We spend our lives as surfers looking at perfect wave after perfect wave and it never gets old. Another fine example: perfect shape, perfect backhand tube style. But in our search for perfection, have we been ignoring the giant risks to our lives we've been taking. Photo: Randy Sparrow

The Surf Travel Risks we have been ignoring for too long

19th Jul 2018

Authored by Nick Carroll (Coastalwatch Senior Writer)


Words by Nick Carroll (Coastalwatch Senior Writer)

So back in mid-May (2018) I was talking with a mate of mine who’d recently returned from a surf camp on an island off Sumatra. It’s a well-regarded resort—wi-fi, powerboats, good food, all that stuff.

After surfing hard for several days, my mate fell on a small wave, hit the reef and suffered a serious facial injury. Bad cut, lost teeth, fortunately not knocked unconscious.

Guess what? The well-regarded, well-appointed surf camp had NO first aid gear. None. Not in the powerboat, not at the resort.

The managers were swift to get my mate back to the Sumatran mainland and a hospital, but that was all they could do. Beyond that, my mate had to rely on good fortune in the shape of a couple of paramedics, who were also surfing at the resort and could render assistance.

He left his own traveller’s first aid kit with the resort. Just as well; two other guys on his trip ended up hurt, one nastily when he copped his board’s nose to his foot.

Over the next three months, as the Indo surf season takes off, my mate’s story, and worse, will be repeated many times. Thousands of us will travel to the Mentawai chain, Lombok, Sumbawa and other parts of the archipelago, hoping for the waves of our dreams. Dozens, maybe hundreds, will come back with minor to significant injuries. There’s a good chance one or two will come back to grieving families in a box.

The risks are obvious. Perfect waves hide things. Hard lava-coral reefs are rarely faced by most Australians outside their trip time. These are remote locations hours from serious medical help. And a fair few of the clientele are increasingly in the magic 50-60-year age bracket most identified with heart attack.

Yet the lack of safety backup at these resorts is surf tourism’s little secret. Travel insurance is always mandated, but otherwise, safety is rarely if ever mentioned in the brochures or websites. There’s not even a voluntary code of conduct. Instead it’s left to the discretion of resort and boat charter owners. Some are much more on the case than others, but you wouldn’t know from the ads.

It’s part of the culture of Indo surf exploration. The surfers who pioneered these breaks in the 1970s and 80s—scoring malaria barrels on Nias, walking along the beach into Grajagan for two weeks with a bag of rice or borrowing local fishermen’s outboard-driven canoes to check a reef around the bend from the village—weren’t putting safety too high on the list.

Neither do most of us today. Safety? Yeah right. Everything takes a distant second place to surf trip froth.

Everything took a distant second place for Darren Longbottom, too. Ten years ago, Darren and his brother Dylan were among the NSW South Coast’s best surfers—Dylan with his spectacular big-wave rep and Darren with his growing surf shop business.

Then came one of those May Indo surf trips and an afternoon towing the reef above Thunders with mates.

What happened during and after that surf is the subject of a soon-to-be-released book called Beyond The Break, co-authored by Darren and writer Tim Rushby-Smith, in which Darren describes falling on to the reef at Thunders and coming up completely disoriented. He had no clue what was wrong until minutes later, as a crew member on a jetski rushed him back to the boat he and his friends had chartered.

Darren looked up and saw his left leg flopping about in space above him and realised he couldn’t feel a thing.

“I had just experienced an enormous moment in my life,” he writes, and he isn’t kidding. Darren had broken the C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck. He was just at the start of an epic and horrendous journey, including a ride across open water strapped to the underside of a tiny helicopter as a volunteer doctor, whom they’d contacted almost by accident, rushed to get him to Singapore and safety.

Darren survived the ordeal. But he never went back to Thunders. He lives down the south coast, with wife Aimee and daughter Bowie, running two surf shops from his wheelchair.

His book may focus the minds of more resort managers on the need to step up their safety games, though it usually takes a real disaster unfolding before their own eyes to prompt that. Four years ago I was surfing a sandbar location north of the Mentawai chain when a tour group showed up and jumped in. Within an hour, one of the group was on a makeshift spinal-support board fashioned out of a surfboard, being carried to a calm water area for evacuation. Like Darren, he’d broken his neck—unlike Darren, the break hadn’t slipped on to the spinal cord.

The resort manager was so shaken he later spent several months on Queensland’s Gold Coast doing a full suite of rescue and CPR/first-aid courses through a local surf club. His camp is now possibly the only Indo surf resort boasting oxygen and a defibrillator in case of heart attack.

But maybe Darren’s book will make a difference where it counts: with the customers.

If surf travel clients begin demanding some level of safety backup along with their barrels, who knows? If one less box is flown home, it’ll be worthwhile.

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