Spawned in the southern Indian Ocean, the swells rose toward the
equator, gaining speed and size and smashing themselves, finally,
on a reef break known to the natives as Kandui. Looking up at the
12-foot faces of these monstrous barrels on the morning of June
17, one could easily see why those who have surfed this spot on
big days have nicknamed it No Kandui.
Gazing upon Kandui's fury that morning, 5'2" Rochelle Ballard was
gripped with fear--that someone might try to keep her out of the
water. Mornings like this were the reason she had signed on for
this 11-day, wave-chasing boat gig. The OP-Pro Mentawai Islands
2001 surf event might have been a pain in the ass to get to (how
else to describe 14 hours in an economy seat?), but it beat the
hell out of your garden-variety pro competitions, often held on
unreliable beach breaks in knee-high waves and playing second
fiddle to a bikini contest. For the second straight year OP had
flown 10 of the world's best surfers--six men, four women--to
Padang, in western Sumatra. From there they embarked on the
all-night voyage to the Mentawais, an archipelago of jungle
islands ringed by reefs that bend those Indian Ocean swells into
some of the world's best barrels.
To see the Ments is to understand why they have become, in the
last 10 years, a magnet for surf tourism. They offer a
smorgasbord of superb breaks bearing incongruous, dopey names
(Rifles, Macaroni's and Pit Stop, for instance), many of them
thought up by "ferals," Australians squatting on the islands for
the sole purpose of surfing. While it seemed unnatural, if not
particularly un-American, to have flown halfway around the world
to spend virtually no time exploring the host culture, the threat
of malaria on the islands was real, as was the pull of the DVD
players on the competitors' boats. The surfers seldom, if ever,
ventured ashore, embracing instead the mantra of the chef from
Apocalypse Now, who after a brush with a Bengal tiger blubbers
repeatedly, "Don't get off the boat."
Thus did the fortnight pass, the sun-bleached argonauts carving
turns by day, then drifting off to the thrum of diesel engines,
as the boats' captains set their course for the next day's break.
The OP armada described a clockwise pattern around the islands of
Siberut and Pagai: from Kandui to Telescopes to Lance's Left,
across the Siberut Strait to Macaroni's, back up across the
Strait to Lance's Right and, yet again, Telescopes. While the
variety of surf led to disagreements between competitors and
event officials (the men surfers, in particular, behaved like
divas in board shorts), on most days things worked out, well,
July 22, 2001
On one day things worked out perfectly. The surf had been small
in the days leading up to June 17, when the flotilla dropped
anchor off a tiny, heart-shaped islet called Karangmanjat. The
surfers were preceded by a robust swell and a stiff offshore
breeze. Two hours after griping about the shape of Kandui's waves
(which had, in fairness, looked less promising at daybreak), one
day after staging a sit-down strike and postponing the first heat
to protest the ignoble three-foot surf they were forced to ride,
the men found themselves yawping for joy as they hurtled through
freight train barrels with 10- to 12-foot faces. There was Timmy
Curran, disappearing into a vortex of foam, then catapulting out
of it, eliciting from the judges such staid, measured reactions
as, "Oh, my god! That was insane!"
There was goofy-footed (right foot forward, left back) Floridian
C.J. Hobgood, leaving the lineup for a bit of first aid after
chipping a tooth, slicing his chin and knocking himself woozy on
the reef. He came back and won the heat with the day's sickest
ride, which saw him stowed ridiculously deep inside a huge and
angry tube that somehow failed to consume him.
There were the amazing Irons brothers, Andy and Bruce, their
backs to these left-breaking waves, nailing down repeatedly epic
rides, then kicking out of them with jaw-dropping aerials.
Paddling past Keala Kennelly before the start of the women's
heat, a euphoric Andy shouted, "I just rode the best six barrels
of my life!"
"Yeah, dog!" replied Kennelly, a fearless Hawaiian who surfs
topless when the spirit moves her. "Game on!"
The women--Kennelly, Ballard, Serena Brooke and 2000 world champ
Layne Beachley--saw the waves grow more powerful as the day went
on. As they pulled water off the reef, the waves created an
ominous sucking sound, as if they were licking their chops. From
the judge's boat, an extra speedboat was discreetly dispatched to
the surf zone as a precaution, should any of the women need to be
pulled off the reef. "It was the fastest, most challenging, most
perfect wave I've ever surfed," Ballard would write in her
journal that night. "It kicked my ass."
And others' as well. On this day Kandui was an equal-opportunity
bully. For the first half hour of their 90-minute heat, the women
got the crap kicked out of them. Beachley broke two boards.
