Who needs heaven whne you have the Mentawai Islands? Featuring: Finn McGill, Davey Cathels, Reef Heazlewood, Nolan Rapoza, Seb Smart, Matt Meola and Sheldon Simkus.
Like most trips to the Mentawai Islands ours begins in Padang with a journey from the airport to the marina. At a glance the city serves as an unlikely gateway to surfing’s Nirvana. As you pass the open drains, the scattered rubbish and the fetid water, it’s impossible to miss the giant red lettering on the headland, which reads ‘Padang’. If the urban infrastructure is not exactly first rate then certainly no money has been spared on the gargantuan sign. While we move through honking traffic, where pimped out, audio-thumping mini-vans are the most prized vehicles for locals, world Junior champion, Finn McGill, and aerial savant, Matt Meola, keep us entertained with Hawaiian hunting stories. Finn explains that when he shot his first feral pig with a crossbow, on the North Shore, his hunting partner forced him to drink the blood of the slayed boar as a kind of initiation. Matt’s story is equally as hard to swallow, but has a much more Disney ending. When he and a friend shot a wild deer (also feral pests, which Matt eats) they didn’t realise it was pregnant. Sensing that perhaps the unborn bambi was still alive they performed an impromptu Cesarean, cutting the fawn from the womb with a hunting knife. Over six months later Matt is still the proud owner of a pet, baby deer.
We continue along a narrow vein of bitumen, which winds past the deep green waters of the harbour. The road is flanked by streetstalls selling foods both strange and familiar. Slightly higher up on the steep escarpment a confusion of makeshift corrugated-iron shacks fights a never-ending battle with the Sumatran jungle, which threatens to wrap everything in a tangle of limbs and green. “This place is pretty cool,” comments English surfer Seb Smart, preferring to see Third World charm rather than urban squalor. Before long we are high-fiving a smiling Sumatran kid who lives in the boat-house that is our departure point; then nodding to a jaded looking soul who mans the jetty where a small boat waits to take us to the Mangalui – the storied yacht which will serve as our floating home for the next 10 days. As the Mango’ motors out of port the comfortable ritual begins, cold Bintangs are handed around and a tasty entree laid out on the back deck by a diligent Indonesian hand. The mood is boisterous and full of anticipation, but as thoughts naturally bend towards the waves and good times ahead it’s hard to suppress a twinge of guilt about the chaotic, urban scene we leave behind in pursuit of surfing pleasures. Climbing on deck the following morning, after the overnight crossing to the islands, it is as if everything is turned about and you have somehow woken into a dream. The Mangalui skims across a brilliant carpet of blue and the nearby island is shrouded in wisps of early morning fog. Urban mayhem has rapidly been replaced by tropical mystique. As flying fish breach the surface and spear through the air for impossible distances it’s hard to guess at their game, are they just having fun or on the run from less acrobatic prey? Before long we are rounding a bay, eying off a long lefthander that spools down the line unridden, instantly turning seven young surfers into hooting kids. Reef Heazlewood, Finn McGill, Davey Cathels, Nolan Rapoza, and Sheldon Simkus have been on the WQS grind. They’re fresh from a stint in Japan, surfing tiny waves for a crucial contest, in which none claimed results worth celebrating. “We haven’t seen a wave over two feet for over a month,” laments Davey Cathels, instantly taking the gloss off the pro surfing dream. Australian WQS bolter, Reef Heazlewood, is soon below deck moving through a stringent strength and stretching routine. The oversize earphones are plastered to his head as he switches on the core and works on anything that’s tight from flying. Courtesy of a couple of good results early in the year, the 18-year-old is sitting within striking distance of the ultimate goal – a spot on the WCT. For now however Reef’s attention is attuned to getting the shot and nailing the clip, ensuring his sponsors have more to be happy about than mere results. Delivering a sartorial stroke to the whole physical prep’ he dons an unbuttoned, floralprinted tee and is the first surfer in the water, immediately urging the filmer and photographer to capture his well-rehearsed act. As Reef hits the lineup some of the others are still in surf-movie-psyche-up mode. Pro surfers view surf films and clips differently – almost like contestants in a TV talent show who watch their competitors perform, before they themselves go on stage. Like them, the surfers are well aware that it’s their role to better whatever they’ve just witnessed on screen. When Jack McCoy’s Blue Horizon flicks on, the boys are still in awe of Andy Irons’ raw,
