In his bungalow at Legian, Bali, the world’s oldest grommet wakes up every morning at three-thirty. He drinks a tonic of ginger and cinnamon, followed by a cup of coffee. He pulls out from his wallet the month’s tide chart, which he’s reduced to fit, and laminated, and studies it carefully. He also contemplates the latest swell forecast like a monk does his scripture. The forecaster says the swell should peak at slightly overhead, but with his years of local knowledge, he believes the sets will be larger.
He loads into his Kijang his 7’0 and 8’0 Don Johnson shapes. His magic rides, he calls them. They are blue, like his baby blue eyes, sparkling out of a weathered face. No other color will do for his boards. In fact, they must be a precise shade. He was once shown a Pantone book (the standard color reference, with thousands of color shades) He deliberated for awhile and then pointed to two squares of blue and said the color he wanted was between the two—like the color of the ocean in the middle of the Bali Straits, he said. He scoffs at removable fins. All his boards must have glassed fins. He also checks the car to make sure that his bucket for wet surf gear, his bottles of rinse water, and his various sunscreen lotions are in their appointed places. Everything must be just so.
This time of pre-dawn hour, the roads are blessedly empty of traffic. No iPod for him. Too soulless. A cassette player, playing northern soul from the time before time.
At his favorite stretch of beach, with patches of reef that offers various breaks, he makes his way to the shore-line temple. As a pearly light spreads across the sky, he performs his Chi Kung breathing exercises for fifteen minutes. Thus energized, he throws a blossom into the curling foam swishing on the beach. He applies his layers of lotion with the care of a movie make-up artist, and meticulously waxes his board, choosing the 8’0 because the sets are indeed as large as he thought.
This takes some time. The grommet will not be rushed. On one early 90s boat trip on the Indies Trader (for the grom is an FOM, friend of Martin), Martin Daly stopped at an average left-hander to give the boys a quick surf before heading on to the prime spot. The boys jump off the boat. The grom takes his usual time getting geared up. He is finally ready to surf—but Martin is calling the boys back to the boat to continue the journey. Our man is befuddled, for now he has to de-gear and de-lotion without even having gotten wet. Even though the wave is only average, he is most upset that he did not get to sample this break.
At 5:30, the grom paddles into his first set wave. As good as it gets. CAAFW. (“Clean as a f* whistle”). He surfs solo for an hour before a few others join him.
By 8:00 he is surfed out and content. In the warung, he spots an old Balinese friend, and has a leisurely chat, joking with his typical booming laughter.
The grom first heard of Bali in 1974, while on Morocco surf trip from his native England. Harry Nightingale, a Bondi lifeguard who can still be seen on the Bondi Rescue reality TV show, told our man that he really should get to Bali. On September 16, 1975, he descended the plane’s stairs into the tropical warmth of Bali, the air scented by sea salt and cloves. He stayed at the Melati Dewi losmen, by the cinema near Bemo Corner, and then moved to Bendesa Inn on Jalan Legian, back then an unnamed, unpaved track. For 600 rupiahs a night he got tea and a banana jaffle breakfast. Two Hawaiians took him to Uluwatu, up tortuous pre-World War II road, followed by a long sweaty hike through the scrub. But the waves were like a dream. In his first surf, a dugong surfaced near him. Not knowing what this creature was, he paddled inside, got caught by a set that stripped his shorts to his ankles, and he barely made the cave. Another time, during a moody storm, lightning hit the temple.
There were no cliff-top warungs then. Surfers bought drinks from an enterprising Balinese villager who set up shop in the cave. They called him called Dagwood (from the comic strip) for the checkered pants he wore.
Our man surfed with the first generation of Balinese surfers. He remembers a time, though, when he and Made Kasim were in his car in the sandy beach parking lot at the end of Jalan Padma, with cows grazing among the coconut palms. Kasim pointed to a young kid ripping in the beach break and said, “That boy’s going to be a better surfer than me.” The kid was Tanjung Rizal.
As the popular surf spots became crowded, the world’s oldest grommet went in search of other places along the east and west coasts of Bali where his only companion was the occasional sea turtle. A true gentleman, he says, “I am a hopeless hassler.” He is perhaps the first surfer in Bali to know and surf them all, from Gilimanuk to Karangasem–and for all we know, perhaps a few secret spots along the north coast with its wind swells. He has also traveled the archipelago, surfing from Sabang to nearly Merauke. The most exotic place he’s surfed? A right off Krakatoa, the volcano grumbling and steaming.
Many expats from that early era have come and gone, but the world’s oldest grommet still abides. He grumbles at what Bali is becoming , a growing patch of cancerous concrete, with frantic to-ing and fro-ing. But he keeps at his steady pace, for the surf still remains.
When asked what words of advice he has to offer, he looks startled and blushes a little. He doesn’t presume to impose his opinions on others. “I can’t speak for others,” he says, “but for me, I’ll say this. I’ve been surfing for 45 years, and I’m more keen than ever.”