Rookie Errors in Surf Travel – Health Issue

17th Jun 2019

We have all been guilty at some point in our surf travels of committing acts of stupidity. Seasoned surf traveler, Troy Smith recently found himself enjoying an early season Indo surf trip with a handful of close mates. On about the third day a mysterious stomach bug ravished the remote surf camp. To Troy’s astonishment, the handful of bed-ridden battlers had been brushing their teeth with the local tap water, which by now owned their bowel movements for an unknown amount of time. 

Troy, perhaps one of the most well-traveled surfers in the world, gives his tips and how to avoid this and other nasties happening to you in your future surf adventures. 

I recently found myself enjoying a great, early season surf trip in Simelue in remote Indonesia. We had quite good waves, a great group of blokes and things were going well. The introductory briefing was pretty short, but adequate for well travelled surfers. We were enjoying Simelue immensely, exploring by bus or motorbike and surfing a variety of new waves. Things were going well.

On about the third day, one of the crew got crook in the guts. We were all wondering if it was in the food at lunch, wondering who ate what, trying to find a culprit dish and wondering if we’d all be sick by sundown. It was James’ first surf trip and I finally thought to ask him whether he was using the tap water to brush his teeth. He replied yes.

Aha! we thought – found the source of the problem. As we discussed our brilliant sleuthing abilities, one of the group disclosed that he was brushing his teeth with the tap water too, as he had done on numerous Bali trips over the years. But then he got sick the next day, so we felt pretty sure that we had identified the source.

It got me to thinking about the fact that brushing our teeth with our bottled water was so second nature to most of us, that we forgot to even mention it to a newcomer. The welcome briefing mentioned drinking from the water dispenser in the dining area but not that brushing your teeth, or even opening your mouth in the shower, could make you sick.

Which in turn got me thinking about other rookie travel errors that we might be able to save people from making.

1) Focus on your Health

FACT: Without good health, you’re not going to enjoy your surf trip fully!

Water quality in my favourite destinations can be quite varied. There will be plenty of places where the tap water is fine, like most resorts in the Maldives, high end camps and boats. It’s worth asking about it on arrival, so that you don’t learn the hard way. Most of our dream surf trips are in the equatorial tropics and are very hot and humid. Dehydration is a genuine risk and you really do need to drink 2 litres plus of water a day to stay well. I also take hydralyte daily to stay on top of electrolyte loss. There’s also a good chance there will be an endless supply of coconuts where you are going in the tropics. Coconuts are arguably better than a litre or two of water, so if you smash a couple of them between surf’s you will be on cloud 9. 

Hangovers are a common ailment too, and this is a rookie error that I know all too well. Having the biggest night of your trip the day before the best swell of your trip is about to unload is not a great idea. I have missed some great surf sessions over the years, sleeping off a big night on the piss. I also try to have a few quiet nights each trip, so that I don’t arrive home too buckled. And I try to time them with the better surf days on the forecast, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

2) Sun Protection is a NO-BRAINER!

Staying protected from the tropical sun seems a no-brainer, but there are many ways it can still go wrong. For those who like the freedom of surfing in just boardies only, it can be easy to hit the waves early in the morning and stay longer than you had planned. The tropical sun can be pretty brutal even just an hour or so after sunrise. I’ve seen many sunburnt backs and shoulders over the years because of this.

One body part I’d never thought until I experienced the pain is the back of your legs. If you’ve cracked the dream session of uncrowded pumping waves, you will be paddling back to the peak for most of your session, with the backs of your legs facing the sun. I’ve seen people get so burned they can barely sleep or bend their legs to sit, walk or surf without major pain. For those midday sessions, I sunscreen the back of my calves to just above the knee. I have recently started wearing full length skins under my boardies in the tropics and quite like them, saving the need for sunscreen and also helping with fatigue and chafe.

Ladies have some super nice leggings available. I first saw some in the Mentawais with Dani from Salt Gypsy, who was building her wonderful business at the time, but lots of others do them now. On the topic of sunscreen, I’ve switched to “reef safe” sunscreens to ensure I am not harming the coral in these beautiful places. I’m finding that the Feel Good Inc sunscreen is wonderful. The other, easy to miss place, are your lips. I apply lip balm with SPF15 before each surf. Burned, cracked bleeding lips are no fun at all. Zinc cream is the other thing most people use for the surfs around the middle of the day. Generally, I use it on my nose, cheeks and lips. Easily the best zinc is SurfMud. Top surf guides and photogs like Richard Kotch and Chris Peel swear by it for how well it stays on in the surf. SurfMud have also recently released a reef safe suncream, a chemical free Zinc Oxide cream. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds good.

3) Understand Malaria

Malaria is another reality in some of our favourite tropical surf zones.

It’s worth having a bit of an understanding of the risks and medication options before you talk to your doctor. Even in many malaria zones, I’ve noticed plenty of people on boats don’t take malaria medication because you see a lot less mosquitoes on boat trips compared to the land-based options. On land, you can generally expect to have mosquitoes, especially around dusk.

I recommend talking to World Surfaris or the operators directly about the malaria risk and what most clients do about it. It is always advised to seek professional help from a GP as well, but World Surfaris are a great source of information about the area you are going, which you can pass onto your GP.

If you do end up taking medication, there are two main options I’ve seen over the years. Doxycycline is the older one and can have pretty hectic side effects including heightened sensitivity to the sun, which is not so good in the tropics. I first became aware of this when Andrew Rigby on PNG Explorer said that he had the eye drops for sunburned eyeballs if anyone taking Doxycycline needed them (seriously). The newer and more popular (and expensive) option is Malarone and it’s the one I choose to take when I think the location demands it.

4) Take a Medical Kit

Lastly, I like to take a medical kit of some sort. Not everyone in the group needs to have everything but it might be worth a group chat before departure to talk about who is taking what. These days, I always take a course of Amoxycillin for infected cuts, infected ears, etc, as well as plenty of wound dressings and tape to hold them on. I also take Aqua Ear if there is a pool because I’m really susceptible to swimmer’s ear. Betadine for reef cuts and Bactroban cream for infected reef cuts. Nurofen is also good for really sore muscles. The guides or operators are always super stoked if you leave any unused medicines behind when you depart, as they can be pretty hard to source in many third world countries.

Hopefully, this will help someone who is new to surf travel to avoid some of the rookie travel errors that I’ve made over the years. The next issue will cover equipment such as board choice and hardware to ensure your trip is the best it can be. Until then, I hope you all get some good waves at your local, or have a great trip wherever you dream of surfing!

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