surfing charisma. However, one of them is unapologetically harsh when it comes to surmising Rasta’s craft. “I feel like this guy rips but he just rides really shit boards.” Out in the lineup Reef Heazlewood is soon double dragging his arms and billowing, open-shirt into a dreamy, lime cave. As Reef wrestles with the foam ball, Narrabeen’s Davey Cathels paddles over the shoulder and screams “tube pig” at the top of his lungs. Cathels, a former CT surfer with his heart set on a return to surfing’s top flight, has a strong sense of his identity. The plucky natural footer with a crisp attack grew up in Narrabeen – perhaps Australia’s most competitive beach – where every surf is like a heat and every encounter on land is a battle of wit and banter. Between waves Davey proudly indicates that one of his descendants was a convict on the First Fleet. “Sent to Australia for stealing bread,” he explains. “I’ve seen the ledger where it’s written,” he boasts. It’s a fitting personal history as Davey is the embodiment of a particular type of Australian Pro surfer – ruthlessly competitive, larrikin in spirit and a firm believer in the virtues of belting the lip. Save a brief cameo from a gung-ho, pigdogging mal rider, the lineup is our exclusive playground for the day. Courtesy of a welcome medley of rippable walls, barrels and air sections, it’s not long before our merry band starts to push the envelope. Reef Heazelwood launches a giant straight air that makes his floral shirt flap like a super-hero cape and sends everyone just a little quiet with awe. Meanwhile Matt Meola and Seb Smart engage in a relentless duel to complete the first rodeo flip. As the light fades the crew are sitting in the water facing directly west, watching the Sumatran sun bleed every colour in the candy store and delivering perfect closure to a day that has rapidly expunged the memory of lost heats, language battles and long flights, for the seven young surfers.
FISHING FOR LIKES
Over breakfast, 20 year-old Nolan Rapoza sits on the back deck of the Mangalui offering enlightenment about the digital expectations placed upon modern pros. “If you haven’t go a K (1000) followers, sponsors aren’t even looking at you,” insists Nolan. These days surf brands urge their sponsored team riders to keep the Insta posts flowing and when it comes time to discuss your contract the number of followers you boast on Insta can be as important as the last contest result or the quality of your front-side carve. “If I haven’t posted something on Instagram in a week my parents get so mad at me,” laments Nolan. “Then you’re up against those guys who have their Instagram posts all pre-written and scheduled in advance,” he continues, with a wince. Obviously some surfers are much slicker exponents of self-marketing in an era when the phone is God.
Nolan is a flashy goofy-footer from Orange County (O.C), California who has a tightcropped ‘fro, wears his socks high; travels with a deluxe box of candy and comes off as more all-American than re-runs of Happy Days. In fact his life sounds a little more like a string of episodes from the early 2000s series, The O.C. . Nolan lets slip that courtesy of his O.C upbringing he has hooked up with both Miley Cyrus’s sister, Noah, and Chris Ward’s daughter, Malia. However, while he may be the perfect inspiration for a surfing soap opera, he’s a little naive when it comes to geography and the other surfers soon sense an opportunity to pull off a grand scale practical joke. Led by chief larrikin, Davey Cathels, the boys convince Nolan that the Mentawai region is in fact home to the notorious candiru, a small fish which supposedly swims up the eye of your penis and lodges itself there with spines when you are urinating in the water. The candiru species is in fact found in the Amazon, but Nolan heard nothing of this while he was busy hooking up with Noah Cyrus back in the O.C . Needless to say Nolan takes the bait and swears himself off pissing in the water for the entire trip. It’s a decision, which ultimately results in several, mid-surf time-outs for Nolan and muffled hilarity for everyone else as they try to keep the joke going. Social media strategies and contrived stories about the evil candiru fish are soon abandoned in favour of a surf. We are now in the Playgrounds, a region of the Mentawai that is home to a cache of waves that range from terrifying to almost cuddly. Today a lack of swell means we are surfing one of the latter, the aptly named Pussy’s. Up until this point we have surfed alone but today we are most definitely not the only crew gravitating towards the friendly, swell magnet. Out in the water a strange kind of country-club vibe prevails as back-slapping Californians enthusiastically call each other into the mellow rights, before paddling back out and loudly replaying every facet of their last ride. Above the hubbub of the lineup a majestic eagle arcs graceful turns; forced to share the airways with a buzzing drone that has been commissioned to capture the antics of the Californians, who have made the trip over via speedboat from the nearby Kandui camp.
For our band of pro rippers the scene rapidly becomes just a little too cosy and the waves are not worth the hassle. The crowd is friendly enough and enjoy witnessing the world class surfing first-hand, but the pros know that if they really unleash they will come off like pirates, stealing cheap treasures from easy victims, and thus the session is soon abandoned.
