August 8, 1994. Jim Allison comes to flat on his back on the floor of his Bukit bungalow, staring blurry eyed at the rafters. He’d been chasing the dragon’s tail with a fresh supply of smack, but this time the dragon turned around on him. He should have been yet another lifeless OD. In a wash of gut-wrenching despair, Jim shouted up at the rafters, “God, if you’re out there, I’m fucked.”
Jim could have been a movie star. When he was a young surfer in Miami, Florida, a casting member for a Hollywood movie went into a local surf shop looking for a surfing double for Robbie Benson, who was playing Paul Newman’s son in a movie called “Harry and Me.”
Everybody took one look at Benson’s head shot and said, “You want Jim Allison.”
So one morning Jim was woken by his mother who said with wide eyes, “Paul Newman is on the phone and wants to talk to you.”
Not only did Jim act as a double, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (Newman’s wife) liked him so much he also got an acting part and a SAG card.
Not to mention he got Sebastian Inlet cleared for a day of surfing.
The movie went straight to video, but Ms. Woodward had gotten Jim enrolled in a premier acting class in New York. With 20 grand in his pocket from the movie, Jim thought, do I want to go to New York and study acting, or do I want to go to Bali and surf?
Jim first arrived in Bali in 1983, rocking up on one of the biggest swells in years. The outside Kuta bommies were throwing white. Outside corner was solid twelve foot. He tagged along with Dave Michell, Roger Kincaid and Fuge Hickman (already pioneering legends in Bali) to Padang, back when you had to walk the track. The very first thing he saw was not a bombing set, but a French girl who’d fallen off a shoreline boulder beneath the Padang cliff and broke her arm, bone sticking out of the flesh, blood pouring out, while her boyfriend was on the point shooting pictures.
After she was bundled off by a crew of helpful Balinese, Jim paddled out. Everybody hooting and taking turns. Hickman surfing switchfoot.
Shortly after this, Don King and Doris organized one of the first known boat trips to a mysterious legend left off Lombok Island. Being a regular foot, Jim was more interested in a fabled right on this island called Nias, and talked a friend into going with him. They arrived in Gunung Sitoli speaking no Indonesian and with only a picture of a surfer on Padang wave that they showed around, hoping to get directed to the wave of milk and honey. They were told they had to take a ferry to Lagrundi, but the ferry had gone missing for three days. As they were bunking down in a grungy losmen room, a guy shows up with a four-wheel Toyota Jeep for hire.
Jim and his friend were the first surfers to do the overland trip, a grueling affair that included putting down coconut logs over a washed-out ravine and guiding the jeep’s across by hand to make sure the wheels stayed on the logs. When they finally got to Lagrundi, the surfers in the few home stays on the point there were packing up and bailing, because they’d gotten word that two surfers who’d come down earlier with malaria had just died in Medan. Not only that, but Jim had brought the wrong, useless kind of malarial medicine. Huddled in their clothes under the mosquito netting that night, Jim’s friend says, “If you don’t die of malaria, I’m still going to fucking kill you, Jim.”
They stayed. And scored.
Jim did the US-Bali shuffle, spending four months in Bali and the rest of the time in the States running Island Style, his surf company. In 1984, his big adventure was to G-land.
Back then, he says, “every single moment of every single day in Bali was magic. Not just the uncrowded warm blue water perfect surf, but getting to the surf, the drive through the ricefields or walk through the Bukit country, and the people I met. That magic’s gone now. Moments do happen, but they’re rare.”
For Jim, part of the early magic was the drugs. In the 70s and 80s drugs were as much part of the surf scene as were offshore winds. You could hardly find a losmen porch in Kuta that didn’t sport a papaya stem bong. “Drugs were the dark underbelly,” Jim says. “An accurate history of surfing in Bali would be incomplete without that. You could almost say of that generation there are two groups of surfers, those who survived and those who didn’t.” Not just users, but smugglers and dealers and thieves. Not just ODs, but death threats and murders.
A number of big name surfers are survivors. It’s still a sensitive subject.
Jim liked smack. He liked getting loaded and going out clubbing. “I told myself I could quit any time,” he said.
He found out he couldn’t.
Alone on the floor of his bungalow, the answer came to Jim out of nowhere. “I can’t do this alone, I need help.”
That realization propelled him onto a flight home to Florida, where he was welcomed into a recovery program. Three days of cold turkey, seventy-two hours of bone wracking pain and not a single second of sleep, but this time around, he wasn’t trying to do it alone.
Jim’s been clean and sober for 17 years. He runs an export business, married to a lovely woman. He’s actively involved in a recovery program, trying to show other addicts the way out.
One day he was surfing Greenballs, one of those rare magic moments when he was alone in the perfect peelers, with a big blue sky and a spread of green cliffs. He said, “God, throw me a little something here, a sign.” Jim was thinking Jimi Hendrix appearing in the clouds, jamming a riff.
Five turtles rose up out of the sea, surrounded him for a few seconds, and then swam away.