Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Fear and Loathing in Bali - Part II

The second installment of a multi-part series, chronicling a recent surf trip to Indo. No sponsors, no pros, no boat trips. Just 5 mates, 10 days, 6 days off work, 15 boards, 1 giant swell, and enough Bintang to ensure any other numbers cited in this tale are purely estimation.

May 28th, 2004
Uluwatu, Bali
5:00 PM

The second I emerge from the giant cave I start moving, and I mean MOVING. The current has me literally paddling sideways as it sucks me north along the cliffs.

I can see Web, Beach, and Glenn...but just barely...they're just dots appearing in between waves way out on the horizon.

Keith is right behind me - I look back and he's paddling like mad - and already I'm realizing that this is a bad idea.

The sky is a dark gray, the water a light gray. I can FEEL the waves thundering on the reef way on the outside. It's so cloudy and stormy that I can't tell how low in the sky the sun is, but it has to be low. We don't have a lot of time.

My arms burn as a I fight the current, trying to straighten out and head, more or less, straight out to sea. I duck dive under a few depleted rows of white water. It's warm, quite possibly the only plus of this entire endeavor so far.

I look back over my shoulder. I've actually made some progress and my rapid descent northward has slowed a bit. Keith has managed to keep himself within 20 or so yards of me.

Then the first inside set arrives.

It's the first real wave we've seen. An insider, near the racetrack, but I think to myself, "We've drifted really far north, so we'll just paddle over the shoulder."

Obviously we're not as far north as we think, because this thing starts to rear it's head...it's getting bigger...and OH FUCK...it's starting to feather at the top. Not only are we not going to make it to the shoulder, but this thing is going to DUMP ten feet in front of me.

It feathers. Mist starts blowing off the top. It keeps rearing up. It's gone translucent. Plumes of spray are blowing off the top. The lip pitches...and there's that second or two of silence...and then CRRRRACK!

Five feet in front of me this thing explodes on the reef.

Big breathe, death grip on the rails, I rise up, push down, ass in the air, and go under...

Big hit. Dragged back.

...and then, I pop up.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Maybe the last year of surfing beachbreaks has actually done me some good. Instead of churning, swirling, chaotic white water filled with masses of air bubbles, there's actually some method to the madness of reef waves. The duck dive is successful.

I look back. Keith has not fared so well. I see his board pop amidst the foamy white water and watch as he clambers back on. But he's back in the current now, and I need to move on.

Best of luck, bro.

You see, of the five who paddled out at giant Uluwatu that evening, only two of us had ever surfed the place before.

Bad.

But that wasn't even the worst of it. Everything we could have done wrong that evening, we did. The list of missteps is long and pathetic, with the foremost factors being:

1. It was big, stormy, unpredictable, and the currents were Class 5 Rapids-esque.
2. The sun was setting and, within an hour and a half, it would be pitch black...with no moon and no stars.
3. We were tired, hungover, a bit drunk, and a whole lot jet-lagged.
4. Because the sun was setting, we were in such a hurry to assemble our gear and therefore didn't evaluate the conditions.
5. Rush wax jobs on bare boards are a bad idea, especially on new, unfamiliar equipment in heavy surf.

Our worst move though goes right back to the fact that only two of us knew the spot. At many places, that isn't a problem. You paddle out, you surf, you paddle in. But at Ulu, IT'S A PROBLEM.

See, at Uluwatu, there's only one way out and one way in...via a giant cave carved into the base of these 50 foot cliffs. Inside the cave, about 20 yards deep, is actually a little beach, with stairs that lead to the top.

Big deal, you might think. So you paddle back into the cave you paddled out of. So what?

Well, it's not that simple. Heavy currents run north along the base of the cliff. And the only way to get back in the cave is to paddle out and around (as I was currently doing) and then southward, PAST the cave. Then, when you're done surfing, you have to catch a wave that's sufficiently south of the cave, immediately straighten out, and aim for the southernmost part of the opening.

If you time it just right, and the currents aren't too strong, you'll hit the bullseye - sperm and egg style - and you're home free.

However, if you miss the cave, you can paddle all day, but you'll never beat the current. So then you gotta start ALL OVER AGAIN. That means paddling north, out and around the waves to the outside, and then paddle all the way south again past the cave, line up, and take another shot.

On a big day, like today, that can take 45 minutes.

If the current is just too heavy, there is one other option. You can let the current take you about a half mile north to the beach just south of Padang Padang. There you can wash up on the beach and then wander back up to the road and hitchhike back to Uluwatu.

So, guess which two hungover, jet-lagged dumbasses forgot to tell their friends about all this?

You got it.

While Beach and I were focusing on our own little private stress sessions, we'd completely forgotten to tell our mates the real deal on getting back in.

Poor fucking saps.

