When the pandemic broke out early last year, John McGroder had a choice – take his family back to Australia and spend his first winter at home since the mid-’90s, or stay up in the Mentawais, roll the dice, and just maybe experience the islands the way he had when he’d first arrived… free from other surfers.
Twenty-twenty was the year I swallowed the anchor and moved my family onto land in the Mentawai Islands. It would have been the Barrenjoey’s eighteenth surf charter season and my twenty-fifth up in the islands. Who knew it would turn into the least crowded surf season since Martin Daly shanghaied Lance Knight aboard the Indies Trader, altering the surfscape of the archipelago forever?
I spied the police boat across the channel during my quest for a different wave to surf. My wife, B and Etra were surfing the left. Flavio and Javier were surfing another peak further along the reef. All expatriates locked down in the Mentawais. “Social distancing” was a phrase none of us had heard before, let alone understood. There was a circulating letter from the local government stating surfing was banned in the Ments and no-one could travel to any breaks. Fines and imprisonment were the punishment. Up to this stage – late April – expats had ignored the letter. The lure of perfect, uncrowded waves was just too strong.
I was riding the jetski and decided to give the reef a long berth, figuring B would work it out with the cops. I could hear a megaphone on the wind but muffled by what I later found was the water policeman’s mask as he called the girls to the boat and admonished them for breaking the law, sending them to the beach with a warning. The police boat was headed to the next pair of surfers as I sped off through the shallows.
I’d been surfing another spot for about half an hour, alone, dodging a few rogue sets, wishing there was another surfer out. This would become a common feeling throughout the year. I spied a larger police boat patrolling the channel, possibly heading my way. The decision to weigh anchor and head home came quickly. None of us expats wanted to be made an example of. There was already an underlying feeling in the towns and villages throughout Indonesia that the foreigners had brought the virus. We were not allowed to go into Tua Pejat for a few months. One foreigner, Steve, decided to get to the Ments before everything was totally shut down. He was the last Westerner to ride on the Fast Ferry but standing at 6’2” he stood out on the jetty which was full of police, army, and media. He was sprayed down like some sort of vermin, made the local news, and sent back to Padang with his tail between his legs. Stories of yachts being shot at as they tried to enter far flung ports for supplies were common. Later, if you didn’t wear a mask you would be fined Rupiah 250,000 ($25) or made to clean the streets for two hours.
I returned to our house at Tikus to find B, Etra, Flavio and Javier siting around steaming that they had been kicked out of the surf. There were a bunch of expats who’d decided to stay in the islands rather than heed their respective governments warnings to repatriate – Australians, Americans, South Africans, Brazilians, Peruvians, French and a small flotilla of cruising yachts. This was not a light decision. Would the food supplies stay open? Would medical facilities cope with the impending pandemic? Were they really going to stop international travel? Or should we put all eggs in the Barrenjoey basket and sail her back to Australia? Quite a few foreigners left Indonesia, and many regretted their decision. We’d built a house on the small island of Simakakang so decided to stay.
There was a little left out front that we began to surf early and late when the patrols were not around. It became our staple and most sessions I was with my boys, Fynn and Duke, or surfing with B. Icelands was another wave the expats began to surf as the patrols wouldn’t venture there. Telescopes, the queen of surf breaks in the Ments, had so many unsurfed waves this year. On one swell in July, she lit up for two days with some epic barrels ridden by the likes of Golla, Greigo, Josh and TP. Last year there were 10 boats parked at Telescopes on a good day. There were only six surfers taking it on this year.
Down at Katiet, Teiki Ballian was making his resort ready for the hordes, enticing them with a social media smorgasbord of everything from perfect barrels to sushi yoga. I’ve known Teiki since he turned up here as a 13-year-old grommet aboard his parent’s yacht Scame. He now operates the HT’s Resort and fine tunes his surfing. His twin-fin repertoire is textbook, from deep barrels to searing carves. I mentioned to him to maybe tone down the Instagram posts while the government was telling us not to surf. He did, but the men in red suits turned up anyway and told surfers to stay out of the water. Perfect peeling barrels went unsurfed for a month. It was torture to the few who remained, although some of the lads managed some full moon sessions. They were still in a good spot and their perfect days would soon come.
