I. Bring More Boards
I’ve been through all this before—Singapore airport, the middle of the night, dread rising in my core as I feel more and more certain I’ve made a giant mistake. And that first time, I had made a giant mistake, or at least a life-altering decision. But that was over a decade ago, and mistakes and fate pile up, trade faces as the years bleed by. Both times the same story: I left her behind in California, booked the tickets and packed the boards, set out for the Mentawais with a dull hunch that this was what I needed to do, and that I needed to do it alone.
Two different lifetimes. Two different women, as similar as rice and rain. The first was a woman I considered marrying. The second is my wife. Back in 2002, I’d left for Sumatra while my girlfriend stayed home in rural Northern California, stuck in a life that was much more mine than ours: my town, my surf breaks, my friends. The preceding surf trips we’d enjoyed together—Tahiti, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Bali, Java, Sumba, Mexico. Surfing was her dream as much as mine. Warm water, good waves, whatever it is we search for when we’re young and not yet ready to submit to the banality of adult life.
She was a surfer, subject to the same selfish desires all of us share. She wanted rights. I wanted lefts. She wanted points. I wanted barrels. But compared to the women my friends jousted with—women who prodded and undermined their partners’ love of surfing, hoping to win out in a game they could not win—my girlfriend seemed made for me. We loved the same thing, if not always each other. It lasted five years. We lived together for three. In my 20s, without any blueprint for what a partnership truly entails, that seemed enough.
And it was enough, until that divisive trip to the Mentawais. I kept waiting for disaster to strike, out there on the edge—high seas, shallow reef, lost skin, all that. But after the boat trip I was left with indelible memories of stacked swells on shallow reef. On a massive west, we’d seen Kanduis looking like the most perfect and terrifying wave on earth. The group vetoed a summit attempt. Despite my cajoling, no one else wanted to find out what surfing tow- size Teahupoo would be like without a jet-ski or channel. So we moved on to spots that were merely scary, instead of nightmarish. By swell’s end, I’d broken four boards. I called her from a satellite phone, each second costly—delivered simple directions with nary an “I miss you:” “Bring more boards.” We planned to meet in Bali—two more months in Indo together, Sumba and Timor. I didn’t realize yet that our relationship had fractured after I’d stepped onto that plane to Singapore without her.
We met in Bali anyway, talking through all the issues that couldn’t be fixed. It was a suicide mission, pure and simple. She wanted to break up and travel together, surfing and sharing accommodations. Then more months of CPR on a lifeless body. It takes a lot of strength to just walk away. Most people can’t do it. They have to go through the same old tired dance, cheating and lying, then putting humpty dumpty back together again. I took it all too hard, as the young do. But that was ten years ago, and I hadn’t seen her since. It all amounted to the near-forgotten past—a dusty box of Velvia slides in the garage; dream-like memories of a possible trajectory cut off. I’d put it all away and moved on.
II. The Time Machine
But here I am again. Singapore international airport, jetlagged and alone. The same sinking feeling; a certainty that I came for one thing but I’m bound to find something else—perhaps something that will sting worse than Chinese medicine on reef cuts. I fear I’ve pushed my wife too far with this latest disappearing act. Sure, it’s just a surf trip—but I’ve left her at home with two days’ notice, and only our one-and-half-year-old daughter there to help with morning sickness. Pregnant women can be fickle, and fellow fathers warned me that my plan was dubious, at best.
The logic, although it’s bold to call it that, went something like this: I’d just finished a 15-month contract working at Google, submerged in the perks, politics, and entitlement. As I assimilated into their corporate cult, I grew pale and complacent. Now, with that commitment complete and another kid on the way, I surely owed it to myself to chase a swell somewhere. My wife gave me the hall pass, and as I wrapped up the job, the biggest swell to hit Indo in five years loomed on the forecast charts. I booked tickets and made plans to visit old friends at Kandui Villas.
By the midpoint of my ten-hour Singapore layover, I’m sure I’ve made a horrible mistake. What am I chasing, really? At 37 years old, I’ve already scored my fair share of epic swells. Why get splattered across shallow reef, no smarter than a graying fat man who wraps his new Porsche around a tree during a midlife crisis? I begin to question whether I’m pursuing dreams from a decade gone. How much does time change us? I realize I’ve seen my type before at expensive surf resorts: office pale, office slow, more money than time. The kind of jackass who believes he still has it, only to get cut up his first session. That guy who spends the rest of his trip at the bar with dirty bandages, showing off baby pictures to disinterested waitresses. I don’t want to be this guy. When they announce boarding for a flight back to SFO, I consider turning around. But I’m too cheap and stubborn for such grand gestures.
