Simulated Minds – A Mentawais Grom Trip Story

1 May 2015 1 Share

Beau Mitchell takes his squad to Indo perfection. Featuring Jamie Krups, Holly Wawn, Kai Warner and Davey Cathels

There’s a point on the journey to the Mentawais that you become disconnected.  You’re off the grid; off the net; your social media status will not be updated. Your phone’s stuck in a holding pattern searching for coverage and the hotel wireless is blinking empty in the top left corner of your iPhone. Even the best “roaming” plan is no match for the isolation of the ferry crossing of the Mentawai Strait. You are disconnected.

Sitting across the aisle from five of Sydney’s best young surfers on the 17 hour ferry ride from Padang there’s a serious sense of excited anticipation tinged with the boredom that comes with “disconnection” and an absence of social media.  Our group are part of the social media generation; their milestones embedded in the terabytes of data stored somewhere in a Facebook server under a frozen mountain in Norway. Sweltering in the tropical humidity of Sumatra couldn’t be further from that documented digital life.

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Even before the social media age, there has always been an impatience built into the mindset of youth.  Youth demands that everything happen now; sponsorship, contest results; surfing bigger waves, landing that air-reverse, drinking more beer, getting more girls, more followers, more likes. Tomorrow is miles away, next year a lifetime. We’ve all been there, most of us survived and learnt a thing or two.

In contrast to the anxious teenagers in our group, Davey Cathels sits relaxed and at ease with the journey ahead. Davey’s 23 and over the hump of impatience.  He’s been there, done that and knows success is something worked at over time.; the illusion we’re sold of the meteoric rise is only realised by those freaks of nature, most put in hard work by the spade-full. The last few years Davey’s slogged it out with the best surfers in the world on the WQS and is currently sitting number 27 on the Qualifying Series, a couple of results away from graduating to the Dream Tour.

Next to Davey, Beau Mitchell casts his eye over the scene unfolding on the ferry like a cool parent; responsible but not fazed or stifling of the unbridled youthful energy.  This trip is his initiative, an initiative borrowed from his mentor Barton Lynch, who took Beau on this same journey some 15 years ago. That trip was the beginning of an accelerated learning curve for Beau, one that took in ten years as a professional surfer and continues today as a high performance coach with a stable of aspirants.  The learning never stops, but this trip for Beau, 15 years ago, was a major pinpoint in the journey that set the trajectory, and now I can tell he’s stoked to be back.

By the time the ferry pulls out of Padang Harbour Beau is sitting on the top deck part way through his first Bintang longneck of the trip.  We both know we’ll need a couple more to help us sleep during the ferry crossing but for now we can take it easy.

The sunset or the ferry’s diesel exhaust seems to have had a calming effect on the scene around us giving me some space to chat with Beau about the origins of this trip. “Barton once said to me I was going to fast, not present and always two steps ahead of myself,” Beau says to me as we chug through the water at 4 knots.  “When he first brought me out to the Ments 15 years ago I had to learn to read a wave all over again. I was a 16 year old grom amped on making the world tour so my natural instinct was to fight and to attack every section as if it was my last. This approach works if your surfing 1 foot sloppy North Steyne shoreys everyday but put yourself in the middle of the Mentawai Islands with a 200m wall ahead of you and suddenly you look like a rookie that can’t read a wave.”

Beau’s still one of the fastest surfers I know so it’s hard to imagine him as an energetic 16 year old! After ten years as a professional surfer, a fresh career as a high-performance surfing coach and his first child, Beau’s learnt more than just controlling his speed and this trip is his chance to enrich his grommets through experience and pass on some knowledge along the way.

We’re on our way to Macaronis Resort where one of the most perfect waves in the world is running down the reef at just the right speed. The waves of the Mentawais are the right mix of challenging and fun waves and the perfect antidote to the impatience of youth.  The agenda is simple; surf eight hours a day, practice airs, paddle into bombs. Leaps of progress one minute, put firmly into place the next; learn about surfing and experience some of the lesson of life in the accelerated incubator that is travel and surfing in the Ments.

As our ferry lurches and moans her ways through three metres of Indian Ocean swell at a snails pace.  The grommets are mostly watching episodes of whatever they can offline on their laptops to pass the time while we make our way through tallies of Bintangs on the back deck. We’re isolated, disconnected from the world and that’s the point. It’ll be 17 hours before anyone paddles into their first taste of that Macas perfection.

Six perfect waves.
Day Four of the trip is a milestone day. Not only are we halfway through our time in the Mentawais but it’s been our first opportunity to load a boat full of surfboards and supplies and take off for the day to explore the other waves on offer. Destination number one is Green Bush, possibly one of the heaviest and shallowest waves in Indonesia.

