Every surfer has thought about surfing a tsunami. Fantasizing their way out of certain death by grabbing their board along with cute local village girls under each arm and riding a twenty story wall of water to the safety of a jungle wrapped mountain top. But the thought that we might actually get to surf a real tsunami scared the shit out of me.
The captain of our 40 foot converted Indonesian fishing boat (now a 1 star surf charter boat), looked like he was 16 years old. Adamant that he had at least that number of years of experience sailing and fishing these volatile waters, we had no choice but to trust him. Either way, he had skillfully navigated our craft along the south coast of Lombok finding really good waves for us to surf along the way.
A few hours ago, report had come in over the VHF marine radio that a 7. something earthquake had just treated java and sumatra like a pair of maracas and raised the sea floor by a meter. Heading our way was a series of waves of unknown size and destructive force and our captain was now suggesting we find a spot to surf them! Moving empty Bintang bottles off the table, he laid a chart out in front of us and began pointing out where the waves might make landfall. To me, the idea was difficult to wrap my head around and really, sounded a bit insane.
After much discussion and deliberation, and the captain claiming that this happens on a somewhat regular basis, we decided to head to a big wave spot called outside ekas. A large remote bay where the boat could stay in the safety of deep water and we could risk our lives waiting in the water for a tsunami to arrive. Sounds great.
Even though the ocean was calm - forebodingly calm, I couldn’t sleep and was relieved by the faint purple hint of dawn. Sometime during the night we had moored at the foot of imposing vertical sandstone cliffs leading to a feral palm fringed beach a kilometer deeper inside the bay. There was no sign of the wave. We waited until 8:00 before jumping into the water and paddling over to the gentle waves peeling peacefully along the blocky rock reef. The sun was shining, the water was body temperature and crystal clear, and not a breath of wind was disturbing its surface.
Gradually, the subtle rise and fall of the swell increased and large lumps of water appeared on the horizon. I started paddling out towards sea as green walls rose from the depths, hanging in silence before crashing a few meters in front of me. Taking in as much air as my lungs could manage, I swam for the seaweed, but just as I thought I was in the clear, I was pulled backwards into the foamy maelstrom by my leg rope and thrashed violently. Disoriented, I swam for the surface and got a short breath in before being plunged back down, deeper than before. The vicious cycle repeated 3 more times and then it was calm. All that remained was the hissing of billions of tiny bubbles popping on the foamy surface.
Amazed that I was still attached to my board, I paddled back out to deeper water to catch my breath as another set of waves reared up before exploding on the reef. They were incredible to watch from the shoulder - big beautiful beasts of water energetically making their way down the reef in structured military processions. Seeing that all my shipmates were accounted for albeit spread over a large distance - some smiling, and some with eyes wide with fear, I edged my way in closer to catch a few tsunamis of my own as the energy from the earthquake slowly diminished.
- November 2008