Perfection and Regret
This morning I shared a session with Fin-Bob the local skegspert, proud owner of the largest fin collection this side of Helsinki. In the carpark afterwards, Bob again showed me his fins, all neatly packed and stacked in FCS fold-out covers, hundreds of sets in total, and all of them, at least to my eyes, differing by just a few millimetres this way or that.
A man’s gotta have a hobby, but can he really tell the difference?
It made me think of the time I could’ve done with Bob’s help. I’m not sure if there’s a moral to the following story, but it’s a story nonetheless and with no work and no surf, now’s a good time to share it.
In 2014 I was working my way back home after spending six years living close to the geographic centre of England, equidistant to the North Sea, Celtic Sea, and English Channel - each coastline as uninviting as the others. I found contract work at a university in Bogor, Indonesia, and made up for lost time with regular trips along the southwest coast of Java.
Four times a year the uni sent students to a camp in Nusa Tenggara and I accompanied them as chaperone/facilitator. The camp was a base for field trips, and to hold seminars and group study sessions. It was located on a sparsely populated island, and though it was surrounded by water it was a long way from the open ocean.
Any hope I had for surf was dashed on my first trip as we motored across the bay towards the camp and the ocean was not only smooth, but it was free of any undulations whatsoever - swells didn’t make it this far north. For seven days the beach front was a pond.
On that first trip I grabbed one of the old BIC stand up paddleboards stored under the office and in the afternoons I’d paddle around the bays, at first letting my imagination run free, but later yielding to reality and just enjoying the scenery.
In mid-2015 I was running my fourth and final camp. I’d become familiar with the boat trip across to the camp, however it took on a different complexion when we arrived at the wharf. Small waves were surging up what I’d only ever seen as a flat beach. “Ombak besar,” said the arriving boatman with a smile. “Berhati-hati!”. The students gripped the gangway as it swayed between the boat and the wharf.
The boat trip was only thirty minutes and took us further out into open water before we rounded a headland and steered into the small bay where the camp was located. The bay faced north, away from the open ocean, yet small breaking waves made for a sketchy dismount. Clouds of fine yellow sand mixed with the blue water.
While the students made for their huts I borrowed a pushbike from Juf, the camp caretaker, and rode up the track behind the camp to a hill overlooking the surrounding coast. The next bay south of the camp was broader and deeper, the southeastern end ran at a shallow arc out to a low, craggy headland lined with whitewash.
As I sat on the dusty track I saw lines of swell beyond the headland pushing north through deeper water, and as they passed the crown of the point the first line bent towards me and began running down the point, then the next wave followed suit, and the third and the fourth, all of them following the whitewash line of the first wave before the shoreline squared up and the waves closed out.
It was hard to get my head around waves breaking so far from the open ocean, especially perfect waves. In the Sunda Strait and the Mentawais I’d seen swells bend 180°, but this was something else again. From the bluff I couldn’t see the camp. In fact I couldn’t see any human habitation whatever direction I looked. All I could see was brown land, blue water, and a set of perfect waves marching down the point in roughly five minute intervals.
I stood above the bay for an interminable period, marvelling at how magnificent the view was, how unexpected, till a dark cloud rained on my reverie: I didn’t have a surfboard!
My thoughts instantly ran in many directions at once, all seeking an answer to the same question, but the results when I reeled them in were all the same. I was a long way from the nearest village which was a long way from the nearest town which was a long way from the nearest beach. The nearest surfboard may as well have been back in central England for all it mattered.
The old SUPs weren’t even fibreglass but plastic popouts with seamed rails, nor were they made for waves, though they’d have to do. When I told Juf he smiled flatly and said nothing. I knew that look.
The first SUP he pulled out no longer had any fins; the result of a student beaching it on the rocks. The second SUP also had fins missing, two of them, a side fin and the rear fin. One side fin remained. There were no other SUPs.
I was sinking in quicksand, falling into despair, but just as I’d given up hope a lone foothold appeared. The wave is a right, the remaining fin is the front left - the inside fin. This might just work! Juf was delighted to find I could still use the SUP and offered to drop me around to the bay by boat. I took him up on the offer and ten minutes later we were beating into the trades, then rounding south into the next bay angling deep so the headland protected us from the wind.
Doubts filled my mind while looking at the now-flat pointbreak, the perspective was different from down here. Were they really rideable waves I saw? Yet sure enough, whitewash exploded against the furthest rocks and a wave appeared like an apparition, bending around the corner and peeling down the point towards us. I said goodbye to Juf and told him I’d walk or paddle back.
No legrope, no wax, one fin, not where it should be, but the waves were perfect. They were perfect like Cape St Francis was perfect in The Endless Summer, and coincidentally I had to ride these waves in exactly the same fashion as Robert and Mike. It was possible to turn the SUP, but it wasn’t advisable, and if I walked toward the nose the fin would release and the board would sideslip. 150 litres of foam and the sweet spot was the size of a saucer.
A nativist instinct kept luring me towards steeper sections, or tempting me to stall into the barrel behind, but I could never get there, the SUP would either spin out or the four-inch thick rail wouldn’t set an edge, so I’d have to go back to standing still and being a passive observer. I eventually got the hang of riding the one-finned SUP, which is to say I wasn’t wiping out, but I wasn’t doing much else either.
Over a few hours I caught many waves, trying hard to enjoy them for what they were - perfectly formed three-footers breaking without section for 100 metres - but some hard truths became apparent to me. For one, perfect waves are boring if you can’t do anything on them. I was doing the opposite of involvement surfing and only the scenery kept me occupied.
Another thing is that happiness shared is happiness multiplied. I’m used to surfing alone, but this session, this ridiculous predicament I found myself in, would’ve been more enjoyable with company. It wasn’t till later I realised I hadn’t laughed or hooted all afternoon.
Those waves have filled my thoughts a lot since then. I’d seen perfect waves before and since, but never when every wave of every set conformed. I’ve thought about professional surfers, who must get to see perfect surf often, and how they might take perfection for granted. The idea troubles me. I’m also troubled by the thought that maybe that was my lone chance at surfing truly perfect waves - and I blew it.
The session ended about an hour before sunset when I lost control of the SUP and I couldn’t regather it before it entered the rocks. I watched it bounce down the point and accepted its fate. Even from a distance I saw the remaining fin was gone.
I tried to bodysurf a few waves but could make it no further than a few metres before the lip overtook me and raced off down the line. It was frustrating but those few attempts made me grateful I at least had the one-fin SUP to ride. I gave thanks for small mercies and began the paddle home, thinking about what was and what could’ve been.
POSTSCRIPT: In 2018 I was in Bali when the largest swell of the season was due, forecast to be even larger than the aforementioned 2015 swell. With a few days notice I travelled to the camp with a friend, each of us with two boards and many fins. On the day of the swell we climbed the hill and looked down on the bay and the rocks lined with whitewash. Yet the only waves that came around the corner were foot high lines that surged onto the rocks and scree. It was unrideable and remained that way all day.
// BRAD BROWN