Before we get started, I must preface this dispatch: I am not your travel agent; I won’t be detailing the ways by which you can fly through Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur, or how to get to the Mentawais. There are surf travel businesses who have operating charters to this place for more than 20 years. They’re brilliant. But, what I can tell you is this: I have visited the Mentawais over a dozen times, and have experienced its full spectrum of conditions—there is no such thing as a bad Mentawai Islands boat trip. If you ever have an opportunity to take one, pounce. The afternoons on the top deck watching the setting sun are an indelible airbrushed cliche. Until they’re not, because you’re in it. And as beautiful and idyllic as it will be, it’s likely that during your boat trip you’ll experience something that will be so unsettling that you’ll fear for your life.
This most recent trip, we were about to leave and motor back to the harbour, when the rope joining the dinghy to the main boat wrapped around the prop; every time we’d engage the motor, the aluminium tender would accelerate and slam into the side of our steel boat. We were floating over the bommie that sits to the left of HTs. It was raining. It was almost dark. The swell was six-foot-plus. I believe we would have lost our boat that night if it weren’t for the quick thinking of Alan Van Gysen, our photographer and one of the ablest men I’ve ever met. He donned goggles, fins and locked himself between the prop shaft and barnacle-covered rudder with a knife for over 15 minutes, coming up for air every two minutes or so.
We shone iPhones, sealed in plastic bags, underwater onto the prop, our masculinity diminishing with every wound AVG made to the heavily-wrapped rope. After he’d cut it free, he hit the deck carrying a thick python-sized hunk of rope, bleeding across his back and arms as we tended his wounds. He stands around 5’9 but he could’ve been seven feet tall at that point. I’ve heard of boats having to punch through proper three-foot whitewater out of Padang harbour because there was so much swell. Back in 2015, a number of expats lost their lives in the Mentawais. Even though you might have three-beer buzz on, don’t do anything stupid like trying to swim under the boat after dark.
STAB’s Guide to the Mentawais
It’s important to pick your crew.
Make sure you get every person to pay the deposit upfront. I can’t even begin to tell you how many stories I’ve heard, of guys who throw down their plastic, only to have guys pull out last minute and be left holding the ball, trying to sell beds on a charter.
You’ll have the friend who arrives with six sets of fins, board bag full of pristine new shooters. You’ll have the guy who didn’t bring wax. Understand this, and realise it’s best to sit somewhere in the middle. Personally, it’s always good to have a surfer on board who has an interest in photography, always nice to have some digital souvenirs in perfect waves. What is less appealing is the friend with an interest in cinematography. I don’t want to speak out of school, but please indulge me: unless you’re a low-ranked World Tour surfer or better, there’s no need to see yourself riding a wave in anything but still imagery. The best waves of my life, the ones that have warped my comprehension of what’s possible on a surfboard, do not need to be debunked by actually seeing my barely-tubed legrope skittle across a perfect wave. No video! That goes for you too, Drone Boy.
When picking crews, Taj Burrow recently joined a charter by taking an open spot and not knowing anyone else on board. He said he made some great friends and a really good experience. Don’t be afraid to drop in on a distressed and discounted spot on a charter.
Go with your captain.
There’s always the guy who has been to the Ments before; he’s usually always the guy to tell the boat captain how to do his job and where to surf. The fact that you’ve done four trips of 10 days apiece means you’ve spent say 40 days in the Ments. Strictly mathematically speaking, consider a captain’s log from literal years at sea, 20 trips a season. 1200 days or more in the Ments compared with your 40. Are you really in a position to tell this guy where you should surf? You’ve had 3% of his experience in the islands. Think about that for a second. For all of the trips I’ve done to the Ments, the best waves we’ve scored have always been at the suggestion of the captain. Just recently, a captain told me that when there’s a pushy guest who just knows a wave is gonna be all-time (even though he knows it won’t be), they’ll take ‘em there to be greeted with small, onshore waves just to make a point. So the man can be ridiculed. And silenced.
Don’t be that guy.
The islands aren’t close.
The most common misconception is that the Mentawai Islands are close together, that you can surf HTs in the morning and zip across to Macaronis for a surf, swan back to HTs for the glass-off.
This isn’t true. Most breaks are four to six hours of motoring apart. The most recent trip I did for the Stab in the Dark meant we’d park in a quiet anchorage for the night, near the break we surfed that evening, and up-anchor around 3.30am to wake each day at a new break. This meant we weren’t wasting daylight hours motoring between breaks. But it’s difficult to sleep with the engine pretty much under your pillow. (Which for me, provided a few quiet hours to knock out work so I could surf in the day.)
I know guys use this opportunity to do things you’d never have time to do in everyday life. Some write handwritten letters to parents or partners or grandparents or kids. I know it sounds kinda soppy but when was the last time you received a thoughtful letter in someone’s own script?
Speaking of which, there are a few boats with wifi. Personally, I’d opt for a boat sans internet. The respite of being out of range is one of the highlights of a boat trip.
We’re connected all day, every day, and pulling the plug can take its toll on the youth used to its ever-presence: one of our filmers was very distressed that he couldn’t get a signal to frequent his favorite digital destinations. On his first trip to the islands, a 22-year-old cinematographer raised on powerful broadband would appear occasionally from his cabin, red-faced and frustrated. The following year he arrived armed with external hard drives and was far more relaxed. You can join the dots here.
Dealing with crowds.
It’s been 30 years since these islands were splattered through surf mags and films. You can get uncrowded surf, but it’s rare. Here are some tips to improve your chances. Listen to your captain. Steer clear of the Playgrounds. These are the waves of Kanduis, Bank Vaults, E-Bay, Pitstops. This is critical mass for crowds in the Mentawais.
The most consistent – which also makes it the best bet – wave in the Ments is Macaronis. And, it’s the most immune to crowds because of its two-boat only rule and rostered system (two boats at any one time along with a land camp). A good captain will book you in on days that correspond favourably to the long-range forecast. On that, refer to your boat captain on everything. And, make sure you look after him on your departure, which segues nicely into the below.
Here are some extra tips:
● Extra surf paraphernalia for the crew. Anything like a leash, a pair of boardshorts or sunglasses goes a long way.
● Budget tips for staff. We all know how expensive boats are; their staff are paid meager wages. You should try to keep at least $100 worth of cheddar on-hand.
● Buy Ella Bache zinc. The sun is brutal. It may be $50 a tube but it is the best money you’ll spend. And, with freckles to prove it, works better than anything listed as organic or “Made for surfers.”
● Go easy on the AC. When it’s 30 degrees outside, you don’t need to be shocking your system going from 30 to 16 degrees. My last trip, pretty much the entire crew were blindsided by sickness each for two days apiece. It’s typically winter in Australia when you’re in Indo, just because AC goes to 16 doesn’t mean it must.