BENEATH SUMATRA SKIES
MATT CRUDEN'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH INDONESIA HAS ALMOST KILLED HIM A COUPLE OF TIMES, BUT HE'S NEVER LET GO
In the early to mid 90s I was lucky enough to score a job as the captain of a surf charter boat in a nascent surfing region called the Mentawai islands. The boat was owned by Dave and Jan Hallet and it was linked to the Surf Travel Co, which was run, in those days, by the intrepid surfer, Paul King. This was a new area, when the Mentawai were still only a whispered Nirvana amongst a select few. Many of the waves were still undiscovered and there were only a few dedicated surf charters in the archipelago, and a couple of those were around for just part of the season. It was an amazing time of discovery where everyone was tight lipped about the waves, nobody dared tell anyone else what they had found, let alone where. I was skippering the Katika at the time and we had a GPS with a cover on it, so no guests could know the location of where we were surfing. It was all top secret, mystery and adventure. The early boat operators were not under the illusion that they were the first surfers in the region of course. Our imaginations were fuelled by stories circulated about the hardcore overland travellers in the 80s and early 90s who had marched through the jungles and camped out looking for waves. I was lucky enough to meet a few of them years later while sailing the islands. For our guests back then it was undeniably like going to the remotest corner of the earth for two weeks at a time. This was an era pre-dating mobile phones and internet so there was no contact whatsoever to the outside world; it was just us, the mysterious junglecovered islands and what seemed like an infinite number of set ups
to explore. We were on our own until we arrived back into port a few weeks later. Obviously there were no readily accessible website surf forecasts either (which make us all forecasting geniuses these days). Instead we’d listen to the HF (SSB) radio and draw our own Indian Ocean synoptic image based on the info we could glean from the reports. If you were really lucky you had a weather fax connected to the radio. Essentially it was a rough science that involved eye-balling the weather and waves right in front of you, cross-referencing it with whatever weather Intel’ you could get and then making a calculated guess about a four day pattern. For example, we’d surf Thunders when it was small and when it got to around 4-5 foot we’d drive out to sea and look at exactly what direction the swell was coming from using our ships compass and then make the call where we’d sail to from there. In those days there wasn’t much point going any further than Macaroni’s or Lance’s Right, which are now considered two of the best waves in the world. I loved Macaroni’s in particular and in those early days I often spent at least four days a week surfing it, usually with just our boat there. When another boat showed up we were stoked, as it meant we had someone to surf alongside and share beer and banter with that night. It wasn’t the kind of opulence at sea offered on boats these days. Most of the time all the guests slept on deck as we didn’t run generators and hence there was no air conditioning. If we had engine problems, we always seemed to manage by reverting to good old-fashioned sailing to get us around. I soon fell in love with Sumatra and the Mentawais and what I was doing. I knew during that first full season, without a shred of doubt that this was my calling; that I had found my niche and my passion. I focused on being the best I could at what I was doing because I was resolutely here to stay. Determined to have the courage of my convictions, at the end of the first surfing season, I went straight across to Sulewesi to order some timber for a boat build in the coming years. It had to be dried out before it was suitable for use, but that bought me some time to learn as much as I could about the island chain that had become my life’s purpose. The rapid growth of surf adventure tourism meant the dream to get behind the helm of my own boat was realised earlier than I could of hoped for. With my knowledge of the Mentawai in demand, I partnered up with a mate from Australia, Greg Spindler,
and together we built the Mangalui Ndulu in the mid 90s. Twenty-five years ago the motivation to build the Mangalui for two, young Ozzie guys was definitely not about business, it was a venture designed to put us behind the wheel of our own boat, so that we could go surfing and enjoy as many tubes as possible – nothing more, nothing less. The way we figured the only thing we had to do to fulfil this dream was to take eight other surfers along with us to pay for the journey. For many years every single cent went back into our beloved Mangalui, in order to get it to the standard it’s at today. The boat build was an amazing adventure in and of itself. We travelled all the way from Sumatra across to Sulewesi. This is the Spice Islands as it was known in the early 17th century when the Dutch East Indies Trading Company (one of the first public shipping companies formed in the world) sent trading vessels there to claim the monopoly on nutmeg and other spices. At the time, the Dutch were so obsessed with securing a tiny island named ‘Run’ that they eventually gave Manhattan Island, which of course became New York, to the British in exchange for the small, nutmeg producing island in Indonesia. This is also where the real sailors of Indonesia are based, the Orang