A History of Surfing in the Mentawai Islands

Chapter 1 – The Rader

The MV Indies Trader is a legendary boat, whose history spans decades, continents and has done more surf exploration than any vessel in human history. She was originally named the M.V. Rader and was built by K.B. Welding Works in Bulimba on the Brisbane River, Brisbane in 1972. The vessel was designed by noted Australian Naval Architect Mr. R. A. James.

The vessel was built for Mr. David Barnett. Dave, a New Zealander, raised in Fiji just after WWII. Dave, a surveyor by trade was once New Zealand’s Spear Fishing Champion and a runner up in the 1966 World Spear Fishing titles in Tahiti. He abandoned his trade and came to Australia in the mid 1960’s with his girlfriend Verna (now his wife) and secured one of South Australia’s first Abalone Licenses. He worked out of Streaky Bay. In the late 60s he hooked up with a group of divers who were onto a small bonanza. Copper prices were at an all time high. Scrap brass and manganese bronze was fetching in today’s money the equivalent of $20,000 a ton. New Guinea, The New Hebrides, Solomon Islands and Indonesia were littered with WW2 wrecks whose propellers and condenser tubes were suddenly worth serious money as scrap. It was like a mini gold rush. Barry May, Wally Gibbens, Desy Woodleigh, Ron Hutcho, Kevin Baldwin, Bruce Trotter, Peter Baker, and Jim Forrest were other characters from this era.

The “Rader” was built specifically for salvaging scrap; the vessel’s main features are an extremely large cargo hold, a 15 ton bow lift, a 5 ton cargo boom, specially reinforced port side gunnel and ballast tanks for lifting.

Around the end of 1972 after scrapping most of the known wrecks in Papua New Guinea the search for scrap brought the vessel to Irian Jaya, the Mollucas and then Bali Indonesia. Dave scored a job to widen the Benoa harbour entrance using explosives. As the scrap price deteriorated and he had done most of the available wrecks in Indonesia he turned to civil dive contracting and regular salvage work, refloating and salvage of several ships and barges. Whereas most companies would rely on large equipment and brute force, Dave specialized in ingenuity and light equipment, normally using the Rader and the equipment onboard only.

Chapter 2 – Martin Daly & Dave Barnett & One Palm Point Discovery

In 1982, Martin Daly ran into Dave and the vessel out in the Arco Ardjuna Oilfield.  Martin was working as a commercial diver on a large platform inspection vessel.  Martin invited Dave and his crew onboard for dinner and Martin quickly realized that he had run into one of Australasia’s genuine diving legends. Martin fell in love with the vessel immediately. Dave had a contract to clean the marine growth off several production platforms and for a few weeks they worked in the same area and got to know each other pretty well. Later that year Martin chartered the vessel from Dave and he and 5 friends went to Panaitan, the south coast of Sumatra and some of the offshore Islands, discovering One Palm Point and other breaks in that region.

In 1983 after returning from a 6 month stint as a saturation diver in Japan, Dave hired Martin as diving crew on the Rader. For the next three years Dave taught him about salvage and explosives and he passed on his knowledge about underwater inspection. Martin was amazed at how well set up the vessel was and the variety of work they could perform using her.

In 1986 Dave decided to retire to Perth, Australia and Martin offered to buy the boat. Martin recalls “I didn’t have anywhere near enough money but after much maneuvering, with some financing from Dave and pulling in a partner, Frank Taylor in late 1986 we were the proud owners of the infamous Rader.

Chapter 3 – Frank Taylor, Shipwrecks & Treasure

Frank was a wealthy adventurer. He had been a fighter pilot in The Vietnam War and a genuine aviation legend, having won the Reno air races, the world top fuel quarter mile land speed record and the world airspeed record for piston driven aircraft all in one year. His new passion was treasure hunting.