Brooke paddled for a monster, popped up--and lasted all of three
seconds. Kennelly wiped out, then found herself underwater,
somehow wedged into a chest-high fissure in the reef. She stayed
calm, worked herself free, paddled back out to the lineup and
broke up Kandui's no-hitter by dropping into a 10-footer,
disappearing behind the white curtain, then emerging, wild-eyed
as usual and still on her feet.
The rules of the competition called for one male and female
competitor to be eliminated each day. Ballard, who won the event
last year, was in danger of washing out. It was late in the heat;
she had caught a few waves but nothing spectacular. "Suddenly the
ocean began to swell up," she wrote. "I could feel something big
coming in." She let the first wave of the set roll through, then
laid eyes on its big brother. "A bomb!" she continued. "I stroked
hard into the face, dropped to the bottom and looked ahead of
me--at a thick, building wall about to heave itself into the
biggest barrel I've ever seen."
Bear in mind that this wave broke to the left. As a
regular-footed surfer (left foot forward, right back), Ballard
rode it "backside," in other words, with her back to the wave,
which is far more difficult than a frontside ride. In the throat
of a fast-moving barrel, surfers will usually "pump," pushing
repeatedly down with their legs to gain the speed needed to avoid
being consumed by the closing tube; or they will "pigdog," crouch
and grab a rail, a contortion that looks hard but is the safest,
easiest way to survive a pipeline ride.
Ballard did neither. In a counterintuitive display of athleticism
and poise, she stood upright, slightly swaybacked, affecting the
bored look of a woman waiting for a bus. The judges went wild.
Ballard's ride, veterans of the sport said, was the best-surfed
backside barrel by a woman. Ever.
It wasn't enough, however, to win her the heat. Enjoying the
advantage of riding these barrels frontside, the goofy-footed
Kennelly paddled hard for the alpha wave of a bomb set, threw
herself over the ledge and then disappeared from view for two...
three...four seconds before shooting out of its throat as if
expelled by some cosmic Heimlich. She had begun the day in last
place, but that perfect 10, then another, vaulted her into first.
Out in the lineup the women were thinking less about their scores
than about survival. None escaped the heat without a few souvenir
reef cuts. Kennelly's board shorts were shredded; the skin above
her right buttock fared little better. At the sound of the air
horn signaling the end of the heat, they formed a circle beyond
the break. "I'd never felt so much respect, so much pride, for
Keala, Layne and Serena," said Ballard. "We all huddled together,
holding each other, not wanting the moment to end."
While the guys--eventual men's champion Mark Occhilupo in
particular--had been brilliant, "they merely equaled a standard
they'd already set," said competition director Bernie Baker. The
women, he said, "had raised the bar for their sport."
The epic afternoon at Kandui raised the stature, in particular,
of Ballard and Kennelly, a pair of Hawaiians with much in
common: Both are from the island of Kauai, and both tend to
shine brightest when the surf is ominous. Ballard, at 30, is an
Association of Surfing Professionals tour veteran; Kennelly,
eight years her junior, is a pup on the pro circuit but an
up-and-comer, best known for her two career victories at
Teahuppo, a fearsome, left-breaking pipeline in Tahiti. Kennelly
grew up aspiring to surf like Ballard, who says, "I used to tell
everyone, 'Watch out for this girl. She's gonna kick all our
butts one day.'"
In the women's final at Macaroni's, on June 20, Ballard saw
Kennelly's day arrive. As lightning bolts flashed on the horizon,
the two rivals matched each other wave for wave before Kennelly
pulled out the win on her final ride. Her worst-to-first swing in
the Mentawais mirrored the dramatic turn in her fortunes this
season. While in Costa Rica for a contest in March, Kennelly's
appendix ruptured. "I was vomiting black blood, screaming with
pain," she says. "It was a nightmare." Two weeks later she took
the stitches out herself and was competing again in less than a
month. Now she had beaten the best.
"You guys really ripped," Kennelly told the other women after
being presented with her OP-Pro winner's check for $20,000.
(Occhilupo took home $30,000.) "It was an honor to share the
waves with you."
That evening, back on one of the boats, Ballard, Beachley and
Kennelly turned the aft deck into their own private dance floor,
using chairs and, in one inspired instance, the ship's rigging to
express themselves. It was a damned good party. The guys couldn't
make it. They were on their boat, watching a movie. They weren't
After griping about Kandui, the guys were yawping with joy as
they hurtled through freight train barrels with 12-foot faces.
Though the guys had been brilliant, competition director
Baker said, the women "had raised the bar for their sport."