Tracks - - Nine -

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,

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