The Graj Match
The Graj Match
Bali, August, 1974, two parties of surfers set out from Kuta bound for Plengkung Beach, located on the remote far south-western tip of Alas Purwo National Park in eastern Java.
On a trimaran named the Madrigal were Mike Ritter, Warren ‘Abdul’ Anderson, Bob Jones, and Mike Boyum, while traveling to the same place but going overland were Barry Middleton and Chris Lilley.
Accepted history says that this was the fourth expedition into the wave that was to become known as G-Land, and only the third time it’d been surfed. Whether reached by sea or land, in 1974 any trip to Plengkung was an arduous journey. Uluwatu had only been surfed three years prior, while many of Bali's other waves were still undiscovered, so while a trip to G-Land wasn’t quite like sailing off the edge of the world, it was still considered an adventure deep into frontier territory.
Middleton and Lilley arrived first yet had to wait till the Madrigal turned up as their surfboards were aboard. A day later the trimaran rounded the point and the parties united, surfing the wave together. At the time, no more than ten surfers had ever surfed G-Land and the various sections weren’t yet charted or even understood as they changed, sometimes wildly, through tide phases and swell direction. This put every surfer in the same predicament; all trying to make sense of the wild and expansive wave. Shared knowledge was paramount.
However, unbeknownst to every person on that trip, both those who went by boat and those who went by land, one person - the youngest of them all in fact - harboured a secret. Not only did they keep that secret to themselves while on the trip, but they held onto it for most of the last five decades, only sharing it publicly last year.
A few years ago, both Mike Ritter and Jack McCoy began working on a history of Grajagan, published this year as ‘Grajagan: Surfing in the Tiger’s Lair’. Though he wasn’t present on the first surfing expedition into Plengkung, Ritter was an OG Indo pioneer, his trips financed by drug smuggling. The scamming life eventually caught up with Ritter and he served two years in prison, after which he studied history and turned his experiences and scholarship to a writing career. ‘Surfing in the Tigers Lair’ is his second book.
Jack McCoy needs no introduction and he provides the majority of the photos; the visual history that complements Ritter’s narrative. ‘Surfing in the Tiger’s Lair’ follows the template of serious yet glossy history books such as Mavericks by Matt Warshaw, Bells by Michael Gordon, and Thrust by Tim Baker.
While working on 'Surfing in the Tiger’s Lair', Ritter and McCoy caught wind of another author who was also working on a book about Grajagan. Dian Hadiani is a first time surf author, though she’d published many children’s books and has worked as a feature writer for Indonesian magazines. With encouragement from Bobby Radiasa - he of Bobby’s Camp fame - and financial assistance from Tim Watts, Hadiani began work on her book, even reaching out to Jack McCoy and his publisher, John Ogden from Cyclops Press, for photographic material. Each of them obliged and their photos appear in Hadiani’s book.
However, what Hadiani hadn’t told them was that she was publishing a story that conflicts with their own history of G-Land. Though Hadiani’s ‘Chronicles of G-Land’ is essentially the story of how Bobby’s Camp came into existence, the style of inquiry doesn’t follow that of a typical history book. Hadiani places herself within the story, so the book becomes not just a historical tale, but also tells of her attempts to uncover the truth about G-Land, replete with time-wasting dead ends and triumphant investigative scoops.
The reason for this becomes clear in the table of contents. 'Chapter 21: True Pioneers Unveiled' loosely documents the ‘discovery’ of G-Land by three unknown Australian soldiers on the lam from the Vietnam War. That story is told second-hand by one of the unknown soldiers' equally unknown nephew.
Things tighten up somewhat when Hadiani interviews Barry Middleton, who she’d previously never heard of, and Middleton, after fifty years, confesses his secret: He traveled to G-Land in both 1971 and 1972. Both of those trips pre-date the orthodox version of history that says Bob Laverty visited G-Land in July 1972. It’s worth noting that even this version has taken a long time to be pieced together (an earlier version of the story incorrectly placed both Bob Laverty and Bill Boyum there).
