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A Roll of the Dice

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The Boat

Our captain, Abun, pilots the boat perched on a little red plastic chair that has been bolted down to the crew’s raised bunk platform. It’s a typical plastic pop-out type lawn chair, but with the legs sawed off. The steering wheel looks like it’s from a 1970s van. The generator sits on the floor next to him. He sits up on this chair, barefoot, with his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. His shirt says “Short Boarders Fake It. Long Boarders Take It. Knee Boarders MAKE IT!” There are two other local crewmembers, Hambali and the younger Entus. 

When I next awake, we are at the island. It is quite remote, and yet there is a surprising amount of rubbish in the water where we anchor. It’s thick and unexpected, plastic bags and food packaging for the most part. The water is a beautiful greenish blue though, and is clear. The island is covered in dense jungle and towering trees. 

I ask Timmy about his skull. He tells me to feel the line around his head where his skull ends and the artificial one begins. It starts halfway up his forehead. The meandering crease where his skull stops and the artificial one starts can be easily felt. Amazingly, he has no visible scars except for under his hair. This first afternoon, the swell has not yet fully arrived. Timmy paddles out alone and catches a few on his backhand. He says he hasn’t surfed in two months. 

The sky turns pinkish purple after sunset. Dark clouds move in, and then the storm starts. We all cram into the rear cabin/bunk of the boat. It’s a raised wooden platform, about seven feet wide by eight feet deep with a roof that first starts leaking on Dustin. The cabin is open in the back. The wind whips up and sheets of rain are blowing sideways. The air around us flashes a bright white with a deafening sound, and we all reflexively duck down for cover. We can feel the electric charge in the air, on the hairs of our arms and legs. I see Dustin with a look of disbelief staring at his arms. We laugh. We could feel that one in our chests. 

That was close. Timmy falls asleep early with the Indo crew up in the front cabin. Mikala, Daniel, Dustin, and I share the back bunk. I’m at the end, hoping not to fall off onto the deck or get too wet through the night.

Maritime Hygiene

Before I go to sleep, I decide to have a shave up front. I pull out my Mach III razor and the Indonesian crew gets pretty wowed by it. Entus points at it and says, “money,” with a look of awe. I feel kind of bad for the showy display. While I’m shaving, Timmy asks if he can borrow my razor. 

“Sure, let me get you another razor cartridge.” He starts to use the same little bucket of water I have just shaved with filled with my stubble and shaving cream. I dump it out and fill it with some clean water. 

When he’s done, he hands me back the razor, and I tell him to keep it. He hands it over to the Indonesian guys, just the razor cartridge, not the handle. Entus starts shaving off his mustache with it right away. Then it gets passed to the captain, Abun. Entus starts laughing about the patch on the chin that Timmy missed, and so he shaves that part off Timmy’s chin with the same razor cartridge. I feel like I should give a speech on how it’s not the best idea to share razors, but I know Timmy won’t worry much about it, and there’s not much hope of being able to explain this to the Indonesian guys due to the language barrier. 

Mikala says, “They’ll probably put that to use for a year.” He’s not saying this in a demeaning way, just matter of fact.

Adrift

Dustin pulls his wetsuit top on as far as he can and asks for my help to pull it down the rest in back and zip it up. He’s really sick and doesn’t have energy to do it. He keeps saying, “I hope it’s not malaria again.” 

I am worried if he’ll make it to the lineup or not. What am I going to do if he passes out halfway there? He’s twice my size. It is a long way across deep water from where we are anchored. I can see the sickness on his face. His swim kicks are barely kicks. One of his arms is half doggy paddling, the other holding his housing. I try not to think what he looks like to a big fish below.

The wave comes out of deep water. Ominous. Black almost. As it hits the reef, it stands up the entire length of the bay. And that’s just the beginning. Mikala, getting started.

Daniel starts to paddle quite late. The long wall of blue starts to pitch and Daniel makes a late, late drop. I can’t believe what I am looking at, and that I just finished my roll of film. The wave pitches over him, and I’m staring straight into the barrel. Other waves this day I could not always see the surfers’ lower bodies from the boat. This wave is different. As Daniel passes Dustin he’s still a bit crouched over, and the wave is still growing and pitching out farther and farther. I’m watching the best ride of the trip so far. The wave is starting to glow a greenish blue on the inside. The wave gets bigger and bigger down the line. It grows into the most beautiful wave I have ever seen. Daniel stands straight up in this blue-green light. Froth is swirling behind him and growing in power and size. He looks relaxed. His back is arching a little bit, and his arms are hanging down at his sides. I watch motionless, expressionless. 

The first and biggest day was too onshore to surf. They sat there just watching it… wondering if they’d get to ride it (top). Timmy might be too deep here (bottom left). Sometimes you just have to go and find out.

The crew is busy playing chess and listening to music on Mikala’s phone. Every so often, when the meanest sets come through and one of the guys is getting shacked out of their minds, if they happen to look up and catch it, they all yell out with a rolled double “r” “BARREL!!!!!!” Then it’s back to chess or kicking back some of the beer Timmy brought on the trip.