Makkasar and Bugis (people). I love the history of this shipbuilding region, where the unique skills are passed down through the generations – no building plans for the hull are required and traditionally no electric power tools are used. Over time the region became a crucial stopover for tall sailing ships and adventurers like Captain Bligh who would head south to the lower latitudes, then set a course east, running with the roaring forties until a calculated longitude was reached, before heading northward again toward Batavia (Jakarta) and then onto the Spice Islands to fill the empty hulls with cargo. To this day, this area of Sulewesi is the only place in the world where they are still building genuine cargo sailing ships (with no engines). Based on the traditional boats of centuries past they are still used to sell produce and ferry cargo back and forth on the North/South track across the Java Sea between Kalimantan, Sulewesi and Java. Greg and I spent a full year on the boatbuilding project, most of it in the jungles of remote Sulewesi, with some time dedicated to sourcing materials from the larger cities of Jakarta and Ujung Pandang. For the Mangalui, we elected to go with the traditional, beautiful shape of the bugis hull, however we added a few western touches such as a flatter deck, round canoe stern and also the larger ballasted keel. These hulls are designed to be carrying cargo. Although we are only carrying eight surfers, their boards and a bunch of Bintangs, we need to add a bit of ballast to deliver that same smooth ride that the fully laden, cargo sailing ships have. Our keel was made of four huge pieces of the number one grade timber available and we used big, homemade copper bolts to hold them together. We also chiselled out the timber blocks for the keel and filled them with lead, which we melted down on site with a fire and huge wok; employing the same method they would have used in the West centuries before. This was all good in theory, our larger keel was going to make the Mangalui a beautiful sailing ship, but the only thing we didn’t
really take into account was the launching procedure. The fun really began when it was time for launching her on the big spring tide, about a year after work had begun. Traditionally these sailing cargo ships are made with just one large piece of iron-wood along the bottom as the keel. To launch they simply slide the boat into the water, await the bigger tides to get the boat across the fringing ribbon of reef along the front of the beach, and into deeper water. For the Mangalui we used the same traditional technique with the side stilts (three uprights bolted to the hull each side with feet bolted to those), so the boat couldn’t fall over, and our big keel in the middle. However, when got her down to the water and found that it wasn’t floating her as the hull or the belly of the ship wasn’t in the water enough as the keel was too high. We nudged our way out across the reef around a metre per day. When the tide was high we had constant pressure toward the sea with a line secured from the bow out to sea around a bomby and back to a coconut tree, with an endless chain (block and tackle) and a team of guys pulling. We also had about 50 empty 200 litre drums and bamboo strapped under the belly of the boat for extra flotation and the main engine revving with the prop turning as well. We made two extra legs, bolted to each side of the bow that were angling forward. We would use block and tackle on these with divers on the front legs to lift the hull and then as it lifted the whole ship would lurch forward around 1/2 meter or so. We could only work on the high tide and then we’d prepare during the low tides. This went on for almost two months, working every high tide (day and night) with about 12-15 men as we literally crawled the vessel across the reef. Slow and steady as we go, these guys are masters of moving big heavy things without machinery – using block and tackle, coconut trees and the mind. I’ll never forget the day she floated, off that reef, away from all those bloody sea urchins. Yeehaaa she was afloat. One of the defining moments of my life. We were so stoked and eager to go that when we sailed off toward Sumatra it was actually our test run for the engine. We
figured we could sail if we had problems with engine, which of course, we did, but that’s another story. Weeks later we made it to Padang after our first great adventure on the Mangalui. Greg and I ran the boat together for the next five or six years. Each of us brought different skill sets to the table and between us we kept her afloat during those difficult earlier times. Despite the challenges, in many ways these were the wonder years because we had so much of fun, rode more tubes than most pro surfers, played host to many stoked guests and had good times all round. The Mentawai fleet included only a handful of charter boats like The Indies Trader 1 and Electric Lamb, along with the odd fishing boat with surfers on board. Moose from NZ spent around six months a year out there from the early 90s on a fishing boat out of Teluk Dalam and Nias with other adventurers like his brother Jonathon and Kylie and Todd Roesler. The Ment’s belonged to those who had taken a step away from a more traditional life trajectory. If you had the time and inclination, the waves were there to plunder. Danny Madrey and his friends had been surfing the place for a few months a year before I rocked up and they were actually responsible for naming a few of the legendary spots in the southern half of the chain, like Thunders, Rags, Macaroni’s, Bengkok’s and others. Martin Daly christened most of the other breaks in the Ment’s, but we named a few along the course of our adventures, which have stuck. This of course is a great legacy for the guys that were on those trips and were the first to ride particular spots. The boat captains were mainly Australian in this era and what a colourful bunch of characters they were. We were all great mates and shared a genuine sense of nautical camaraderie, even if we still didn’t divulge our best kept secrets about where the waves were. I am sure each one of these guys could write a book full of