Dave’s last job before handing the boat over to us was the successful salvage of a Dutch porcelain wreck in the South China Sea. Martin ran the diving operation and did pretty well out of my small share of the cargo.

Martin and Frank formed a Diving/salvage Contracting Company in Indonesia and floated a public treasure hunting Company on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Martin went to work in Indonesia running the commercial diving operation while Frank tripped the planet negotiating salvage rights for old shipwrecks in various Asian countries.

They mounted a huge multimillion dollar salvage expedition to China in 1997 using a state of the art dynamically positioned saturation diving vessel M.V. “Stephaniturm”. The job was unsuccessful, they found the shipwrecks and dived on them for over a month but the Chinese had already worked the wrecks and the operation was a disaster.

“I returned to Indonesia with my reputation in tatters. We still had the Rader and I concentrated on running the commercial diving operation with moderate success. Frank concentrated on keeping the Treasure hunting co alive. I wanted to go surfing; Frank wanted to go treasure hunting. We started to go in different directions.”

Chapter 4 – Frank Taylor, Shipwrecks & Treasure

“I managed to get away to Panaitan and Sumatra a few times during this period with the boat and it was becoming clearer to me where my real interests lay.”

In late 1989 the relationship with the Indonesian partner deteriorated to full confrontation. For registration reasons, in order to operate in Indonesia the vessel had to be in his name. It became clear that he was increasingly referring to it as his boat and there was imminent danger of losing everything. Frank meanwhile had negotiated permission to salvage old shipwrecks in the Philippines. The diving business was just starting to really take off in Indonesia. Martin had just completed a contract to remove 28 subsea wellheads for Arco.  Frank wanted to bring the boat to the Philippines and search for old wrecks.

Martin – When I tried getting clearance to leave Indonesia all sorts of official obstacles started to pop up. I had said that I wanted to go to Singapore for docking but after 2 weeks of trying I still could not get clearance. My Indonesian sponsor wanted me to sign a charter agreement to use my own boat and pay him a lot of money upfront; he owed me $200,000 dollars anyhow from the last contract I had performed for Arco.

 

On a dark and stormy night I bolted, sacrificing all the money I had earned for 2 years. At least I still had the boat. We drove non stop to Batangas, Philippines via the Sulu Sea, the whole way terrified of running into the Indonesian Navy as the word would have to be out.

The Philippine Salvage job was a disaster; we had the license, the technology, the expertise but no target, no research and not enough money.

Frank would only use “investors” money never his own and all the money Martin had left went into the operation. We went diving on every shipwreck that had been already salvaged and were successful in pulling about 200 pieces of quite good really old Chinese porcelain from a wreck that had been worked by several parties over the previous 10 years or so. We just went deeper down the reef slope to over 200ft. The Filipino museum confiscated the porcelain because Frank had not paid the $5,000 bond for the salvage permit. The vessel was deteriorating rapidly, our visas had expired, the boats paperwork had expired one of the crew didn’t even have an entry stamp in his passport and Frank says that there is absolutely no money left for the operation. Martin contacted Dave Barnett and intimated that the boat could be seized at any moment by the Filipino Coast Guard for being in the country illegally. He was on the next plane. We decided that to give Frank an ultimatum. Find some money, sort out all the problems with the paperwork, and get the boat back into good order or Dave and I were taking over the boat to save losing it altogether. Frank conceded and on another dark and stormy night with a tropical cyclone bearing down on us we once again bolted, this time looking out for the Filipino Navy.

Due to the paperwork problems and lack of funds we couldn’t load fuel. Luckily I had been carrying 6 tons of Avtur high grade jet fuel kerosene in the ballast tanks that I had scored while servicing the fuel loading buoy for Cenkareng airport in Jakarta. We determined that it would run the main “Gardner” engine.

Dave’s plan was to explore the dangerous ground of the Spratly Island Chain, a no mans land in the South China Sea for WW2 wrecks and see if we could salvage some scrap, as the copper price was the best it had been for quite some time.

