Surfing From The Point Of Inception
For the past six months, I've been leaving my phone on overnight in case something like this happens.
I listen. The hoot of the Tawny Frogmouth owl in my backyard sounds like a vibrating phone. I listen again, it’s definitely the phone, not the owl.
The screen was lit up with messages and missed calls from the satellite phone. It's 5.00am. Quick calculations say it must be 2.00am on the boat. Damn!
“You all good?”
“Huh, no! We're thirty nautical miles southwest of Nias and taking on water fast. I can hear it coming from under the engine but I can’t access the area its flowing in from. It's rough and we're eight hours sail to any landfall. It’s not looking good.”
“What are your coordinates?
“0.127398 North 97.390435 East.”
Aiyana Powell is an extraordinarily creative woman. She's a highly capable person who can achieve anything when she puts her mind to it. I’d first got to know Torren Martyn’s partner on a deeper level when, in January 2020, we spent a month looking for surf on the remote north coast of Iceland. I saw Aiyana snowshoeing in desolate fjords in -15°C weather. She put on a wetsuit and paddled out into a remote, mid-winter Arctic lineup. Aiyana surfed challenging waves with rare enthusiasm and poise.
During the COVID lockdown in Tasmania in Winter 2020, Aiyana and Torren began dreaming of constructing a simple wooden sailing catamaran. Nothing fancy, just a little adventure vessel that you could use as a vehicle to access remote areas to look for waves. Torren had shared this idea with me and I had a chuckle, mumbling something like "Maybe you should try sailing first to see if you like it?"
I'd spent many years living, traveling, and surfing from a small sailboat and had a good understanding of the realities of the lifestyle, knowing first hand that they are very different to the romantic idea of sailing. It's not all sunsets, fancy drinks and perfect waves. It's a lot more like endless rolling, relentless maintenance and isolation, with a good dose of fear and uncertainty thrown in. But Torren and Aiyana are cut from the right cloth for sailing, and knowing Torren I could sense there was a bigger idea bubbling away. Like most of his ideas, they generally take shape quickly, and then actually manifest.
I told him there are two types of sailors. The first owns a boat and spends years working and tinkering on it, never to really get it going. The second finds any boat, by any means, then jumps in the deep end and works it out as they go. If all goes well, the second group often end up being the better sailors; they improvise, they problem solve and end up understanding the fundamental principles of sailing.
I think it was the second time Torren and Aiyana came to stay on my 29 foot boat to do some sailing. It’s the perfect vessel to learn on. A proven pocket cruiser with abundant evidence of the many journeys its past captains had taken her on, and it wasn’t too precious if you made any mistakes. The pair fumbled around the decks, asked lots of questions, and looked mostly perplexed. They were ‘at the beginning’, an exciting time where we’ve all been at some stage - complete novices with a dream.
It was that afternoon, while fresh at the helm, that Torren voiced the idea that was buzzing around his head. Torren had recently gotten to know his father, and while rebuilding this relationship he had learnt that his dad had a 35 foot sailing boat on the east coast of Thailand. The boat needed to sail the 8,000 nautical miles back to eastern Indonesia and the job was Torren’s, if he was up to the task. The only problem was it had to happen in the next few weeks yet Torren and Aiyana only had a couple of days sailing experience.
We perused the grainy images Torren had of the boat, and there it was. 'Calypte' was a fifty-year old, humble but proven, 35 foot sailing boat with all the essentials you would need for a year at sea. For Torren and Aiyana, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. They resolved to learn as they went, get a few friends with sailing experience to help them through the early stages, and pick up knowledge along the way. With this plan in mind, they left for Thailand on one of the first post-COVID flights out of the country. Within the month they'd crossed the South China Sea, sailed up the Malacca strait, and were out into the remote Indian Ocean.
Torren’s best mate, filmmaker Ishka Folkwell, and I flew in to meet Torren and Aiyana in the northern-most reaches of Indonesia. Two other experienced captains helped them get this far, and my role was to be the final sailing mentor, helping them build experience sailing to and anchoring around surf breaks. It’s an art that can only be gained through direct experience as mistakes in these reef zones can quickly turn tragic. I sat back and was impressed as I watched Aiyana and Torren navigate the intricacies of this boat with clear, newfound knowledge they 'd acquired over the past couple of months. We navigated out of an unmarked harbour and pointed northwest into the Indian Ocean towards a remote and rarely visited group of islands. A long-period swell passed beneath us as we started our fourteen-hour passage.
At this time of year, we knew we would encounter the late afternoon ‘Black Sumatran’. It’s a weather system that arrives like clockwork, moving in from the northwest and loaded with enough elements to put any sailor to the test: lightning, torrential rain, and 40 knot winds over the nose. Torren and Aiyana rose to the task and I was able to take a back seat. Watching them navigate the vessel through the evening storm and towards an overnight anchorage, it made me proud to see how far they had come.