Too Much Perfect

Daniel paddles out with me and volunteers to put my housing on his back to help me get to the reef quicker. “I do this for my dad sometimes,” he says. I’m really appreciative of the gesture. It’s wobbly and awkward on his back, but he keeps with it and we head out together toward the reef. We are anchored pretty far from the break. 

It’s comforting reaching the reef. It feels a lot better hovering 15 feet over a reef I can see than staring down at the deep blue unknown. More of a mental thing than anything, but it feels better to see the bottom below.

It’s the biggest wave of the day. Mikala is paddling hard for it. As he makes the drop down the steep face, on rail, I can see there is no way I can make it to the shoulder. I have my Bolex running, pointing it at Mikala, and I figure, well, I’m going to take a pounding on this one no matter what. Might as well try to get the shot. He bottom turns and rides down the line just in front of me. The wave spits, shooting a white mist around Mikala. I dive down just before it hits me. I don’t make it down too far, and the wave grabs me. It sends me spinning, in which directions I can’t tell. It sends me down deep enough that it goes dark in this clear water. My right knee hits the reef, and I get dragged a bit over it. The wave passes and I surface. The next couple waves aren’t too bad, though I still think I’m going to get pushed in all the way over the reef to shore. Fortunately, this long-period swell has big lulls between the sets, and I swim back out pretty easily. 

I look at my housing and my already leaking housing hit the reef with the lens port. My knee and shin are bleeding. Swimming back, I’m pretty anxious to get back on the boat.

Timmy is talking about the Sugar Shack. It’s a small diner back in Huntington Beach that his parents started years ago. He now runs it along with his sister. “Sugar Shack has blessed me,” he says with conviction. We all get a kick out of just how this line rolls off his tongue. We joke that it sounds like he’s referring to God as “Sugar Shack.” 

“You really eat those with the shells?” Dustin says. “You think they clean them?” 

“Uh, no, probably not,” I say. Still, Dustin follows my lead and starts eating peanuts with the shells still on them. Mikala and Daniel and Timmy try it out too. Since the winds aren’t cooperating for waves, we are on our way out to look for fish. We go quite far out. Past a nasty exposed outer reef that I would guess has claimed ships in the past. With the big swell, a large swath of ocean next to us has turned into a vast whirlpool of whitewater explosions. The farther out we go, the rougher the seas get. I have visions of pearling. Or of the motor dying and being blown into this maelstrom, the boat splintering to pieces on the jagged rocks jutting out of the ocean angrily in the middle of the froth. 

When Timmy first got out of hospital, he had to wear a bicycle helmet for six months. But he’s never worn a helmet to surf this spot. Laid back and sugar shacked.

As I shift back and forth between pondering a drift story or getting sucked down into the angry sea, it hits me that we have no radio on this boat. Flares? Doubtful. Life jackets, I don’t think so. Our first-aid kit consists of the few Band-Aids and a half-used tube of antibiotic ointment I have packed. Not to mention we forgot a large portion of our food rations at Bill’s house: big blocks of cheese and tortillas. And then there’s our one knife blade. 

The Passage Back

We leave a little later than we had planned. All the guys stay out longer than they planned. The water is still glassy and more perfect sets keep coming in. Mikala stays out the longest. His last ride is a nice one. 

During the ride back to the main island, everyone seems really content. Mikala and Timmy are looking out at tall jagged rocks jutting out of the ocean as we pass. They are kicking back the last few beers we have left. Mikala’s back shows a few thick scars from some serious brushes with reefs over the years. Timmy’s shows fresh bloody scrapes all over his lower back and right arm. He doesn’t seem concerned. I brought a bar of soap on the trip, and at my urging he washed the cuts and used some of my antibiotic ointment on them. Once. 

Dustin is feeling a lot better now. Daniel is kicking back in his black and fluoro yellow-green scientist shades. 

“How was that last wave, Daniel?” asks Mikala. Daniel just starts to describe his last ride and Mikala cuts him off, as only a big brother can, “I shoulda’ burnt you.” 

Timmy hangs with the crew, talking story and exchanging laughs, eating peanuts together off the bunk floor. He gives them each a tip, and also starts giving away his stuff: socks to one guy. They are looking through their new possessions really happy to have gotten them. He takes a black Sugar Shack T-shirt and has each pick a number between one and ten. The one who guesses closest to his number gets the shirt. 

Photos are one thing. Being right there is something else. Plenty of holddowns and reef rolls—even the photogs took their licks.

As we get closer to shore, we pass through what looks like a sprawling city of house structures on the water. Wooden frames going up about 30 feet high, each with a small house perched up in the middle, floating on the water. 

When we get to the harbor, the beach of this small town is covered in rubbish. I see a kid take a large handwoven basket full of trash and toss its contents over a wooden fence onto the beach. The water here is brown and dirty. I have cuts from the reef all over my shin and knee, so I jump off our boat as close to shore as possible, not wanting to get an infection. There are flies all over. The beach is bustling with activity. 

Out on the main street, we pay for the boat, say good-bye to the crew, and shuffle into a couple vehicles to get back to the city. We’re waiting on Timmy. He is lagging behind, stopping random people riding by on bikes to talk and point his video camera at. And smile. He gets them all to smile.