Laverty didn’t surf the wave, however his trip is verified via photos he took plus a letter that he wrote to his parents. A historian would call these primary sources; they appear in Ritter and McCoy’s book to piece the jigsaw of early G-Land together. These are important, not just because Bob Laverty died shortly afterwards, but because human memory is fallible, making tangible evidence crucial for credibility.
It’s never quite clear why Middleton chose to keep those early trips a secret from his travel partners in 1974, nor why he chose to speak about them to Hadiani now. Though when I spoke to Middleton he said Hadiani had been chasing him for six months and he wanted to end the harassment. Whatever the reason, Middleton’s story, and that of the three unknown soldiers, has been published and is now in the public domain. The story of G-Land’s history, the one that was researched and sharpened up by Ritter and McCoy, is now muddied by an unexpected interloper.
Modern surf history is a notoriously difficult field of scholarship. Trips aren’t undertaken, nor discoveries made, with an eye for posterity. Surfing has been a culture of storytellers, not historians. It’s only many years later that people come to care about such matters, when the memory of the protagonists has become hazy and oft-circulated rumours make do for facts. In this environment spurious claims abound, and they endure.
Over sixty years after Waimea Bay was first surfed, people still think Greg Noll was the first to paddle out, and despite there being ample evidence to the contrary, people still think either Martin Daly or Lance Knight were the first known surfers in the Mentawai Islands, and not Chris Goodnow, Scott Wakefield, and Tony Fitzpatrick, who surfed the Mentawai Islands in 1980 - ten years before Knight or Daly.
After Hadiani launched ‘Chronicles of G-Land’, I spoke to John Ogden, the publisher of Ritter and McCoy’s book. He was concerned, perhaps rightly, about how his project would now be viewed. Using the above examples of stubborn history, I suggested that the original tale of Laverty’s discovery might be the one that lasts the distance. Nothing is certain, of course, history is fluid, and though it largely relies on evidence and corroboration, public sentiment also weighs into it. People can determine which history they accept.
Matt Warshaw highlights a great example of this in his book ‘The History of Surfing’. “Good luck selling the idea that anchovy-trolling Peruvians were the first wave-riders,” writes Warshaw in a passage that questions surfing's origins. “Surfers choose their collective past, and when it comes down to Hawaii or Peru, the tropics or the desert, the Sport of Kings or the Sport of Fishermen - well, that’s hardly a choice at all.”
Rather than simply lift his quotes, I also reached out to surfing’s unofficial historian, the guy who actually wrote the book, for his take on G-Land’s competing histories.
“You can't have two origin stories, I don't think,” Warshaw mused. “But contained within an origin story, you might need to create space for alternative versions. Phil Edwards usually and probably justly gets the credit for being first to surf Pipe, but I usually point out that Fred Hemmings and Rabbit Kekai have also said they did it earlier.”
A historian has to be the arbiter of past events, confirming or denying various versions of the past. So with what instruments, I ask, do they navigate the minefield of untruths, ego, and lack of documentation?
“Primary source material is the gold standard,” answers Warshaw. “Decades-old memories, not so much.”
Before departing, I asked him one last question about how the current situation might resolve itself. “You're just looking for receipts, literally: evidence, photos, to make the case one way or the other,” explained Warshaw. “Barring that, it's up to us, the people writing about it, to allow for a possible alternative version, while also making the story compelling and not wishy-washy.”
“It's hard. But it’s fun, too. It's just surfing, but why not try and get it right, throw a little shrug in there because we don't at the moment know for sure, and keep the reader entertained at the same time?”
The only ‘receipts’ Hadiani has to debunk the notion that Bob Laverty wasn’t the first to surf G-Land are an anonymous phone call from someone’s nephew - to assert AWOL Australian soldiers had surfed it - and the word of Barry Middleton.
