Boat surfing in Sumba The unexpected is the most enjoyable: By Stephen Titus
Boat surfing in Sumba
The unexpected is the most enjoyable
In August 2019 six of us – Tony Bannon, Craig Leggat, Paul Bannon, Numa Miller, Jeff Chapman and Steve Titus had a week away alongside the coast of Sumba. Most of us had been there to Nihiwatu for an Australian Lawyers Surfing Association (ALSA) Conference in 2010. Sumba is an island double the size of Bali with one sixth the population which is close to the Komodo dragon Island. It is a swell magnet.
Reports had come back that some of the more well known places west of Bali and east of Bali were now quite crowded. Enquiries were made and a decision agreed to be on a boat going along the coast. We flew to Bali, had an overnight there and caught the plane to Sumba. A quick 10 minute drive down to the port saw us meeting our home for the next 7 days, Lambo, a traditional prau.
Makassa is on the south western tip of the Celebes, also known as the Sulawesi Islands, to the east of Bali. The Macassans are great seafarers, the Phoenicians of that area. From 1700 to 1907 they sailed to Australia to harvest the trepang or sea cucumber and trade it in China. Some had been concerned as to whether we would get a leaky old boat with no air conditioning and be marooned on it. The exact opposite. Our boat was built 9 years ago by the best seafaring village on the island. It was 22 metres long in beautiful timber and so well thought out. Purpose built for diving, surfing and charters for 8 people. A sailing boat with motors. The speedboat met us at the harbour. Whilst waiting Craig broke out his ukulele and had the locals joining him singing – House of the rising sun. Tony also threw in his guitar and Paul played as well. It was quite a musical interlude. We motored out and met Jakob our Austrian surf guide. A photographer who was a keen and stylish goofy footer. The crew were friendly and professional and the boat was everything you wanted, with lots of space. There was no need for air conditioning with the breeze and openness. We were at the front and the crew at the back. There were daybeds alongside the dining area as well as another sundeck on top with bean bags and also the front deck. We had a great friendly cook, Dul.
There had been reports of 12 foot swell shortly before our trip. I had wondered whether I needed to pick up a second hand 7 foot 6. Then the forecast changed and we were told that we would have small waves initially, getting bigger and a couple of big days. Craig and I had done our research and we had maps and locations to go to. We compared notes with Jakob who had more detailed maps and more places. Craig had a new 7 foot 2 Outer Islands and I had my 6.8 and 7 footer.
We motored down the coast. We stayed within a kilometre of the coast most of the way along. The boat could go 8 knots per hour. It felt good being on board. That afternoon we surfed a good left and right hand reef with overhead waves. No one around. In many areas of Sumba it is national park or there are no roads. It is undeveloped. We moored close to the shore under a headland. Food was fantastic and the start of a great time.
The next day we had an overhead lefthander on a beautiful golden beach with no one around. It felt pretty magic in 2019 to find uncrowded and beautiful spots. As we motored down the coast the scenery became more impressive, green, dramatic and exotic. We were going past lost world type valleys with a headland at either end, a rivulet at one end and golden beaches and reefs and green vegetation. The next day we again had overhead lefts at a beach with a village. We dropped into the village. On land, in the dry season it was dry and hot. The mobility and freedom and cooling water made us appreciate how good the boat was. No flies or mozzies on the water.
We went past Nihiwatu. If you can afford to go there you should. It has fantastic surf and barefoot exclusive luxury. We also dropped in to catch up with Christian Sea who had been surf guide for us at Nihiwatu when we were there in 2010 and now operated a surf health retreat called Ngalung Calla in a bay just across from a fantastic righthander which we had surfed. We had arranged to drop in because Christian was so friendly. On the day we did he had gone to the town. His friend Chris looked after us and we saw the work he had done in a low key but beautiful resort. Though we had overhead waves that morning Christian’s waves were small.