great stories about some of the escapades that went down around that time – night skiing in crocodile infested waters after 20 bintangs, tying boats together at night for wild parties and running amok at nightclubs around Padang. These guys are all legends and pioneers in their own right. Around the turn of the century things really started changing in the world. We had the Asian monetary crises in ‘98, which really affected Indonesia terribly and then of course September 11, shortly followed by the Bali bombing, SARS, bird flu and then the bloody swine flu to top it off. The series of disasters hampered the tourism industry and put a handbrake on world travel in general. The Mentawai, and Indonesia at large, was a very interesting part of the world to be living in at the time, and yes sometimes we did score some very good, uncrowded waves as a result. But all these things were nothing compared to what the next decade had in store for us in this volatile part of the planet. The encounters with Danny Madrey’s mates on board the fishing boat in the earlier days ultimately proved to be crucial, as most of them had lived and worked in Jakarta for many years as geologists and seismologists. They taught me quite a bit about the Mentawai area and its susceptibility to earthquakes and tsunamis, and the fact we were long overdue for a shift in the tectonic plates. I knew enough to figure we shouldn’t be anchoring in the shallower bays at night, in case there was a quake and tsunami. Of course we got slack occasionally, until Mother Nature really did send a message about how mean she can be. The occasional Padang earthquake we had learned to live with escalated dramatically at the end of 2004, transforming the southeast Asian region into disasterville. When the major earthquake hit the northern top of Sumatra in 2004 it generated the infamous Boxing Day tsunami. My wife and I were in Thailand, where we had decided to sail the Mango for her annual docking. We felt the quake in Phuket ever so slightly. It was a long quake and so we sensed it had made a serious impact somewhere. Not thinking too much more about it however, we decided to go to the beach for breakfast. It was, after all, Boxing Day, so we headed to Patong Beach. Jen was seven months pregnant with
our second child and went straight to the restaurant, while I went for a quick jog and swim. Luckily I arrived at the restaurant about 20 minutes later, just as the mayhem started. There was yelling and screaming in the Thai language and people running everywhere in a complete panic. The water must have literally started draining out from the beach as I left it and walked across the road to the restaurant. Recalling the earlier rumbling, it clicked for me right away that it was a tsunami without even looking at the ocean. I told Jen to run and grabbed our one- year old girl, Elke, under my arm. Jen thought it was a terrorist attack as there was lots of commotion and confusion, and initially she ran the wrong way, separating us for a short period of time. We sprinted away from the ocean and managed to climb a set of stairs just as the first wave rushed in behind us. I’d say there would have been some people on the beach that I’d passed while jogging and also some people in that restaurant that didn’t make it that day for sure. We sat up on the 1st floor of a hotel, scared as hell. There was a bunch of us and some of the other people were hysterical – to me the most traumatic part of the experience was being a part of this mass-hysteria, stuck in this crowd of people and feeling helpless, hoping desperately there wasn’t going to be a wall of whitewash coming up the alley with the next, bigger wave. Then the following year was by far the most active year of earthquakes I had ever experienced, like almost every day things were shaking as part of the whole aftershock event. This included the quake in March 2005, which pretty much dropped the whole city of Gunungsitoli and raised all the reefs from the North West Telos, through Nias, The Banyaks and right up to Simuellue. I was actually in Oz in Feb/March for the birth of our second girl, Indi, named after the Indian Ocean that was hit by the tsunami while she was in mum’s tummy. Doctor Dave and the guys at Surf Aid needed some help with aid work along the west coast of Nias after the March 2005 quake. A lot of the bridges had collapsed and so there were quite a few villages that had been isolated with no food or medical help. A few of us skippers helped out, making some cargo runs along the west coast via sea with tonnes of rice sacks and other basics. With the support of the Mentawai charter fleet, which was pretty much first in situ every time to evaluate, I think SurfAid really kicked arse in these disasters. All the other larger NGO groups could then come in and execute their plans based on the SurfAid reports and updates.