What the chart and pilot failed to show was there was a secret confrontation going on between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines and Brunei over the area. Every reef we went to was claimed by someone or other with Platforms or artificial islands on every reef. We saw an insane left hander peeling down the side of one of these artificial islands. An 8′ north swell was spinning off the cyclone that was following us. The island was a garrison with artillery emplacements and flying the Vietnamese flag. The ultimate bad locals-Vietcong. Needless to say, we just kept moving.

We located some scrap on several wrecks in international waters and continued on to Singapore. I contacted Frank and worked out a deal where I swapped all my stock in the treasure hunting company for his share in the Rader.

Dave put up some money for the explosives, fuel and provisioning etc and we headed out and over a period of a few months recovered over 80 tons of scrap. We shared the proceeds among Dave, myself and the crew.

Chapter 5 – A New, but Old, Name

The boat was now in shocking condition, the tail shaft bearing had gone the generator was worn out, and the boat had not been docked for 2 years. I had managed to score a good wellhead removal contract in Indonesia but I had no money to get their boat up to scratch and mobilise the project. I borrowed $1,000 dollars off everyone that that would lend it to me and prayed that they wouldn’t talk to each other! I docked the boat in Singapore and headed back to Indonesia with a new Registration a new name ‘M.V. Indies Trader” and a new Indonesian Sponsor.

Due to the problems with my old sponsor I had to change the name of the vessel, I was a bit concerned about the bad luck associated with doing this so I decided to just extend the name i.e. Indies T rader . I thought up the name while I was filling out the form at the Honduras registry in Singapore and it has worked well for the boat.

Left to my own devices the diving business did well. My first job was to recover a lost Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), lost from a cable laying ship in 270feet of water in the Sunda Straits. It was a “no cure no pay” job and we had it on deck on the Indies Trader after 2 days, air diving. After that spectacular effort we were given another no cure no pay job to recover 12 pieces of heavy earth moving equipment that had fallen off a landing craft that had overturned on the way through the Sunda Straits to Padang. We did over 300 air dives over 200ft and recovered all the equipment plus accessories, a total of 68 lifts, the largest over 40tons In no time I paid all my debts including Dave Barnett.

By late 1990 I owned the boat free and clear, my lifetime ambition achieved. Now I could go exploring whenever I wanted.

 

Chapter 6 – Surf Exploration in the Mentawais

Towards the end of 1990 I scored a job to salvage a crane that had fallen off a timber barge at Sipora Island, part of the Mentawai Island chain off of Sumatra. I could not believe my luck. I had been dying to go there for years. My friend from Jakarta, Danny Madre had been up there earlier in the year and had raved about some surf he had found. He showed me video tape of him and his brother surfing breaks he had called “Macaronis” and “Telescopes” somewhere in the area. We struck a deal that we would not share location information with each other but we would stick with code names for the breaks with each other if one of us could prove that we had surfed the break first.

The salvage job went well in fact we located and recovered the crane by lunchtime the first day. For the next few weeks we explored and surfed great waves. I had 2 other surfers with me Rick Green and Ross Hannon.

We surfed “Diablo’s”, “Iceland’s”, “Lances Lefts”, “Lances Rights”, “Screamers” and “Debuts”. We ran into a character called Lance McNight at a really good right hander. We were so impressed with him actually being there and after establishing that he was the first surfer to surf the wave that we named the wave in honour of him. Lance jumped on board and came back with us to Jakarta.

Chapter 7 – Expansion

Back in Jakarta I scored a one year service contract to provide diving support for 8 drilling rigs using the Indies Trader. The only problem was that we only had 4 berths on the boat and the contract specified that I accommodate 8 divers. I figured the only solution was to make the boat bigger!

I cut her in half amidships and added 6ft. the original Naval Architect Rick James did all the design work. We removed the small wheelhouse and replaced it with an aluminium wheelhouse 4 times as big. We added 2 new larger cabins, rewired the whole boat installed, extra generators, a new engine, and air conditioning.

