start saying, “Make it, make it, make it.” I do. I’m riding a wave longer than ever. This time it really looks like it’s gonna’’ close out, but I don’t want to let Brian down. I don’t hear him yelling, “Bail!”
Whoosh! The wave breaks on my head and I try to exit through the back. It takes me by the feet and I put my hands in front of my face. Another wave comes and I am right at the mouth of the surgeon’s table. Bounce. Scrape. Bounce. I already have a black eye from nailing my head with my surfboard at another break when I started getting too cocky. I come up covered in red.
The captain, Martin’s protégé, Joel, squeezes lime juice in my wounds. It burns like fire eating at my skin, but he’s the only single one, and good looking, so I don’t mind him playing doctor.
We go to Katiet, the local village inside Lance’s, where Martin has helped the Surf Aide crew create a wellness clinic for the villagers. With kids running around, Brian takes palm leaves off the tree and, like
a balloon man, whips up flowers from palm fronds in nanoseconds, earning him smiles and giggles from every kid for a mile.
We have a final dinner. There are drinks and dancing. Having been cut up, and after a few glasses of wine, I decide wearing a dress is too cumbersome at the dinner table. Instead, I dine in a new leopard print Pualani bikini a woman from another boat gave me. Todd leads us in a final “Bule” (a Hawaiian prayer) before dinner. We are all so grateful for perfect waves, for Martin’s generosity, for the wonderful knowledge Brian has shared with us all, and for C4 Waterman’s need to “test” their boards.