Years ago, I went with a friend to Indonesia for a 3 week surf trip. This trip would cost me $1k for the plane ticket and $500 for everything else in the three week experience. My friend Greg is a surfer and I am a Bodyboarder. Though we went to many surf spots in our three week adventure, none of those spots were more life changing than Uluwatu.
More accurately, we spent 3 weeks on the island of Bali. This paradise is the only reason our trip was so cheap. Had we been on a boat trip, we would have been looking at $3K-$4K for just 10 days.
Bali is a Place where you can pretty much get your hands on anything for a unreasonably low price. A meal in the right town would cost 4 dollars including 3 courses, desert, and bottled water. All the while, you might be watching a bootlegged movie that just came out in America the day before. A Massage would cost about $10 for an hour. A driver/surf guide would cost about $20/day (split between everyone in the his Van and a hotel room with a pool, air conditioning, hot personal shower, TV, and refrigerator is about $6/person/night. When I say cheap, I mean it.
There are two well known “world class” surf spots on the island of Bali. Uluwatu and Padang Padang. I had the pleasure of riding many more spots that I thought were worthy of world class ranking, but am glad that they remain out of the spotlight. In fact, the longest barrel of my life was at Balangan where I set my rail into 8 seconds of 7 foot perfection.
Uluwatu is at the southern tip of Bali and receives the most swell on any particular day. It has many take off spots but only one way to paddle out. A keyhole tunnel emits surfers and bodyboarders into a 10 mile per hour sweeping current. This current is nothing to worry about on the way out to sea, but when trying to time the waves, reef and Keyhole as an exit, the timing must be perfect.
We pulled up to the spot with our guide in the middle of the day. Even for a non-ocean goer, Uluwatu is a truly unique experience. The tip of the island is a sheer 300-400 foot cliff that dips directly into the sea. A narrow path of thousands of stairs leads to a funneling cave. this cave eventually turns into the keyhole entrance to the Indian Ocean.
My friend this day had an ear infection that would leave me to paddle out in 11-14 foot surf all alone. I was not about to pass up my chance to ride this monster. From up on the cliff, the waves still looked large when seeing the small dots negotiating them. What I wouldn’t find out until later was the unique dynamic of this spot.
As I walked down the stairs my nerves were frying. I spotted a monitor lizard crossing my path. This would be the least of my troubles. If I were to take a wrong fall on a wave, it would be a $90K medi-vac helicopter ride to the nearest decent hospital. This is why it is a good idea to purchase travel insurance. If I took a normal fall on a wave, it could be as bad as being dragged along a field of underwater glass. I would live, but I might wish I hadn’t for a few days.
My plan was simple. It’s my standard big wave strategy. DON’T GET CAUGHT INSIDE! Paddle out further than everyone else. Get nice and comfortable and be very picky in my wave selection. Depending on the spot, after a wave gets over a certain size, you have to fully commit to it or fully skip it. This would be your equivalent to an “all in bet” in poker. As long as I have stuck to this plan over the years, I have never had a problem that I could not handle. I’m fine with catching the biggest wave of the day, even if its the only one I catch. I guess that is how I deal with a lot of big decisions in my life. I searched for 7 months for the perfect car (in my price range) and I bought the pane ticket for this trip almost a year in advance.
As I walked through the tunnel I could feel that the air was super charged with the same atoms you might fined inside of a barrel. I began to paddle and made it through the keyhole. Immediately, the current began to sweep me along the reef. I saw no reason to fight it as there were 14 foot sets rolling in ahead of me that didn’t seem to have any ending in sight. It would be definitively impossible to duck dive waves of this magnitude with the reef being only 3-4 feet under the surface. I decided to wait it out as the current swept me into a channel that I had scoped out from the top of the cliff. My friend later told me that he observed an unheard of 30 minute set of waves. He said that from up on the cliff he could tell that I ended up paddling out the the worst possible time of the entire day (possibly the whole season).
I finally made it out to the channel which was about 300 yards away from where I wanted to be. My heart bled furiously as I paddled up AND DOWN large swells. As I was moving into position and still hadn’t caught my breath I saw a swell on the horizon that I didn’t think I would make it over. The is the worst possible situation. Out of breath, and caught inside. A hold down in these circumstances is a worst case scenario. Even if I could stay calm, my heart would continue to race under water.
I scratch my way over the wave as 4 other surfers are only 15-20 further out than me and paddling just as fast. As i reached the top of the wave, I caught a glimpse of 4 more waves to come. As a general rule of thumb, the later the wave is in the set, the bigger it is, the further out it tends to break. This meant that it was likely that I would not make it over the last wave or two. All the while, my heart continued to fatigue.
The next wave comes and the 4 surfers make it over the face and I have an executive decision to make. I have 3 options:
- Continue to paddle and hope that I somehow make it past this 4 wave set, knowing that I am significantly behind the pack.
- Take my leash off (losing my only flotation device, but letting me pass through the waves much easier considering I still have fins on) which is a bad idea when you are so far away from shore and only have a keyhole to get back to dry land.
- Paddle into the next wave, provided I am in a position where it is possible when the wave approaches.
These three options are easy to write about now, but they are millisecond, hardwired, instincts at the time. Lucky for me Uluwatu is a world class wave. This means that the build time on the wave is slower than some and more predictable than most. This roughly means that there is more than just one place that a successful take off can occur.
As I am paddling half way up the face of the wave, like a dog chasing a car, I decide to spin around on my board and go for it. I usually fade into waves when I have panned ahead further to maintain a high position on the wave to generate speed, but this would be a “top to bottom” affair.
As I spin around on a dime, I feel my legs lifting above my head and my body begin to become weightless. I am now being sucked up the the very top of this wave. I literally visualize my desired line with imaginary blinking yellow arrows that you might find in a video game. I knew exactly where I needed to be.
By now the wave had morphed beyond vertical. This was make or break, all or nothing, stick or scrape, victory or vengeance from the cruel sea on an over-ambitious visitor. Speed began to take hold.
When I later asked my friend if he caught the event on film, he said “I thought you were just going to paddle over the wave. When you turned around half way up the face, I couldn’t believe it. I just wasn’t even ready to take any pictures”
Not unlike the first morning’s run on a double black diamond slope, the drop was as smooth as it was fast. By the time I made it to the bottom of the wave, I knew I was in the clear. As I set my rail going left, I gazed down a hundred yards of lined up perfection. I was now harnessing my fear embodied in a 14 foot wall of kinetic force. An obstacle had transformed into a threat and then into a source of great joy, all in the same day.
I pulled off in the channel and paddled back out. My exact thought was this “That was the most amazing feeling. I better quit while I am still ahead.” Was I cured from my fear? Nope, I still understood the danger in the situation. I ended up riding three more waves at Uluwatu that day. None as big. None as critical. None as memorable.
I spent an hour trying to time the keyhole exit along with the persistent swell, sweeping current, and shallow reef.
All in all I was exhausted and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the next few days.