By the time I've made it outside, past the racetrack, at least 20 minutes have passed. Keith is nowhere to be seen behind me, and the rest of the crew are still just tiny dots. I keep paddling. And paddling. And paddling.

All the while these massive bumps are rolling under me. Up ahead, Outside Corners is dumping giant mushburgers. I've got one eye on my friends, who are slowly coming into focus, and the other eye on the outside, expecting massive cleanup sets any minute.

Out of the blue, I see a little red-trunked man in a white rash guard drop backside into a solid overhead beast. Big bottom turn, bigger turn off the top...the guy is flying...and then a big kick out before the inside section freight trains him to the bottom.

That's my boy, Web, charging.

For the first time since getting wet, the knot in my stomach is joined by just the tiniest twinge of stoke. It doesn't last long.

I finally arrive at the main lineup. Surprisingly, and despite how alone I feel out there, we're not the only ones out. A handful of Aussies float here and there. Then I find Beach, then Glenn...then Web makes it back out after his bomb.

We chat, talk about Web's wave, all the while keeping an eye on the horizon.

Then it starts to rain. No, it starts to pour. The wind was already blowing hard, but now it's howling. The squall has also made it even darker...the sky and the ocean. The whitewater is almost fluorescent against the backdrop of such dark gray.

In surfing, one of the most maddening things is the view. Even sitting upright on your board, you're pretty much level with the sea's surface, which means that you can never see beyond the nearest wave. That is, until that waves rolls underneath you and, for one fleeting second, you rise up and can see what else is on its way - flat water all the way to the horizon, or rows of incoming swells ("corduroy to the horizon" as they say).

Every surfer has similar tales of scrambling over the top of a wave, just a split second before it breaks, only to have their bowels liquefy as they get that first glimpse of what's behind it...a bigger, scarier waves, breaking even further out...of which they have no chance of getting over.

For a lot of surfers, the worst wipeouts of their lives have happened while paddling out or just sitting in the lineup and getting cleaned up by a rogue set. See, while you're actually up and surfing, you have momentum on your side. Except for the worst wipeouts, most of the time the speed of riding that wave enables you penetrate the surface of the water, and either get through it or deep enough under it, that the beating is relatively minor.

It's when your sitting still or simply operating on paddle power, that the power of a wave really gets to manhandle you.

My worst experiences getting caught inside both happened in Northern California. One was a rogue set wave at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz. The entire horizon just turned BLACK as this beast stretched all the way across the bay. It broke just feet in front of me, ripped the board from my hands, and drove me to the bottom. Just when I thought I was breaking free and nearing the surface, my feet touched the bottom. Unexpected and horrifying. The other was a massive day at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Only the peaky, shifting conditions and heavy currents actually saved my ass when the set of the day merely sideswiped me, instead of sending me to the depths of dark, scary, OB Hell.

It was 15 years of experiences like those that helped get me so spooked at Ulu that day.

So when THAT set inevitably rolled through I was already the furthest guy out. I scrambled for the horizon anyway. If those guys wanted to sit too far in and get cleaned up, well, fuck 'em.

After the second mini-mountain rolled underneath me, though, a third began to peak up in front of me. I was in just about the right spot. And you know what? It looked pretty good.

"Fuck it," I thought. "I came all the way to Bali to surf. I don't want to wake up tomorrow bummed that I paddled all the way out and didn't even go for it."

So I spun around on my 6'10" Aloha mini-gun that I'd never ridden, with fins I'd just attached, and a wax job I'd just applied, and paddled into this big, gray, wedging beast.

I paddled harder as the wind howled up the face, blowing me backwards. I looked to my left and saw Beach and Glenn and some Aussie paddling up the face, hooting as they crested over the top of the wave. The spray from the wind started blowing in my eyes, almost blinding me. I took two more paddles, prepared to stand, looked down the face and...um...and, um...

FUCK THAT.

The wind was blowing so hard I was just perched at the top. This sure as shit wasn't Mavericks, but I was just as hung up in the lip as what's-his-face on the Surfer cover ten years ago. I took one last look over the edge, at the dark spots of the reef down below, pulled back on my board and just got rained on for about five seconds by the water being blown off the top.

Ok. Over it. Done. Going in.

Whic brings us to a key thing (for lack of a better word) in surfing. As the grizzled old French woman told her band of equally wretched Parisian revolutionaries in History of the World Part I, "Let us end this meeting on a high note."

In surfing, you gotta finish strong. Your last wave needs to be a good one. Going in after a shitty wave is just, well, it just sucks. It's your last dance before you go home. You gotta make it a good one. That's why guys will stay out in the water for an hour after they've decided to go in. Making the decision to go in is the easy part. Scoring that elusive "last wave"...one that's worthy of being a "last wave"...well, that's the hard part.

But see, going in after a crappy "last wave" isn't even the worst thing you can do. Nope. What's worse, way worse, is going in after NO WAVE. In other words, PADDLING IN.

