The European summer is in full swing; Britain, at the time of time of writing, is several weeks into a heatwave that is possibly unprecedented. It’s easy to forget what horrors lurk around the corner.
Fast-forward 6 months to January. It’s 7am, still dark, and absolutely fecking baltic. The frosted grass in the carpark crackles underfoot, the sand is frozen hard, and in the boot of the car awaits a piss-sodden wetsuit and piss-sodden boots, gloves, and hood (how did you manage to piss in your hood, you wonder).
In your heart of hearts, you’re hoping it’s flat just so you can get back inside the warm car and go home. As it happens it’s 1-2ft and onshore — just about good enough that you can’t not get in.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Everybody knows that the peak season for a boat trip to the Mentawais coincides almost exactly with the European summer, starting around May/June and extending through September. What is less well known is that in our winter months, from December through to March, the Indian Ocean continues to pulse, and surf foam fringes the shores of surfing’s most celebrated island chain with surprising frequency.
Meanwhile the crowds plummet, as the majority of the surf charter fleet lies dormant in the mainland port city of Padang, their crews on holiday. Most of the land camps are either completely shut or running skeleton staff.
“There’s always somewhere to surf,” says Sooly, owner of the Huey, one of the few charter boats that runs a year-round operation. “Some of the best waves I’ve had up here have been in January. There’s hardly anyone here for those months in Mentawai and Telo — there are probably four or five boats running here — but the thing is you get these surprise swells. It’s never dead flat.”
During peak season, by contrast, that fleet is 40 boats strong, meaning competition for waves is fierce — and the waves in question aren’t the sort where you can afford to be second-guessing yourself, either.
“A lot of people come in the peak season and their abilities aren’t up to it. They don’t like surfing 5, 6, 8ft waves, yet they still book in June when it can be 8-10ft. But in January, February, March, it’s super user-friendly. From beginners to intermediates and even experienced surfers who don’t like stuff over 5ft, which is most of the population I’ve found, it’s a fantastic time of year.”
If your worried that 5ft isn’t big enough for you, or are wondering what 5ft looks like when it’s at home, the photo below was taken on a “3-5ft day”, in Sooly’s estimation. Yep, that’s January.
Sooly first came to the Mentawais in ’94, when he camped on the beach at Macaronis, the left-hander once voted the “funnest wave in the world”, for nine days straight — all on his own.
“There were only 2 charter boats operating then, and luckily for me on about day 9 one of those boats pulled into the bay at Macaronis and rescued me off the beach, so to speak. I just wanted out of there. I’d had enough of doing the solo Robinson Crusoe thing, I wanted a lift back to the port to get out of there, and they ended up letting me stay on the boat with them for another week, so I got to see more of the Mentawais. That’s how it all started.”
He took over the Huey in 2005, and now lives with his family in the Telos — the island chain just to the north of the Mentawais — where even in our winter he surfs nearly every day.
In many ways, thanks to the lack of crowds, a low-season surf trip is “like going back 25 years”, says Sooly. The swell is obviously less consistent than during peak season, and likely to be smaller, so mobility is key.
“The Huey is a long-range boat, and it’s fairly economical, so unlike a lot of other boats we do a lot of travelling. When there’s not much swell, you need to be doing a lot of miles to find the waves.” Of the various island chains off the west coast of Sumatra, Mentawai picks up the most swell and so is likely to be your stomping ground, but Telo is another possibility if the swell obliges, and there’s no reason you can’t sample both. “We can do 100 nautical miles in a night, and go from the Telos right down through the Ments in a single trip no worries.”
In addition to the standard swell magnets — Burgerworld in the Ments, Bum Cracks in the Telos (“a left and a right break inside a crack in the reef, which looks like a bum”) — there are numerous other lesser known waves “where you can still get really good waves when it’s small without the crowds. […] And then you only need a 1 or 2 ft push in swell and then all these other places start working.”
The crew consists of the captain, who’s now in his 17th consecutive year onboard the Huey; the cook (19 years and counting); two engineers; and a dinghy driver, who’s brother to one engineer and brother-in-law to the other. It’s a tight ship alright.
Then there’s the surf guide — usually Sab, from the east coast of Australia, who’s also a qualified captain and takes care of the photo and video and package. Back-up guides include former English champ Eugene Tollemache.
The last time Sooly went on a trip himself? March, with ten of his old school friends. “We surfed on our own for 7 out of the 11 days.”
After over 25 years of Indo exploration, Sooly’s seen sights of such staggering beauty they would make your pubes straighten. And yet he says the best session he’s ever had in Indonesia happened in January one year, as he was heading north to Thailand.
“It was me, my cook and my captain — three of us in the boat — and they didn’t surf, so I was the only surfer on there,” he recalls. “We got to a 250m peeling right-hander in the Banyak islands [north of Nias, these pick up significantly less swell than the Mentawais].
“And I was watching the charts, I couldn’t believe there was a swell that big in January. We timed it and I got there about 6 in the morning just as the sun was coming up, and it’s the best session I’ve ever had in Indonesia in my life. I surfed all day, 3-5ft, pumping right-handers, by myself.”
One of the photos he took of that day — the photo halfway up this page — ended up as a double-page spread in the guidebook Indo Surf & Lingo.
Surf trips, of course, are all about priorities. If crowds don’t faze you, and all you really care about is spending as much of your holiday as possible parked inside sputtering stand-up barrels, well, we salute you: low-season Indo probably isn’t for you. But if your main priorities are fun-sized waves, the odd barrel, and a favourable ratio of surf to surfers, we salute you too — and point out that an low-season boat trip in the Ments is ticking an awful lot of boxes.