Over the next few weeks, we bounced and rolled between storms and perfect waves. Like all good sailing journeys, the days were often full of endless rolling, engine problems, boat maintenance, finding food and water, and waiting out heavy weather. To be back out in the post-COVID world was incredible and we felt like the only people on Earth.
One morning, we headed out pre-dawn into a windy and stormy sea. The idea was to head to a remote island facing the full brunt of the swell, that, if we were lucky, might have a wave running down its eastern flank. As we approached the island, rain and cloud bands hid the sunrise and the wind blew at about 25 knots. Ishka and Torren offloaded the dinghy in tricky conditions and clambered aboard to do a reconnaissance of the area and get a closer look at the potential of surfable waves. Meanwhile, Aiyana and I sailed Calypte up and down the reef, about a mile offshore searching for a possible place to drop the pick. We could see a large swell exploding on the fringing reef as the wind whipped the lip of any wave off and out to sea. This was not your ideal Indonesian surf day. From my perspective the prospects were dim. Torren and Ishka were gone for nearly an hour. As we sailed around the fringing reef, I started thinking about what to do if they didn't come back soon.
Had they broken down? Been flipped? No one is going to help them on this uninhabited island except us. As my nerves were building, Torren and Ishka appeared through the large rolling swells with a look I had begun to recognise - complete froth!
I’m aware that Torren’s surfing can sometimes polarise people. “Hipster!” “Retro!” “Can’t do airs!” I've heard it all. Yet what I saw on this day was the best surfing I’ve ever seen. The wave was a perfect eight foot cylinder that broke for over 300 metres, often below sea level, at a pace that would challenge every surfer alive. Then there was the added danger of isolation and having to sail for days to find help if something was to go wrong.
That day I saw a new knowledge in Torren; a deeper understanding of the sea and the energy that runs underneath. He had now been at the point of inception of a swell and felt with every pitch and roll how a swell builds momentum underneath a sailing boat. Months at sea give you a deeper understanding of its movements and this was translating into his surfing.
Torren was entering these freight-training beasts with a relaxed poise, sliding under sharp-breaking lips as they folded long before him, the distances he was traveling impressive. Riding a 6’5” channel bottom twin he was coming off the bottom in a low, almost sitting position, then extending his frame to project into long heavy sections, riding the foam ball on the most unconventional craft. But everything was in rhythm, everything was in flow, and it was a magical sight as he emerged from yet another pit into a refined slice down the wave face only to line up the next section for another run into the looming cavern ahead. To me, this was the epitome of great surfing. It was highly innovative, remarkably graceful, and purely functional.
As I paddled back up the reef I appreciated that it wasn’t just the standard of surfing going down, it was the whole thing. Torren and Aiyana had got here the hard way, they had literally surfed here and this was one of the many fruits of their commitment. Months ago they were complete sailing novices with an idea, yet here they were in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean with it all unfolding in front of them.
As Ishka and I prepared to head home, it signified the moment when Torren and Aiyana would truly be on their own for the rest of the nine month journey. They had come so far and were genuinely capable of taking this ship around the world. But they, as any serious sailor knows, were yet to be tested. The type of test that has you shaking with fear, not knowing if you're going to live another day. As I packed, Torren asked me in his humble way if I had any parting advice as a captain. I said something about not getting too cocky, as you know the ocean will keep dishing new stuff at you. Then more seriously: “My only advice would be to learn how to sail this boat the old way. You need to be able handle it without relying on the engine, the electrics, and the auto-helm just in case things fail”.
The satellite phone line was scratchy and delayed and I could hear the fear in Torren's voice. He could talk to me, yet he and Aiyana were on their own, in complete darkness, with a flooded engine room. They were on a sinking boat thirty nautical miles from any land, and in this part of the world no one is coming to save you. Torren said the water level subsided as he changed course.
By sailing on a different heading, and with Aiyana working the manual hand pump, they were able to manage the water coming into the boat. If they were lucky they might be able to limp back to Nias. Here was their test: no engine, no electrics, and no auto helm at 2am in the middle of nowhere. Torren thought water was coming in the through hulls or a return valve on a bilge pump. But he couldn't reach it because the engine had flooded. Diving overboard in the dark to fix it from outside can be even riskier in rough seas. Fortunately, they were both thinking straight and working to fix the problem.
At this point it was going to be a long time before their next sunset, a fancy drink, or a perfect wave, but that’s sailing.
'Calypte' tells the story of two surfers who jump in the deep end and have the adventure of a lifetime. Yet the film is merely a snippet of the year-long journey. It captures the few times someone who knows how to operate a camera turned up to record it. The film is, however, a beautiful and true portrait of a year at sea. It’s a journey from Thailand to Indonesia, but also from beginner sailors to accomplished mariners.
In a unique way, it’s also a love story, as a relationship deepens over a shared experience and I like that about it. There were many surfs, special moments, and near misses that weren’t filmed. Now they only exist in the memory banks of both Torren and Aiyana.
// RYAN SCANLON
Scanno is the founder and owner of needessential wetsuits.