So then, Tom Way and Phileas have had some fun together. Tom is a very experienced waterman and skilled kneelo and shaper, but like so many before him, the surfmat was an eye opener!
Here’s their tale:
Phileas, stuffed deep in the gaping claw of an almost impossibly dark-blue pit, a weighty lip of crystal-cut glass framing her under the imposing cliffs of a remote Sumba right-hander. That’s how I imagined the opening section of my Phileas adventure movie reel beginning.
“Phileas, you mother-f@#$%^ $#@! of a thing.” That was, in fact, how our relationship began and continued to develop over the next week.
The swell was pumping. Day one on the island was spent knee riding slabby lefts and rights. Glides, turns and the occasional shack. Returning to base in the evening, the mellow point over-looked by the camp was churning out long, four-foot, glassy right walls on the fringe of the lagoon. The sun was low in the sky. Reflections shimmered in the black-glass of the wave faces. What a way to experience my first slides on a mat!
Standing on the edge of the low-tide reef, a solitary mal rider took off on a wave and headed down the line for well over a minute. Bloody perfect. I hopped off the coral ledge and began arm paddling out the back.
A set loomed. Overhead, but an easy duck dive; no top-to-bottom pitching lips here. I pushed the well-travelled lass’s nose into the bottom corner of the sloping wall. Seconds later I was recoiling backwards in a wash of white-water, flippers flailing in the air, then tumbling over and over, arms wrapped around Phileas’ well-inked body in a desperate bear grip.
The first of many, many expletives over the course of the week. How the duck do you duck-dive these things?!
I bade my time on my second attempt and snuck out clean with some four-by-four arm-leg action. A shoulder-high line started to feather, and I turned back toward shore. Remembering G’s advice, ‘Some people arm paddle into waves but I have no idea how’, I moved my own nose back a foot behind Phileas’s and began to kick. Rather than the early entry I was anticipating, I moved slowly backward up the face, and hung in the lip for a moment before finally heading downwards, unceremoniously dumped in the flats.
Still moving though! …Turn!
That didn’t happen. Bodyboard instinct took over and I weighted up my inside elbow, Phileas instantly bogged, and I just managed to clasp my arms round her midriff before repeating the rinse cycle.
Three more waves in the set. Duckity-duckity-duck. By the time I got back out I was already half way down the point. Oh well, still a four-hundred metre-odd of section to enjoy, that’ll do.
A wide set. This one well overhead. Time to show’em. Arms and lesgs both in action, under the crumbling lip, got in earlier this time, pushing down on the nose… bog… heading backward up the face… don’t push on the nose, release!... accelerating back down… get in trim… How? Drag a fin?…. Bogging…. Release fin... accelerate, but going straight again… turn!... not turning, not turning, not… buck, buck… oh duck!
My fingers clawed at Phileas’s ‘rail’ and Phileas tried to rip my fingers off. Then she was gone.
“Phileas, you mother-f@#$%^ $#@! of a thing!”
By the time I had resurfaced Phileas had bolted across the reef and was gliding, rider-less, in perfect trim across the tiniest line of swell imaginable deep into the lagoon. I put my head down, elbows up and started the long plod in pursuit.
Reaching the shallows, I stood up to find the white plastic rendition of evil incarnate floating in front of a young Sumbanese lad, a local forager, who was poking at her suspiciously with a sharpened squid hook. “Oi! Cut that out you little bugger!” The kid scampered and Phileas lived another day.
Despite my humbling first surf, there was something inexplicably addictive about the experience. Riding a mat was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was impossibly difficult and yet, in the briefest of seconds hurtling over angry coral heads, Phileas had revealed moments of apparent frictionless acceleration.
Later that evening, over a Bintang, I was studying youtube clips to find out what I was doing wrong and gushing to the only person that would listen, the mal-rider with the minute-long ride from earlier in the day. “There’s something about this mat thing”, I spouted while showing him a clip of Greenough in Hawaii. He raised an eyebrow and made an impolite inquiry about my sexual orientation.
The week continued in this vein. The swell pumped and the winds were light and variable. Lefts fired, rights fired, there were barrels and pockets to be hooked a plenty. This part of Sumba was a special, fickle place. Until very recently it was a favourite hideaway for a few tight-lipped regulars who studied wind, tide and swell charts and knew when the combination looked complementary. Now the land has been bought up and resorts are in build. If you like the sound of it, get there quick because it won’t be pristine for too much longer.
In the perfect conditions the familiar kneeboard quiver was put to work for at least two sessions each day, but I had another crack with Phileas every afternoon and while ultimately I was struggling, I started to get into waves with less effort (under the lip, kick, scoot up the deck on the way down) and began overcoming my instinct to ride like a paipo or bodyboard (keep still, spread weight evenly, don’t push on nose or elbows), but the turning still eluded me. It didn’t help that I was surfing flicky reef breaks and shoulder after shoulder disappeared away from me while I watched helplessly from the flats.
In frustration, on my last evening I sent a call for help to G.
Armed with my new knowledge – trust your feelings Luke - I headed out for a final session at the pitching left, gopro in hand.
I bogged. And then, briefly, I sensed the force. And then, it happened. Lifting the outside rail – gently - Phileas banked over on take-off and caned it down the line as if on ball-bearings. In true virgin form, it was all over in a few seconds, and in true virgin form it left me hungry for more.
I wish I could hang on to Phileas for longer, but real-life beckons; this final ride marked not only the end of my short trip to Sumba, but also the likely end to an eighteen-year stint in Indonesia and the beginning of a new one in Singapore. I’ll still be mat-riding Indo waves at every chance I get, but on a new toy as soon as G has time to make me one.
So Phileas heads onward again. Stay tuned!
A video edit of Tom’s exploits will be along dreckly!