Not only is paddling in just a lame way to end your session, but on a day like today it's a bit like running home with your tail between your legs (if the waves are simply tiny or the ocean has gone flat, it's a different story - you may have no choice but to paddle in...at which point, manliness remains intact).

But fuck it. It was dark, it was raining, it was big, it was nasty, and all I could think about was HOW THE FUCK AM I GOING TO GET BACK INTO THAT CAVE???

That's when two Aussies made my day. One simply paddled over to the other and said:

"Oy, mate, you wanna go in?"

"I reckon...it's pretty much crap out here, mate."

"Paddle in?"

"Fucking heavy...oy, let's just go."

And they just started paddling. And guess what? I was right behind them. I mean RIGHT behind them.

Now, paddling in when it's big isn't as easy as it sounds. Imagine dodging traffic on the freeway and then deciding that you're going to get off the freeway by running down an exit ramp. Yeah, you're getting off the freeway, but there are still trucks getting off the freeway, too, and turning your back on a big Mack truck going 60 MPH ain't exactly the smartest thing to do.

So what you do it this:

Wait until a big set rumbles through. Check.

Start paddling your ass off. You want to get as much distance in between you and the impact zone before the next set shows up. Check - the three of us could've put Michael Phelps to shame.

You look back over your shoulder every few seconds to see what might be sneaking up behind you. Check. Um, wait...

Wave coming.

Now you have to evaluate. Will the wave break far enough behind me that the energy will dissipate enough before it reaches me that I can let it slam into me and simply bellyboard my way into the shore? OR, is it close enough that I have to turn around and duck dive through it?

Thanks to the winds still howling offshore, this wave took its sweet time to break and at the last second all three of us spun around and dove under.

Back up, start paddling again. The fight or flight syndrome was in full gear at this point (100% flight, thank you very much) and a certain panic was driving me shoreward.

A second wave snuck up behind us, but this time we (somehow, collectively) decided to give it a go.

One final glimpse over your shoulder right before it hits. Grab the rails of your board. Brace yourself. And then BOOM! It's like getting shot out of a cannon. Everything goes white as you're enveloped by the whitewater. Foam in your eyes. Can't see a thing. Turbulence is incredible. Don't let go. Don't pearl. Don't flip over. Don't fuck it up. This wave is your ticket in because only the power of a wave is going to beat the current and get you into that cave, which suddenly seems very fucking small.

Suddenly I can see. I'm out in front, bellyboarding. Aussie #1 is next to me. Aussie #2 is next to him. We're flying. I can see the reef racing by beneath me. And there's the cave, dead ahead. We're right on track.

But then, suddenly, just 20 feet in front of the cave, that fucking wave hits a patch of deep water and just...dies.

One minute we're speeding along, Millennium Falcon in the tractor beam, headed straight for the Death Star. Next minute Darth Vader decides he wants to cut down on the Empire's electricity bill and shuts that thing down. We're just...floating.

No, now we're drifting. The current. FUCK!

Actually it was the Aussie next to me who said it.

"Fuck, mate."

We start paddling. Quiet desperation. No one's saying a word now. We all know the consequences if we don't make it into that cave. Back out, around, back into those filthy beasts masquerading as waves...all in the dark...in Bali...with no lifeguards...no Baywatch...no Pamela Anderson with a little red floaty thing...no 911...no "Where's Tom?".

Paddle.

We're getting closer, but the cave is starting to move away as the current picks up speed.

Paddle HARDER.

Suddenly, just as I'm about to sock my board in frustration (paddling for five minutes and going NOWHERE can do that to a man), Aussie #2 hits a little jetstream and just shoots into the cave. Aussie #1 follows him, and then, American #1 does the same.

I'm a Proton Torpedo. I'm an Olympic arrow. I'm 16 at some party in Mountain View with a slutty chick from Sac. I'm bribing a bouncer in West Hollywood...

I am IN.

The water in the cave is frothing and heavy and slamming up against the sides. I don't care. We're in. We stand up. Loose sand floods into my reef booties. I don't care. We trudge up onto the little beach. I want to French kiss the sand.

I also want to look reasonably cool, so I look at the two Aussies who are already headed for the stairs. I give a little head nod to say, "Later, guys...that was a fun little session in some waves of no real consequence...have a good night."

They respond with the same and disappear up the precarious stone steps.

That's when I realize I'm the only one on the beach. It's almost completely dark now. I can hear the waves thundering on the outside reef. It's raining steadily now. The water is heaving in and out of the cave, smashing on the rock.

Four of my bros are out there, and only one knows how to get back in. And I have absolutely no idea what to do.

For five minutes I just stand there, staring out the cave, listening to the water dripping down the sides, listening to the sound of the waves, and straining to see the outline of a figure paddling in.

Nothing.

