The Nembrala (Rote) Tsunami that Wasn’t

I’d spent the first half of a double-dip swell on the Hati Murnih surfing a spot called Mirindy’s. Don’t ask me where it is. In fact, I shouldn’t be mentioning the name at all (known only to a few) but I think it’s rather cool that the first person to have surfed this place was a hard-core traveling female surfer. I don’t know of very many surf spots named after the female pioneers who first surfed them. I think this should be acknowledged, you know? So hence this public mention.

The swell died and we motored on. We, meaning me and the crew of the Hati Murnih, one of my many solo surf trips on the boat that are now a thing of the past. When we got to the old stomping grounds of Nembrala, the swell was back on the rise, and being well-stomped up by a large cast of surfers in residence, this being the year 2012. No more secret underground spot.

ye olde hati murnih crop

The swell kept rising–well, not so much rising as it was thickening. As usual, we were anchored in the channel between the main left and the bombie.


I’d seen the bombie big numerous times, up to 15 ft, but something was different today. The sets marched in mean and thick and powerful, turning their guts inside out and churning up the bottom, which never happens on the bombie. Late afternoon, this notched up to another level altogether, mutant growling beasts churning up the bottom, the water an ugly brown-white scum. The swell forecasts had predicted a decent swell, but this was not of normal nature. Even the crew were uneasy, watching the surf instead of sitting around playing cards and smoking their 234’s. The bombie was producing three foot sidewash swells that was really knocking us around.

My cell phone rings. A friend in Bali who knows I am there says he’s just heard from a sailboat heading our way from the west. The skipper had just seen waves cresting offshore at deep water spots he’d never seen break before. “Could be a tsunami headed your way,” my friend warns me.

I jump into action and yell at the crew to get the engine started. Toss the anchor line. Get going, get going, get going. When you’re at a remote spot and you’re warned about a tsunami, you don’t second guess things. Komen, the engineer, went pasty-faced and huge-eyed and started hyperventilating. While they got the engine going (which on our simple, stripped down faithful Yanmar diesel wasn’t just a matter of an ignition switch but a hand crank start), I made a phone call to another friend in Bali asking him to check the USGS real time earthquake map and tsunami warning. He stayed on the phone as he checked on line and said there was nothing. However, he said, the storm producing the swell had strengthened unexpectedly to Category 4 cyclone strength and had drifted up to higher latitudes, much closer to Rote. He said that we were getting the peak of the swell right now.

So we calmed down and kept the boat anchored, swaying back and forth in the backwash from the bombie. Komen went limp with relief. He explained his panic attack. He’d been a young deck hand on a local trading boat anchored at Maumere in Flores in 1992 when the ocean suddenly rose and surged through the harbor, waves higher than a coconut tree. In the panic and screaming, as the boat shook and rocked and spun over the shoreline and over buildings submerging in the flood, he thought the world was ending. In 1992 tsunamis were not in the public consciousness. His boat ended up stranded in the center of town. About 1500 people were killed in Maumere alone.

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Sanur, Bali, circa 1975

I’ve posted this old book photo before, but now that I am striding upon Sanur’s boardwalk for my daily exercise (thanks to recent arm surgery that keeps me out of the water until April), dodging vendors and dogs and tourists and bicycles and not a few scooters, I think nostalgically upon the Sanur I once knew:

old sanur 2

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“Cancelled Flights” : a song for folks stranded in Bali due to volcanic ash (to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’)

Stuck here for the flight
Cancelled til God knows when
Waiting dawn til night
Then once more again
Ash keeps drifting down
Jet Star says no go
What fun to piss and moan
While running out of dough!

Cancelled flights, cancelled flights
Cancelled all the way
Oh! What fun to sit and wait
Til only God knows when
Oh cancelled flights cancelled flights
Cancelled all the way
Oh what fun to sit and wait
Until only God knows when

A couple weeks ago
I thought I’d get some sun
And soon in Bali was
Having lots of fun
Rinjani? Had no clue
Little did I know
She was gonna spew
And home I could not go

Oh cancelled flights, cancelled flights
Cancelled all the way
Oh! What fun to sit and wait
Til only God knows when
Oh cancelled flights cancelled flights
Cancelled all the way
Oh what fun to sit and wait
Until only God knows when

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A Rotten Stinking Place to Die : a tale of a surf adventure gone horribly wrong

My left arm’s been in a sling for the past month (rotator cuff surgery), with four more to go before I can start surfing again. So I’ve been scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — a classic scene from the book and film The Shining, but don’t worry, I don’t have an ax stored in my closet with which to give visitors the greatest (and last) surprise of their lives. Instead, I channeled my inner pyscho into this new novel, drawing on my numerous surf adventures throughout the Indonesian archipelago. At the moment available on Kindle or iBooks for only USD 3.99, so download and bring along on your own surf trip! (You can read a beginning excerpt at each of the links below)

cover web small

Something’s hinky on board the Orient Star, and Vannevar “Budiman” Wells can’t quite figure out what.

