Batik with Chili Pepper Crab

Remembering big-wave and textile industry pioneer Walter Hoffman, (1931-2024).

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[Editor’s note: Originally published in TSJ 23.5, October, 2014, this feature has been digitally remastered and republished on our site in remembrance of Walter Hoffman, (1931-2024).]

When we started working with the Hoffmans in the textile business during the 1980s, Walter would come down to Bali each May. This always included some surfing and spear fishing. The trips quickly morphed into extended surf expeditions on a variety of boats and aircraft to the Nusa Tengarras east of Bali. These areas were just starting to be charted for fishing and surfing at that time. We were running these “gremmies” who, at around 60 years of age, seemed ancient, but they were as stoked as kids on their first surf trip. Walter instantly recognized the potential of the area, having been through the early development of surfing in California and the North Shore. Here was a chance to do it again. He was all over it.

Our first adventure was one of the most memorable. We had chartered Mike Ritter’s 30-foot Radon with Les Hemillia, a shipwright from Santa Barbara and an excellent skipper. This was probably 1985, and there were not very many motorized craft available for hire. Les drove us across the strait to Nusa Penida and we began exploring the coast and trolling in glassy, gin clear water—just immaculate for diving.

After a couple of hours ducking in and out of coves and arches we eventually arrived at Elephant Rock, just off the southwest corner of Penida. It’s a series of two visible rock pinnacles, with many more just submerged, and a resident osprey nest on a lone standing tree. Because of its location in the middle of the Lombok Strait, a spring tide became a 10-knot current that raged between the sentinel rocks, the opposing tide and swell creating standing waves that actually broke. To our amazement, Les would drive the boat between them with inches to spare. If you were to lose power, the boat would probably get swept into the rocks before heading to Antarctica.

A big guy, at 80 still deceptively smooth on waves, like a fish underwater. Photo courtesy of Walter Hoffman.

In the lee and out of the current were some areas you could dive and take a look around. Walter jumped in. His five-foot-long spear gun had enough rubbers to stun a large marlin. I followed suit with my Hawaiian sling just to provide some sort of protection from the bull sharks circling 60-feet below.

Within a minute, after moving to the edge of the rocks and nudging up to the river current, this herd of uluas arrived ranging from 20-to-80 pounds. They just came in from the abyss, took a look, turned broadside and then moved out of range. I think the initial vision was so extraordinary that Walter forgot to take a shot. He couldn’t contain himself as he realized he’d discovered the Valhalla of giant trevallies just two hours from Bali. The potential to land a 100-pound ulua free diving became an immediate reality for the veteran spear fisherman. Knowing Wally, I’m sure it also dawned on him that he could write this whole deal off as a business expense. Walter could not stop babbling about the experience for the next week. After this encounter, and on all future expeditions to Indonesia, Walter felt that moment had changed him from being a surfer/diver to a diver/surfer.

That experience was probably the catalyst for our business relationship. In most professional scenarios you’re wining and dining the client and maybe challenging them to a round of golf at the country club. In our case, it was delivering Walter to the perfect dive spot and guiding him on morning boat trips out to Bali’s Bukit Peninsula for waves. From my point of view, it couldn’t be better.

This circa-’48 image of Walter steaming through the Makaha bowl blew minds. He sent a print home to Flippy who was there days later. Photo by Bud Browne.
Out front at the Waikiki Surf Club, an establishment for Hawaiians and Californians who didn’t fit in at Outrigger. Photo by Bud Browne.

Years later, on a trip to Desert Point, we caught a nice Spanish mackerel just outside the break. That evening we anchored inside the bay and prepared the fish over a driftwood fire. We didn’t have any utensils or plates to cook or eat with so I improvised. We ate the fish with our fingers using our dive-fin blades as plates. That was the ultimate in surf cuisine: beach-grilled fresh fish served on the blades of a couple of scroungy five-year-old dive fins. It didn’t bother Walter a bit. His comment was a loud, “Fabulous!” The ad hoc meal might have made more of an impression on him than the four-foot, spinning barrels we surfed alone that day.

Eventually Walter began organizing his friends for these excursions and sort of over-selling the whole experience, especially to some of his aging contemporaries who had gotten used to comfort. You must remember, most of these trips were conducted on goat boats with no muffler and a hull speed of maybe five knots—if there wasn’t any opposing head wind or current. The ruggedness of the experience led to a few of his friends jumping ship, arranging via cell-phone for deliverance via helicopter from the most remote places, preferring that expense to spending another day on the boat.

On land, Wally insisted on driving the most beat up VW Thing available, just wallowing in the funk of it all: boards hanging out the back, hole in the muffler, and plenty of bondo smudged all over. He was frequenting Balangan for empty surf and the great diving off the south point, long before it was recognized as a good surf spot. It must have reminded him of his days on Oahu in the ’50s.

Front deck of the Hoffman clan gathering place, with a surf break out front, Beach Road, Capistrano Beach, California. Photo by Herbie Fletcher.

Over the years, we conducted a number of business excursions to Central Java, looking for print ideas and taking in the local culture. The most entertaining aspect of those trips for Walter was haggling with local vendors trying to sell him something that he didn’t really want, for 300 percent of the going rate. Walter just couldn’t walk away from any negotiation. Bartering was in his blood. The accompanying entourage of Hoffman’s staff, myself included, would be left hanging until the battle was over and Walter emerged with his prize.

An incident I’ll never forget: Walter was just working some guy for an hour over some shadow puppet or antique sarong. They cut the deal and as the guy turned around and wrapped it up in an old newspaper, he was in tears over how Walter had broken him, moaning that his kids were going to be hungry for a week. Arriving back at the hotel, we discovered the vendor had exchanged the item for something inferior. Rather than being pissed off, Wally commended the guy for his daring: “Greatest salesman ever!”

After a few years producing printed fabric for the Hoffmans, an interesting request came in for a motif resembling dirty pavement. Here we’d spent the first ten years trying to produce perfect batik prints without any mistakes and here comes Wally asking for the antithesis. It was an order for a company called Skate Rags. Our strategy? Use unbleached canvas, spatter it with wax, and then spray gray-black dye all over the fabric a la Jackson Pollock. Next, throw in a little bit of fluorescent pigment, then boil off about 70 percent of the batik wax making sure there was still a vestige of wax remaining for authenticity. The idea was to make it look like pavement with chewed bubble gum and other filth stuck to it. Voila! It became a durable best seller.

One night, while gorging on chili pepper crab and lobster at Kama Indah in Kuta, Walter had an epiphany— since all the fabrics we produced were handmade, any resultant flaws or inconsistencies should be thought of as the beauty inherent in ancient production techniques. Once again we were baffled. All of our striving for perfection had just been thrown out the window. We ran with it and by now, a thousand other fabric and garment companies have embraced this little disclaimer on their hangtags.

While Walter had been working most of his life, there was always this underlying creed that would slip out of him, always with the understanding that all required work would get done: “Get as much surf as possible while you can, because eventually you’ll be old and injured. Then you can go back to the nine-to-five.”

Among his many ventures, Tim Watts, originally from Carmel, California, has operated a batik fabric dying factory on the island of Bali since the early 1980s, with Hoffman California Fabrics as a major client.