So I walk up the stairs and over to the edge of the cliff. Again, nothing. It's pitch black now. The clouds have completely obscured the moon. I can hear monkeys, but mostly I can just hear waves.

I walk back down into the cave and do what I was doing before - standing there on the sand, staring into the darkness, looking for my friends, listening to the rain and the wind and waves.

Wait...there! It's a figure...but it's not paddling in...it's...what the fuck??? It's walking along the inside wall of the cave. Waves are smashing up alongside him. Is this guy fucking nuts? Wait a second...he's waving...it's Beach. Fucking Beach.

"Bro," he tells me. "Missed the cave by about ten feet. Climbed up on the base of the cliff and just walked back around into the cave. Pretty hairy."

"You see the other guys?" I ask.

"I think I saw Glenn, " he says. "But he was even further North...walking along the cliff as well...he was hurting, bro."

That's when we hear whistling up above.

Back up the stairs and back to the edge of the cliff. There we meet a young Balinese guy who, apparently, has been watching this whole thing unfold.

"Your friend," he says. "He walking on the cliff. Veddy bad."

"Glenn," Beach says.

Now I'm starting to freak a bit. Glenn is my sister's boyfriend. My sister's boyfriend is now scaling the base of a very huge cliff, getting pummeled by very huge waves, in complete darkness. He doesn't know where he is and he doesn't know where he's going. Tomorrow I'm going to have to get on the phone and call home and tell my sister that, "Um, we're having a great time in Bali but, oh, we lost your boyfriend and haven't seen him since he was GETTING SMASHED INTO A CLIFF BY LARGE STORM WAVES. Oh and by the way, how are the Giants doing?"

So, what do we do? Well, the three of us do exactly what I was doing by myself down in the goddamn cave. We stand there and stare into the darkness.

Finally we decide to go back into the cave. At least then maybe we can walk along the inside and yell for those guys. What else can we do?

We start walking back when a figure pops up from the stairs. Web...no, Glenn! Wait, Web, too...right behind him! I can't believe it. We run up. Both of them look exhausted. Turns out they both missed the cave and ended up walking along the cliff. Their feet are shredded by the sharp reef rock. Glenn's board is dinged and battered from taking a few spills on the way.

I don't care. I'm just stoked I can call home in a few days with nothing more on my mind than Giants scores.

Wait a second...1...2...3...4...who's missi...ah fuck...

Where's Keith?

"Guys," I say. "Where the fuck is Keith?"

"Never even saw him."

Then the four of us proceed to do what I've now coined, "The Lost at Sea Shuffle". Stand, look, stare, squint, listen, shuffle feet. Repeat.

Somehow it worked the other two times, but this time, no Keith. Another round of the "Shuffle" and, still, no Keith.

"Guys, we can't just stand here. Any ideas?"

"The only other way in is Padang...half a mile down."

"Then let's get the fuck back to the hotel, hire a car, and get the fuck down there."

So we hustle back to our little faux resort - wet, fatigued, scraped-up, and not just a little freaked out. Our friend is probably in deep shit and we need to just hope he decided on finding a port in the storm - i.e. a safe beach landing - as opposed to making a go of it along the cliffs.

We get to the lights of the Uluwatu Resort.

"Guys," I say. "Go drop our shit off...I'll get us a car."

Glenn grabs my board and heads back to the rooms. I grab the nearest hotel staff member, standing around, smiling and looking fairly confused, as they tend to do in Bali.

"Hey," I say. "Did our friend come back? Big guy? Trunks a bit too tight?"

"Oh, no...no, you the first ones to come back."

"Okay, we need a car. Can you get us a car right now?"

"Car?"

"Transport. We need fucking transport. Our friend, he's lost...out to sea...and we need a fucking car to go fucking find him. Okay?"

"Maybe this your friend," he says, smiling and referring to a set of headlights approaching the hotel up a skinny, winding driveway.

I swear to God, a nuclear bomb could be exploding overhead and most Balinese would just smile and say, "Transport?"

"No, that's not my fucking friend. Okay? Listen to me. My friend, he's in the ocean...he's lost...and we need to drive down to Padang and fucking look for him, okay???"

"I think maybe this your friend."

Just as I'm about to beat this guy to death with a large rock, I hear, just over the din of the approaching motorcycle:

"Whooooooooooooo!"

No way. No fucking way.

There, on one of those dime-a-dozen Honda motorcycles that every guy in Asia rides around on (with his unhelmeted chick riding sidesaddle, of course), is a young Balinese guy. However, behind him, with one arm around a surfboard and the other arm clutching a Bintang beer, smiling and hooting like a high-school kid on Friday night, is Keith.

Safe, sound, soaking wet, fresh from the beach at Padang, without a scratch on him, and with yet another beer in him.

We've been here for FOUR HOURS.

Welcome to Bali.