JESUS H CHRIST. I positioned myself well outside the takeoff zone. I was officially kooking it. I wasn’t even sure how I was going to get back in. I resigned to being trapped out there, and to a painful, lacerated ending.
I had made it outside easily, just in time for a set to roll through that was bigger than any I’d seen in the last two hours — liquid mountains steepening and funneling in towards the reef. They had immediately ruined my session. I had sprinted over them, shaking and horrified at the immense roar and thick, drive-your-van-through sized barrels, which unloaded onto the visible brown, contoured reef.
On the beach, underneath a palm-roofed warung, and behind a gas stove, a local woman spectated while frying eggs for her Brazilian guests. They slouched in plastic chairs in the shade, also spectators of the ocean arena. I had nervously paddled out hoping to catch a small window of manageable waves. I knew that as the tide changed it would get a lot bigger — and way too big for me again — this was how Deserts worked. But I had really needed a surf. And when I paddled out there was no danger. Still, my heart had pumped just pulling my board out of the bag — never a good sign.
On one hand, this was all my fault. I’d abandoned mainstream expectations to go travel and surf the world. I wanted this. In a period of both passion and naivety, I’d chosen “personal satisfaction over social production,” as William Finnegan put it in the forward to the Encyclopedia of Surfing. From Portland, Oregon, I quit my geeky lab job (extraction chemist) and bought a one-way ticket to Nicaragua. In months of mostly asocial bliss, I taught myself not only to be comfortable in large surf, but to thrive in it, from the firing beach barrels of Nicaragua, to Costa’s point and reef gems, and onward to master backside riding at El Salvador’s points, to a six-week finale of Zicatela death barrels, before switching hemispheres. And for a time it was glorious. But it was also equally as lonely. It was a time of intense journaling, and learning to accept responsibility for my own actions — particularly the life-threatening surf sessions. When you go it alone there’s no one else to blame.
On the other hand, I was deceived. Growing up in North Carolina, I was wave-starved, but fed mass-circulated images of waves and lifestyles depicted as so perfect, so exotic, so endlessly barreled. This had always been the dream. Naturally, some years later, as a young bachelor, I fell into the ranks of the millions wandering the globe, without surfing sponsors, on their own dollar, asking for directions to what they could only describe as “world-class waves.” In my lesser moments I’d blame the over-advertised, spun-out articles on surf travel, which unrealistically depicted waves as dreamy and beautiful (and accessible), like the photoshopped porn stars that foster perverted, deranged sexual mentalities in men.
Indonesia was the next level. It was my first trip to the region. I had landed in Bali and only just experienced Uluwatu for the first time. From there I met a surfer who happened to be heading to West Sumbawa overland, and so I tagged along with him, for the company, and for his translating and bargaining abilities, and other travel know-how that I seriously lacked. Plus, he looked remarkably like Gavin Beschen, so in my mind, he had to be a good surfer.
From Sumbawa a new crew formed and talked about Deserts, a freewheeling assembly of dudes from Israel, California, and South Africa. Gavin and I parted ways, but he had taught me enough to traverse the jungles on my own.
Deserts was there and we knew it, conveniently on the way back to Bali. Thinking about it made me shiver, as if I could feel its presence, like a pulsing, living entity, drawing me in, luring me towards it. That mysterious allure was enough, fortunately, because we didn’t have a whole lot else to go on. What we did have lacked historical perspective: YouTube videos of guys riding in tubes with GoPros; and the Stormrider guide, which I generally trusted, both hyped it and hated it, like it does with most waves, calling it “the longest, makeable lefthand barrel on the planet,” but warning about the “tricky exit, the shallow reef, evil out-going currents, and wave-starved rippers.”
Ultimately, nothing I saw or heard or read meant anything to me. They were the seeds, the soil, and the sun. I was the life form. I couldn’t have known what I was getting into, but that was the point. What better reason to go than facing the unknown? Independent, no-budget travel by nature is reckless and rash. To surf somewhere new is to take the same fearless approach essayist Nancy Mairs does to writing. “It’s as though some writers have the sense never to enter the room until they’ve thrown the switch and flooded it with light,” she says, “whereas others, like me, insist on entering rooms with burnt-out bulbs or blown fuses or no wiring at all.”
We arrived in May, late at night, to a building swell. The next morning we saw it from our beachside shack, looking out the window. I wasn’t mentally prepared for how huge it was. Just watching it shocked my Israeli companion (he was gone by late morning, for lesser waves). The perfect reeling lips hypnotized, the speed and the enormity were unbelievable, demoniac — all 15 feet of it, from the outside peak all the way down the beach, past my vantage around the cliff side out of sight for some unsaid record length of flawless barrel.
