THE TRAGIC FATE OF BEN PANAGIAN, SHAPPELLE CORBY’S ALLEGED LOVER : BY MATT GEORGE
Bernard Ben Panagian is part of our war party. He's calm. Very calm. He paddles strongly, surely, but in a style I have not seen before. Legs close together, forward on the board, a shallow yet deceptively powerful stroke. If I had to describe his presence on a stand-up paddle board in one word, I would have to say command.
We are moving our way south in a pack of five, a quarter mile offshore the limestone cliffs of the famed Bukit Peninsula, south Bali. Home to some of the greatest surf on the globe and the main reason tourism even exists here on its titanic scale. An exodus of surfers since the 70s built this waterworld.
My brother and I are part of an elite group that is being guided down the coast by Panagian. We will put in at Padang Padang, about a kilometre ahead. It is just dawn. We put in at Jimbaran Bay, kilometres behind us, in the dark. The sun's rays, just over the horizon are already hot enough to make you take your shirt off. A portent of the howling tradewinds to come by noon. My brother is here from America to do an article for an American magazine on stand-up paddling in Bali. I'm tagging along, shooting photos. I live here in Bali as a retired expat. Have for some time.
This Ben guy. This cat was pretty cool. Knew what he was doing. Enjoyed it. Not so breathless and harried and scraping as most tour guides around the world. This guy Ben spoke a quiet, informed sort of English. Not so much a whisper, but you had to pay attention or you would miss it. And you got the feeling from his voice that you didn't want to miss it. I think the biggest difference between he and your typical tourism guide was that he listened. Closely. To everything you said. And that he was interested in what you said. And that he wouldn't say anything back unless he felt like it. It made this semi-tourist experience of ours feel like a bit of an adventure. This guy was good at his job.
When we all reached the famed surf of the fearsome Padang Padang, Ben was the first to swing into one of the smaller waves. Yep, he was an expert. And I live around experts. And I also used to live in Hawaii, the birthplace of this sport of stand-up paddle boarding. And I can tell you one thing. Ben Panagian, all brown skin, with a body made out of solid oak, man, he rode as nobly as a Polynesian King. If it's one thing I have learned, it's to never think you have seen the last of anything.
Ben and I had formed a loose bond. Over the months following our stand-up paddle adventures, I'd seen him around a few times. I would head out to Jimbaran Bay from time to time, to the beach centre where he worked as a certified instructor/guide for just about any water sport you could imagine. But stand-up paddling was his thing, you could always see that. I would take my friends or anyone visiting me out to the place. Ben was always a thoughtful host. A thinking man's host. The kind you would climb a mountain with.
I will also never forget a quiet, painful conversation Ben and I had about trying to find him a sponsor for his professional stand-up surfing ambitions. He knew who I was. Me, the retired pro surfer, surfing journalist, once a feature surf film maker for Hollywood, connected. He knew. And yet it took a long time for him to approach me and ask for help. Could it be possible for me to help him find a way to step up,ramp up and become a World Champion someday? He knew he had it in him. And so did I. And I was flattered, so I took a crack at it. Got a resume put together, photos. Including the ones of him rescuing the passengers of an airline that had careened off the runway earlier that year in Bali and split into two on his homeground reef. Ben was on the beach at the time. It's a good three quarters of a kilometre out onto the reef and Ben was first on the scene. And to hear other people tell it, he was calm then, too. He rescued a half dozen people that day. There was that command again. I failed spectacularly in my attempt around town to get anyone interested in Ben Panagian's stand-up paddle surfing ambitions. This is a traditional surfing town. Stand-up paddlers and body boarders beware. No one was interested. And I went back to a very hopeful Ben and gave him the news, straight up. I can still see it now. Feel it. He did not bow his head. He blinked two or three times, looking me straight in the eye, and then he looked out onto the horizon. The slanting rays of the afternoon sun. The white fringing reefs. And he said to me, and I have it because I was recording our conversation for a future story I might write someday, and he said to me,