In Bali last week, I went on a bona fide fall break adventure, which included volcanoes, views, barrels and Bintang beers. Visiting the spiritual and colorful Indonesian island with some of the most cheerful people I have seen meant something special to me. Especially with how much time I’ve spent watching surfing clips and documentaries at home, I had a spectacular time.
I also had some moments of near-crisis that defined the week even more than the fun I had.
In surfing, I found one elusive thrill no tourist can just pay to fully enjoy, as with zip-lining or motorbiking. The rocky beach and powerful Indian Ocean swell punished me for my lack of experience.
Granted, I had spent one solid week learning to surf before in Nosara, Costa Rica, in 2016. There, I learned some of the ropes, but in Medewi, Bali, I felt far from intermediate in the water. I spent most of this time paddling, just trying to get in position and to avoid the sometimes-inevitable “axe,” or helpless moment of flailing around in a crashing wave.
One of these moments came near sunset when I found myself in well over my head, figuratively at first and then, literally. A riptide took me about half a mile from shore, and the waves started to rise high around me. From water level, what I saw here felt like a “Life of Pi” scene (but actually much less dangerous, of course).
Still, the ensuing moments were heavily unpleasant. Underwater for a long 20-odd seconds, I could not control my limbs for the first part, and even once I could doggy paddle, I was still guessing at where to find the surface.
When I broke through and caught a breath, I saw the next one coming in hot, almost as strong. After that one, there came another. On the bright side, these did not roll into the rocky section, and they carried me nearly all the way back to shore.
Unlike myself and some of the other tourists, local Balinese surfers knew how to navigate the area comfortably and gracefully. It was beautiful just to watch them ride, sometimes catching the first break point perfectly and surfing all the way to the other side of the shore in one ride.
But even for some of them, accidents can happen, which can range from minor to deadly.
In the “washing machine,” according to local surfer Alex, it is most important not to panic. He said his worst wipeouts kept him underwater for up to three minutes after destroying his board or ripping off his leash.
To prepare for this, his physical training included free swimming out into the ocean, running and walking fixed distances under the ocean water carrying a boulder. He also had to train his mind. “People die” more often when they panic, he said.
I asked for his last name, but he said he does not use one. He said people know him as “just Alex” after his career in Uluwatu, Padang Padang, Lumbor and Sumbawa. He talked wistfully about the euphoria of riding in “the barrel.”
“Now, I’ve come back home,” Alex said about living in Medewi again. “Chill life.”
By “chill life,” aside from still surfing, he evidently means free diving to catch lobsters by hand and rescuing surfers who hit rocks and coral or slam their heads on their boards. He said he and a local competition club called Medewi Boardriders act as the unofficial lifeguards of the beach. They know how to navigate the rocks, where most of the serious injuries happen, and as often as each month, might take someone to the hospital.
These accidents happen enough to produce many conversations’ worth of stories, which unravelled on the beaches and over dinners at homestay lodges.
In a specifically close brush with death, New Zealand surfer John “Ohw” Harley spoke about wiping out and finding himself in an extreme lateral rip current. The cold, January water carried him far out to sea and two miles down the beach before he managed to swim and body-surf onto the beach.
Harley said his body “went into survival mode.” It was the 1970s, and his friends had to drive to a gas station payphone to call a volunteer helicopter rescue service to save him from the beach, where he laid unconscious.
Overall, the Bali surfing experience and stories humbled me. Everyone I asked had dozens or hundreds of rough experiences like mine in the waves, a testament to how much work it takes to reach the level of true “shred.” As I write with scratches and cuts on my hands, feet and back from milder incidents out there, I’m reminded that I underestimated the situation going in.
In short, surfing is dangerous. An inexperienced traveler should find smaller waves and probably hire an instructor. They should also show caution when the sun starts to go down, lest they get caught in the big, choppy ones. Despite all of this though, just the beauty of the water and the spirit of the other surfers made it well worth all the fruitless paddling and crashes. When floating on the reflection of the sky during a sunset with the good surfers catching waves all around, the adversity of the day feels much less significant.
All in all, it definitely beat watching YouTube videos in Tuscaloosa.