Like most pro surfers these days, Mikala Jones has built his career around a niche specialty. That isn’t to say that he is a one-dimensional surfer—far from it. The guy rips in small waves, has charged Jaws and Dungeons as big as they get, and is as comfortable in cold water as he is in the tropics.
But, in general, Mikala’s surfing is synonymous with warm, empty, perfect right-hand barrels—and for the life of me I can’t seem to find any fault with that. In fact, to a regular-footed surfer with a penchant for tube riding and an aversion to crowded lineups, it sounds pretty damned good.
Mikala has spent the past 15-years searching out hollow waves in far-flung locations, and has probably been barrelled as much as anyone alive, so when you are lucky enough to receive an invite from him to chase a spot he’s been scouting for more than a decade, there is only one appropriate course of action. Never mind that he’s never been there before, or that his research consists mostly of hearsay and rumour.
Ignore the fact that the one-week trip will cost more than two months in Indo, or that you’ll be dragging half a dozen boards more than 15,000 miles and tolerating four days of round-trip travel for what amounts to little more than a three-day swell. These considerations are immaterial. When that email arrived, the only responsible thing to do was book a ticket, pack my boards, and get myself to the airport.
As expected, we had come chasing right-hand barrels. Expectations are a great way to set a trip up for failure, but with ample swell on tap it seemed pretty likely that we were going to score. We arrived jet-lagged and sleep deprived, but Mikala was still smiling—the swell was forecast to fill in by the following morning, and we were pretty excited to see what was on offer. We went for a quick free dive, then pre-loaded the van in a travel-induced daze and headed to bed as a Van Gogh sunset painted the water fifty shades of orange.
The next day dawned like a tropical cliché; postcard-perfect sunrise, building four-to-six foot swell, light offshore wind, and a dropping tide. The break we’d come to surf was a bit like a reverse Teahupoo—a steep, below-sea-level drop to spacious right-hand cavern, but too perfect to be considered a proper slab. We watched for a minute or two from the boat, then paddled out to get our bearings and catch a few. Everything was going precisely as planned. And then suddenly it wasn’t.
Four waves into the session, I took a header straight into the shallow reef. Paddling to the boat for some doctoring and a helmet, I noticed that the coral shelf lining the pass was now fully exposed—and the tide was still a couple of hours from bottoming out. As a flap of my scalp was super-glued down, I watched the tide continue to rush out (it would drop more than two meters before it was finished), storm clouds roll in, and the swell begin to pulse in earnest.
What had been technical yet cheery overhead bowls a few minutes before quickly became ominous 8-to-10 foot mutants draining the reef, then 12-to-15 foot impersonations of The Right—except over sharp, shallow, tropical coral instead of the relatively deep, cool water of West Australia. By the time the rain started and Mikala made his way back to the boat, our 6'2" step-ups were downright laughable. We were watching epic, deadly, tow-only slabs detonate 10 feet away, but there wasn’t a ski within a thousand miles of us. The waves were pumping, and we were effectively dry-docked.
But we’d come to get barrelled, dammit, and we weren’t about to let an out-of-control swell get in the way of that. We’d heard of a second pass with another bowly right farther around the corner, and raced the boat there hoping that the swell would be a little smaller and a bit more approachable. And it was—for about 20 minutes. Then the tide dropped below a critical point, the bowl began to shut down, and, just like that, our second session of the day was over.
With the tide bottomed out for the rest of the morning, we decided to head back to dock and lick our wounds. But on the way to the harbour we noticed something we’d missed in the twilight hours of dawn; whitewater lines were exploding far out to sea, the shape of their bounce denoting symmetry and size.
By the time we made it to the lineup, it was clear that even the biggest boards we’d brought on the trip weren’t going to cut it. What from a distance had appeared to be a draining reef pass turned out to be a legitimate big wave bombie—an outer reef setup breaking over an enormous playing field, with some waves grinding for 100 metres while others swung wide and closed out on a dangerous-looking rock field.
By the time we made it to the lineup, it was clear that even the biggest boards we’d brought on the trip weren’t going to cut it
For the third time in as many hours, we found ourselves coming up just short. We had swell, and we’d found a wave that could handle it, but we didn’t have the equipment necessary to approach the lineup.
Then we remembered seeing a pair of janky old guns on the island the night before, two 8'2"s that looked like they hadn’t been surfed since the late ’90s. We figured some local must have inherited the boards from a visiting surfer years before, and thought we might be able to talk him into letting us borrow them. With that aim in mind, we zipped back to the nearby village, unsure if we’d surf again that day, but knowing that if we did, it certainly wouldn’t be in the six-foot barrels we’d come expecting.
Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it
Lao Tzu, the foremost thinker in the Taoist tradition, was quite vocal about the importance of flexibility. Not in the “I do lots of yoga, watch me touch my toes” sense, but in one’s general approach to life.