The swell’s built over night and as we speed across the open waters to Green Bush we can feel the three metres seas rolling under the boat. It’s still early morning and the water is as glassy as a lake. We’ve already heard the disclaimer from our surf guide at least twice, “this is a heavy waves and the swell direction’s not quite right, it’ll be fast, unmakeable and somebody’s going to get hurt” he harps.  Not the kind song you want on repeat in your head as you speed towards a break you’ve only ever seen on DVDs and web clips, but the grommets aren’t thinking that, their mind is on flawless perfection.

When we pull up, the scene is a cul-de-sac of jungle and it’s hard to imagine a wave breaking let alone one as ferociously perfect as Green Bush. It’s all still in the bay and the only indication there’s a wave here is a closeout of whitewater surging to our left. It almost seems impossible we’re at the same place as that deadly sharp and shallow reef we’ve seen in the mags and clips.  Five minutes pass; ten. Then, out of nowhere, a peak begins to take shape against a dense jungle backdrop; heads are shaking, eyes squinting as if the gesture will help the brain decipher truth from mirage. When the wave eventually breaks it’s as perfect as any I’ve seen; a double overhead peak with a high almond barrel that grows and gets squarer as it speeds down the reef. It’s the quintessential Indonesian slice of paradise. In our minds we’re all thinking “that one looked makeable” and when our surf guide says “well most of them will be close-outs”, by default he confirms our suspicions. That wave was perfectly makeable!

Beau saw it and he’s not hanging around any longer to watch so with a semi-sarcasms he offers to “test the waters”. He’s out there, Alex Hayes is next; the rest of the grommets fasten legropes and fall in like lemmings. On the paddle out another two perfect waves roll through untouched and teasing with their perfecton.  Beau and Alex, who are the furthest out but still 50 metres from the take off, can only salute them from the shoulder raising the amp levels four notches.

Over the next 60 minutes Green Bush serves up only three more perfect waves between long lulls. Alex Hayes gets the first one, the biggest of the session, making a committed drop, stylish bottom turn before setting his rail just a little high and getting sucked up the face and over the falls.

At face value, Alex is an innocent ever-smiling kid from Sydney’s Queenscliff, but beneath the smile and naïve front is a mind thoroughly processing the world around him. Alex made a call long before the flight that he wanted to “just have fun and ride the biggest wave of the trip”, a seeming contradiction but one that rings true as we watch him surface from a serious Green Bush hold down still smiling from ear to ear.

By the time wave number five marches in, there was never a doubt that Coach Beau would be on it. Beau takes off, bottom turns with intent and makes no mistake with a long hollow tube.  He’s too savvy and experienced not to convert an opportunity to get a screaming tube, and leading by example, he kicks out at the end leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind he just got barrelled off his brain.

After a long lull, maybe 20 minutes, Luca Edler was in position for the sixth perfect wave of the session. Not a drop of water was out of place when Luca paddled in and placed himself under a flawless fold of Indian Ocean power. Luca’s been spending some time in Bali recently away from his native Bungan Beach.  Time travelling and surfing quality waves seems to have given Luca and an insight into patience and timing and it’s starting to show in his surfing. His composure on this particular wave at Green Bush shows he well on the way to understanding the subtleties of style under pressure.

Six flawless waves down and the wind came up and the lulls extended to a point  beyond even the most patient of surfer bringing to an end our brush with The Bush. A brief but powerful encounter with a wave on the next level.

One of the great things about the Mentawais is options. With the Green Bush cul-de-sac fading from view we’re back in the longboat. The grommets are fueling their energy with slapped together peanut butter sambos by Holly as we speed towards Roxy’s. Roxy’s is the exact opposite to Greenbush, a shorter mellow right hander with a fun and really hittable lip.  It’s the first right we’ve surfed all trip.

When we arrive there’s two boats and 15 guys in the water and our surf guide asks us to chill out and not “bomb” the lin-up. The grommets twitch with excited energy watching perfect, super fun rights roll through ridden by middle age men on their two week escape from a desk job somewhere. They get the etiquette but it’s taking its toll watching bogged rails and missed sections.

Kai Warner’s the first to crack, he slips off our boat he’s in the line-up before anyone else realizes. He waits his turn then paddles 15 metres deeper than the old men were sitting. Kai’s takes off on his first wave seemingly way too deep only to pull in and thread the tube as if someone is pulling him through on a piece of string, emerging seven seconds later with hoots from the line-up and the boat.  Kai’s first wave is our arrival signal and the shift change begins.

Beau’s known Kai for years, working with his dad, surfboard shaper Brett Warner from his days on the tour. “Every time I see Kai surf he is stronger and going faster than last time. I have watched him grow from a sandy blonde haired kid doing every flat ground skateboard trick in the book to a surfer that is powerful, energized and stylish” Kai’s from Narrabeen and it’s easy to see where aspects of his surfing come from. He’s powerful and assertive in the North Narrabeen mold but his competitiveness is simmering beneath the surface, for now.

