Alone: 10 Years and Counting of Solo Surf Expeditions


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Updated 42d ago

Words by Sean Jansen

I awoke when it stung me. Curled up in my sleeping bag on a stained, aged single mattress on the second story of a decrepit building in the Andaman Islands of India. It was the middle of the night. I had just returned a few hours earlier from a clinic to treat a reef cut. I was sweating from both the humidity and the drugs given to me by the doc.

I wasn’t in pain from the sting, nor had I realised I got stung. Laying in my sleeping bag while staring at the ceiling, I attempted to close my eyes and try to sleep. Then, I felt it crawling along the back of my neck. I leaned up, pulled my arm from out from my sleeping bag and swatted at it. The power had gone out earlier that day before nightfall. So I reached for the light switch, praying there was juice left in it. Lucky there was but the horror that presented itself was something else.

As well as scour the coastline for empty surf, Sean's got a knack for training the lens, too.

As well as scour the coastline for empty surf, Sean's got a knack for training the lens, too.

A foot-long centipede squiggles with sinister body movements. I grabbed my machete and chopped the centipede in half. Murder always comes with a price though, turns out, it had also stung me on my neck and hand. My finger swelled up and those neurons that had been firing on the sheer joy of solo stumbling onto world class, untouched surf, now switched to pure survival mode – oh and the fear from venom which was now surely using my veins and arteries as highways. Great.

A little while back, perched up on a lonely point.

A little while back, perched up on a lonely point.

I sat there nearly in tears at two in the morning knowing full well I had no cell phone, no service, no connection to even the person who checked me into the hotel and no one to share this experience with. Felt a flush of anger at the friend who lied to me and backed out of the trip at the last minute. Mad I lied to my family about coming here with someone even though I decided to go solo. Mad that as much as I care for this planet and surf, that I had to kill the centipede.

But as I sat there in burning pain and madness, sat there in disbelief at all that had happened, I reflected on how amazing the entire day was from scoring surf, cutting myself on the reef, fighting potential infection, and now feeling the burn of a centipede, while mildly wanting to weep from weakness.

I can’t even be that mad at the friend that bailed for the trip, I nearly didn’t go too. $1,000 one way ticket to a remote archipelago with minimal info, little lodging, no other foreigners, and extreme restrictions.

Not to mention that years prior, a tsunami wiped out most of the reef that I lusted and drooled over while watching Thicker Than Water for the thousandth time. But there was an insatiable lust that overtook me, and my young self couldn’t turn down the idea without at least finding out for myself if it were all rumour.

For the most part, the surf wasn’t what was on film and I would have been better off on a trip to Indonesia. However, I wouldn’t have scored those class waves at the reef break, cut my foot open, or had the centipede incident. Arguably the most memorable part of that trip and one of the most memorable of my life.

I learned that simply because no one wants to go with you, doesn't mean you should quit the trip. After that, wanderlust and curiosity travel began. Solo trips down to Baja. A six-month surf odyssey through Central and South America. A year in Asia. A road trip in Australia. All with stories to go with the centipede.

A misplaced camp site on a Costa Rican beach landed me pounding on the door of a nearby luxury hotel in the middle of the night begging for shelter as a storm caused a tree to crash down on my tent, breaking the tent poles and skimming my head leaving me in shock. A mistaken trust in a hostel owner ended with me at the US embassy in Bogota, Colombia applying for a new passport.

My ramblings out of borders continued, and a lifelong pursuit of bumpy roads into desert dwellings shifted perspective and granted waves untouched. Celebrating the New Year with complete strangers that don’t even speak the same language, yet making all the sense in the world with each tequila tossed back. Checking the boot for a scorpion, while the osprey above screeches at the offshore wind and the rifling right-hander peeling undisturbed.

Solidarity granted me that gift as well. Putting down the bottle and the feverish pursuit of drinking a country dry – was replaced by indulging with complete sobriety to experience it all with the clearest of intentions.

Discarding friends that didn’t want to pursue the same path that continually show up at the pub on Friday and Saturday instead of dawn patrolling even the worst of surf like I did. In the end, you don’t need friends or even family to get to the lineup. You don’t need comfort of friends to share your misery of getting stung by a centipede or having a tree fall on you. I learned more in those moments solo than shared with someone.

