Unpacking our hard-wired fascination with surf trip disasters.
By Kirk Owers
Light / Dark
Home Invasion with Goat’s Horn
Tom Carey was feeling good. The Californian photographer had been invited to a friend’s home in Guerrero, Mexico for a little work and a little play. He assembled a small crew—surfers Damien Fahrenfort and Taylor Clark, filmer James Lugo—and they jetted south, eager to explore a new zone and bank some fresh images. The house was a luxurious abode abutting an infinity pool that overlooked a secluded cove with fun waves out front. On the first night, maids prepared their meal while they threw back celebratory shots of tequila. Any qualms about security were nixed by the presence of an armed guard.
Later they swayed for bed, anticipating a week of easy living ahead. But Carey’s slumber was cut short when he was awoken by a stranger in his room. The dark figure wore a ski mask and military fatigues, and pointed a gun at Carey’s head. It might have been a .38 or a .44. Carey remembers it as “a big fucking hand canon.”
“I was kind of foggy, trying to make sense of things,” he says. “He asked for my phone and wallet, and I handed them right over. My roommate, Lugo, didn’t want to hand over his stuff and I was tripping. Life is cheap down there. Finally, he handed it over. I was shitting myself. We started looking for something to stab him with, but all we had was a pen. Right about then, another militant came in with the rest of the guys. He had an AK-47. He made us all pile in the corner of the room. We thought we were about to get sprayed with bullets.”
Mexico’s grisly murder rate has been global news since the cartels went to war and bodies started piling up by the thousands. While tourists are rarely targeted, there is always the chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and winding up in a set piece from a Don Winslow novel. It encourages a background hum of paranoia as horror stories are passed around like tuneless narcocorridos.
Carey picks up his.
“After five long minutes,” he remembers, “another cartel member came in fully armed and had us all walk down the stairs into the courtyard towards the back of the house, where our other friends were. It was so eerie and surreal. No one wanted to walk first or last, so we did this weird shuffle. It was the scariest 50 yards I’ve ever walked. We turned the corner to see our friend and his girl sitting on the bed, next to another dude with an AK focused on them. The look on their faces was straight fear.”
Carey figured either one of two things was about to happen. They would be gunned down and killed. Or they would walk away with a hell of a story.
Their luck flipped. Their assailants were on the run from a rival cartel and only wanted food and shelter. After some awkward bonding, an attempt to sell them meth, and a murder threat, the narcos left. The surfers moved houses, but stayed on for another week. The waves were pumping.
If you haven’t heard this exact story, you’ve probably heard something of a similar vein. Surf trips that end badly make for great parking lot tales. Some of the heaviest take on a mythic sheen. If you return from the great beyond after your boat was sunk, your mate caught on fire, or you ended up in prison, your audience will be all ears. Whereas a surf holiday that goes well can stir indifference or even white-hot resentment.
Jealousy has long found fertile ground in the minds of surfers. Great surf is rare and highly coveted—it can be hard to see someone else scoring without being reminded that you’re not. Which might explain why we’re occasionally lit with a poisonous joy when we hear about a surf holiday gone pear-shaped. The Germans call it schadenfreude: experiencing pleasure from the troubles or humiliation of another. It translates literally to “harm joy.” You don’t have to be a sociopath to feel it tickle the shadow of your soul. Psychologists believe it comes from deep within our primal brain and is triggered by concerns for status, social identity, and justice.
At its core, schadenfreude is a breakdown in empathy. But it has its limits. At some point genuine concern kicks in and surf disasters pull us the other way, bringing disparate surfers together. While self-interest runs canyon deep in the lineup, surfers will go to enormous lengths to extract a fellow traveler neck- deep in the shit. The enduring appeal of surf disaster stories likely has a more encompassing explanation.
The key word is stories.
For any story to work, it needs a narrative. Drama. Something needs to happen. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy writes at the start of his masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Substitute “family” for “surf trip” and the aphorism holds. Happy surf trips tend to be similarly dull in the retelling, while unhappy ones swerve all over the road with a dead clown in the trunk. They can go anywhere.
A Bit of a Rinsing
An impenetrable darkness blankets the Grajagan jungle once dusk fades out. One genuinely can’t see their hand in front of their face if they stop for an alfresco piss. The eeriness is heightened by unfamiliar animal noises emanating from Alas Purwo National Park and the distant roar of exploding surf. For new arrivals, the mind can play tricks on the first night on Java’s southeastern tip. They toss and turn and wake to a galloping heart.
First-time visitor Richie Lovett thought it was a tiger when he heard the rumble in the middle of the Grajagan night. He was with a group of Australian surfers all trying to get some sleep in their respective huts. They were awoken by a cacophony of distressed animal noises before the rumble changed pitch, the animals went silent, and the rumble became louder. Storm front? Plane about to ditch?
Then the wall of water hit.
