A 19th century reference to Indonesia’s surf

For centuries, sailors’ pilot books for the southern and western islands of the Malay archipelago, which became known as the Dutch East Indies, which became the Republic of Indonesia, and thenceforth as “Indo” by Western surfers, were chock-a-block with references to heavy surf. Sailors like to stay well clear of heavy surf, hence the warning in pilot books–but to the surf explorers of the 70s and 80s these were tantalizing references. You’d see surfers huddled secretively in the corners of Kempu’s cafe with photocopies of pilot book pages and Admiralty charts….

Of course, the modern day surf charter skipper actively seeks heavy surf, and guests often have to pay the price of a rolling anchorage. Puke Point, anyone?

But it wasn’t just sailors who took note of heavy surf. Arguably the most famous of Indonesian explorers was the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who from 1852 to 1862 scoured the islands for birds and beetles, and in so doing independently came up with the theory of evolution (Charles Darwin, hearing of Wallace’s discovery after his own years of secret toil and work, promptly pissed on that tree, more or less claiming the theory of evolution as his own). In his classic book THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO Wallace recounts anchoring at Ampenan Bay in Lombok in June of 1856. This is the dry season, the easterly trade winds being offshore at Ampenan, just south of Senggigi:

“The bay…was smooth as a lake. The beach of black volcanic sand is very steep, and there is at all times a heavy surf upon it, which during spring tides increases to such an extent that it is often impossible for boats to land, and many serious accidents have occurred. Where we lay anchored, about a quarter mile from the shore, not the slightest swell was perceptible, but, on approaching nearer, undulations began, which rapidly increased, so as to form rollers which toppled over on to the beach at regular intervals with noise like thunder. Sometimes this surf increases suddenly during perfect calms.”

Being a naturalist with a creative and curious and intelligent mind, Wallace sought an explanation: “This violent surf is probably in some way dependent on the swell of the great southern ocean, and the violent current that flows through the Straits of Lombok.” He went on to say, reasonably for the time: “…the sudden heavy surfs that occasionally occur in perfectly calm weather may be due to slight upheavals of the ocean-bed in this eminently volcanic region.”

What Wallace was witnessing was the arrival of a ground swell from the great southern ocean. A surfer today, seeing such a shore dump, would be thinking, “Desert Point, here I come.”

And yes, those currents in the straits can be violent. I’ve been caught in them twice, when once was more than enough. That’s another story.

A century and a half later, in the late 70s (my mental date stamp is pretty bad, so this would be plus or minus a couple years) some friends and I took a tin dingy with a 40 hp outboard across the straits to explore Lombok. At the time, Ampenan was the main anchorage, and we needed to refuel. We swamped the thing at the shore break, just as Wallace had warned. Guiding us across the straits was a salty sea dog Balinese from Lembongan who knew the tides and currents–but even he got dinged by that shore dump. Once the dinghy was refloated, he sprayed the drenched outboard with gasoline and lit it. Woosh! It seemed to me that would be the wrong thing to do, but the engine started up just fine. Anyway, that was the trip we first surfed Gili Air in the north Lombok Straits— yet another story.

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One Response to A 19th century reference to Indonesia’s surf

  1. segara says:

    R Lewis you should write a book on your life in Bali. It would be a great read.

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