CACKLING HYENAS AND FLYING MEERKATS
As we are en route to HTs, that fabled right that has come to serve as perhaps the ultimate photographic symbol of the Mentawai region, debate turns to the quality of the WSL coverage of surfing. It’s always intriguing to hear what pro surfers have to say about the WSL. Anyone can be an anonymous online heckler, but the guys on this trip are well aware that it soon could be them surfing in front of tens of thousands of webcast viewers. Pete and Ronnie will be dissecting their rides, Strider shouting at them from the channel and Rosy rendering them dumbstruck as she bats her eyelids and dangles a microphone before them. Davey Cathels confidently indicates he’d like to make his presence felt on the webcast. “I’d love to give it a go,” insists the self-assured Australian. “It’s just too American now.” The American surfers on board don’t take offence to Davey’s criticisms, but they do weigh in on the WSL debate. While the crew acknowledge the WSL are doing a good job, they long to see the vanilla wrapping taken off the contest coverage and replaced with something a little grittier. To boldly make the WSL a platform where the rivalries on tour are amplified and the rides appraised more critically. And in place of commentators under pressure to project infinite positivity, they’d rather have the talking heads given license to call it the way they really see it. WSL debates are fast forgotten as the boat anchors in the channel opposite HT’s. It’s not pumping but even on an average day it is a spectacle to behold. The HT’s reef has a way of grabbing any lump of swell and sculpting it into an achingly enticing horseshoe bend. Amidst the rippable walls, which are wrapping in to the hallowed reef, there are dreamy little barrels that chuck wider and higher than
seems possible for a three-foot wave. Cathels is straight out there, cracking lips and carving turns in a flurry; sensing the window of fun might be short-lived as the tide drains out. Sheldon Simkus follows him soon after. “If that was at home I’d be frothing,” suggests the polished, Gold Coast natural footer, putting the moment in perspective. Simkus has plenty of history at HT’s. Back in 2015 he got dragged across the reef here and came up looking like he’d been slow dancing with Freddy Kruger. With his back a painful collage of weeping, claw marks he could only surf for short periods of time during the trip. Despite the tropical gouges in his back, Sheldon extended his stay and ultimately scored one of the waves of the season at HT’s. “Next to home this is probably my favourite wave in the world,” he assures me. Although only 20, Sheldon has become something of an Indo specialist, dialling in multiple Mentawai sojourns over the last few years and storing as much valuable info about the region and waves as possible. On this trip he is dubbed Captain Simkus because of his tendency to offer his opinion on changing conditions while quizzing the boat’s actual skipper, Albe, about the weather requirements for various breaks. Back home on the Tweed/Gold Coast Sheldon suggests he feels the pressure of expectation. With Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson now officially retired, Sheldon is well aware that many are looking to him to preserve the proud tradition of surfers from the Gold Coast/Tweed Coast making a big impact on the WCT. It’s not an easy burden to shoulder for a young man thrust upon a WQS tour where Australia’s supremacy is under threat from a host of nations. For a time, the lineup is a windless version of glassy and the three-foot coils keep rolling in with sufficient consistency to keep our crew, and the few who join us, more than content. However, it is not long before the lineup is raided by a platoon of frenetic local grommets. Waves dismissed as too small by the pack are
now being slashed and shredded by the posse of spindly-limbed kids. Their motley equipment seems to be mostly comprised of salvaged boards from travelling surfers, but what the local kids lack in the way of refined craft they more than make up for with raw enthusiasm; attacking the lip recklessly over the perilously shallow inside reef. “Those kids are gnarly,” announces Nolan with a smile. “They are launching airs on dry reef.” A couple of the locals have developed more sophisticated styles and have obviously benefited from witnessing the world’s best surfers make their regular HT’s stop-overs. One natural footer in particular is linking clean carves with slickly executed front-side reverses and surfing well enough to be a threat in a WQS heat. The younger kids have an acute sense of schadenfreude – they get a real kick out of seeing a friend or less competent surfer wipeout on the shallow reef. “They’re like a little pack of hyenas,” comments Matt Meola in a way that makes them sound endearing. The surf is like one big game to them and it seems everything that transpires in their lineup is open for comment. Sensing he has been cast as the entertainer for the kids, Matt Meola, stroke his meerkat frame into a wide wedge and hucks a rodeo spin. From behind I see him cork-screwing beyond the lip, like a diver who has made his leap and taken the diving board with him. The squeals of laughter from the HT’s grommets confirm the landing and Matt is
