A Barrel You Could Drive a Car Through

— Last August, a crew of nine Southern California surfers -- seven from San Diego County, two from Orange County -- traveled to Indonesia for a two-week cruise to the surf breaks of the Mentawai Islands, which dot the coast of Sumatra, southwest of areas devastated by December's tsunami. The crew: Mike, Tim, and Terry, a trio of brothers from Coronado and Imperial Beach; James and Sutherland from the South Bay; Patrick and Rusty from Huntington Beach; Andrew from Coronado; and Imperial Beach surfer Todd Westfall, who kept a diary of the trip. Each crew member paid nearly $5000 for airfare and room and board on the Indies Trader II surf tour boat. "We're all here," Todd wrote in one of his first entries, "to surf the best waves of our lives."

Friday, August 20, 2004 Twelve hours from LAX to Taipei, another four hours from Taipei to Singapore, four hours from Singapore to Jakarta, where we stayed a night. Nice city. Humid but not uncomfortable, plumeria blooming everywhere. Julian, the ground guy for our surf-tour company, Indies Trader Marine Adventures, met us at the airport in Jakarta and transported us and our boards to our hotel. Nice guy, 50ish, Kiwi who's been in Indonesia for 20 years. Has an Indo wife and two kids. He told us the islands are a bit crowded [with other surfing tour boats], but a wicked south swell is to hit in a few days.

Aboard the Indies Trader II heading south -- the plane from Jakarta landed in Padang around noon. Mick, the cook and captain's mate, met us at the airport accompanied by an Indonesian crew member. We loaded all our stuff in two vans and made our way to the harbor -- crazy Vespas and taxis everywhere, no rules on the road, and driving on the left side of the street. Street vendors are all over the place. Muslim women covered from head to toe. We made it to docks where the hardworking Indonesian crew did all the loading onto the Indies Trader II. It's around 70 feet long and 20 wide. The hull's painted blue while the superstructure is white. There are four two-man staterooms, a main room for meals and movies, and a couple of bathrooms. It's all air-conditioned. Tony, the captain, is a classic -- a grizzly Aussie with a heavy, gravelly accent. Super nice.

Everyone's ruined with jet lag and we've turned in to our cabins pretty early. I'm bunking with Andrew.


We cruised 80 miles south overnight through rain, lightning, and rough seas, at least that's what Tony tells me. I slept through all of it. Woke up to a nice left-hand point along a small, uninhabited island. Tony says it's called McFright's. Mike, Andrew, Terry, and I are the first out. The others soon follow. One of the crew drives us to the break in the "tinny" -- a 15-foot center-console aluminum boat that is towed behind the big boat. The waves are lots of fun but difficult -- a very fast, hollow wave. The coral is two feet under the surface (sometimes less). And we all got some cuts, scrapes, and board dings. Rusty got slammed into the reef when his roommate Patrick cut him off. We all saw it and were shocked. Surfed three hours and came in for breakfast of muffins, coffee, fruit, cereal.

Second session of the day is with Tony the captain, who is a good surfer; Mike, who is an incredible surfer, though it's only been a month since he broke his femur; and Sutherland, who is a talented surfer despite the fact he's surfing on a prosthetic lower leg. Perfect surf, warm clear water, shallow reefs, and a comfortable boat with a large flat-screen TV for DVDs. Surfed five and a half hours today. After a dinner of Thai curry with asparagus and fresh fish, I crashed out.

While I was on board, some of the guys were putting around a nearby island in the tinny when they spotted a red flag. They motored up to find four Indo teenagers on a raft made from six pieces of bamboo held together by palm fronds. Their intent was to sail from one island to another, but their raft was sinking and they were miles from any inhabited land mass. All they had was a machete and a bag of sugar. Mick, Sutherland, and Tim transported them to the nearest village. One teen was shaking and near death from dehydration. As they arrived at the island, villagers came to greet them. Mick says he's "100 percent sure" they'd have died had we not spotted them. Mick says kids like these die all the time here and that life expectancy is low in the islands. A person is lucky to live past 30 or 40 years because of malaria. Tony, Mick, Terry, and James party outside late into the night.


Awoke to heavy rain. Catch a few waves off a small, jungly island. We paddle back to the boat and head to McFright's. The Indies Trader III, another boat from the same company, is there with a few guys out in the water. I'm bummed to see another boat since we've been alone so far. But the two captains communicate, and the Indies Trader III guys paddle in and Mike, Tim, and I paddle out.

After a while, our crew of nine paddles out and our first internal conflict erupts. Patrick has been aggressive in the water. Yesterday he put his own friend on the reef. Today, he's paddling around people, cutting people off, mushing out waves for other guys. Terry and Tim say, "What the hell, Patrick? Is this the way it's going to be?" He's apologetic and mellows out...a little. People are giving him the cold shoulder, and he paddles in with his tail between his legs.

Wind changed so we bailed back to the boat. We cruise a couple of miles to another one of the 13,000 islands in the Mentawai chain and paddle out at another left-hander called Moots.

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