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A Balinese Surf Safari : Southern Californians Travel to Bali to Experience the Roaring Majesty of Ulu Watu's Towering Waves

July 27, 1989|DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writer

Bali, the emerald among Indonesia's archipelago of 13,000 islands, has been a secret among surfing's international fraternity. Waves spawned in the Indian Ocean are among the world's finest. Hawaii's waves are heavily populated, and its surfing areas break best in the winter. Surfing spots along mainland Mexico don't fire until late August when the big chubascos-- hurricane-like storms--arrive.

Commitment was the key to the Bali trip. Stamina was required simply for the 20-hour flight aboard a Garuda Indonesian Airways commercial jet. The airline is regarded as Indonesia's finest; the surfers summed up the 10,500-mile trip in one word: "killer."

The consensus aboard the flight was that if the cramped seating didn't kill you, the food would.

"I'm never, never going to travel this way again," said coach Rhumann, who was forced to scrunch his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame into a chair made for a 5-foot-5 body. Rhumann literally yelped after a stewardess woke him at 4 a.m. and pushed a greenish-looking omelet in front of him.

Bali has at least 24 known surfing areas, ranging from easy, 2- to 4-foot beach breaks at Kuta Beach, to awesome, towering green monsters at Ulu Watu that chew up surfboards and people.

Oceanside surfer Eric Klier got a taste of Ulu's might when he dropped in on an 8-foot-plus wave and got drilled. Eric came up. His board didn't.

"I picked up the two biggest pieces of my board afterwards," Klier said. "But that wave, the power!"

Leece met his match on a Mt. Everest-sized wave at a break known as Airport Lefts, which breaks over a reef near Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport and is reachable only by outrigger. "It was some of the biggest surf I've ever been in," he said.

A teammate, David Buckles, 16, of Laguna Beach High School, saw Leece go down with his board.

"It was barreling all over the place but it was near low tide. I saw the bottom suck out and he just went over," Buckles said.

Chalk up another surfboard. Score: Bali 2, California surfers 0.

What's it like to ride down a mountain of water?

Remember that in Bali, like Hawaii, waves are measured from the back. Orange County lifeguards often measure them from the front, or the face of the wave, which is obviously larger. A "small" day of 5- to 6-foot surf at a Bali surf spot such as Ulu Watu, can produce a wave face of 10 to 12 feet.

Another reminder: The coral at Ulu and other Bali spots are stalks; they grow up. Think of deer antlers and you get the picture. One bad wipeout can be as nightmarish as a swipe from Freddy Krueger's gloved hand.

On July 1, the biggest day there, boat drivers cautioned that waves at Ulu and several reef breaks were 15 to 18 feet. Definitely out of control.

Buckles recalled a bad wipeout on a Bali 7-footer: "I took a late takeoff and the offshore breeze held me up too long. When the wave crashed, so did I. It felt like landing on concrete. It knocked the wind out of me."

In big surf, the ocean boils. The roar deafens. Offshore winds slap at your back when facing seaward, then slap at your face when you turn around and paddle into a wave.

It's been said that waves above 10 feet are no longer measured by height but increments of fear. A surfer's greatest challenge is to overcome the fear and surf relaxed.

Donovan Frankenreiter, a 16-year-old junior at Mission Viejo High School and one of the team's top surfers, rode one unforgettable wave high up the Fear Scale. The 50-yard ride included a series of spectacular "lip bashes," a maneuver where the surfer hurtles down the face of a wave and then turns back into it, crashing his surfboard off the breaking wave face or lip.

"It was the third wave of the set," Frankenreiter said. "I took off and it must have been a 10- to 15-foot face. I came in for the (wave) lip and pulled in the barrel for four seconds and came around the section two times. I faded out, did a bottom turn and came in under the lip. I blasted a few lippers and then it (broke in front of him). There was wave roar, lots of noise. Offshore winds slapping me in the face and it was sucking off the reef. The water was so clear I could see the coral flying past on the bottom of the ocean. It was perfect. I'll never forget it."

The U.S. team also included Jenny Gould, Josefina (Hoey) Capps and her brother, Banning Capps, all of Carlsbad; Travis Prentice, San Diego; Jon Cornell, Poway; John Swift, Cardiff; Ailbe McGarry, Cardiff; and Jason Oyler, Malibu.

In addition to Ruhmann, other adults who volunteered their vacation time included Vista High School surfing coach Carolyn Krammer of Oceanside; Ed Rhead of Oceanside, assistant team manager, and Glenn Prentice of San Diego, Oceanside public works director and team judge.

Despite the island's charm and beauty, Bali is relatively expensive. Its 2.5 million people earn a per-capita income of only $566. Gasoline is about 84 cents a gallon, and within a two-week period, pumps ran dry twice. Salaries for hotel workers average only $50,000 Rupiahs a month, about $28.30.

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