Chasing the  Blue Dragon

Chasing the Blue Dragon

A glimpse into the unique life of the travelling surfer, who scours the globe
in pursuit of the ultimate fix.

I’m guessing that most of you have either already travelled or can’t wait to kiss your degree goodbye and boost off to some faraway corner of the globe. For surfers, the same rules apply. And for student surfers, the rules apply twice over.

As a surfer, the prospect of a trip has you absolutely foaming at the prospect of running away from your studies, getting buck-wild, and surfing your brains out — and, if you’re lucky, getting barrelled off your tits — every single day. It’s kind of like going backpacking and getting laid every day, except as a surfer you get double the opportunity. Going on a surf trip is a magical experience.

To clarify, “getting barrelled” is when the surfer is positioned under the lip of the wave and inside the “tube”, or “barrel”. It is a euphoric experience to say the least, hence the dirty sexual references.

To properly understand why surfers will travel thousands of kilometres around the world in search of the perfect wave, you need to understand the rush of surfing amazing waves and getting barrelled. You get one perfect wave and you’re constantly out in the water, trying to recapture that feeling. I think of surfing as a form of drug addiction. I can’t go a week without surfing, and if I do, you’ll certainly know about it.

It’s the same with surf trips. Every surfer nurtures dreams of waves around the world, and constantly thinks about where they can travel next to get their “fix”. Travelling surfers tend to fall into two categories: “P addict” surfers and “acid-tripping” surfers.

Light Bulbs and Big Waves

The “P addicts” of the surf world are the top surfers, the guys who absolutely rip waves to shreds. These guys live for the thrill of riding big, perfect, barrelling waves. If they’re out of the water for more than a few days, or the waves have been crap, you’ll want to stay away from them — far, far away. For these surfers, surf trips are all about seeking out the ultimate waves to feed their addiction. Otago student and self-confessed “P addict” surfer Sam Hawke explains: “You live for that adrenaline fix that you have no control over.”

The lucky ones who have made it are living the high life. These are the pro surfers you see in magazines and DVDs. They’re like the supermodels of the surf world – they’re flown to the best breaks in the world to enjoy an unlimited supply of their favourite drug, and all they have to do is surf and look pretty.

Those who haven’t quite made it are stuck with the crazy addiction but have no funds to support it. Hawke is in a dangerous limbo. He has some support from sponsors, but has to fund a lot of his travels himself. He says that many of his less-fortunate mates will stretch their dollars by living in squalor overseas, or live like shit here to save cash so they can head to Bali for a few weeks to get their “fix”.

Hawke’s been hit hard by the surfing addiction. He chases waves most other surfers would never dream of surfing. He gained recognition from the surfing world in 2010 after surfing a monster wave at Teahupoo, in Tahiti. Teahupoo is no ordinary wave, breaking onto a jagged coral reef in waist-deep water, and at around 25 foot high Hawke’s wave was the largest ever ridden at the spot. He “got well and truly pumped. — I broke my nose again [he had had surgery on it just days before] and nearly drowned.”

Surfing amazing waves makes people like Hawke feel on top of the world, but can also put them in some pretty hairy situations. “It could make all your dreams a reality, and at the same time your worst nightmares may come true,” says Hawke. For him, that includes being washed into the cliffs at Jaws (a famous big-wave spot in Hawaii), getting slammed onto the reef at Teahupoo, and being lost for eight hours in two feet of snow down in the Catlins, after being washed up on the rocks in 30-foot surf. He explains that after those experiences, “you swear to never touch the shit again. Yet next week it’s happening again, and you’re jumping on a plane again.”

For Hawke, surf travel is about making his mark on the world by chasing big waves and barrels. But it’s not all about the surfing. “It’s about the adventure, the last-minute flights, shuffling the money around, borrowing and begging when the sponsors won’t pay, getting in the car or onto the plane and being on your way to somewhere completely different to everyone else’s everyday lives.”

He’s definitely got his fair share of crazy stories from life on the road. One in particular involves a crazy trip to Hawaii, where he and a few Kiwi mates were staying with a rather well-off friend. They were heading out to surf 30-foot waves at Jaws (as you do) when their mate decided to pick up a few more mates. “Next minute we stop off and pick up Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson!” The two actors hung out in the boat getting pissed while Hawke and the others surfed giant waves all afternoon. Later on they got into the drinks, and “we ended up playing naked paintball roulette… I got to shoot Owen, it was great.” From there things progressed to a night of Hawaiian-style debauchery. I’ll let your scarfie minds fill in the blanks.

Olas, Chicas Bonitas y Cocaina

During my own three-month surf trip to Central America I was fortunate enough to experience amazing waves, pretty girls, and a little bit of coke, and learn just enough Spanish to do it.

