Standing on a bluff, staring at the waves: Too big? Too windy? How much of our lives are wiled in this manner?
Mikala Jones goes running right past us—board under his arm, sunscreen on his face. A photographer is setting up his 600 mm. By the time other surfers begin rushing to wax up, Mikala’s already a half hour into his session. But this is just free-surfng. It’s not a competition, right? It’s fitting that we’re here in the Galapagos Islands, a place so important to Darwin’s formation of an evolutionary theory. Seals dart around in the lineup. Large lizards dominate the beach. Brutal sun beats down on jagged lava stone. It’s no Garden of Eden, but it’s not a bad place to originate a hypothesis of my own as I watch Mikala catch waves: Does a surfing life evolve or does it only contain the endless repetition of paddling back out?
This trip to the Galapagos is my first with Mikala, early in my days of writing for surf magazines. I’m impressed by his intensity as a surfer, but I’m unsure about the man behind it all. He’s extremely quiet when we first meet, with dark, angular features. He has distinct surf-world credibility, though I’m not exactly sure what for: a classic Hawaiian with no Hawaiian blood; an established pro surfer with no contest wins, no legendary big waves, and no notable video sections. All I really know is that his sister Malia Jones once did a surfing Pepsi commercial with Kalani Robb. And that’s not knowing anything at all.
But here we are. And there he goes on another wave. And another. He smashes powerful turns and hunts decisive barrels, even chips away at a few little airs. When the photographer swims out for some nervous water angles (it’s bubbling with life in the lineup), Mikala surfs right into the lens with clean, classic style. No movements are out of place. And even when the photographer packs up, he keeps surfing. The other surfers get out, too. But Mikala is still hunting it. The rest of us sit on the beach for another half hour before he returns to shore.
“Fun out there?” I ask, nodding to the windswept mess.
Mikala shrugs. “We should check that harbor wave on the way back into town,” he says. “Tide might be good there now.” This was a decade ago. It was at the dawn of the “novelty travel age” for surf magazines. Junkets to Israel, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe made for page after page of chip-shot air reverses and fabulous “lifestyle” imagery. It seemed Mikala was booked on every third trip, spreading himself around from one magazine to the next to avoid “overexposure.” He was 21 years old and an established “lifer,” spending half the year on the road, the other half home on the North Shore. Many surfers on those trips would come and go. They’d take team jobs, become marketing guys, or work for their parents.
Mikala just kept surfing—more than anyone I had encountered, just like he does back home in Hawaii, or anywhere else. Mikala surfs the most. His email address “mj_allday” is a reference to his relentless dawn-to-dusk sessions. And here in the Galapagos, it’s no different. The waves are average throughout our stay, but Mikala manages to make it look like an epic surf destination with his sheer energy and time logged in the water.
After surfing, we walk the town and Mikala dutifully stands for photos with Darwin statues and downtown turtles. A trio of local groms approaches us with a magazine and asks Mikala to sign a photo. I look over his shoulder and see it’s a shot of him surfing the local harbor wave.
“You’ve been here before?” I ask.
Mikala shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, signing the magazine. “It was alright.” The groms follow us around the rest of the afternoon, and I begin to feel like one of them.
Mikala’s house at Rocky Point is stockpiled with surfboards—hundreds of guns and logo -covered shortboards rest in peace beneath the wooden floorboards. Each board represents its owner’s hope to return soon. If you leave your board here, of course you’ll be back.
Mikala pulls a board from under the deck. “This is a Dave Parmenter Widowmaker that Jon Frank left here one year,” he says. “Magic board. I buckled it, though, so I’ll need to replace that eventually.”
He pulls out another, a Duncan Campbell Bonzer, then a Glenn Pang Waimea gun. Board after board. Singles and twins. Narrow and dangerous. They get left behind. Or sometimes his younger brother Daniel brings them home from swap meets and yard sales. They dug a shaping bay out beneath the house and sometimes make their own boards. Noah Budroe, Micah Byrne, and Dylan Longbottom have all shaped boards under the house, contributing to the surplus.
The house overlooks Rocky Point, the North Shore’s working-class hero. Tucked between the show-stopping pyrotechnics of Pipeline and the Hall of Legends walls at Sunset, Rocky Point serves meat-and-potatoes peaks, more accessible to the average surfer. Mikala’s backyard stares straight out at the main peak, with clear views of Rocky Rights, Rocky Lefts, Pupukea, Turkey’s, Aints, and whatever else might break in there. If you climb the tree or lean out over the rail, you can look into Pipeline or catch a whiff of Outer Sunset, all within walking distance.