Rather than striving to assert our own personal agendas, he suggested that we live in concert with nature, attuning ourselves to the Tao, bending to accommodate what appear to be the random caprices of the universe, and embracing the philosophy of “wu wei” or non-doing. The harder we try to force something to happen, Lao Tzu asserted, the farther we get from the state of flow wherein events unfold naturally, with beauty, efficiency and precision.
Although this concept may be difficult for many in the goal-oriented West to accept, it is one that the wave riding community understands inherently. When it comes to style and aesthetic (not to mention efficiency and overall performance), the best surfers have always been those who work with the wave, not against it.
Despite what the new generation of hipsters will tell you, a speed trim in the pocket or finless sideslip on an alaia isn’t necessarily prettier or “soulier” than the vicious dismantling of a section a la Dane Reynolds’ power hack, as long as each particular manoeuvre fits with the shape, speed, and flow of the wave being ridden. Tom Curren’s first wave at J-Bay and Tom Carrol’s “snap” at Pipeline are both classic examples of radical surfing that Lao Tzu would have found to be perfectly in sync with nature.
If good surfing is the ability to spontaneously react to what the ocean provides, then the same surely applies to surf-related travel. Mikala seems to understand this. Perhaps it is the hundreds of trips he has done over the years, or maybe the guy is just naturally mellow and tuned-in; either way, he didn’t really seem fazed by the fact that we weren’t scoring the type of waves we’d come for.
While I was getting eggy and trying to force barrels where they didn’t exist, Mikala simply adapted to the conditions. When it was big, he surfed big. When the wind turned and we were stuck with a small, bending ramp, he punted like a man half his age. And when the tide shut us down for the afternoon, he cruised with the island’s local kids, shooting pictures for his daughters at home, checking out handcrafted canoes, and listening to the dissonant beauty of the local singing style. Whatever the situation, he seemed to be always in flow, cracking a quiet smile and embracing his surroundings.
The inhabitants of the village we were visiting seemed to be operating on the same wavelength. Dozens of kids played on the beach, naked two-year-olds hacking away at tree stumps with machetes while their parents looked serenely on. Nets were thrown and coconut trees climbed in an effort to collect the day’s food, but no one seemed overly concerned with storing up provisions for the future.
Even when our swell combined with a king tide to flood a number of homes lining the beach, nobody seemed to freak out. Instead, they simply adapted to the conditions, as their parents and grandparents had done for generations.
The attitude seemed to be that there are things we can control, and others that we can’t—and we can either waste energy trying to force things to go our way, or simply react to each new situation with equanimity. Just enough effort to get by and a smile to lighten the mood seemed to be the response to pretty much everything, and I began to wonder if everyone around me knew something that I didn’t.
Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun
On our second-to-last day of the trip we hooked up with Junior, one of the area’s two full-time surfers. He suggested that we head to the opposite side of the island with a group of novices for an afternoon of clean, waist-high fun on SUPs and longboards. A tiny reef-point was not what we had come to surf, but the sun was shining, the wind was perfect, and the newbies were stoked, so we figured we’d give it a go.
Nearly a dozen of us paddled out to the little peeler, and within minutes we were having the session of the trip. Switch-stance collisions, soul-arched noserides, layback selfies, out-of-control headstands straight into the mangroves—it was chaotic and ridiculous and silly, and it was more fun than I’d had in months.
It was chaotic and ridiculous and silly, and it was more fun than I’d had in months
No one was worrying about getting shots or making barrels or boosting airs or doing anything aside from riding waves and laughing with friends, and all of a sudden it occurred to me that this is what surfing is all about—embracing the waves in front of us and sharing the experience with happy people.
There we were, grovelling and cackling like a gaggle of kooks, 24-hours before we were scheduled to leave, and for the first time all trip I began to understand what everyone was smiling about.
That night, after we’d packed our gear and prepared for the long journey home, I reflected on the previous week. We’d come out on a “surgical strike,” surfing’s equivalent of a sterilised rub-and-tug, and somehow stumbled upon an island that had lost itself in time.
We’d come seeking a specific type of wave, and ended up finding practically every other surfing experience available. And, despite my best efforts, we’d actually enjoyed ourselves in the process. I lay in bed listening to the ocean and thinking that there was surely a lesson in there somewhere, but ended up falling asleep before I could figure out what it was. I was probably too exhausted from six hours on a longboard.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished
The following morning didn’t have to happen. Even if Junior hadn’t woken us up with a pre-dawn honk; even if a second swell hadn’t filled in overnight, lighting up a nearby reef pass; even if we hadn’t scored the barrels we’d come looking for in the first place, we still would have left happy, our trip a success.
But as old Lao Tzu might say, it is only when you need nothing that you are finally free to find everything. And suddenly, no matter where in the world you happen to be, that’s exactly what happens.
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