Meanwhile, surfers from all over the globe began cancelling trips. Charter boats remained in Padang harbour with skeleton crews keeping the cogs oiled. Many lost their jobs, left to survive on the Indonesian breadline. Resorts closed. Palm fronds littered the grounds, pools turned green and termites took over. Suppliers were left with stock. We were asked if we wanted 10 cases of out-of-date Vegemite as they knew we were Aussies. Yep, thanks for that.
Barrenjoey’s surf guide, Greigo was out of a job. His dream of guiding the BJ around the islands left to float upon the winds of the pandemic. He formed a plan with a couple of buddies and jumped aboard their mate, Wes’s yacht Pembaru Laut and headed to the southern part of the Mentawais, where they would score mindless barrels for a couple of months, just the four of them. No-one had heard from them until they returned. “Oh man, we had one session down there that was just blow-out-tube after blow-out-tube. It was ridiculous. We were getting spat twice and still couldn’t see the exit but coming out. We had 15 barrels like that in a row. If I had one of those in a charter season, I would have been stoked.”
Around May, the authorities stopped worrying about us going surfing. As the swells kicked in some magic moments evolved. Personally, I couldn’t wait to speed down to The Office. My first surf there was six straight hours in some exceptionally fine, overhead surf. I was left out there alone letting waves go due to tiredness… or just getting fussy as the years roll on. I was harking back to a different time in the Ments when we could surf for hours with very few people out. Those hours had been good to me at this wave. I had copped my beatings, torn flesh, broken boards and been put off by the crowds but the wave keeps luring myself, and many others in. The addiction has never waned. This was a culmination session to it all. I drove off when the tide turned and the six or so guys paddled out for the magic hour, reflectively speeding back up the coast. The good old days were right here right now.
Another run to Rifles was an epic. I picked up Javier who was sitting out at Tikus. I asked him if he wanted to go to Rifles. “Shit yeah!” exclaimed the Peruvian, who couldn’t get home to see his first granddaughter. And just like that we enjoyed a magic four-hour session to ourselves. Javier had grown up on the shores of Pico Alto, one of Peru’s premier big-wave spots and wanted me to take him to big HT’s. The day came and it was bloody big. Bert Taylor and I watched Javier spin and freefall into a wave three-times overhead, land it and bottom turn into a smashing barrel. It was the biggest paddle-in Bert and I had witnessed out there.
The next day I went back with Diggsy and watched his stoke surfing Rifles for the first time. It was this session that broke my beloved red Bonzer, the first of my four favourite boards I’d break in a two-week run. Diggsy is my neighbour on the island and hails from Rockhampton. He shouldn’t charge as hard as he does. I had some heavy sessions with him this year, one at HT’s where we both copped the same triple-up set on the head. My board snapped and I took my legrope off and swam. We also surfed big Suicides and scored some barrels on the second day at perfect Telescopes. We decided we needed to catch our own fish, so we started jigging and managed to catch everything from tuna to sharks that kept two families fed. Day three in the Playground, B and I surfed G-Strings by ourselves for hours. Eerily quiet for this place. Usually The Playground is busy, but not this year. I had a couple of epic solo surfs with my wife, sometimes straight out front of the house.
The expats who stayed in our area got to know each other over the course of the year. Whereas we’d normally be steaming here and there, looking after our guests, trying to get the best waves on offer, maybe a quick hello or a beer with fellow operators, now we were now all in the same boat. Locked down in Indo. No sure transport in or out and food supplies questionable.
A couple of cruising catamarans – the Pelican and the Daphne – sailed into the area when the lockdown started and brought kids with them. My kids were stoked. There was my two boys Fynn and Duke, the Saffa kids Josh and Indie, four Aussie kids off the Pelican and three American kids from the Daphne meant we had 11 kids in all. They called themselves “The Lockdown Kids” and they had a ball surfing together. The lack of crowds saw them get all the waves they wanted and their surfing improved radically. The kids took on bigger waves as the season wore on. From 15-year-old Josh standing tall in some of the biggest, cleanest Telescopes barrels, to 11-year-old Duke conquering his fear of the shallow right they call Suicides, to nine-year-old Maddie catching her first waves at Tikus, the kids had some epic surfs. When there was no surf they would swim with sharks and dive underwater tunnels. My Fynn would compete with Finn from the Pelican in spearfishing. There were skating shenanigans, trampoline tussles and volleyball matches between surfs. We had to sew Oli’s foot up and sort out Josh’s stingray staph. They never lost that kid chaos amongst it all. My boys were upset though that schools worldwide were closing… except their’s. The Cairns School of Distance Education was always online.