“The force was like nothing I’d experienced before. I felt like I’d been hit head on by a train,” Lovett recounts in his memoir, The Big Sea. “My hut was ripped from its foundations and tossed towards the jungle, with me inside not being able to see a thing. My head hit something and I felt the water starting to consume me, and it was at that point I knew we were being wiped out by a tsunami. Within seconds my hut began to disintegrate, the bamboo-thatch wall next to my mattress wrapped around me and, for a moment, offered some protection from the chaos. I screamed in terror as I went tumbling in a wash of whitewater, trees, sand, and reef. This wave was taking everything in its path, including me.”
It was June 3, 1994 and Richie Lovett was being swept into surfing folklore.
What makes his story so compelling is the same basic DNA that enlivens Tom Carey’s Mexican misadventure. The foundations of good storytelling likely date back to campfire recitals on the African plains. Aristotle identified them some 2,500 years ago, long before the novel was invented. In his unfinished work, Poetics, Aristotle lists six principles of good storytelling, the most important of which is plot. Plot is everything. It’s the first essential, the life and soul of a good story.
Poetics is still studied and regarded as the gospel of storytelling today. Aristotle argues a story must have pity, fear, and catharsis. He was also big on devices such as reversals and discoveries. A reversal is when a story changes from one state to its opposite. For example, when you’re lining up a barrel at Speed Reef (elated state) to when you’re getting washed up the reef with a busted pelvis and a survival imperative (distressed state).
Reversals provide the sort of tension that underpins all great dramas and facilitates discoveries about human nature in extremis. Questions arise. How would you react with your life on the line? Would you assist a stranger if it meant putting your own hard-earned pleasure on hold? How much is a barrel worth in the currency of risk and consequence?
Back in 1994, instinct kicked in for Lovett as he was blasted into a new reality. He curled into a ball, held his breath, and went pinballing through the jungle along with uprooted palms, surf camp rubble, and a spin cycle of freaked-out surfers that included Richard Marsh, Shane Herring, and photographer Peter Boskovic. Lovett would not have appreciated it at the time, but he was fulfilling all the exacting tenants of a gripping narrative as laid down by the ancient Greeks.
The Dark Half
Wayne Lynch remembers his first surf at Uluwatu in 1973. He was with the Australian surf explorer Peter Troy, who was later speared in the back by his surfboard and almost crippled as a result. “Uluwatu was considered taboo by the Balinese,” recalls Lynch. “It was a place of evil spirits and you didn’t go there. They were shocked and concerned for our well-being. Bob Laverty dying and Peter getting injured reaffirmed what they had been telling us. It was spooky. I mean, it was so raw back then. There was no one around.”
There were no guide books, websites, travel companies, social media, or surf resorts around either. Surfers relied on word-of-mouth recommendations and warnings. They relied on stories.
Lynch had heard rumours about even better lefts than Ulus and made plans to return to Bali later that year. The second trip started well, but ended in a double disaster. Returning home from dinner on his motorbike with his girlfriend on the back, he rounded a corner to find a big pile of road-fill sloughing across their path. “I touched the brakes and it made no difference, so I sat the bike straight and we went flying into the air. My girlfriend landed on her face and slid down the road. She was unconscious in a pool of blood. She lost all her teeth. They were stuck up in her nose.”
Lynch landed head-first and broke his collarbone, yet finished on his feet. But the couple’s ordeal was far from over. After hitching a ride to Denpasar Hospital, they were left unattended all night. Lynch’s girlfriend woke up screaming, her face a mess. She was given an injection and sent home. Again, they hitched. It took hours. When they finally reached their rental in Legian, their friends took one look at them and told them to go straight back.
“We were in the hospital for three days and nothing happened,” Lynch says. “The doctor would come around and get an English lesson. I’m serious. He did nothing. I was feeling not very well. Intense headaches and sweating. Two American doctors arrived and told me I was in a bad way and to get home. We went to leave, but there was an airplane strike so we couldn’t go for a week. It compounded my condition and I became really sick. Shaking. Sweating like a pig.”
Lynch had contracted malaria. But even back in Australia it went undiagnosed. Sweating bullets on a futon in his parents’ house, fading in and out of consciousness, it got to the point where he was ready to give up. Even after a proper diagnosis and treatment, it wasn’t over. “It took me a long time to not get reoccurrences. I couldn’t do anything for a long time. My back was hurting. I found out I had three compressed vertebrae from the accident and was told I wouldn’t surf again.”
Travelers to Indonesia have long had to make peace with that idea that they are holidaying in a country that can kill them. While all developing nations can be dangerous, Indo, arguably the world’s best surf zone, harbors a long list of natural and manmade hazards. Tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorism, malaria, dengue fever, reef collisions, drownings, volcanic eruptions, bandits, car crashes, capsizing ferries, poison cocktails, open sewers, electrocutions—all can send you home in a body bag.