During the March 2005 movement the whole ocean floor was raised about two metres, so obviously it pretty much changed everything in respect to waves and coastline. The guys on Asu thought it was another tsunami as the water was sucking out ready for the wave, but it was the opposite, the reef rose this time. As boat captains we really had to pay attention to the charts. Some of those reefs that we used to sail right over, now had waves on them at low tide. And so in some ways it was like re-discovering the whole region again. As far as waves go, there were a few monumental losses. Bawah still breaks but nowhere near as good. However we also gained a few waves as well. What we learnt is that with the waves becoming shallower, it generally made them a little more susceptible to variations in swell direction. While we were delivering supplies along the coast of Nias we saw a few new waves on some reefs that never existed before, we were like … ‘What!! Did you see that?’ Things did settle down for a while but we had a few more after-shocks in the following years. When the Padang earthquake hit in September 2009, I was right in the middle of it, visiting one of my friends in the Chinatown area of the city. This area is essentially reclaimed land and so the quake (epicentre Pariaman – not far from Padang) really tore through it. Most buildings fell or were damaged in some way. The quake shook up and down as opposed to the usual sideways motion. Cars were bouncing on the streets. Everything went crazy and everyone was thinking ‘tsunami’ (after the 2004 episode) and so the roads were gridlocked with carloads of people desperate to get out of town. My wife, Jen, had flown out that morning (with our youngest addition, Mika) to attend her school reunion, while our other three other kids were up the hill at our place with Ibu Mar. After the tsunami scare years earlier, we moved house from Padang beachside up to the safety of the hills behind Padang, around 10-12km from town. With the cars gridlocked, I had no choice but to leave my vehicle where it was and jog home, up the hill in my thongs, bypassing houses that had been reduced to rubble, the whole time praying that our home was still standing and my kids were ok. Not knowing where the epicentre was and how strong the quake was at that particular moment is the difficult thing. We were all familiar with the relevant calculations. If the quake was off shore in the Mentawai (anywhere from say 80-120 nautical miles
offshore) and the tsunami travels at 400 knots, then we’d have around 12-15 min to get out of tsunami territory in Padang town. The quake was a nightmare but fortunately this time there was no tsunami to deal with as the epicentre wasn’t offshore. The following year we had another quake in the southwest Mentawai island area on October 2010. This one formed a tsunami that fired into Maccas bay and due to the bathometry of the bay, it sort of magnified the waves. Unfortunately, there were a few boats anchored in the bay with guests onboard the MV Midas and Freedom. Can’t imagine the experience the boys had that night. The boats apparently collided and one of the vessels caught fire. Luckily, all the guests from both boats and the Maccas resort survived. In true Sumatran form, Mother Nature quickly followed this up with a gnarly low pressure system that just sat off the coast of the South Ments for a week or so, sending in 40-45 knots of onshore breeze which hampered the efforts of SurfAid and the Mentawai charter fleet as they surveyed the coastal villages for damage afterwards. Even with all the volatility of Sumatra, there were still times where I felt like one of the luckiest humans in the world. What more could a fella want than to come in from surfing some of the most perfect barrels on the planet and to have your wife and kids on the boat with you – unbelievable! There was absolutely nowhere else that I wanted to be but here, this was me, I’m in heaven, I’m going nowhere. I enjoyed the best of all worlds. Surfers on holidays possess that spirit of adventure and positivity that makes them great to be around. They’re surfing blue ribbon waves, enjoying chef-prepared food, drinking cold bintangs, exploring new regions and sharing
good times. However, while I enjoyed the camaraderie and the banter of boat life, to have my wife and kids with me out in the islands, full season after season, was special. There are not many ladies that can or want to do that. I was blessed. That said; one of the big crossroads for us occurred when our tribe of kids started outgrowing the surf charter lifestyle. At that stage, we had our third child Kurty and all five of us were living in that small, aft cabin on the Mangalui. Mind you, we loved it and always have been a tight family – we still to this day often sleep in one room of our house. The clincher was when we started hearing our guests all singing Wiggles songs, like ‘Wake up Jeff’ while out in the line-up. Many were on long awaited ‘boys’ surf trips and the last thing they wanted was to be tripping over kids and toys, and hearing the Wiggles