Surfing is one of the biggest businesses on Bali and blocking for a client is good business.

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Blocking waves to give paying clients priority happens primarily on Bali. It quite clearly upsets surfing’s traditional etiquette, which gives the right of way to the surfer closest to the peak. On one of the happiest islands in the world, it usually leaves a bad aftertaste with people not born there. Is it fair? Is it a perversion? Is blocking inclusive of those who suffer under the current etiquette? Or is it exclusive of those without the financial means to pay for waves? Or is it both? Is it destroying the very salt of surfing? Would you enjoy it?

Many Balinese are devoutly religious, remember, so they don’t need surfing as a stand-in. Surfing is a love, a passion, a ticket to see the world and come back home. Surfing is also one of the biggest businesses on the island and blocking is good business.

Anggara Putra, known as Angga, was born in Sanur. He runs his own program now, Surf Melali, after working for foreign-owned surf camps and hotels his entire life. He and his apprentice, Dian Ari Mustofa from Mendewi on the northwest coast of the island, met while surf guiding for a camp that catered mostly to Germans. When Angga was encouraged and even cajoled by his elders such as Made Switra to start his own business, Ari took a risk and followed him. With the extra freedom of having his own business, Angga guides Bali-style; he is the boss and he’s a local surfer. Ari hopes to one day run his own business as well.

“I tell my guests, I will give you a sign, so watch me,” says Angga. “If the wave is a right-hander, somehow I go to the left, but the guests take off. Or we take the second wave from the inside: block the other guy and give your guest the wave. Sometimes I’m at the peak and I give my priority. Sometimes two guides work together, even if we have two different groups. If I’m too far from the takeoff point, he can block. Or if he’s too far, I can. Or I’ll just paddle in front of someone so they cannot go.”

Ari is soft-spoken, with long hair down his slender back, and an incredibly smooth style. Angga has strong masculine features. He laughs and pantomimes holding someone struggling under water while we’re surfing at Halfway Kuta, and he explains why he blocks: “Blocking happens at many places, but often in Sanur and Kuta. At Sanur Reef we try to protect our spot. In one year the wave might break properly three times. We get the best waves, so many people know the spot. Normally the wave looks like a pointbreak, wrapping really nice. Really long. People have figured out how it works, I guess. That’s how we started to be tough and angry. Tourists try to drop in on us. One, okay. Second time, no. So locals don’t have a space to work sometimes.”

s products of the increasingly-crowded lineups in Indonesia, Anggara Putra (left) and Dian Ari Mustofa both work as “blockers,” inhabiting a lucrative but controversial niche in the surf tourism industry. Photo: Jason Childs

Blocking originated out of the rich history of cooperation between the Japanese and Balinese surfers. The Japanese surf community was well established by the early ’90s and when its members came to Bali they injected money into the local community by hiring guides, sponsoring contests in Uluwatu with the JPSA (Japan Pro Surfing Tour), and generally being lively with their yen. The Balinese wanted to make sure their friends and guests got waves. Their friends and guests wanted to make sure they were getting waves in an increasingly busy and anarchic lineup where might was right. Blocking as a mutation of surf guiding was born.

Angga teaches, guides, and blocks for mostly Europeans and Australians, as well as some Hawaiians a while back. With a swell rising at Halfway Kuta, I paddle out with Angga, Ari, and their client for the day. Bob is from Canada and works in human resources for an oil company in Dubai. He is here on vacation with his two kids who go to school in Canada. Bob might have 99 problems, but today getting waves is not one of them.

When we first paddle out, they gravitate to the less crowded right, where two surfers are waiting at the peak. Angga starts doing his thing, hustling the pack to the inside as Bob takes off on a bigger set. Soon, one guy starts reprimanding Angga in perfect fluttering Balinese, lifting his arm out of the water and waving it around in frustration. He takes the next wave in.

“He was so stressed!” Angga says when I ask him about the exchange.

I drift up to the other surfer still waiting in the lineup. “There are miles and miles of beaches between here and Canggu,” he says. “I don’t see why you guys had to pick the spot me and my friend were just enjoying by ourselves.”

Surf blocking is one of the most controversial subjects in lineups all over Bali. A few of the island’s prominent blockers and a number of local surfers declined to speak on the record for this story. Even Made Switra says, “My answer is nothing. I don’t have an answer.” In a sense, blocking is merely one outgrowth of the larger issue of unchecked development on the island. As many Balinese are cut out of the financial rewards that come with these changes to their home, some argue that local surfers are entitled to run such businesses to benefit from the influx of tourists to support themselves and their families. Still others say that surf guides who block, often charging between $30 and $60 per day for two sessions, give wealthier visiting surfers an unfair advantage over others who deserve equal access. If traditional surf etiquette has its flaws, blocking presents an imperfect solution to wave-hoarding by tourists and overcrowding.

Angga works with whichever client is floating out the back, encouraging or pushing them into waves, while Ari tends to the kids on the inside and plays around in the water himself. Ari lets Angga do the heavy lifting. Ari and Angga both know how to make sure their clients are having fun. They’ve had plenty of practice together over the years.

I ask Ari what he has learned from Angga and he says, “You know, with Angga we learn from each other. It doesn’t go just one way. Mostly we just share our experiences. That’s what’s most important to me about my job, sharing experience, waves, and having fun.” Angga and Ari don’t abide by traditional surf etiquette, but they have created their own set of surf ethics in the lineup. Both of them say they only really block people who are already getting waves in the lineup. Ari explains, “I actually feel less bad about blocking. A lot of greedy people want to take all the waves and blocking is a way I can help my customer get waves. I only use it when it’s difficult to get waves.”

One Indonesian who has worked in the surf industry for years describes having mixed feelings about the business of blocking. On the one hand, “It’s all about money,” he says, adding, “For the Balinese, if you don’t know the guide, there could be a clash. If the client drops in, Balinese surfers are going to be angry. The surf guide might say sorry or tell the client not to do it again. This happens a lot at crowded spots. But if you’re friends, you understand each other and it’s no problem.”

Angga and Ari often work together with other surf schools in the water. Angga says, “With the locals we meet in the water, private guiding or private coaching, we respect each other. We’ll talk about how many people we each have, and try to be fair and help each other.”

For all the different types of blocking going on—for people who should be able to get their own waves and for those who are still learning—somewhere on the island perfect waves are going unridden; Bali is bubbling over with hush-hushes for those who want to look. But for now Angga and Ari are content working the crowd with that island smile.