automatically granted a god-like status. The moment makes it apparent that surfing is a kind of transferable, physical language. The grommets don’t understand a word of what Matt says, but they will be busy trying to replicate his rodeo for months. Matt’s mildly happy with the Rodeo completion, but knows he needs to go much bigger to secure the kind of you-tube clicks that keep his sponsors happy. His viability as a freesurfer hinges on pulling off and documenting at least a few, huge moves a year. Matt tells me he always thought airs were cool as a kid but that his dad wasn’t always so keen on his above the lip tendencies. “When I was I kid my dad would film me surfing and say, ‘What are you trying that stuff for? You’re never going to land anything’.” However, while Matt’s dad was a naysayer, his Mum was a former gymnast, and from a young age she taught Matt the joy of spring. Thanks to Mum he’d bust out back-flips and handsprings for fun and soon realised his body could double as a flying machine in the surf. Then there was that other factor – wind. Where Matt comes from on Maui, wind is the only constant. Sure Honolua Bay gets big, bowly and perfect and Jaws breaks sporadically, but most of the time on Maui you’re hauling ass into a howling cross/ onshore. The best way to have fun in those kinds of conditions is to go on the punt. So alongside sparring partner, Albee Layer, Matt became one of the world’s preeminent aerial surfers. Now wherever he goes, whether it be the Maldives or the Mentawais, his mission is clearly defined – fly high, spin boldly, manufacture a landing, and avoid getting hurt on the way down. When the tide gets too low we leave the HT’s grommets to run the gauntlet over the shallow reef. As we motor away from the fabled bay we can still hear them cackling with delight, blissfully unaware that their playground is one of the best waves in the world.
LAW OF THE JUNGLE
The boys have been watching Game of Thrones on high rotation throughout the trip and the entire Mentawai island chain is beginning to feel like an extension of the ‘Realm’ that is the
setting for the world’s most popular TV series. The addiction to the program is so consuming that at one point a surfer barks to another, “You’re not waxing up down here while Game of Thrones is on are you?” Fortunately the line is delivered with the necessary hint of self-mockery. When the boat pulls up at Greenbush early in the morning it’s as if we really have sailed into one of the mythical settings from the TV series. As its name implies, Greenbush is fringed by an impenetrable wall of forest, which spills into water that borrows its colour from the dense jungle it reflects. As we wait for the wave to show its teeth, a low mist snakes through the jungle and a 100 indecipherable noises echo forth. “It really does have a magical quality doesn’t it,” offers Seb Smart in his rich, Cornish brogue, which seems perfectly suited to a Game of Thrones cameo as a wandering knight or sell-sword. After staring at the enchanting lineup for a time, we watch a crinkle of swell jack up like a jade pyramid, before it morphs into one of the Mentawai’s most challenging and prized tubes. The first tube is generally makeable but the real gauntlet run at Greenbush involves threading the second section as it bends around the reef, often pinching slightly before it throws wide open again. On a slow morning there’s just enough to go around for our crew. I watch them race through the first barrel, before hurling valiantly into the second section; often getting bucked off violently like knights caught with the full force of a jousting pole. Still, there are a few precious moments and as the heavy mist slowly lifts from the jungle and rays of morning light dart through the thick foliage the wave becomes more illuminated and photogenic. Just as the crew are starting to decipher the trapdoor tubes, two powerfully built Hawaiians from the Big Island show up and make their presence felt in the lineup. Perhaps sensing that they can’t win a battle of skill against seven young pros, they default to tough-guy mind games. One of them is particularly well built and covered in
heavy tattoos, which seem custom-designed to intimidate. He paddles straight to the inside and claims the next wave that comes through. Returning to the lineup he adopts just the right amount of faux friendliness as he makes a big deal of thanking them for the ride; trying to imply they had given it to him – as opposed to him nabbing it with a mixture of muscle and cunning. The tattooed surfer then looks around at the stickers on all the boards and announces loudly, “All, pro surfers huh? Well, we’re both self made!” The statement is made with enough self-righteousness to let the boys know this guy has a firm sense of entitlement to whatever waves come through. For the final act in his tough guy performance he namedrops a couple of super-heavy Hawaiian guys that are instantly recognisable to young Hawaiian, Finn McGill. No violence is threatened, but enough menace is implied to kill the vibe and it’s not long before our crew scramble aboard, regaling us with details of the simmering confrontation. The incident reaffirms that out here waves are the most valuable commodity and at times the law of the jungle still decides who gets to ride them. At least Nolan looks a little relieved, his fear of the candiru fish is still very real, and now he can happily take a leak off the back of the boat.
