Mentawais Q&A: Getting the most from your Indo boat trip.

By Matt Patterson

In recent years the word Mentawais has become a common part of the average surfers vernacular. Located in the archipelago of Indonesia, the small chain of islands is possibly the best surf location discovered to date. Accessible only by boat, there are dozens of spots within a few hours’ motoring, and any captain worth his weight in salt will know where the tide, swell, and wind will be producing perfect surf on any given day. This summer another fleet of pro surfers made the journey to the waves that have made the Mentawais famous—spots like Macaroni’s, Hollow Trees, and Playgrounds that most of us only read about in captions.

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Expensive and time-consuming, an Indo boat trip is something that most surfers will only get to do once in their life, so when your time comes, it’s a good idea to be prepared. This July we sent photographer Tom Carey, writer Matt Patterson, and a dozen or so surfers out on the Nusantara, a fast 62-foot catamaran, to learn some hard lessons, document what they found, and report back.

How do I pick the right boat?

There are more than 50 boats in the region dedicated solely to searching for surf. These boats range from modest 30-foot sailboats to 100-foot-plus fully air-conditioned luxury yachts with flat-screen TVs in every stateroom and a wine cellar, so your comfort level will be directly proportionate with how much you want to spend. But there are a million factors that contribute to this modern surf adventure and each boat can be as diverse as it passengers. The Nusantara comfortably holds ten guests and three crew, but during our trip those numbers were put to the test. With thirteen guests and four crew, we were literally living on top of each other. This should be a major consideration when selecting a boat.

Another important factor in choosing a boat is speed. As soon as I booked my ticket on the Nusantara, Tom told me, “Our boat can do 25 knots!” This can make a world of difference. The average boat speed in the Mentawais is between eight and twelve knots. The time it takes to travel between Macaroni’s and Hollow Trees (the two best and most popular spots) at ten knots is about ten hours. Tom’s decision to book the Nusantara made it possible for us to bounce from spot to spot and make the most out of the smaller days by checking more locations.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can become jaded down there. After the first three or four days of perfect surf, you start getting really selective. Every now and then it helps to remind yourself that if the waves looked like this at home you would quit your job and leave your girlfriend for an hour of the perfect empty barrels that are draining by in front of you while you think to yourself, “I wonder if Macaroni’s is better?”

What should I pack?

You know those guys who always bring way too much crap on trips? The ones with the extra everything? The guy with 175 DVDs and five different kinds of waterproof Band-Aids? You want to be that guy. And other than hitting the reef or maybe going ashore on some sandy atoll for a half hour, you won’t touch land the whole time you’re there. Be sure to bring everything on the surf traveler’s check list—bug repellent, sunscreen, iPod, and DVDs are must-haves. If you want to get ahead of the game, bring along your own personal first-aid kit, and clean every nick in your feet after every session. This point cannot be stressed enough. In the moist, humid tropics the tiniest cut can become infected overnight and the rest of your trip can be ruined.

I’ve heard that bringing candy and snacks is crucial. Does it really matter?

Even if you have a fully stocked kitchen, cooking for a dozen people isn’t easy—on the open ocean, it’s a nightmare. Your chef will do their best, but you’ll probably skip at leasa couple meals, and a stash of beef jerky, hard candy, cheese and crackers, and granola bars is like gold when there isn’t a 7Eleven for a thousand miles in any direction. One of our highlights each evening came when Tom would grab a handful of candy and throw it out on the deck of the boat, and we would all dog-pile for a Tootsie Roll or a Blow Pop. Candy is a form of currency on a boat, and you can never have too much.

What boards should I bring?

The question of what boards to bring is debatable from many angles. The traditional thinking was to be sure to not be under-gunned, but today most pros are surfing Teahupo’o on six-fives when it’s fifteen foot and square. Most of the waves you’ll be surfing will be so perfect, you’ll be able to apply this same mentality. Don’t worry about length so much. You could bring a small gun if you have a gigantic board bag, but otherwise just try a few different shortboards, you’ll be glad you did.

What’s the sleeping situation like onboard?

Your sleeping quarters will depend on what kind of boat you are on, but we found the Nusantara comfortable even with our overcrowded crew. Our modest bunks were cramped together, but that space is yours, and you’ll come to love it, so be prepared to make it like home with your laptop or a guitar—you’ll spend more time there than you think.

What’s the food like?

The food can range from crappy to incredible depending on how much you spend. If you’re onboard the Indies Trader III (the luxury cruiser owned by Martin Daily of the Quiksilver Crossing project), then you are served four hot meals a day. If you are on a smaller, less-luxurious boat, you’ll have significantly less options. An average meal aboard the boat usually consists of two courses—a meat or fish and something carb-related, like pasta or rice. The best meals are usually fresh fish, if you’re lucky enough to be catching them. The chicken and beef can be a little sketchy, but tuna fish sandwiches are always an option if dinner doesn’t look digestible.