Planes are designed to cover distance. But after four flights, I disembark and seemingly find myself in a different era of my life, instead of a different country. After 70 hours of travel there she is, a specter greeting me on arrival at the docks of Kandui Villas. The ex. A decade absent from my life. Seven and a half billion people on earth, and it’s come to this. I’m blindsided, exhausted, perplexed, yet she seems to be expecting me. It’s a reunion stripped of apparent meaning by a decade of emotional erosion—the sharp knife blade of her presence has been dulled by time. The idea of standing next to her again, looking her in the eyes, communicating some point of great import—it might have mattered ten years ago. But now I’m just left to fumble, like a child struggling to finish a puzzle when he’s left with only a piece from another jigsaw set. We proceed through the exchange of pleasantries. She introduces me to her husband; I’m instantly relieved that his presence will at least make this debacle easier to explain to my wife. Around us, resort guests pack up, ready to head back to Padang on the boat I’ve just arrived on. For a few hopeful moments, I believe that she will head back with them. But no. “We’re your surf guides!” she explains. “Not that you need a surf guide, but…”
Yes—but. Here we are. After assuming that we’d gone our separate ways, it now feels as if we merely traced the same circle, moving in opposite directions only to end up back where we started. At home, my wife—understanding, supportive, pregnant, toddler on the hip, mired in the mechanics of a life beyond surfing, distant from tropical barrels. Expectations at home pile up in the form of marriages and mortgages, leases and dogs, ailing loved ones or blossoming careers. These things catch up with most of us, no matter where we run.
III. Stealing Time
Responsibility descends in the form of pudgy babies, especially. After my daughter was born, I took on more and more contract work at tech companies to make ends meet. Although in San Francisco, circa 2014, ends never meet. You’re either obscenely wealthy or just another voyeur, poor by comparison, no matter how much you make. The survivors keep reinventing themselves with each new gold rush. From original 49ers to bootleggers, from earthquake reconstruction to beatnik existential deconstruction, from hippies to entrepreneurial hacker hipsters.
Now the city is littered with them, all with their own start-ups, or their own secret project at Apple or Google or Facebook. Everyone is a founder and artist and outdoorsman. These are the people next to you during dinner at Outerlands. These are the people passing you in their X5’s on the way to Lake Tahoe. You compete with them for parking spaces, and now you compete with them for waves at Ocean Beach. I hate them, can’t beat them, and have half joined them. The money rolls downhill, from downtown San Francisco to the Sunset District to Sumatra. Like San Francisco, the Mentawais have seen their own influx of cash and lofty ambition, built on the shifting sands of sinking islands.
At various points in life, one can be deluded into thinking that time passes slowly. Raising a baby confirms the opposite. Time rips by in giant chunks, months seemingly calve off the unstable iceberg that is time. The bad moments feel like they might last forever, even as the joyous moments slip by. Mostly, the child is a vacuum, sucking in time, naively devouring all the time you have. What’s left goes to work, commuting, cleaning up. Finding the time to surf is an act of theft. Steal the time from your family or steal it from your boss—it’s larceny either way. With baby 2.0 on the way, I figured I might not get a shot at pulling off a heist of this scale for years. Might as well smoke ’em while I got ’em. Shit, might as well smoke the whole pack and see if I still feel like smoking after that.
It’s still dark out. After finally getting back to sleep, the click of the boatman’s walkie-talkie jars me awake. “The swell is pumping. Wake up. Wake up.” Mad plans often don’t hold up the morning after, before sunrise. The spectral reappearance of my ex felt like a black-cat-obvious bad omen. Injury seemed imminent. I’ll be the first to admit I’m scared of hitting reef. Always have been, probably always will be. Big waves don’t bother me as much, as I’m irrationally unconcerned about drowning. But like many cowards, I don’t like the sight of my own blood. And Kanduis is a wave that makes surfers bleed.
Consequently the resorts find it prudent to have medical professionals on staff for when the inevitable happens. My ex and her husband fill that role. He is a medic, she a nurse. This latter fact surprised me, like Bob Dylan’s born-again Christian phase. During our time together, she’d been a marine biologist, who freely admitted she cared much for animals yet little for people. Now she worked as an RN anesthesiologist, taking care of people. They lived in La Jolla, and she picked up shifts in the Imperial Valley. She also worked regularly in a hospital near Fresno, where she rented a studio apartment. Time humbles us. Although she looked the same, she wasn’t the woman I remembered —different life, different skills.
Avoiding them wasn’t much of an option. In fact, I had pleaded my case in order to prevent us from sharing quarters in the surf guide hut. I’ve managed to justify many ridiculous things to my wife in the name of surfing, but that arrangement I couldn’t find a way to spin. All I could do was squirm and run through the hypotheticals as we drew inexorably toward some darkly comedic climax. Inevitably I’d get smashed on the reef, hurting myself in a humiliating fashion. An injury to my genitals seemed most likely. I’d have a panic attack, while my ex and her husband examined my flaccid, lacerated penis. There’d be ample opportunity for one-liners. He could deadpan, “This explains a lot,” or “No wonder you left him.”