In 1971, Middleton traveled from Timor through East Nusa Tengarra aboard a police boat surveying the surf potential of the area. Middleton took a number of photos from that trip. Likewise, photos exist of the overland trips Middleton took later on. No photos exist from either his 1971 or 1972 trip to G-Land, and the only corroboration is by ‘Big Eddie’ Gardner, who Middleton shared his secret with after returning from the jungle in 1972.
Elsewhere in ‘The Chronicles of G-Land’, Big Eddie, upon getting a fact wrong, exclaims: “Oh, look, I smoked too much marijuana at that time, ha ha, like too much really! Sometimes I just don’t remember things.”
With his long blonde hair, bamboo flute, and clouds of bong smoke, Big Eddie makes for a great character in any story, however I don’t think I’d be alone in calling him an unreliable witness to history - especially that which happened fifty years ago.
Rather than searching in the shadows I decided to call Barry Middleton directly. Now retired, Middleton lives in south-east Queensland and is an equally colourful character; liberal with his F-bombs, he has a long list of enemies that start with surfers (“they’re all junkies”), journalists (“they’re all scumbags”), and Tim Winton (“He said Breath is fictional but it’s all my story. While I was out surfing, he was on shore taking notes. He ripped me off.”)
There’s no denying Middeton has lived a big life. Raised in Perth, he spent his teenage years traveling to and surfing WA’s south-west alongside other noted pioneers such as George Simpson. However, where Simpson largely divided his time between WA’s south-west and north-west coasts, Middleton broadened his horizons, making the aforementioned trip through Nusa Tengarra at 17-years old and afterwards making many return trips to Indonesia.
“I discovered Sumbawa,” says Middleton. “Mentawais. Nias too. Told everyone about it, including Peter Troy. That was in 1972.” [Accepted history says Peter Troy, Kevin Lovett, and John Giesel discovered Lagundri Bay, Nias, in 1975]
“I also discovered G-Land, Surfed it at 25 foot. No-one’s ever ridden it that big, even now.”
With the conversation arriving at Grajagan, I asked Middleton about those first trips to which his reminisces were vivid and detailed. He’d make for a great radio interview, as long as you were quick on the draw with the beep censor.
Unfortunately an interviewer sometimes has to play Devil’s Advocate, asking contrary questions, if only to give the subject a platform to explain themselves. “If you took photos through most of your Indonesian travels,” I inquired. “Why aren't there any from those first trips to G-Land?”
“Because I just surfed,” answered Middleton with rising heat. “I was an athlete.”
“OK, well what doesn’t make sense to me,” I asked, hoping to give an impression of affable befuddlement, “is why, in 1974, you wouldn’t have shared with your travel partners that this wasn’t your first trip to G-Land; that you’d been there before.”
“Because they were a mob of wankers and bullshitters,” Middleton snorted with satisfaction. I broke the following silence and asked him to elaborate.
“They were all drug dealers. All criminals,” said Middleton before segueing into a screed about honour and ethics, topics which came up often and obviously meant a lot to his sense of self.
“I wasn’t into ripping people off,” explained Middleton. “It’s why I got along so well with Miki Dora, as we didn’t rip people off. That brought us together.”
With that I lowered my eyebrow and thanked Middleton for his time, wondering what I would’ve done had the story landed in my lap. I’ve spent fifteen years working as a surf journalist, at times covering various aspects of surf history. I know full well the intoxicating feeling of unearthing exclusive information. Never mind the difficult interview, in these instances separating the subjective from the objective becomes the real struggle.
After Barry Middleton, I contacted Chris Lilley, his partner in the 1974 overland mission from Kuta to G-Land. Lilley now runs a fishing charter business out of Moorea in French Polynesia. In contrast to Middleton, Lilley is quietly spoken.
“Barry was a real good friend of mine,” said Lilley. “But I’ve never heard that story [that he’d traveled to G-Land prior to 1974] before. That’s bullshit. I don’t know where he came up with that.”