The world is bound by grey on all sides; there’s not even a nick of blue sky to be seen in the tropics as the rain peppers our faces so hard it hurts. We are now in the southern extremities of the Mentawai realm, flapping around at a spot with a reputation for thick, bone-splintering barrels which, despite the promise of swell, is currently a limp, three-foot crumble. Only the skipper, Albe, the filmer John, and myself are in the water. The boys are below deck on the Mangalui, sheltering from the weather and continuing the Game of Thrones odyssey. In the lineup Captain Albe is trying to be optimistic. “If the sun was out, they’d be doing massive airs out here,” but after he says this, the rain just gets heavier and the clouds thicker and he paddles in forlornly. I stay out a little longer with John the filmer, sharing messy wedges and watching the low clouds drift by in a collage of different shapes.
Just as I get ready to head in, anticipating a long day below deck in front of the screen with John Snow and Daenerys Queen of Dragons, the wind flickers in the opposite direction and the clouds begin to scatter like fluffy mice pursued by spears of sunlight. Suddenly the wave begins to take on a form befitting its heavy reputation; the shifty onshore wedges are morphing into boomerang coils, which rear up on a newly defined point and chuck thicklipped barrels. Sensing the fortuitous shift in circumstances, Davey Cathels is the first to manifest in the lineup. Shortly after he arrives on the take-off zone a bigger set swings down the reef and catapults him into a curling, tunnel of blue. He kicks off the back of the wave, shakes his mischievous-looking head in disbelief and says out loud, “It’s kind of pumping out here.” It doesn’t take long for the rest of the crew to establish that the white out squalls have been replaced with blue skies and throaty tubes. As they file out into the lineup it seems like the swell grows with every set. Soon the Foxy – the speedboat/camera boat – is positioned in the skinniest of channels, between the end of the right and a hissing left slab. As the filmer and photographer train their lenses on the enthralling action, Albe works overtime at the wheel of the Foxy; dodging sets, fading left and right like some kind of giant motorised cattle dog, to deliver the lensmen the best possible angle. And so it is, instead of Game of Thrones below deck, it’s Lock Stock and Smoking Barrels for real. Soon I’m watching Sheldon Simkus slip into a rapturous funnel and by the time he
backdoors the second barrel he is standing bolt upright beneath a brilliant hood of blue. “I think I just shot the cover,” blurts out Simon Williams. It won’t be the last time he makes the claim today. The frenetic, tube shoot-out is eventually interrupted by the arrival of another vessel. As it happens it is the same boat that we had moored alongside further north, at Thunders. The same crew hosting several of Davey Cathel’s Northern Beaches friends. The same vessel we had ambushed with eggs while they celebrated NSW’s first win in the State of Origin. Led by cannon-armed chef, Situ, who was happy to use up his full arsenal of eggs, we had turned their upper deck into a rotten smelling, yellowy mess. As revenge they’d crept on board our boat at night and drowned several surfboards in vegetable oil; an act which renders craft more or less unrideable no matter what you do. As we meet again at the prodigious right, which is conjuring up cover shots and gaping barrels, one wonders if there will be war on the high seas? Fortunately the nocturnal shenanigans are taken in good spirit and a truce is brokered. We decide to let them have the wave for the lunch/afternoon shift, providing we can enjoy it exclusively for the late. Not long after terms are agreed upon, one of their surfers grabs a rail on his backhand and hucks under the lip of the most glorious wave of the day. In front of seven, world-class surfers and a film crew he disappears beneath a heaving fold of blue and shoots out the end of the twisting vortex. As our embargoed crew are huddled on the Foxy he paddles past and promptly announces it as the best wave of his life. The boys return to the Mangalui where chef Situ has prepared a delicious green-currychicken. The colours of the dish leap from the bowl, almost as dazzling as those refracting through the lips of the barrels just ridden. As lunch is served Situ quietly explains that he asked the gods to look favourably upon us
Main: Reef Heazlewood hunting up-drafts amidst the swaying palms. Inset: Reef in profile with a Clint Eastwood gleam in his eye.
Below: Nolan Rapoza burying a rail on a tropical slope. Opposite: Matt Meola ditches the fins and dips his wings.
Main: Davey Cathels knifing a textbook carve on a blue-butter wall. Top: Seb Smart enjoying a different view of The Ments. Inset: The author poaching one from the HT’s grommets.
Sheldon Simkus losing the tail on a tight HT’s corner.
Opposite: Seb Smart wrestling with a heavy-weight opponent. Top: Nolan Rapoza buried on his backside: Inset: Golden hour.
Main: Finn McGill taking a casual look under the hood of a V8 slab.