His friend and skipper Alexandra Cooper, a sea-salted Australian who charters the boat for Indian Ocean excursions, is uneasy about her guests. She’s asked Budi to come along as the cook and watch her back. He’s good at that sort of thing. A Westerner born in Indonesia, he’s been around the tropical garden more than a few times, and through the seamy underbrush of paradise, too, where the poisonous shadows scuttle.

The Orient Star‘s been chartered by Elroy Kapuni, famed Hawaiian big wave surfer and leader of the Heavy Water brotherhood, once a gang but now gone legit as a sport company that sponsors charity events. This time of year, Elroy should be home on Oahu’s North Shore surfing the big juice instead of groveling in small waves off remote jungle islands. Elroy’s brought an entourage–an unhappy girlfriend who does not like sand or sun, his AA sponsor who does not like water sports of any kind, an Iraqi War veteran with an attitude problem, and a couple henchmen, Thing One and Thing Two.

Elroy’s also brought along a metal detector and camping equipment and a high-end Iridium satellite phone. He furtively keeps calling someone, asking about satellite imagery that he’s expecting.

Surfing seems to be the last thing on his mind.



Other on-line and e-readers

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Bali surfing culture: upcoming events you should not miss

Willian Finnegan, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE, will be gracing us in Bali with his presence for several high brow (and possibly low jinks, depending on audience and Bintangs consumed) events. Finnegan is rather like Superman, who on flat surf days is a well-known and highly respected international journalist and a staff writer at the New Yorker, one of America’s most prestigious literary magazines, but will on the rumor of a swell pop into the nearest phone booth and emerge in wet suit and surfboard. Or board shorts, depending. Surfing and ripping since he was a haole kid in a Hawaiian public school, the man charges. He was one of the first to surf Tavarua, and surfed Bali and Nias in 1978

Australian journalist Phil Jarratt (author of the bestselling BALI: HEAVEN AND HELL) will be appearing with William Finnegan at the upcoming Ubud Readers and Writer’s Festival on Oct 30 at 2:30 pm.

Bill  UWRF

Also, on 5th November at 6:30 pm at Deus Ex Machina (Nias pioneer Kevin Lovett and your own blog correspondent — ie me — will also be there to chime in on a panel discussion focusing on the positive & negative impacts that surf exploration has had in remote communities in developing economies)

bill 2

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The first surfer kicked out of the water at Kuta (a re-post)

(Your blog correspondent is back home in his hermit hole, sling on arm like a damned big limpet, and grouchy from lack of sleep. You try laying horizontal on bed with a rotor-rooted shoulder. No way to get comfortable. Plus, typing at a keyboard is a pecking hassle. So I re-post one of my earlier posts.)

I bought my first real surfboard in 1973 in Kuta from a passing Australian. A 7’0 single fin, with red deck and yellow rails. No logo on it, with reef ding holes on the bottom I patched with wood glue. I was pretty clueless about surfboards. I thought the “stringer” was actually that, a piece of string that went from nose to tail and back round again, kind of a like a carpenter’s string to keep things symmetrical.

I loved that board. Surfed the Kuta beachbreak pretty much by myself. You could pick a peak back in those days. Anyway, after a few weeks of solo surfs in the off-season, another Aussie surfer showed up on a pretty good four foot day. Stoked to see him, I paddled over from my peak to join his. I was pretty clueless about surf etiquette, too, you see. The more the merrier, I thought. In fact, if he paddled for a wave, why shouldn’t I paddle for the same one?

I thought we were having fun.

He was getting pissed.

I’d grown up in Bali, and I tended to forget that to tourists I looked like a tourist myself. I didn’t realize that as a white tanned kid with sun-bleached hair, I looked to this surfer like a surf rat teen grommet from a beach and surf culture, somebody who should have known surf etiquette. So of course he thought I was being an cheeky a**hole, especially when I was trying to chat with him after having shared a wave. “How big waves do you surf? Why do they call it goofyfoot? Why don’t they just take the string off before they put the fiberglass on? Oh, here comes another good one!”

After the third wave I shared with him, he went off on me like a bobcat in a wringer, with lots of frothy saliva and words I’d certainly never learned at boarding school. Already a brawny guy, he puffed up even larger and in no uncertain sign language, with more froth and fury, sent me to the beach. Shocked, I paddled in, practically crying.

Over the years, many guys to Indonesia claim to have been the first to surf this spot or that spot.

Me? I guess my claim to fame is that I was the first surfer in Bali ever to be ordered out of the water.

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The sorry sight of a life-long surfer losing his tan


(several days post-op for torn shoulder tendon at sister’s house Perth)

The technical medical terminology is left shoulder arthroscopic acromioplasty with open cuff repair, commonly known as THE ROTOR-ROOTER THAT HURTS LIKE HELL…and six weeks in a sling, and months before you can even think of getting into the waves again. My daily exercise now consists of squeezing a rubber ball and single-hand keyboard pecking.

Am I turning into one of those ageing men whose favorite topic of conversation is their health? Well, at least I am not discussing the state of my prostate.

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