Meanwhile in partnership with my new Indonesian Partner Budi we were refitting a Cray boat in Fremantle. The idea was to do dive charters to the Mentawais and Sunda Straits.

I figured that I could sneak off and go surfing whilst the other guys were diving. I was determined not to do surf charters as I considered it exploitive and uncool. My first real discovery One Palm Point was being blown apart by the Surf Travel Company after being betrayed by one of the original crew we had taken there in 1982.

The new dive charter boat “Volcanic” was an immediate success, we advertised in the Asian diver magazine and we received numerous bookings.

Chapter 8 – The First “Proper” Mentawais Charter

Meanwhile a long term friend of mine contacted me and asked to charter the boat with a few of his friends from Bali, all local cool guys who promised to keep their mouths shut. I agreed mainly as I could not wait to get back up there to Sumatra. My friend sent me some money and I provisioned the boat. I kept on hassling him for a crew list and when I finally got it a week before departure I was furious. The list included Tom Carrol, Martin Potter, Ross Clarke-Jones and Stewart Cadden-all pro Surfers, betrayed again! I wanted to give them their money back and cancel the trip but I had already spent all the money on provisioning the boat. I also realized that the word had gotten out and my weak justification was that at least I would have 2 weeks to convince them to keep it quiet. We had an amazing trip 15 to 18ft waves. It never got below 6ft for ten days. We surfed 8ft telescopes for 3 days some of the best 6 to 8ft Lances lefts I have ever seen and epic Macaronis. In the end we went in early as we were surfed out. The boys still refer to it as “the surf trip” We did not hear of or see any other surfers on that trip.

Later that year while moored alongside the wharf at Merak, West Java a vessel alongside the Volcanic caught on fire taking out the Volcanic and another vessel. The owner of the Boat’s wife and infant son were burnt alive.

The next year after completing the rig support contract the Indies Trader did 3 trips to the islands, another trip with Pottz and the crew from Newport, the first Ripcurl Search trip, and a trip with Murray Bourton and crew. Late that year in September a person, who had been in my partner’s office trying to promote a marina hotel development near Jakarta, Rick Cameron showed up at Macaroni’s.

The next year the Surf Travel Co turned up with 3 boats, one of them was lost on its second charter on the reef at Lances Rights. Cameron comes up with his idea to control the island chain for himself. He says that we are either with him or not allowed to surf the islands. I give him the obvious reply- No I do not agree an entirely predictable response.

Chapter 9 – Cat & Mouse: Escaping the crowds

In 1995 the Indies Trader did a 4 month charter season. Cameron and the Surf travel Co start business in earnest. It is no longer possible to assume you will be surfing by yourself, so the Indies Trader heads further and further a field.

In 1997 Cameron Prints a guide to all the surf breaks he knows on the internet some we have found and his crews have not even surfed. The Indies Trader 2 arrives to take over from the Indies Trader.

Chapter 10 – Quiksilver Crossing

October 1998 the Indies Trader heads to the Pacific Ocean in search of new frontiers. The Quiksilver Crossing project is approved.

13th February 1999 the vessel arrives in Cairns, back in Australia for the first time in 27 years, preparing for the first leg of the greatest surf adventure of all time.

After 12 months the Indies Trader had found 45 breaks travelled over 16,000nm and visited 11 pacific island nations. Our original 12 month mission had been extended to 2 year mission.

Chapter 11 – New Frontiers

I first drove through the pass right in front of Beran Island on my exploratory trip through the Marshall’s in 2006. For some reason it felt like home. As it turned out, it was the best place in the atoll- with a combination of location, surf out front, and a perfect anchorage. The MV Indies Trader would sail for the Pacific and is currently in the Marshall Islands, while the Indies Trader 3 holds the standard in Indonesia.

Questions