This location defines Mikala Jones. But it wasn’t always so. He grew up on the East Side of Oahu. His father, John Jones, was a surf photographer from Santa Cruz. On the weekend, he would drop Mikala off with local surf coach Bryan Surratt, who ran the Gotcha team and looked after a crop of kids with neon futures. Their crew included Kalani Robb, Bryan Pacheco, Eric Diaz, and Rocky Canon. Bruce and Andy Irons would fly over and hang out. As a surf photographer, John knew all the pros, too, and they’d drop by the Jones house often.
“My mom probably dreamed of one of us going to college or something,” Mikala says. “But there was never really anything else. Surfing is all we ever knew.” Mikala entered the Triple Crown when he was 16. He would spend a few weeks surfing at home, then get back on the road for photo trips. He was renting cars with fake IDs, rushing from one contest to the next, disappearing into the jungles of South America and Africa to track down waves. Barrels and barrels. “So many trips I can’t even remember,” he says. “I’ve got ’em all written down in journals somewhere. My mom told me to do that. I’m glad I did.”
Time on the North Shore allowed him to rest up from his travels while the surfing world came to him. On a winter visit there, I packed light and stayed with Mikala, knowing I’d have boards to borrow and ringside seats. Each day, sitting on the back lawn, watching Rockies pump and pump again, surfing flowed steadily through the yard. Mark Healy and Jamie Sterling would come by to check the surf. Rusty Long and Travis Potter would stay over for a few weeks. Flynn Novak had staked permanent claim of the garage. Older sister Malia still surfs, and takes her son Spike out on the nose of the board. Younger brothers Daniel and Keoni are pro surfers as well, eagerly awaiting each year’s big-swell season. It’s a family business.
Now Mikala hardly seems to notice the action. He plays with his daughters and surfs two or three times a day. From his porch on the North Shore, staring out at the waves, there is nothing else in the world. No football or baseball. No desks or offices. No freeways or factories. Just surfing. “I remember Mikala standing next to the TV with the VCR remote, slow-motioning through Tom Curren sections and lecturing me about the importance of good style,” says younger brother Daniel. “I think I was about four years old.”
Mikala was with Travis Potter and Timmy and Ryan Turner during their early feral adventures to Indonesia, camping at strange new islands and pioneering too-shallow reefs. They’re all still doing that, in fact. Grown men sleeping in the rain in wooden fishing boats just to find out if a certain wave will break in the morning—a bunch of junkies, shivering before their next fix.
Mention just about any surf break and Mikala has been there and has a story for you. My personal favorite involves a remote and heavy Sumatran right-hander where he bagged more than one cover shot standing tall in the belly of the beast. On one wave, his rail caught and he slapped down abruptly on the face. The impact caused a burst eardrum, disorienting his equilibrium, and preventing him from knowing which way to swim to the surface. “When I finally followed my leash, the whole sky was spinning around. That’s right when the next wave landed on me.”
Mikala took a brutal pounding, unable to figure which way to swim to the surface. Guys on the boat later reported seeing him floating face down, unaware that the surface was right behind him. He blacked out. He recalls floating above his body, staring back down at himself under the water, under the waves. Tears fill his eyes as he tells the story. “I’m looking down at myself underwater and I hear my daughter’s voice calling out to me,” he says. “Next thing I knew, I was standing up on dry reef.” He crawled across the reef and just laid on the gritty coral sand of the tiny atoll for a long time, coughing up water. The sky was spinning. He made it home. And the day his eardrum healed, he went back to the same wave. His first wave back is now a Reef billboard overlooking Bali’s biggest intersection. If only billboards could speak.
Mikala has dozens of equally compelling stories from his travels—Papua New Guinea, Panama, Sri Lanka, the Azores. Pick any surf-rich coast. He once broke all his boards at a hard-to-reach outpost, flew, boated, taxied home, grabbed more boards, and went straight back to the spot. After three straight days of travel, he scored more barrels. “It’s like a disease,” he says. “But when you pull up at a spot you’ve been researching and the swell is there, the wind is right, and you’re about to paddle out to empty perfection, that’s what it’s all about. That’s where I get my fix. I love the travel. I love the surfing. But right at the point where the two come together—for me that’s the best moment. That’s what I keep chasing.”