Who decides where to surf?

Conversations with the captain about where to surf are crucial. You might be so thrilled to be down there, you’ll gladly go wherever the captain takes you. This should be the case, because you’re a lucky bastard for being there in the first place. But, as surfing evolves, different lines are being drawn between what is considered perfect surf. The captain of the Nusantara is from Hawai’i and lives to get barreled, so his idea of perfect surf meant double overhead and offshore. While this logic cannot be argued with, it’s reasonable to think that head-high lefts with a slight side-shore wind could produce the best ramps to launch airs that you’ll ever see. We debated this to no end and more times than not wound up surfing what we wanted. If the captain seems to be disagreeing with your choices, remember you’re paying customers!

How good is the surf?

You came down here for a reason—to get the best surf (not necessarily the biggest, although many spots can handle fifteen- to twenty-foot surf, but the highest quality, high-performance waves) of your life. Specifically, reef-bottom point breaks that come out of deep water and peel down the beach over shallow live-coral ledges. It really resembles nothing you’ve surfed on the mainland or Hawai’i. Many of the spots are similar to Tahiti and other island chains, but the Menatawais has its own brand of particularly perfect-shaped waves that make your boards go faster and allow tighter turns in the pocket.

While in the Mentawais you’ll surf a wide variety of waves, but the one thing they all have in common is their “almond-shaped” barrels. There are spots that are softer and mushier, and spots that are bigger and have more of a ledge to them, but the shape of the tube in the Mentawais is the unmistakable almond shape that Kelly Slater mentioned in an interview about Hollow Trees in the film Surfers Of Fortune.

Will I be surfing alone?

The other boats in the area can change your trip. During the month of July when we traveled from spot to spot, there were (literally) boatloads of pros sent by a half-dozen surf magazines scouring the islands for surf with guys like Benji Weatherly, Dane Reynolds, and Peter Mendia aboard. Surfing perfect waves with a handful of guys is a dream, but when that handful of guys can all land a frontside 360 airs, it begins to feel a little more like a sunny Saturday morning at Trestles than what you came there for.

Will I get a ten-second tube on my first wave?

Surfing perfect waves can actually take some time adjusting to. First of all, your boards will feel very different. A head-high wave at Macaroni’s (the left that has been featured in every video worth watching in the last ten years) is moving twice as fast as a wave the same size at Trestles or Rincon. Something else to consider when you’re paddling out for the first time is that many days you’ll be the first guys out, and judging the size of the surf from the boat can sometimes be deceiving. So spend some time watching the waves before paddling out … it’s not like you have to be at work by nine.

Why not just go to Hawai’i instead?

The differences between the Mentawais and anywhere else are countless, and trying to list them could take an eternity. To put it simply, you’ll surf incredibly manicured waves all day long with a small handful of friends in a climate that could only be described as “beyond tropical.” The variety of surf you’ll get is as diverse as what the Hawai’ian islands has to offer, but in the Mentawais it’s just you and your crew. If you ask a Hawai’ian why they call it the Mentawais, you might hear the popular response, “It’s mental, that’s why.”

nterview about Hollow Trees in the film Surfers Of Fortune.

Will I be surfing alone?

The other boats in the area can change your trip. During the month of July when we traveled from spot to spot, there were (literally) boatloads of pros sent by a half-dozen surf magazines scouring the islands for surf with guys like Benji Weatherly, Dane Reynolds, and Peter Mendia aboard. Surfing perfect waves with a handful of guys is a dream, but when that handful of guys can all land a frontside 360 airs, it begins to feel a little more like a sunny Saturday morning at Trestles than what you came there for.

Will I get a ten-second tube on my first wave?

Surfing perfect waves can actually take some time adjusting to. First of all, your boards will feel very different. A head-high wave at Macaroni’s (the left that has been featured in every video worth watching in the last ten years) is moving twice as fast as a wave the same size at Trestles or Rincon. Something else to consider when you’re paddling out for the first time is that many days you’ll be the first guys out, and judging the size of the surf from the boat can sometimes be deceiving. So spend some time watching the waves before paddling out … it’s not like you have to be at work by nine.

Why not just go to Hawai’i instead?

The differences between the Mentawais and anywhere else are countless, and trying to list them could take an eternity. To put it simply, you’ll surf incredibly manicured waves all day long with a small handful of friends in a climate that could only be described as “beyond tropical.” The variety of surf you’ll get is as diverse as what the Hawai’ian islands has to offer, but in the Mentawais it’s just you and your crew. If you ask a Hawai’ian why they call it the Mentawais, you might hear the popular response, “It’s mental, that’s why.”