There’s not much more Lilley can add. It was all so long ago that it’s become inconsequential, separated now by a half-century of life. Fond memories but nothing more.
In Dian Hadiani’s ‘The Chronicles of G-Land’, Warren ‘Abdul’ Anderson, who arrived in Bali in 1970 and captained The Madrigal catamaran trip to G-Land in 1974, told Hadiani: “I hope you will write the factual history of G-land. I want to tell you, the current history of G-Land that has been passed around is false, it’s a big lie.”
Seemingly, this was a wish to rid G-Land’s origins story of Bill Boyum (who wasn’t present on Bob Laverty’s first trip), plus some of the other players who’ve written themselves into the earlier chapters of the wave and Boyum’s camp. Regrettably it now comes across as being careful what you wish for because, though Hadiani did correct the story of Boyum, she also added the henceforth unknown stories of AWOL Australian soldiers and Barry Middleton’s secret trips. Unlike Chris Lilley, Abdul has been very vocal in his rejection of this new version of history. As he was a reference for Hadiani’s book, he also appeared at some of her Balinese launch nights - Abdul still lives in Bali - and was quick to quash her claims, leading to awkward moments during the Q&As.
Abdul also appeared with John Ogden during two recent trips to Bali promoting Ritter and McCoy’s book. By that stage, the banter was less about the quality of their book with conversation turning to the competing histories of the wave and punters wondering which one was correct. Over a few nights, Abdul was forthright in his repudiation of Hadiani’s version of history.
Less forthright is Tim Watts, the American expat who gave financial assistance for Hadiani to get started. Though he was an early aide and also provided numerous contacts, Watts wasn’t privy to the final draft.
“I really wish she showed me before she went and printed it,” said Watts, leaving me in no doubt what he was implying.
At this juncture, with two books offering conflicting versions of the same wave, the situation appears intractable. For all the research Ritter and McCoy did, another version has presented itself. There’s less proof it’s true, that much is sure, but it’s published and it’s in the public domain. In a recent Facebook post, Hadiani claimed her book is becoming “a resource document.”
Some readers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Why should the lay surfer care about surf history? After all, knowing who did what and when has no bearing on your surfing life. In an impassioned letter, Mike Ritter gave his justification.
“For the people who were there and who shaped the history,” wrote Ritter, “the story carries particular significance. It was a very special and formative part of their lives. And to have that history misrepresented by an interloper is to violate their lives.”
Moving beyond the personal, Ritter also saw it as a blight upon Indonesia’s history. ”The discovery of Grajagan also marks the beginning of surf exploration throughout Indonesia, a country that would prove to be the most fertile location in the world for world-class surf. Soon Indonesian nationals would take on this new sport and produce world-class surfers themselves. In that sense, Hadiani has also violated Indonesian history.”
For this reader at least, Ritter’s entreaty carries some weight. Of course, I write about surf history so you'd expect me to say that, but I think there’s some external truth to it: If you attempt history it’s incumbent upon the writer to follow strict protocols, because after all, who knows how it might be construed in the future?
Then again, it might not mean anything at all. When I spoke to Chris Goodnow, he was returning from a fortieth reunion for Stanford University scientists - after his 1980 trip to the Mentawais, Goodnow went on to become a world-renowned immunologist.
“History matters for medical researchers’ careers,” wrote Goodnow. “But even then there’s the published stories in peer-reviewed journals with date-stamps, and there’s the backstories of original discoverers and fast-followers, the latter if well-known enough sometimes manage to get credited ahead of the pioneers.”
“With surf spot discoveries, it wouldn’t bother me a bit if Martin Daly were to get credit for being the first surfer in the Mentawais.”
“We told no-one because we went for the journey of discovery. We figured it would be best if the next people also took the same journey and understood the local culture and impact of them being there.”
// STU NETTLE