A shaft of light pierces through brooding clouds before leading our gaze out towards a wave-battered cliff. Craning to get a better view, the small tender we are using to access the wild coastline off the island of Sumba in East Indonesia, lurches violently to the left in the swell, knocking over our carefully stacked surfboards and forcing us to clench the webbed handholds. We watch as the same wave turns from oceanic blue into whitewater, sparking down the shallow reef like a lit cordite fuse. The sight of this wave provocatively coiling down the limestone shelf immediately ignites the stoke within us (see Surf glossary, below).
“We gettin’ in there or what?!” comes the call-to-arms from Australian pro-surfer Nathan Hedge. Despite the sun only just creeping into this remote bay on the south-west tip of the island, he already knows we’re in for an outstanding session. After he giddily bounces around the small tender, rushing to get his surfboard prepped, he launches himself off the side with a loud hoot and sprint-paddles towards the hollow left-hander that breaks mere feet from the cliff-face.
I am nervous. This is very unlike a typical surf session at home in Cornwall, UK, which usually begins with a paddle out from the shoreline. Accessing an entirely new and heavy surf spot from a small boat beyond the waves feels jarringly foreign. Taking my time, I consciously ease myself into the tropical Indian Ocean for the first time. Unhindered by a wetsuit, my arms grip at the water with a reassuring purpose as I make my way towards the line-up. My arrival coincides with an incoming set of five waves that start to draw water off the shallow reef like a bath plug that has been sharply pulled.
“Surfing is not so much a sport as a path, a calling”
Hedge, who has positioned himself far beyond the breaking waves, tactfully elects to let the first four pass beneath him. Pivoting on his board, he swings behind the peak of the lip before powering himself down the steep face of the last and largest of the set. Banking off the wave’s trough, he expertly bleeds off his speed by jamming his trailing arm into the wave face as the wave pitches over his head. I take a mental snapshot of his ear-to-ear grin as he rapidly approaches me, now locked tight in a cylindrical tube of water, before I’m forced to duck-dive through the wave to avoid being kebabbed by his board.
“Did you wink at me in there earlier?” I ask him post-surf.
“Nah mate, just a smile,” he replies with a casual pat of my shoulder. Now wrapped in a towel, he’s pure calm as he sways to the rolling movement of the boat. There is no hint of put-down, just confident, self-assured stoke. If anything he seems more interested in the clutch of more modest waves I caught during our session together. He’s just turned 40 and I ask him about his continued motivation for chasing waves around the world, booking his space on this surf expedition at the last minute.
“Why? Because of moments like that. I was in California and when the [surf] forecast came good, I couldn’t resist chasing it.”
We had met a day earlier at the ramshackle port of Waikelo, situated on the sheltered northern lee of Sumba, the planned embarkation point for a week-long surf trip aboard the Kudanil Explorer, a luxe 50m vessel tasked with the aim of pioneering surfing locales among the myriad of small islets dotting the map between the larger islands of Sumba and Timor in Eastern Indonesia.
The rendezvous with the ship, the culmination of lengthy personal journeys, had the distinct air of clandestine spy swap. Surrounded by a clutch of ominously rusted and sunken hulks, we waited expectantly on a concrete slipway, the meeting place for a motley bunch of international guests with varying levels of surfing experience.
“I hope this isn’t the surfing equivalent of Fyre Festival,” said Lannie Churchill, half-jokingly, referring to the overhyped and disastrous Caribbean music festival of 2017.
Thankfully our shared fears were put to rest when we spotted a speedboat bearing towards us. Beyond the confines of the harbour we got our first glance of the Kudanil Explorer. In its previous incarnation as a “safety research” vessel, it plied the seas off this staggeringly diverse archipelago in search of oil. Refitted in 2017, it now searches for different kind of liquid gold – surf and dive opportunities around some of Indonesia’s least-explored, hardest-to-get-to reaches.
Situated just beneath the equatorial belt and with a wide exposure to the consistent swell of the Indian Ocean, Indonesia has been firmly etched into the surfing psyche since the discovery of the wave-rich Bukit Peninsula of Bali in 1972. Its unearthing, immortalised in Alby Falzon’s surf film Morning of the Earth, inspired a generation not only to make the pilgrimage but tirelessly comb many of the 17,508 Indonesian islands in search of new waves.