IV. Colored by the Clock
I approach the first day of the “mega” swell with some prudence. Inspiration comes from Shane Dorian’s advice on big, building swells—wait, wait, wait, and strike only when you see a wave better than any you’ve seen so far that day. We start the morning at the deceptively named Baby Kanduis—Kanduis proper is still suffering from morning sickness. It’s a perplexing thing to have my ex there in the lineup. For five years, we surfed almost every session together. It might have been our undoing. While I worried about her safety, she resented my wave count. To me it seemed obvious enough that I’d catch more waves, and surf them better; I’d been surfing since I was a kid, while she hadn’t started until college. It took me years to realize just how much the discrepancy grated on her.
All this made her husband’s surfing ability appropriate. Like her, he’d picked up surfing later in life. If he’s any better of a surfer than she is, he certainly is wise enough to not lord it over her, as I did. I learned more about him as we waited for sets. He worked as a firefighter. Previously, he’d been a Navy SEAL, deployed in the Middle East, and then Mexico, helping fight the war on drugs. On the other hand, I am a raised pacifist and noted weakling. He had nary an unkind word for anyone, yet had been trained to kill by the US government. I maintain a surfeit of unkind words for just about everyone. I’ve spent 20 years barely avoiding fights I started and often deserve to be in. The only gun I’ve fired is the one Bruce Irons handed me during a profile piece. She’d traded me in for GI Joe, and she charged harder than him.
Within a few minutes, he gets pitched on a set wave, deeply cutting his elbow in an awkward spot. As the swell builds, I watch her positioning with some concern. Then I remind myself that it’s not my problem anymore. I need not coach her or coax her into set waves. She’s got on fine without my help for over ten years. On some levels, I’d enjoyed dating a surfer. Other times, I’d detested it. Now, when people ask me if my wife surfs, I tell them, “She surfs just enough to understand.” Occasionally, when the surf is small and playful, we surf together. But the rest of the time— particularly when the surf is good—the ocean is my refuge, and mine alone. I need that escape. I love my wife all the more for letting surfing be my thing.
As the swell rises, Kanduis begins to clean up, hucking huge caverns, ripping off sections and eventually tripling up and unloading on damp, exposed coral heads. My ex goes in to tend to her husband’s wounds. I paddle to the top of the reef and wait for a Dorian-endorsed set wave, thinking of my daughter, and the next baby on the way. Unlike many young, dumb surfers, I’ve never suffered from an immortality complex. Instead, I’ve suffered from an exaggerated mortality complex: I’ve always expected death to come for me early, and I’ve made my fair share of reckless decisions with the certainty of death in mind. But lately, fatherhood has been fucking up my selfish plans. I expected it would eat away at me the way my job did—another responsibility, another cage to shake the bars of while I surfed myself into a stupor on those good, ledgy days. But fatherhood is a different, more rewarding prison.
V. Always Back
My ex is past 40 now and childless. This comes as no surprise—she’d clearly stated her aversion to children from the very beginning, despite being childlike herself. Trying to explain to her what she’s willfully missing seems just as impossible as it is pointless. Now that I’ve pulled the trigger twice, dying without becoming a parent seems just as ludicrous as dying a virgin.
I burn a majority of the swell sitting out the back, letting death waves go by and thinking about my daughter. She’s just started stringing words together, and one of her favorite phrases is “Always back!” She repeats it, over and over, as soon as her mother or I say goodbye and leave the house. “Always back,” she explains to whoever remains. When we finally return, minutes or hours later, she greets us with the same phrase. “Dada! Always back!” she confirms with a kiss. But she’s never had to wait this long before.
I wonder about my itch to smoke the whole pack. I chased a swell across the globe. Now I feel more compelled to make it home than go big.
In the end, my waves find me anyway. Each session, I luck into a handful of unwarranted gems. I grudgingly pull into barrels as big and shallow as any I’ve stood in, expecting disaster, watching from spinning caverns as my ex tracks my progress from the channel. We don’t talk over even half of the questions that went unanswered a decade ago. There are no long-overdue apologies. No one crosses any lines, and her husband seems unfazed by the situation. She leaves knowing more of my current life than I do of hers. I simply stand accidental witness to a married couple’s vacation. I’m left with that view from the barrel, her there on the shoulder as she was through so many lost years. It’s as close to closure as we come.
I’m left pondering how little we feel when finally confronted with the things we’ve been denied. I’d squandered the last years of my twenties sorting through the wreckage of our failed relationship, surrendering my faith in one particular girl and disavowing her importance in my life. Leafing through my old travel journals, it’s clear I spent years running from life, returning to the safe escape of surfing, and the literal escape of surf travel. If only I’d been afforded a glimpse of our futures during all that wallowing. Even then, I doubt I would’ve believed how little our past can mean once we’re actually past it.
The same goes for perfect waves. I’ve obsessed, lied, cheated, and lusted after perfect waves for 30 years. I scoured the globe in search of some promised revelation, a moment of transformation that might come when you surf the wave of your life. After 16 years of lusting over Kanduis in particular, on the third day of the swell I finally got one that felt like the one. At least it felt that way for 10 or 15 minutes. Then the feeling of epiphany passed, no more concrete than any stoned, transcendent moment I’d tried to hold on to and then forgotten 20 years ago. The emotion bled away. It was just me again, and it was time to go home.