Remembering the joys of dirtbag surf travel
A breath of fresh air is not normally how you’d describe a travelogue filled with so many stories of pant-soiling, but “Second Thoughts,” a 2002 article by D.C. Green based on excerpts from Timmy Turner’s feral Indonesian travel journal, was exactly that. Turner and friends Travis Potter and Brett Schwartz spent an untold number of weeks on an unnamed peninsula in West Java. They found shallow reef-pass surf almost too perfect to be real; they also found madness. It was the sort of dirtbag, uncomfortable and downright dangerous trip that once defined surf travel.
But at the time, it was an outlier – at least in surf media. In the 1990s and 2000s, surfing’s mainstream celebrated luxury Indonesian surf vacations. Workaday surfers maxed out credit cards, took out second mortgages on their homes, sold their cars, worked double-overtime shifts for weeks on end, pilfered their kids’ college funds, and made all sorts of other questionable financial decisions to spring for 10-day boat trips on big-dollar surf yachts. The pros were onboard too, just without the financial sacrifice. Magazines and surf DVDS were filled with star-studded casts of well-heeled, overly-sponsored pros tearing into empty, hypnotically-perfect Indonesian surf, before retiring below decks, where they splayed out on leather couches, ice cold beers in hand. It was incredible, but also more than a little extravagant.
Which is why Turner, Potter and Schwartz’s trip was so damn refreshing. “Not since Craig Peterson and Kevin Naughton captured the footloose vibe of ‘70s surf adventure in the pages of this publication has America boggled at such gonzo wanderings,” Green wrote in the article’s intro.
There was no fancy boat. They traded boxes of clothing to locals for live chickens and goats—animals they’d eat in the bush. They hobbled over razor-sharp reef with makeshift wooden spears and fished for stingrays. They drank rainwater collected from palm fronds. They slept outside most of the time, often in puddles of their own filth, wracked with a variety of unpleasant gastrointestinal nastiness. One of the most memorable photos from the trip showed Turner bathing in a pea-green pond strewn with almost more garbage than water. You can practically see the cholera teeming on the pond’s surface.
The trip was full of fear and homesickness and literal sickness and busted eardrums and reef rashes and night terrors. It weighed on them. Turner frequently wondered why he was away from Jessica, his expecting girlfriend back home. Was he being selfish? Was he being true to himself? Could he even trust his own thoughts? He feared he had gone insane at one point. “We all scored the best waves of our lives, and lost our minds at the same time,” said Schwartz.
Oh, and they got barreled. Did they ever get barreled. The trip was the basis for Turner’s 2004 surf movie of the same name. It’s a kind of feral “Endless Summer,” with Turner narrating in the same excited, but disbelieving tone as Bruce Brown did 40 years before. The whole movie is like a fever dream of the best possible scenario for surf on a random, uninhabited Indonesian island. Every nook and cranny seemed to hold a translucent tube racing over live coral. Turner and his crew often surfed in full wetsuits, booties and helmets, bouncing off the shallow reef below. The mind shudders considering what would have happened had any of them required actual medical attention at any point during the trip. Thankfully, despite an appalling amount of diarrhea, none of them did.
The trio eventually returned to Orange County, forever changed by their experiences. And so was the surf world. For lots of surfers put off by the cost or gaudiness of luxury tropical surf travel, “Second Thoughts” was a rush of smelling salts. Surfers had always been willing to fall off the edge of the map in pursuit of waves, but we’d grown soft and comfortable in our methods. Turner’s crew reminded all of us that there was value and joy to be had in going truly feral. S