This endless quest for the new and unfound remains a defining feature of surf culture, a key factor in the sport’s perennially youthful lustre. Waves, surfers and even countries fluidly move in and out of vogue. Despite this, Indonesia’s blend of tropical surf and cheap living has continued to prove a draw. Still, the enduring popularity of the main central surfing hubs of Bali and the Mentawai Islands in the north has caused tension because of unsustainable development on land and friction in the water due to overcrowding.
In the eastern islands, challenging land access coupled with large open-water distances separating the known surf spots has resulted in many turning their back on the region for low-hanging fruit elsewhere. The Kudanil’s open-ocean capabilities and raw speed have reopened these opportunities for those of us travelling on board. The trips are open to all levels, from pros like Nathan Hedge, through experienced surf-trippers like me to complete novices like Lannie Churchill who read about it in a newspaper on her commute to work as a lawyer in London. This is her first-ever surf trip.
I ask her about what her family and friends make of her surfing aspirations. She smiles ruefully. “They all think I’m slightly crazy, if I’m honest.”
I explain that being slightly crazy is an important first step in adopting a surfing mentality. It’s the binding glue that draws all of us to a pursuit that William Finnegan, author of Barbarian Days, perhaps the finest surf book ever written, described not so much a sport as a path, a calling: “Classically addictive, embarrassingly useless, and yet so rewarding.”
“This endless quest for the unfound remains a defining feature of surf culture”
Waking at dawn, I take a bearing of our location, safely tucked into an anchorage off the small island of Raijua to the east of Sumba. The inter-island crossing is made at night to make the most of the daylight hours. A dry wind tempers the tropical heat. The coastal scene, less swaying palm trees and more low-lying, fractured ridge lines.
From the bow, we can already make out some local residents gathered on the low-tide reef, who make a modest living by cultivating seaweed in tidal pools. Out beyond their grass-roofed village, a left-hand wave refracts off the tip of the island, before mellowing out into a deep channel. Helping Churchill tie her leash to the large softboard she will be using to pick up the basics of wave riding, I wonder what the locals make of us, a set of surfers motoring cheerfully towards their island cloaked in an array of colourful Lycra to protect us from the equatorial sun.
“When you fall off, make sure you fall feet first. The reef is sharp and shallow.” So says surf guide Adi Wilson, who has taken Churchill under his tutelage for the session. I see her eyes widen, as she realises that the inevitability of falling is one of the many realities of surfing that just can’t be sugar-coated.
Paddling into the line-up, I see the reason this spot is known as “the wedge”: the swell bouncing off a raised ledge like a pinball machine, causing the waves to form triangular peaks that have a power disproportionate to their size. As Nathan and I begin to take apart the fun head-high lefts on offer, we hear laughter from Churchill and other guests from their sheltered location further down the reef. Rather than battling the sweep, we opt to surf down the point towards the rest of the crew and share the last of the session together before the incoming tide stops play.
“A shaft of light pierces through brooding clouds”
Over breakfast, I ask Thibaud Epstein, owner of the ship and fanatical surfer, about his motivation for converting the Kudanil Explorer into a charter vessel.
“We recognised a growing number of visitors that wanted more than just luxurious surroundings,” he says. “Those who wanted to be part of a story rather than a participant on a rigid itinerary.”
As is so often the case on surf expeditions, our journey doesn’t follow a classic Hollywood arc: we don’t finish with the best breaks of the trip. In fact, nothing could trump our first morning back in Sumba, it turns out: the meeting of large, long-travelled swell with hungry, long-travelled surfers; Hedge’s beaming smile from within the tube. Still, it doesn’t matter: while the energy of that session sates both Hedge’s and my own yearning for empty, undiscovered waves, it is, in fact, the more mellow, shared sessions that came after that were more memorable.
On our last night, moored off the island of Savu, we milk the last of the swell on a scenic reef pass, Hedge and Wilson taking the opportunity to push a couple of the Indonesian crew into their first ever waves, repurposing inflatable stand-up paddle boards as the perfect wave-riding vehicles for the crisp, knee-high waves.
With the sun setting to the west, I take a final look back at the line-up. My fellow surfers, now backlit, appear like bobbing buoys tethered to the mossy reef. I can feel the buzz in the air as they wait for “one more” before dark; the embarrassingly useless, ever addictive yearning for Just One More. Our voyage assumes a strange duality; an end for some but a beginning for others. The starting point of the surfing path. I give thanks to the horizon line as it begins to fade then blurs, the sky and sea meeting in their daily communion.