Ngalung Calla – 4 –
There was a name right hand break down the coast and also an offshore island lefthander. I wanted to surf there. I wanted to be there when the swell hit. We pulled in overnight to a beautiful bay with white cliffs at either end and a great valley behind it. Jakob said there was a good lefthander at one end and a righthand reef on sand at the other. It was only accessible by boat and there were no roads to it. The next morning we jumped in the speedboat to go across to the righthand reef. I thought this wave might be a 3 footer going for about 30 metres. When you come into a surf spot from behind you cannot tell how big the wave is or what the setup is. As we paddled in a swell went underneath us and Craig and I looked at one another. We might be in for a surprise! The lineup was beautiful. Sunny, dead glassy, jungle, beach, us and no one else. Craig got the first one and went for a long way. I got the second. Suddenly my expected 3 footer had the bottom drop out of it as it hit the reef I turned into this 6 foot fast, steep, fantastic wall that I had to drive, swoop and fly along to respond to, rather than control or choose a path, which went for 100 yards. Instinct surfing and purity that is wonderful. The best wave I have had in Australia for the last two years. I surfed like a 26 year old at 66 through pure necessity. When I flicked off I thought – “What was that!” The waves either closed out or went into a channel at the end and you paddled out. The surf was overhead to double overhead, 4-6 foot with 8 foot sets pushing wide and keeping you honest. Craig and I both got 8 waves each just like the first. The valley had 3 ridges before the final mountain range circling the bay with a creek at the end. Like a lost world. I almost expected a lost tribe to paddle out to greet us. We also tried the left hander. I could see it had potential. I would like to have tried it on a larger swell to do due justice to its potential. Sea eagles hovered over us above the cliffs and jungle.
Everyone else got fantastic waves and we were stoked. There was a great vibe on the boat that night. The next morning I moved up from my 6 foot 8 to my 7 footer as the swell was supposed to be bigger. It was. Craig got the first wave. He came out afterwards and said it was the best tube he’d had for a long time and said he would remember it indefinitely. I got the next wave and got tubed but didn’t make it out. We all had a repeat of great waves. We moored that night in a bay of a big harbour. There was a fishing boat nearby. Apart from us there was jungle and no roads or people. It was dramatic and beautiful and the conversation flowed freely.
We were feeling good. We tended to surf in the morning and loll around in the afternoon. We would read. I was reading The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. Great book. We might go ashore and wander on the beach. At night after a gin and tonic and some live music we might break out an iPod with a speaker and try to surprise people with a lost gem. There were two big barrels on the deck for an easy shower with a pail after the surf as well as showers downstairs. The bunks were big. There were fans if you needed them. Jeff often slept on the daybed and I did one night too.
We would often motor in the morning from about 4am to come to the next surf spot for 6am. We had our surf legs in.
I came to appreciate that Jakob had found us great surf and overhead surf when the swell conditions were not all that large. Some of the name spots we went past were not working. We surfed overhead surf every day. We went past where ALSA later stayed on land. The beauty of a boat.
One afternoon and at the right time we arrived at the righthander. It lived up to its reputation. It was 4-6 foot with 8 foot cleanup sets which pushed wide. The wave was set under a headland about 800 metres off the beach. There was no one else out. I think I got the first and Jakob the second. A big wall with a steep takeoff that I launched into, then drove along for about 80 yards before a big deep cutback was necessary. Then I found I had this incredible looping, swooping, steep inside wall to fly up and down and across for before finally flicking off into the channel. Wow! We all got into it for an hour with stacks of good waves, laughter, hooting, some wipeouts and great long walls. Two guys staying on land then joined us. Whilst we were able to moor alongside it and get dropped off, the landbased surfers there either had to paddle out or get a boat ride out or walk along the rocks. A wave that ran for between 200 and 300 metres. There were a couple of takeoff spots. The apprehension one has in surfing a new spot soon filtered into anticipation after the first session. There was no fear, though at a larger size there could be. We all got waves and we were so happy.
The only sour spot
All stories should have a sour spot. Our welcome to the 2 surfers who joined us on all the sessions was met with a distinctly unfriendly reaction. In answer to our “How you going” one said “I was good until you fucking arrived.” Craig established that these two guys were from the south island of New Zealand and came across regularly and had been there for one month with another month to go. They knew the wave. I loved the fact that Craig just sat alongside the two unfriendly kiwis awaiting his turn. I drifted a bit inside. Craig later said that they did not like boats at the right. One was obnoxious. I ignored them.
Over the next few days we had solid and reasonably demanding big point surf requiring good surfing and power bottom turns of off the top with a less intensive fast glide with swoops on sections with the inside walls into the channel. The wide sets would keep you honest. You had to climb onto the wave on the sets with a late drop. I hung a little inside as did Jakob, Tony, Paul and Numa all getting a range of good waves. Driving to make it with long, fast hollow sections, wave after wave which created a fantastic routine. Getting a rhythm up on about 8 waves a session makes you feel fantastic.
On the third day, early, Jakob and I paddled across and there were the two kiwis and a third guy. I paddled out to say hello and said “G’day guys.” There was no reply. I paddled away. I grew up surfing Sandon Point. It had a reputation for having some unfriendly locals. In fact the surfers there were all keen, good and friendly and laughing and appreciated their waves and appreciated others’ enjoyment. They were friendly to visitors who did not drop in. I laughed as I paddled inside ready to get every wave that I could.