It wasn’t until Bert turned up though that the fun at The Office really started. Two old dogs reminiscing about the good old days… that they were surfing again right now. We had time to pick waves, share waves, and become totally and utterly surfed out. One session I was sitting cautiously on the shoulder. It was big and scary and there were massive double-ups hitting hard. Bert paddles past me laughing, ”C’mon, let’s go sit where we used to!” Not long after we were both on the beach and I had another snapped board.
Bert was one of the first operators in the Ments when it all opened. Back in the late ‘90s he was working for Martin Daly on the Indies Trader and I was working for Dave Hallet on Katika. We both loved surfing Lances Right/HT’s and would use any excuse to take the charter there. We had some dream sessions back then and the crowds were minimal. Because we surfed it more than the guests, we worked the wave’s idiosyncrasies out. The one section we called The Office has now become famous in surf guides around the world. Reevso actually termed it “The Office” because he reckoned we were always working the angles to get there. Surfers wait hours for that one wave to roll through at The Office giving an easy entry and exhilarating barrel ride to the keyhole. The Office is not always perfect though; you’re just as likely to get crunched travelling through the barrel. Body on reef, board broken, or a flogging that takes 15 minutes off your surf. It’s those big, spitting waves that give the most buzz. I call them “dinosaur saliva” and they can blow you out so hard that the spray hurts. I broke a few boards this way.
Not all was beer and barrels this year though. The yacht Brocador passed through the Ments after spending some time in the Telos. We met the three Brazilian owners – Rasta, Augusto and Edihno – at a Bilou Beach barbecue. We had all sort of given up on the social distancing thing by then, figuring we were not exposed out here like the big cities. A week later the lads were at Macaronis and Augusto became ill with fever. A local test showed negative for malaria. When he did not improve they sailed to Padang and he was promptly put into ICU at hospital. Rasta spent three or four days with him in hospital, but his friend lost his battle with cerebral malaria. A few days later, another friend of their’s, Mishel also came down with malaria and was hospitalised. Fortunately, this friend made it. I spoke to Rasta out in the surf and he explained that Augusto’s brother could not get into Indo in time to see him and was sailing around with his ashes aboard.
My Mum passed during the pandemic. Flights were unpredictable, paid quarantine was in full swing and the funeral was limited in numbers, so I made the decision to stay put and watch her funeral online. While all were in masks and suits, I cried in a pair of boardshorts. A few days later I went surfing down to Lance’s to clear my head. The winds were wrong, so I surfed big Lances Left by myself. I had spread the ashes of my brother, Clash there, years earlier. The paradox of paradise.
Around September, the government opened up for tourists willing to pay for an expensive business visa. We were sitting out at The Office when a boat steamed from the south. It was a reflex look; I’d been instinctively looking that way for years. Rumour had it there were some pros around and it turned out Kolohe Andino was in the hood with a bunch of his San Clemente brethren. I’d never done a boat trip with Kolohe, but I had done one with the Beschen brothers and another with Wardo, all from the same town. I had given Archy a ride to Padang and drunk beers with Kolohe’s dad, Dino. They were a wild lot. I’d watched Kolohe progress from a grommet to an American Olympian and I caught up with Dino in the surf and we laughed about how things had changed over the years.
After the pros departed, the Bali expats decided it was time to head north and enjoy the uncrowded waves and the place became a little crowded, although nothing like a regular season. We began to run out of wax, sunscreen and legropes, the swells began to slow down, and I began to reminisce about waves I’d caught this year. There were so many, but one stood out. Occasionally B would accompany me to HTs, and on one of these jaunts there were just a few of us out. I caught a double-up, watched it round out, and braced as it dinosaur spat. Shaky, clean and cleansed I shot into the channel, grinning from ear to ear. B was paddling out from the beach and saw the whole thing. She casually asked if I wanted to have some lunch.