Half an hour later the shift change is complete, our group have the line-up to themselves while the other surfers kick back for lunch and the first Bintang of the day. In the water is a display of youthful exuberance and fresh surfing; airs hucked and made, fins released and push through impossible arcs, the odd tube, all done outside the confines of self preservation. All the surfers revel in the fun conditions at Roxy’s and really show what leaps they have made in the four days in the surfer’s paradise which is the Mentawais.

By early afternoon the wind comes up strong and the session is over. Our boat ride back to Maccas is as bumpy as a double-black mogul run but everyone is sleeping; Two contrasting sessions with enough energy spent surfing, paddling, hooting to power and enough fast burning energy spent to power an Indo village for a year.

Later that evening while we flick through the day’s image capture Beau starts to talk proudly about this cohort he’s been coaching for the past two years and reflect on their progress on this trip and since he’s been involved.

Davey Cathels has been the standout, a working-class kid from Narrabeen with a solid work-ethic and good head on his shoulders.  Davey’s been blowing minds this trip, even Beau’s jaw’s dropped on more than once occasion as Davey goes up-side-down repeatedly blasting the back out of one Macaronis section after another. “Davey has all the skills and ability to be on the WCT. He is a very calculated and one of the most consistent surfers I have seen,” says Beau. “Having Davey on the trip gives the other five surfers an indication of the level needed to compete at the top level.”

Alex stood up and showed he had the skills to push his surfing to the next level. He even stomped a Superman first shot after calling it himself said Beau. I don’t care who you are a Superman is hard enough with an end section but on a perfect wave like Macaronis its even harder.  He definitely lifted his level and showed what he was capable of in perfect waves.

Beau’s been working with Jamie Krups for years, long before Beau’s official role as coach.  The skinny German kid from Manly has an A-grade aerial game and a surprising sense of flair for an unassuming 16 year old. A year ago he was all legs and arms but over the last 12 months he’s built some muscle and is quickly learning how to use it. More than anyone else on the trip, Jamie’s come on a mission. First in, last out, he hasn’t missed a session while working tirelessly and repeatedly on expanding his bag of tricks.

“Jamie’s shown a different side to his surfing this trip asserting himself as a powerful rail surfer as well as an aerialist. He’s charging too! One evening session I saw him take off late on the meanest six foot double-up at Maccas. He didn’t hold back but got pitched taking off mid-face and copped the beating of the trip coming up two waves later with half a board. If he can handle that, he’ll be charging into the future!”

When Beau talks about Holly Wawn it’s with a sense of pride and certainty.  Holly’s achieved a lot in past two years and they’ve set some lofty performance goals for the future.  Holly’s no stranger to competition and at 16 years old she’s already killing it. Back to back ISA Games representing Australia and some final appearances in the Pro Juniors.  For Holly, this trip was about breaking out of her competition head and not surfing to a structure.  “Holly doesn’t compare herself with other girls, she compares her surfing to everyone’s and constantly wants to improve,” Beau says as we scroll a sequence of Holly powering through a backhand hook. “Holly has the tools to take on the world’s best and as soon as she realizes it there will be no stopping her.”

The rest of the trip is spent surfing Macaronis three times a day. Whether it’s onshore or offshore, it’ such a rippable wave and a coach’s dream wave. By the time we’re loading on the ferry for the return trip back to Padang everyone has surfed themselves silly. Ribs and stomachs are patched with tape where the skin has worn out from paddling and arms dangle loosely from tight, exhausted, sunburnt shoulders. The trip’s been an eye-opener and Beau’s in a reflective mood. “Surfing as a sport teaches us so much and I truly feel that there are lessons everywhere. Learning to be respectful of others and the ocean, being persistent in life, continuing to paddle back out after being smashed, and never giving up no matter what. Having gone through so much in my own career I feel that I have a wealth of knowledge to pass on. I put my whole heart and soul into my goal to qualify for the WCT and fell one heat short in the last event of the year. The following year I had a career ending injury and with little financial support I was forced to retire. It took a while for me to realize the lesson in this. If you give something your all, if you put yourself out there and still don’t reach your goal, is this failure or do you gain more from the experience? The strength I gained from this knowing I would be ok after seemingly I failed, I then realized the lesson. Every time one of the surfers I work with goes through the rollercoaster of what is a surfing career I draw from my experiences and its has made me a better surfer, a better coach and a better husband and father. It’s about the journey of life and not the destination.”

Davey, Luca, Kai, Jamie, Alex and Holly are all at the beginning of their own journey and Beau’s helping to plant the right seed and guide them towards their goals. With 15 hours of ferry crossing ahead of us, there’s plenty of time for reflection and patience; it’s almost a welcome relief for sore bodies and simulated minds.

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