Death and danger are stitched into the fabric of Indo surf exploration. Californian Bob Laverty drowned while surfing Uluwatu in 1972. Nias codiscoverer John Geisel died from malaria nine months after finding the best right in the archipelago. Desert Point devotee Pablo Miller was stabbed by bandits while feeding his Lombok tube-fix. And those are just the well-known tales.
None of these horror stories have done anything to slow surf tourism in danger zones. You could even argue the opposite is true, that surfers are drawn to the risks. Maybe we like hearing gnarly travel tales because, in the era of luxe surf camps and mechanical wave pools, it reminds us of our collective roots as explorers, mavericks, and adventurers. In other words, there’s a sort of cultural catalyst at work.
It’s a theory that has been examined in a relatable field. The University of Southeast Norway recently completed a study on rock climbing’s relationship to risk and recognition. They found that risk is not just an individual motivation, but is built into the value system of an action sport like climbing. “As newcomers become part of the climbing culture,” posits the report’s authors Tommy Langseth and Oyvind Salvesen, “they learn what has value and make these values part of their own intrinsic motivation. Hence, climbers develop what we call a risk-libido.”
A risk-libido? It sounds like the sort of thing that drives Ross Clarke-Jones. Or the dynamic behind a slew of energy drink slogans. But there’s a flipside. And it’s simply that sometimes taking risks ends tragically. Sometimes people return home physically and mentally ruined. Sometimes they don’t return at all.
The Empty Place
Death rarely rates a mention in surfing forums. When they are retold, surf tragedies tend to be bare-boned and subdued. Out of respect. Out of fear. They take us down alleys we don’t want to walk alone. Dark places. Most surfers are risk takers and risk takers tend to be optimists. We prepare for catastrophe by denying its existence. It makes twisted sense. If you’re psyching for a tightrope walk, the last thing you want to do is look down and contemplate gravity and concrete.
Also, there’s a crucial difference between disaster and tragedy. People tend to limp away from a disaster. Tragedies offer no such redemption. They end with tears and dread.
Tears and dread don’t make for uplifting conversation as you bash out from Padang Harbor on a boat of dubious vintage in a rising swell. For that occasion, you want what every blockbuster fan demands: against-all-odds heroics, a happy ending, and a killer punchline. In short, you want to hear about Archibald’s Big Swim.
Brett Archibald, a middle-aged South African father of two, had joined his mates for their annual Mentawai surf charter in 2013. The surfers were motoring through the night aboard the Naga Laut when Archibald, overcome with illness, found himself hurling off the side of the boat’s upper deck. He blacked out momentarily. The next thing he recalled was water splashing against his face. He looked up and realized two dreadful things: he was in the ocean and the Naga Laut was powering away. It was four o’clock in the morning and no one knew he was gone.
When Archibald didn’t show for breakfast, the alarm was finally raised. But by then he was long gone. He spent the entire day bobbing in the heaving ocean. Sharks circled him. Seabirds dive-bombed his head, cutting him open. He was stung by bluebottles, bitten by fish, severely dehydrated and sunburnt. On seven or eight occasions, he came close to drowning.
When night returned and he was still out there floating around in the dark, he gave up hope. He tried to drown himself but found he couldn’t quite do it. Back in South Africa, his wife was informed by an embassy official that he was missing at sea. Friends gathered to give support and comfort.
Somehow, the burly South African made it through the torturously long night.
The next morning Tony Eltherington, skipper of The Barrenjoy, made a final attempt at finding the missing man after the larger search was abandoned. At 7:15, approximately 28 hours after he fell in the drink, a red head and a waving arm was spotted through the ship’s binoculars. Archibald was alive. He’d drifted 11 miles and, despite having undergone extreme physical and psychological trauma, seemed in remarkably good spirits.
After ringing his wife and assuring he was fine, Archibald told her he intended to complete his Indo charter. “I didn’t fly all that way to tread water for 28 hours,” he was reported to have declared. It’s a neat line to recount, but it’s deceptive. In reality, Archibald was profoundly altered by his prolonged brush with mortality.
Yes, he went surfing the next day. But at one point he slipped away, alone. He took himself to shore, walked into the jungle, and started to bash his head against a tree. He kept smashing away until his forehead was bleeding. Then he licked his blood. The pain and the taste proved he wasn’t a ghost. He wasn’t still in the Indian Ocean, his rescue a hallucination. He really was alive.
Archibald returned to South Africa a changed man, devoted to family, friends, and faith. He was dismissive of the material wealth that had once enamored him. A year after the trip, he slipped into a deep depression and fought what he describes as the biggest battle of his life. Eventually, he learned to tame the black dog by sharing his story with others. Archibald has since delivered over 300 speeches on the inspirational talk circuit. He’s also written a book called Alone: Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean, and appeared in a 60 Minutes special.
Humans, it appears, want to hear about disasters for a bunch of reasons. To feel better about our non-disastrous lives, to sharpen our survival instincts, connect to cultural values, or purely for our ghoulish entertainment. Disaster stories capture our attention. We edge closer and lean in. What we want to know is: What happened next?