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TRAVEL ISSUE | Indonesia

Drop In, Tune Out

The Indian Ocean's Mentawai Islands have everything a Southern California surfer could want--uncrowded waves and lots of them

October 16, 2005|JOEL SAPPELL | Joel Sappell is a Times assistant managing editor

We're like kids on Christmas.

Up before dawn, too excited to sleep, we tear into the huge canvas bags that have carried our flotilla of surfboards to the other side of the world. In the darkness, we rip off the bubble wrap and toss aside the beach towels we've used to cushion our toys on this three-day voyage to the remote reaches of western Indonesia.

As the clouds lighten in hues of purple, we stand on the bow of our chartered yacht, awed by the outlines of a perfectly peeling wave. One by one, we plunge into the warm water of the Indian Ocean and stroke toward a surf break called Telescopes for the cylindrical shape of the swells.

Back home in Southern California, a place like this would be jammed with surfers jockeying for position. But at daybreak in the Mentawai Islands, we're alone, a group of eight friends and relatives, slightly unsettled by the mystery of these new waters.

Within minutes, we will know why these exotic and primitive islands have emerged in the past decade as surfing's premier destination. This archipelago off western Sumatra, with its four main islands and dozens of lush specks between them, boasts more high-quality breaks than even Hawaii. The waves are fast, powerful and treacherous, often crashing on shallow coral reefs. One spot is nicknamed the Surgeon's Table because of its scalpel-sharp bottom.

The Mentawais are the final stop for storm swells generated near the tip of Africa, which roll unimpeded for thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean. With so many reefs hugging so many islands, waves can be found around virtually every bend.

The biggest names in pro surfing have anchored here--Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Laird Hamilton and Layne Beachley. And then there's us--three guys in their early 50s, one in his mid-30s, three in their 20s. Despite our varying ages, skills and stamina, we've come for the same reason as the sport's elite: to take the measure of ourselves.

I married into something better than money. I married into a surfing family. My wife's three brothers all grew up surfing in San Diego. Two of their sons, Brian and Michael Gable, have inherited the passion.

Like them, I started surfing in my early teens and never stopped. Even at 52, I find nothing washes away the troubles on land better than a few hours in the water. As most surfers will tell you, they get something more nourishing from the sport than just adrenaline.

It was last year, during a family vacation in Oceanside, when 27-year-old Brian popped the question. The kid I'd known since he was in grade school wanted me to go surfing with him and his 24-year-old cousin Michael in the Mentawai Islands (pronounced Men-Ta-Why).

If you say no, he warned, you'll regret it forever. "Count me in," I said, not betraying a hint of anxiety. But I was worried that, at my age, I might not be able to hold my own with all the young, ripping surfers who'd monopolize the waves. I'd be bummed in paradise.

Being an older surfer in a sport dominated by posturing 20-somethings is tricky. I've learned to turn my age to my advantage, making eye contact with everyone in the lineup and exchanging pleasantries. I want them to see me as a father figure--a cool father figure--so they'll show respect by not "snaking" me, dropping into waves I'm already riding. In Southern California, that usually works. But in Indonesia, with the best of the best, I wasn't so sure.

Now my two nephews--whose combined ages don't equal mine--were yanking me into the surfing culture of their generation.

During the past half-dozen years, there's been a revolution in surfing that, for the first time, is not about the length or shape of the board. It's about place. As the sport's popularity has brought more crowds to well-known breaks here and abroad, young surfers such as Brian and Michael increasingly are searching the globe for bigger and better waves they can ride in relative solitude.

Today, surf shops are filled with gear aimed at international travelers who rough it on faraway beaches, hole up in cheap hotels or penny-pinch for a year to charter boats. There's a brisk trade in booties to protect your feet from the reefs, wax that won't melt off the deck of your board in 80-degree tropical water and "board coffin" bags that hold multiple boards.

For the hollow waves of "Indo," I filled my new bag with two new boards, including a "pocket rocket" designed for speed. Both cost me $1,000. Because the Mentawais are a malarial hotbed, surfers mostly bunk on rented boats, spending 24 hours a day afloat. And that meant even more money, beginning with a $500 deposit to a San Clemente-based charter company called Saraina Koat Mentawai. I was financially committed.

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