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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8 Responses to The Nembrala (Rote) Tsunami that Wasn’t

  1. Anonymous says:

    Now that’s the sort of story id expect from a one armed surfer/author. Nice work mate.

  2. Anonymous says:

    How did the writers festival u mentioned a few weeks ago turn out?

  3. Congratulations on a great story. I think we’re all interested in extremes these days.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Theres at least one other break in Indo named after a female..Jenny’s rights up here in Sumatra..not a bad wave in the wet season..and only a lazy 9 hours scooter ride from here;) A long time ago I used to surf a wave in the Phillipines called Mona Lisa..pretty as the picture, not quite..its an ok soft right hand point..It actually was named after the daughter of family who ran an eating shack in front of the break..i imagine shes a middle aged woman now. Time flies..can’t think of too many others..

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