For the “acid-tripping” surfer, surf trips are exactly that, a “trip”. This type of surfer is addicted to the excitement of exploring the unknown. The waves play a large part, but it’s more about the whole experience — the culture, the people, and the environment. The idea is to pick a spot on the map, grab a board, strap on a backpack, and prepare for the ride. As a self-confessed “acid-tripping” surfer, to my 19-year-old mind Mexico seemed like a great first trip. It had it all: great waves, warmth, cheap tequila, and Mexican food. My Mum focussed more on the drugs, guns, and kidnappings. I neglected to tell her that they were all part of the attraction — well, one of the three anyway.

One of the most awesome places on Earth to be a young surfer is Puerto Escondido. Getting barrelled is kind of like doing a line of coke, though in Puerto you don’t need to choose between one or the other. Puerto is a small Mexican village with a beach that produces some of the world’s best barrels. It sits right over the equator, so the weather is super warm and the water is a moderate 32ºC (probably warmer than a North D shower).

The main beach, “Playa Zicatela”, is littered with bars and cafes. Fortunately it sees plenty of backpackers, so the heavy concentration of arrogant Americans is diluted by travellers from every corner of the globe, as well as wealthy Mexican “chicas” down from Mexico City for their beach holidays. The beauty of the “acid-tripping” approach is that you never have any idea what you’re getting yourself into. My original plan was to stick to Mexico, but the longer I was there, the more I learned about all of the places down the coast.

I ended up travelling and surfing my way through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. I spent a few weeks getting lost in each country, and I got to see ancient Mayan Temples, volcanoes, and waterfalls, and of course surf in all kinds of crazy spots.

Indonesia: God’s Gift to Surfers

For surfers, Indonesia (Indo) is Jerusalem. It is the Holy Land, and surfers from all nationalities, “P-addicts” and “acid-trippers” alike, descend on her shores to collectively worship her perfect barrelling curves. Indo is the greatest place to surf on the planet. It is an archipelago of over 18,000 islands, with water you’d happily bathe in and an abundance of swell.

The most famous island is Bali. At its worst, Bali represents many of the worst aspects of Western tourism: exploitation, drunken rowdiness, and complete disregard for different cultures. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still smash a couple of Bintangs (local beers), slurp down a “milkshake”, and let the night take you to any corner of the globe your sweet Kiwi accent can muster.

In the daytime, you can surf with the packs in Bali’s world-class yet incredibly crowded surf. But if you get sick of that (most will in two days), you can pick a boat and an island and boost off to your slice of paradise. But depending on the depth of your wallet, you may be in for a bit of an adventure.
A good friend of mine, Dan Picot, finished his degree at Otago last year. This year he had one thing on his mind: surfing in Indo. Picot’s an interesting type of surfer. I’d call him a hybrid of the “P addict” and “acid-tripping” surfers. I asked him if he had any crazy Indo stories, and he delivered.

Picot and a few people he met over there decided to head out to a remote surf spot on an outer island, but they ran into a bit of trouble on the way there. As anyone who has travelled in Bali will know, the cops aren’t exactly the most law-abiding. Picot ran into three different policemen on the way out, and after bribing each one of them to let him go he was sent back to Bali for the night to sort out his papers. He couldn’t afford any more bribes, so the next day he boosted through the checkpoints, and after a short police chase and a ferry ride he arrived at the wave of his dreams. After all that effort he bailed on his second wave and the reef shredded his back like a cheese grater. Picot was out of the water for two weeks. Not long after, he told me, “My routine now involves every second person gawking at my war wounds and keeping the mozzies away from the buffet breakfast on my back.”

Just a few days ago, I received this message from him: “Been sailing around some islands north of the Mentawais for the last eight days on the most marginal vessel ever to cruise the Indian Ocean. No GPS, no flares, no toilet, no VHF. Mechanical breakdowns on this fishing boat are as consistent as the waves. We have got sick waves very day!”

I think these stories sum up the life of the travelling surfer. You don’t know what you are getting yourself into, and it’s definitely not always easy. But you come out of every trip way stronger and more experienced than when you went in. And it’s these moments that show you what life is all about.

The Come Down

Coming back to little old New Zealand after any OE can be an intense comedown. But Dunedin is not the worst place in the world for a surfer to end up. Hawke says, “There are excellent waves around, and even though it’s cold and there’s seals and sharks and shit, we have some of the best coastline in the world.”

I agree. There are not many places in the world where you can score a world-class wave with just a few mates any day of the week. We have got it so good in New Zealand, and it took me months of backpacking around the world to realise it.

But in saying that, if there’s anything to take away from this article, it is this: travel. Hawke urges people to step out of their comfort zones and explore the world: “The adventures and the people you meet can’t be found by sitting all day in the library, you just have to get out there and be a part of it.”

And if it so happens you’re a surfer, I suggest you pick some far-off spot on the map, book a ticket, slip it under your tongue, and prepare for the ride.
This article first appeared in Issue 22, 2012.
Posted 5:17pm Sunday 2nd September 2012 by Michael Neilson.