on high rotation. We finally decided that it was too much to ask of our guests to share their trip with the captain’s brood. Jen and I had often dreamed of continuing this way of life by being involved with a resort or a surf camp. Surf tourism was still a relatively new industry and we were pioneers in this part of the world so it seemed like a natural progression. Then after contemplating the possibilities we thought ‘bugger it, it’s all too hard – maybe we should just go back to Oz and look for a job. ‘Fair enough’, I thought. Jen had already dedicated over a decade of her life to living in remote Sumatra, meanwhile I’d had a good run and it seemed like time for the change. So that was that and it was finally decided we’d find work in Oz and either manage the Mango from afar or sell her. After we’d made the call to turn our backs on Sumatra what happened to me over the coming months was really mind blowing. I felt a bit down and not really into anything at all. I wasn’t getting too excited about much – even surfing – and I finally realised why. It was the universe telling us to stick to the plan, keep following our passion, keep having fun, keep surfing in Sumatra and continue evolving with this unique industry we had carved out a path in. Ultimately that’s what we did, we changed our minds and went with our hearts and guts – we took the plunge and went to land. We spearheaded this idea with some great partners from both Indonesia and Oz
and together we created ‘Resort Latitude Zero’ in the Telo Islands, just north of the Mentawais. pleasure This has always been a favourite area of mine, one of those awesome zones we never mentioned in the earlier days. When the swell was right we’d sneak out of the Mentawai anchorages in the middle of the night and sail north to avoid being followed. The Telos was actually discovered and surfed way before the Mentawais – most probably in the 70s – due to its close proximity to Nias island, but with all the hype about the Mentawai, it sort of got forgotten in the 90s. Ironically when we built the Mangalui in the mid 90s we named her in the Nias dialect (Mangalui Ndulu is Nias for ‘searching for waves’) because we intended to operate out of North Sumatra, but everyone was hot for the Mentawai. Our motive for operating in the north was to avoid crowding out our mates who were operating in the Ments. It seems crazy now, but at the time we didn’t want to limit the waves for the other three or four boats, ha! Now there is around 50 boats operating in the Ments. There were a few groups in the early days that sailed with us on the Mangalui every year, normally in the May/June period. These were the kind of guys who were prepared to sacrifice something we knew about for something we might find. Propelled by the spirit of discovery they wanted to go searching when we had a swell, instead of sticking to the safety of the established waves. With these adventurous fellas we found a bunch of waves in the South Siberut area and some especially good ones further north in the Telos. We came across quite a few like Bombers, Monkeys, Depth Chargers, Leba, Misso’s and many more. Undoubtedly we were not the first to surf some of those waves, but it sure was fun finding them independently, seeing them break for the first time and working out their best conditions for swell direction, tides and winds. The Telo Island that we settled on as the perfect site for Resort Latitude Zero was the one that hosted the insane wave we called Depth Chargers (DC’s). For roaming sailors it was the ideal setup, featuring a beautiful sandy beach, a coconut garden and deep-water access to the island. The latter was a rarity in this part of the world as most of the islands have fringing barrier reefs, which make nautical access extremely difficult. DC’s is a slabby, fast right-hander that barrels menacingly across shallow reef. It’s quite demanding and we always used to target it with crews of good younger surfers and pros. It actually explodes out the back of the wave as it hits the reef, like a depth charger bomb going off in the old war days – hence the name.
Matt enjoying the perks of his chosen path. Inset: After 25 years of Mentawai waves, Matt Cruden has plenty of reasons to smile.
Main: The Mangalui parked up in another corner of paradise. Opposite Bottom: Macaroni’s was an early favourite for Matt. With no crowds the vibe was pretty laid back. Opposite Top: Enjoying the high life.
Main: Rasta relishing the spoils of a mission on-board the Mangalui. Insets: The Mangalui has played host to a long list of surfing royalty.
Above Main: Pandemonium in Padang after the 2009 earthquake. Inset: The Cruden’s car after they were caught in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in Thailand.
Opposite Main: Matt with his wife Jen and the Cruden clan (clockwise from bottom right) Indi, Mika, Elke and Kurt.
Tall palms and a crescent of talcum-white sand frame Resort Latitude Zero.
Matt and John surveying DC’s, which bends around the island that plays host to Resort Latitude Zero. . Inset: God’s eye view of Lat’ Zero Island.