Each morning, Ruby Southwell picks up her machete and her 5’5” twinnie and walks across the island to Bank Vaults. She wanders her way along a string of narrow trails that wind their way through the jungle, all fringed with red hibiscus. Halfway across, she stops for a long moment to listen to the wild orchestra of birdsong and observe the shapes the morning sun makes as it shifts across the upper canopy. She circles around the edge of two little villages, tracing a slow drift of coconut smoke. Sings out her good mornings to the local crew preparing their boats and fishing nets and follows the track down through the palms to a shining turquoise sea.
Ruby is a thinker and a grinner, a solo adventurer who’s made her way to the more curious corners of the world in search of new ideas and landscapes. A big beam of sunshine in human form, all lit up with bright ideas and excellent stories. She’s also an extraordinary wave rider who’s been living on Masokut Island, in north Mentawai, for almost a year now. In the midst of COVID — after being locked down on Kauai with a rapidly expiring visa, no flight options home and some really anxious feelings — something shifted.
“I made a decision to live a life that’s dedicated to the ocean. These days, you’re so pressured into working your life away and getting in major debt and working just to spend more money on more things. But from a young age, I was always so repelled by that idea. I could never do that, so I had to find the courage to follow a different path. I just thought that’s it — I’m going to live a surfing life.
“I didn’t know exactly how this would work but I decided to give it a real good crack. I ditched my plans to go back to Australia and travelled to Mentawai instead. I just went for it. When I got here I thought, this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. And that was it. There’s no rules, no systems, no roads — there’s nothing except waves and jungle and this beautiful culture. It’s just freedom and surf, and that’s all I really want.”
Life is simple on the island. Ruby’s days are filled with glassy barrels and jungle wanderings, sunset swims with her little local sister Marwa and slow arvos splitting coconuts in the shade. Time stretches out, becomes liquid. She has the space to consider the important things, sitting quietly in the middle of a wide sparkling ocean, observing the wispy light trails of her thoughts drifting slow across the canopy.
The material objects in her life have been whittled down to the essentials. Books, a few clothes, a machete and a couple of boards, including the most beautiful, winged fish, finished in a sweet pale lavender with hand-shaped glassed-on fins and added rocker. This dreamboat of a twinnie was shaped by Ruby’s long-time friend Jordan Spee, from Perpetual Motion Surfboards.
“He’s a genius. It’s my magic board. Up until then I was just surfing on high performance boards, but he was thinking really far ahead of me in terms of all the different sensations you can get out of a surfboard. All the different pathways you can take with surfing. When I got on that board it was made for me. We clicked immediately and I just thought, what have I been doing this whole time?!”
“I’ve always lived on a shoestring budget, so that one board was all I could afford. It works so well, up until five foot or so. It’s just beautiful. The fins are glassed in and it’s super minimal. It has such good luck in it. I’ve had the best times in my life on that board, not just the waves, but the best experiences.”
Ruby’s surfing is something else. A rare thing of wonder and grace that bends time about into new and curious shapes. It stops you in your tracks. Makes you grin, makes you go awooooo! And it really, really makes you want to go surfing. It’s like the most beautiful elements of Steph and Leah and Gerry’s surfing all got together and had an excellent style party.
“It’s my thoughts and my perspective on surfing that I express and connect to when I’m on the wave. At the same time as I got my twinnie, I heard a recording of Gerry Lopez doing a talk in Uluwatu about yoga philosophy and surfing and the marriage between the two. I actually didn’t even know who he was at that point.” She laughs, “I was just like wow, this Gerry guy is on to it. I had no idea. But that was when everything clicked for me.
“I started trying to evolve my own perspective on that — when I was in the lineup, when I was on a wave, throughout the whole surfing experience and then taking that thinking back onto land.”
Ruby doesn’t watch many surf clips. She’s more curious about listening to interesting people articulate their perspectives on the ocean, on the different feelings that come when you’re riding a wave, when you’re flying across liquid light.
“Leah [Dawson], Lauren [Hill] and Rell [Sun] — these women are my surf inspirations. I remember hearing an interview with Leah a while ago on the Waterpeople [Lauren Hill and Dave Rastovich’s wonderful podcast]. She was talking about how she surfs with her hips and not with her bum, or something like this. I was like okay, I’m going to think about that when I get my twin-fin. That’s really the only proper style advice I’ve taken on board.”
Ruby’s favourite wave on Masokut is Bank Vaults, a challenging and seriously hefty right hand bazza off the south-west tip of the island. “I love Bank Vaults. I’ll surf it when it’s one-foot and onshore or when it’s at its best. I’m so dedicated to this wave. It’s not perfect, it’s not your perfect Indo barrel. It’s heaps moody and it has its days where it’s very frustrating to surf, but I still enjoy every session out there. It’s one of those waves that feels really alive. It feels like it’s playing around with you and getting in your head a little bit, but once you develop a relationship with it, it’s so rewarding.”
“At the moment, I’m loving the experience of getting to surf some more solid, hollow waves and playing around with bigger swells. I’m really loving how comfortable I’m feeling in bigger and more critical waves and exploring how I can improve on that.”
Ruby’s two-board quiver is looking set to expand in the very near future, and with it, a whole new array of surf feelings is about to arrive. “I called Jordan up when I got on board with Billabong and he said right, I’m going to make you up a new quiver. I asked him what it was going to be, but he just said, ‘I’ve got a few ideas. I’ve been watching you surf and I think I know what you need.’ So I don’t know! But I’m really hoping a single-fin will be in there because I’ve never ridden one before. I’d really love to feel what that’s going to be like.”
For the foreseeable future, the little island with the postcard beaches and perfect barrels is home. Ruby’s living the sweetest kind of surfing life, and she’s not going anywhere. “The ocean really helps me to open my mind and evolve as a person. Every time you go in, you come out a little bit better and a little bit clearer, and I’m thankful for that. The most important thing for me is to use the inspiration and clarity I receive from surfing and have that translate into my life as kindness, consideration and compassion to others and hopefully, as my life goes on I will be able to give back in more and more meaningful ways. I hope that I get to live a simple ocean lifestyle forever.”