All I ever wanted to do was take pictures, travel the world looking for surf, and get paid to do so. Even in my hometown of San Clemente, I knew no one even though the town is a hot bed for talent. At any time, I could rock up to the beach and probably shoot a pro or up-and-coming kid who will make a name for themselves. But wanderlust eventually took over after a few years of poaching random pros at my home break and I wanted to expand my own personal surf coverage.

On a trip to South America, not knowing any one at all, not knowing the language really, and not knowing any surfers I could work with, I travelled into the unknown. I knew who these surfers were but didn’t know them personally. So I got in contact the only way I knew how, Facebook. I would send out messages to people I knew about, had google translate the message for me and hope for the best. Surprisingly, the method worked quite well. I was able to link up with Joaquin Del Castillo from Peru who invited me into his home and document his life.

With that connection, he led me to Chile to meet up with another ripper. From there, on to Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina. This drumbeat continued as I went to Uruguay to do much of the same. All while tying in a few poached images of Wiggoly Dantas at home in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.

I spent a year in China where I continued the solo path of Facebook discovery, connecting with locals and photographing the experience. Had the pleasure of meeting Darci Liu, China’s first professional surfer and now conservationist. She invited me to her local bar on the beach where she makes her living selling drinks to the tourists and introduced me to her friends and local rippers, photographing the island of Hainan.

I flew to Malaysia through a contact from fellow MSW contributor who knew of a local shaper in the Cherating area and invited me out to photograph the latest swell to hit the region and cover the up and coming kids dominating the point. Reached out from there to Indonesia on a tip from a local kid in Malaysia about a guy named Yudi Andkia in the Banda Aceh region who let me stay in his bungalows for a few photographs.

This was the pursuit for nearly ten years. Messaging people as I travelled, photographed and wrote, while I could, and just kept hopping from one train, one plane to the next. However, nothing was ever a steppingstone into a long lasting career.

The fade began and my therapy was now spent in the outdoor world, exploring and surfing on my own. Always bringing a camera, but with little desire to reach out to anyone. In fact, over time, I gave up completely and just meandered on my own into the wilderness. The few friends I do have know I am going somewhere, so if they want to go, they’ll reach out to me. Long are the days now where I ask friends or even message strangers to come.

The solo pursuit is all I want. No headaches with planning together. No conjunctions of asking for time off and hoping a swell lines up with our two-week window. No petty arguments locked in a hostel, car, or plane together with some need to apologise for something after.

Just the simple murmurings of curiosity with your own sense of adventure guiding the way. My phone and laptop used to be my bedfellows in organising meet ups, looking at swell charts, and staying in contact. Now all I need is a pen and paper, a tent, and a remote stretch of coast without service to distract from the experience.

Going it alone teaches you things. Teaches you to get out of your comfort zone. Either to ignore the voice in your head, or to write down that thought to cherish for future inspiration. Teaches you it’s ok to feel discomfort, but reminds you to grow on it.

Teaches you to learn by watching, learn by doing. Learn your discomforts and thrive in them, learn your joys and do your best to repeat them. Ask strangers for help or learn it through failing over and over.

It’s ok to be indecisive with your choice of a campsite or get excited about the evening without a reservation. To be ashamed of yourself when you feel guilty for something or most importantly, be proud of yourself for doing something new no matter how great or minuscule.

Going it alone I discovered, is a superpower. I had trust in my prior knowledge to get me to my destination and trust in my physical health that I was more than capable to accomplish my goals. I’ve doubted my mind but learned to overcome it by meditating on the joys of the trip other than the worries. Turned off panicked messages and words from loved ones and cranked up the volume of the exploration and discovery.

The ultimate lesson learned is that I’ve never been alone at all. The morning chirps from local birds sung there sweet good mornings to my ears every day. The passing dolphins and fish in the shore break frolic and say hello with their presence.

All I ever really needed from any trip was proof to myself that I was capable with memories to cherish, and that to me is worth more than anything. Going it alone and being ok with it. Maybe more than just being ok - but thriving on it with and the thought that there's still more to come.