5 of the Greatest Surfing Adventures

Matt Rode

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Updated 42d ago

Right now, Greg Long is posted up in his van somewhere dusty and desolate with an enviable pointbreak out the front. When we chatted yesterday, we spoke about our post-COVID plans, where we'd like to get away to. I've been in Hawaii since mid-March, so neither of us have anything to complain about really but this is probably the longest either of us have been in one place in the past decade, so we are both starting to get a bit antsy for adventure.

After tossing a few trip ideas back and forth, we started to talk about the very nature of adventure itself, and came to agree that there hasn’t been very much of it over the past few years—at least not the sort of adventure that people used to have. Sure, there are still a handful of legitimate explorers out there who are pushing the limits, but it’s pretty hard to find someone as badass as Dana and Ginger Lamb, the subjects of Enchanted Vagabonds, one of Greg’s favourite books that tells the story of the couple’s canoe trip from North America to Central America. This was back in the 1930s, when GPS, Wi-Fi and swell forecasts were half a century from being invented.

Paddling a canoe down the Pacific Coast of North America and Mexico without any sort of safety net is what real, committed adventure is all about—and sort of makes our modern-day swell strikes seem soft in comparison. If the only variable in a trip is whether or not you score epic barrels when you arrive, then you aren’t exactly adventuring—at least not to the standards set by someone like the Lambs, or legendary naturalist John Muir.

That being said, there have been a handful of real surfing adventures over the years—trips into the unknown that pushed the limits of what was survivable, whether in the waves themselves, or simply the pursuit of them. These radical departures from the comfort zone of home breaks and familiar cultures not only unearthed some of the world’s best lineups, but also helped establish surfing’s reputation for rebellious counter-culturalism—something that has largely been lost over the past few decades.

Since most of us are still stuck at home weathering the COVID-19 storm, we thought it was a perfect time to reminisce on some of surfing’s great adventures. Here’s our list of five of the most noteworthy—feel free to add more in the comments below.

The Discovery of Grajagan Bay

© 2020 - Norys Sick Shot.

Few discoveries in the history of surfing can match the first session at G-Land. By 1972, Indonesia was squarely on surfing’s map, largely due to the new but thriving scene on Bali. But 40 years before Google Earth, exploring the rest of the vast Indonesian chain was no easy task, and a majority of the country’s wavescape remained uncharted. When visiting surfers Bob Laverty and Bill Boyum flew over Grajagan Bay in a chartered flight to Denpasar and saw the peeling line of whitewater running the length of the reef, they knew they were looking at the world’s best wave, but getting there and actually experiencing it in person would prove to be one of the greatest adventures in surfing history.

Forecast: G-Land

After plotting a course by hand (this was long before GPS), they headed to the island of Java, rented motorcycles, and eventually made their way to the village of Grajagan. They then took a ferry across the bay and then worked their way along the jagged coastline and tiger-infested jungle, making it to the wave that would come to be called G-Land after three days of travel.

The two surfers rode pumping waves alone for a week, then returned to Bali, where Laverty ended up dying in a tragic surfing accident shortly after. A few years later, Boyum’s brother Mike retraced the steps of the two pioneers to G-Land, where he ended up establishing the world’s first (and arguably gnarliest) “surf camp.”

Second Thoughts in Feral Indonesia

Watch the full movie, here.

While air-conditioned boat trips to the Mentawais largely dominated the surf travel scene by the early 2000s, there were still a few people willing to go a bit farther and get a bit dirty for excitement, entertainment, and good old fashioned adventure. The 2004 surf film Second Thoughts embodied this neo-adventurism, documenting the feral antics of Timmy Turner, Travis Potter, and Brett Schwartz, who camped out on an uninhabited stretch of Javanese coastline, living in the mud, drinking piss water, slaughtering chickens, and surfing two of the scariest waves on the planet for weeks at a time.