I thought then and a little later the following: –
• What deadheads
• “Skill not yet developed.” My wife runs a pre-school kindergarten and when parents enquire as to the progress of their children she will say that the skill has not yet developed. That is just a natural factor of life. Their life skills had not yet developed. Maybe South Island Kiwis don’t travel well. In my five trips to Raglan on the North Island over the last 10 years, the surfers there are great and friendly in and out of the water.
• “Cover your tracks. Being friendly in the water.”
I had a good friend George Tomlinson who was one of the best wave ski riders in the world. A contemporary of Merv Larson (look him up on YouTube). Those two were the equivalent of George Greenough with wave skis utilising no fins and able to do 360s and 720s and go sideways and be totally amazing. My former wife had met George’s wife on a train in Kenya many years ago. Through that I got to surf the Ranch, Rincon and good spots north of San Francisco. I got to ski Mammoth and Lake Tahoe. George got to surf Sandon Point, Bendalong, Bawley Point, Camden Haven and the north coast and south coast. He liked our Aussie sense of humour.
George always worked on the philosophy that you treat people in a way that if you have to go back and ask for a favour they thought well of you and would do it. Doors were always open to George. An underwater diving demolition commander in the Vietnam War who looked after his troop and carried that same “covering your back” attitude through. George died too soon from a heart attack whilst abalone and urchin diving.
• Another good thing about their whole attitude was one could just focus on the waves.
In our safety talk when we first came on board we were told there were some unconfirmed reports that one or more of our Australian cousins had gone wandering and paddling looking for less crowded territory and had been seen at a couple of spots on the island. The vibe from the undeveloped Kiwi never got so bad that we needed to call on our cousin and his friends for assistance. He had a big mouth and quite a bite.
The picture attached taken from about a mile away of the right gives you an indication as to what a good wave it is.
At one stage I calculated that I had blown about 5 waves and I felt a bit bummed until I worked out that I had made about 25 waves. At one point Paul and I had each caught a small wave when there had been no sets about, then had to duck dive and wait out what seemed to be a 12 wave set. We were both laughing and carrying on as we had been washed a long way inside. At one stage I saw Tony lined up on a good wall and thought – “Here he goes.” He fell off. I was so surprised and he later said he was too. Numa, Paul and Jeff tended to sit in. Craig out the back. Jakob, myself and Tony a little inside of Craig and paddling for best positions and ready to dart for the wide rangers.
A bit later on the third day the attitude of the second Kiwi softened and I talked to him. The third guy, an Australian, probably ashamed of his lack of manners, talked to me. He said that in other sessions at 8 – 10 foot he was torn between being terrified and exhilarated whilst watching for the ever wider pushing sets.
We did not bother to find the lefthander. We sailed on one occasion. We saw dolphins, dugongs, turtles, fish were caught. It was great to realise that in 2019 there can still be places that are off the beaten track. We had no injuries and no broken boards.
Jakob and Author
The boat was big enough to be able to have our own space. We could all retreat to our own areas, then come together for meals. Dul, our cook, provided us with fresh fish, octopus, prawns, chicken and meat, pancakes and great salads. Indonesian, Japanese and Western. Sushi and sashimi –
on the top deck at sunset. His smiling face matched his culinary skills. Hendrik, the speedboat driver was cool and stylish and ever vigilant to pick us up. All the crew were fantastic.
We motored back overnight a distance of probably about 100 miles to arrive at the port to be able to fly back to Bali and home.
We had 5 world class surfs in overhead to double overhead waves and overhead waves on every day and no crowds.
Two months later I had to be in Bali for a short time. I took my ten year old grandson Harper up to Uluwatu. By arrangement we were meeting Chris Byrne, the former professional surfer who developed a back injury and had to go off the circuit who now lives there and runs a surf store and gives surf lessons. I had not seen Chris for over 30 years. He said that if I was coming there to look him up and he would give Harper a lesson. Harper knew something about Uluwatu because he said “I am not surfing Uluwatu.” When we walked to the cliffs at Uluwatu it was going off. It was majestic and fantastic at 4-8 foot. It was alluring and just wonderful. All the peaks were working. It had 100 guys out with more getting in the water. I thought back to my first time there in 1977 when there was no one out except us and climbing down the ladder into the cave to get out. I realised that there are beautiful and fantastic waves in Bali still. Chris took us around the corner to a lovely pristine beach between Uluwatu and Padang that I had walked past 30 years ago where he had a small warung. Chris gave Harper lessons on these soft gentle waves. It was a throwback to Bali of 40 years ago. It reinforced my love of Bali. As one gets older places get more crowded. If opportunity exists to get to places further afield, then you take it. What I realised is that Indonesia has so many good waves. It was fantastic to know that many of them are in their pristine state and uncrowded and the effort to find them will be well rewarded.