Instinctually, I knew she was out of my league. Watching the sets brought me intense pangs of fear, and I became angry at my loss — I wanted to surf, but it wasn’t happening here. At the same time, I was strangely amazed, at times welling joy, by simply witnessing the rare phenomenon.
The sun shone. I watched the arriving surfers for entertainment. They were coming from Bali by scooters. The sign made from a broken surfboard with the skull and crossbones greeted them. “Welcome to Desert Point,” it said. “The ultimate surf.” They would pull up, see nine-foot swells reeling for hundreds of meters, freak out for about 20 minutes, and then leave. “No way,” they emphatically told each other, shaking their heads. There was a certain pleasure I derived from the scene, from the initial horror in their eyes. Perhaps it was just comforting to know I was not alone.
On not being Banksy
Twenty-five years ago, Deserts was a big secret to a handful of surfers. An Australian named Jim Banks was one of them.
He first stumbled onto Desert Point in the early ’80s. “My whole concept of riding the barrel changed,” he said in an interview with Surfer Magazine. Imagine the exhilaration of having a wave like this to yourself — the ability to choose which wave you take in the set instead of jockeying for a peak, the time to wait for it to get just the right size, to ease into the wave over a period of years. He described his feelings to Tim Baker for The Surfer’s Journal:
That’s where I had my peak surfing experience. I was sitting out in the water. There was something like 20 waves to a set, it was eight feet plus, perfectly offshore, every wave was a top-to-bottom barrel the whole wave with no sections. It was just this peeling tube. It was so perfect you couldn’t do a thing wrong. And I was the only person in the water. I just went, this is it, this is what I’ve been searching for all my life, what I’ve always dreamed of, this incredible, mindless surf, and there it is.
Desert Point is a wave so hollow and perfect, that with enough practice, enough devotion, and willingness to endure quality slams on sharp reef, one can get ridiculously good at tube riding. By the ’90s, waves like Deserts had made Indonesia the new surfing standard. “The big powerful Hawaiian waves had been the surf world ideal since the late 19th century,” Matt Warsaw wrote in his Encyclopedia. “Indonesia’s thinner, longer waves, it turned out, were more dependable, better groomed, and better suited for high-performance riding.” Indeed, being one of the first to ride these waves, Banksy went on to school Slater and other ASP surfers at the ’95 Quiksilver Pro at G-land.
The thing we have to realize about Jim Banks is that he is a profoundly skilled big wave rider, shaper, and waterman. He has devoted his life to wave-riding and exploration at the sacrifice of the Western ideals of long-term security. He is an anomaly, existing apart from the surf travelers of today. An explorer more than follower. His tube-riding bliss at Deserts was the culmination of decades of dedication to surfing at the highest level.
To think that I could just show up and ride barrels at Desert Point was a huge misconception. It was probably smarter to just watch. Making progress in surfing when you get to a certain level is difficult. You get to a point where it all seems a little nutty, where you have to ask yourself, “Am I really about to do this?”
At the same time, the ocean, as my source of vitality, had drawn me into this dangerous situation.
I found myself deliberating in fear. I wasn’t sure what to do.
The New Zealander staying at my losmen was out on his single fin, smiling about it all. “I wouldn’t want to know what that would do to you if caught inside.” His eyes — they were glowing. He looked crazy. He went on. “But you know,” he said, “Mechanically, it’s perfect. It’s easy. You know what to do.” I watched another set thunder past, observing its towering concaves as it bowled and sucked. In theory, I could have made the drop, if my arms weren’t shaking so much. But it seemed equally likely I’d be ground up into chum. As one surf blogger noted, “the thing about Deserts is that once you take the drop, you’re locked into a wave that gets bigger and bigger on shallower and shallower reef.” It was physically possible, but mentally not. It was just too fast, too shallow, too heavy, too everything.
An hour was enough. I got in somehow, unharmed. From the shore, as I walked up to my losmen, I turned and saw what looked like a three- to four-time overhead wave just folding down the reef. I couldn’t believe I was out there. I felt sick and weird; the Indian Ocean had just shown me who was in charge. I was a ragdoll, a toy, a subatomic particle of no significance. I could have died. I felt strangely grateful about the whole ordeal.
The New Zealander’s girlfriend was on the beach, watching closely. I must have looked pale. “I can’t believe you were out there.” She told me. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Shoooo. I don’t know.” My heart was still beating. But I wasn’t the same.