One Palm Point and Apocalypse have become household names over the years, but they are no less dangerous now than they were then—the former being an endless left-hand barrel that literally breaks on dry reef and is only surfed by lunatics wearing helmets, booties, and full-suits equipped with body armour, and the latter being a glorified closeout/right-hand slab grower that is as unforgiving as it is beautiful. Filmed in 2002, just as the concept that would become GoPro was born, Second Thoughts was a decade ahead of its time, featuring POV footage shot on full-sized video cameras, the quality of the footage only eclipsed by the terror it induced in the viewer riding vicariously along.

The First Documented Sessions at Cortes Bank

Although the wave at Bishop Rock had purportedly been spotted and even ridden a handful of times between the 1960s and late 1990s, the first trip to really capture the potential of the underwater sea mount located 100 miles off the coast of California came in 2001, when Mike Parsons, Brad Gerlach, Peter Mel, Ken “Skindog” Collins, Evan Slater, and John Walla chased a clean, massive swell with photographers and cinematographers Larry Moore, Dana Brown, and Fran Battaglia.

Evan Slater and John Walla both attempted to paddle the outer reef that is today called Cortes Bank, nearly drowning in the process, while the rest of the team towed what at that point were the biggest waves to have ever been surfed. Mike Parsons towed a 66-foot behemoth, with the successful ride earning him the first of two Guinness world records.

Parsons and Gerlach returned to Cortes Bank in 2008 with Greg Long and Grant “Twiggy” Baker in what many have said was one of the craziest swell strikes in history. Motoring into the midst of one of the craziest storms in California history, they ended up scoring oily glass conditions when the wind changed as forecasted, and spent the day riding waves that dwarfed those ridden on the original trip seven years later. Parsons ended up bagging his second world record that day with a tow wave measured as “at least 77 feet,” although it was widely agreed by those on the trip that Greg Long rode an even larger wave in the 80- to 90-foot range that unfortunately went undocumented.

Mike Boyum at Cloud 9

© 2020 - Gaps Sabuero.

After abandoning his surf camp at G-Land due to a variety of factors (including purported graft by local authorities), Mike Boyum became a major player in the surfer-run drug smuggling scene of the 1970s. Eventually forced to flee Indonesia, he made his way around the world, surfing and engaging in various shenanigans in places such as New Caledonia, where he spent four years in jail. He ultimately ended up on the Philippine island of Siargao in 1988, camped out in front of a world-class right-hand barrel that would come to be known as Cloud 9.

All you need to make the call: Cloud 9

While this wave would be exposed three years later through a Surfer Magazine cover story featuring Taylor Knox and Evan Slater, and eventually become a major surf tourism destination in its own right, at the time it was still a secret, and the former Bali resident purportedly enjoyed the barrels of Cloud 9 alone for months. But it’s the end of his Philippine saga that makes the story truly remarkable, because the conclusion of the adventure has still not been confirmed. While it is widely believed that Boyum died in a hut on the beach at Cloud 9 after a 44-day fast, some claim that his body was never recovered. There are those who believe that he is still alive and hiding from the authorities somewhere in the Philippines, along with a million dollars that he purportedly stole from the Maui mafia.

The Unveiling of Skeleton Bay

Back when this thing was still under wraps.

If there were any trip that exemplified the modern ethos of surf exploration, it was the coming out of Namibia’s “Skeleton Bay.” While scouring Google Earth has now become a requisite skill for any would-be surf explorer, in 2008 it was still a fledgling pursuit, albeit one that Surfing Magazine had outsourced into a competition of sorts. The first “Google Earth Challenge” had run the year before, enticing the average Joe to give up his closely guarded discoveries on the online map app in exchange for a spot on a magazine trip—but it was the second installment of the challenge that delivered the goods.

Forecast: Skele Bay

While Californian software engineer Brian Gable wasn’t the first person to “discover” Skeleton Bay, he ended up getting the credit and the airline ticket, flying to western Africa with Evan Slater (who had by this point become a writer and editor, in addition to a world-class surfer), photographer DJ Struntz, and pro surfers Pete Mendia, Hank Gaskell, Mitch Coleborn, and Cory Lopez. It was Lopez who scored the goods, nailing a handful of the craziest clips the world had ever seen, as he streaked through section after barreling section at what quickly become known as the best, longest sandbar on the planet.