The moment Mikala gave up contest surfing is still clear in his mind. He’d just met his soon-to-be wife on Bali and decided to divide his seasons between Indonesia and the North Shore, reaping the benefits of opposing swell seasons. He headed to the Rip Curl offices to pitch his new master plan for endless travel. “They thought I was crazy and handed me this contract that was just ridiculous,” he says. “I walked right out of there. It was a pretty impulsive move, because I didn’t have any other plan.”
He spent the next year sponsor-less, sold his car, and spent the money sponsoring himself—more trips, more surfing. He had another daughter, Violet, before he found another brand to support his travels. More and more, during his extended trips to Indonesia, Bali became the basecamp and Hawaii just an outpost. This wasn’t a problem. Bali was “the new North Shore.” It granted quick access to many of the world’s best waves and an endless supply of adventure. Mikala’s twin-paradise plan was rapidly becoming a new standard for season-savvy wave hunters. He’d managed to evolve from one mecca to the next at just the right time.
At 35, still living on Bali with two kids to feed and disappearing sponsors, Mikala is selling shave ice. Here in Indo, this is the first job he’s ever held. He’s pretty bad at it. He keeps giving it all away. Then he just goes surfing. Then he takes off for three weeks of swell chasing.
The shave ice gig is actually part of his own little surf shop. It’s a humble beachfront setup in his adopted neighborhood of Canggu, dealing mostly in the brands that have supported him over the last few years. But now, in this weak economy, those brands are going out of business. Mikala finds himself completely unsponsored.
“So what are you gonna do now?” I ask.
“About what?” says Mikala, waxing his board on the beach. This is the thing about free-surfers. They mostly just surf.
“Well, like, you know—work and stuff?” The shave-ice surf shop gig is more hobby than career. “You’re hitting your 30s now. Is it possible that pro surfing might be over for you?”
“Not even,” he says. “Just look at all the guys on tour still surfing into their 40s. I’ve got plenty of years left.”
As if to prove his point, Mikala soon picks up a new sponsor with Reef, allowing him to continue his endless travels. He uses his vast travel experience to read swell charts with the best of them, staying one step ahead, studying maps for potential new breaks, new angles, new approaches. Even when photographers aren’t following him, Mikala takes the camera out on his own. He spent years experimenting with every manner of board-mount setup, he started paddling a Canon 7D inside a water housing on the nose of his board, pinning it down with his chin, making a one-handed drop and then shooting himself inside the barrel. Then he did a shoot with a GoPro and things clicked. “Mikala is one of the best barrel filmers we’ve ever worked with,” says GoPro’s creative director Bradford Schmidt. “It’s not just how much time he spends in the barrel, but how conscious he is of the angles, the water drops, and the exact shot he’s getting.”
“For me it’s just something to do when no one’s shooting,” Mikala explains. “There’s a satisfaction to creating an image yourself, and it’s just another angle that not everyone can capture.”
He spent this year surfing only Indonesia. “We probably found four new waves,” he says. “There’s still so much potential out there, but the travel is as hard as it gets. You could probably go anywhere else in the world in the same time it takes to get to one of these waves from Bali. But that’s why it’s so rewarding.”
Standing on a bluff, again, staring out at the waves, I wonder what living a life so consumed by surfing means to Mikala. Can such an existence sustain itself? Just then he goes running past me and all my editorial whimsy—sunscreen on his face, board under his arm, his two young daughters right behind him. We stand in the shorebreak pushing the kids into waves. They have custom Luke Studor surfboards with their own spray jobs: shark faces and the family dogs.
“Are they gonna be pro surfers?” I ask.
“I just want for them to enjoy the ocean,” he says. “That’s what really matters.”
“So what now?” He’s tired of me asking this question. He won’t ask it of himself. If he had, he wouldn’t still be doing this.
“Hopefully I’ll be doing more trips with my daughters,” he says. “We’ve been taking them around the world since they were very little and they love to travel.”
“But pro surfing can’t last forever, can it?”
Mikala shrugs. Why can’t it? It’s tried to shut him before and he just kept doing it—proving it wrong. Surfing, as always, is what’s next for Mikala. That’s what’s now. That’s all there is. Maybe I was the one who was mistaken, standing on the bluff, wondering whether to paddle out or not. Mikala’s already out there. And he’s not coming in any time soon.
[Feature image by Brad Masters]