Want to Own a Live-Aboard Surf Charter in the Mentawai Islands? Here’s Your Chance (and What You Need to Know).

by Owen James Burke

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This is the boat you should buy. Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

Ever dream of owning your own surf charter boat? Of course you have. Or maybe you haven’t. In any case, now’s your chance.

The Mentawai Islands off Sumatra, Indonesia produce some of the world’s best reef breaks, and in the last fifteen years or so it’s become a Holy Grail for the global surfing community. With more surf spots than anyone’s really willing to count, these waves are best chased by boat. Scuttlefish Editor-in-Chief Chris Dixon came across a listing on Craigslist for a turnover business that might just be the best decision of your life.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters (Nusantara meaning Archipelago).

You won’t make much money, but there’s a fair chance you’ll find yourself catching more waves than Kelly Slater.

This 70-foot catamaran charter, Samudra Biru (meaning “Blue Ocean”), is outfitted and ready to go. It’s a turnkey investment that may not keep your wife in Yves St. Laurent or put your kids through medical school, but the cheeky smiles you’ll see on their faces every time they pull out of a barrel will remind you why you got married and had children in the first place.

I rang up Mike Corica, one of five current owners, in order to find out just why they’re selling and to get the scoop on running a charter boat business in a developing country.

The long and short of it is that you could be on a plane and have charters booked within a week, but there are a few things worth knowing first. That’s why Mike and his partners are generously offering a chance to take the boat for a dry run, or even a charter, so anyone interested can see how they’d fair in a day in the life.

Mike and I discussed the ups and downs of the trade, and why any devout surfer with a little time, money and a miserable desk job would be a fool to pass it up. Just don’t count on being first in line.

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How long have you been running your catamaran, why did you get into the business (or maybe you’d prefer to call it a lifestyle), and why are you selling?

I was a schoolteacher. In the economic crisis of 2009, I had some money to invest. Normally I would’ve invested it in the real-estate market, but the market was in a free-fall. I bought this, instead. I had grandiose plans of living down there and making $250,000 a year, but it turned out that being away from my wife and kids was going to be way too difficult. Now I just use it as a lifestyle. We make a little money at the end of the year, which we usually just re-invest into making the business even better. All my money is from house-flipping, so I don’t really need the aggravation of money from this. At this point, it’s become a pain. I would love to sell it.

I’m going to keep doing surf trips down there, but at this point it’s a question of, “with whom?” I’m 53, and when I go down there, I’m usually surfing 2-3 times a day for ten straight days. I go down there to recharge my surfing batteries. Surfing here in California is essentially just exercise as compared to surfing down there. I surf here to keep my level of fitness poor—instead of just awful. 

When I come back from Indonesia, my board goes back in the board bag and I don’t even look at the ocean for a month—because there’s no point. 

You get spoiled rotten.

Exactly. I went down there in February, which is probably the worst time of the year there for surf, and it was still the best surf I’ve ever seen in my life. There were three or four boats out there. There are waves 365 days a year there. If you look at the roaring 40s, there are thirty or forty knot winds in the southern hemisphere, year-round.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

Right, big storms and long fetch. I had a look at the charts from this most recent swell. It looked like it was the size of Australia. What’s a swell of that size like in the Mentawais?

The thing with the Mentawais is that when you have a swell that big—and if the conditions are good—there are a lot of lesser-known places that never break. It’s unreal. As time goes on, you’ll see all of the footage coming out of Kandui and Hideaways as the trips come back in. There aren’t too many surfers that can paddle into double or triple overhead Kandui. All of the other spots were firing, too.

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Above: professional surfer Craig Anderson takes off during July’s historical swell at Kandui, one of the Mentawai Islands’ most legendary, and treacherous breaks, in what The Inertia has called “the century swell”. Photo: Iker San Martin. See more coverage of the swell at The Inertia.

What should people know before jumping into an enterprise like this?

None of us are really paying a great deal of attention to running the business. We go down there and do surf trips, essentially. The business doesn’t make a ton of money. It probably makes $50,000 a year the way it’s structured now. What it would really take to make money is for someone to live down there quite a bit, to make sure that things are getting done more economically than what’s happening now.

That makes sense. You have a catamaran—the mothership—and a few tenders? How old is (/are) the hull(s)? What kind of engines is the catamaran running on?

We have a seventy-foot catamaran, a thirty-six foot speedboat, an eighteen-foot aluminum dinghy with seventy-five horsepower, a twelve-foot inflatable, and a jet-ski.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

The thirty-six foot speedboat is something we just bought and had some big plans for, but isn’t being used right now. If it was retrofitted and redone, it could be used for small group charters, or for transport back and forth from resorts. It’s really not a good wave hunting machine that goes along with the catamaran because it’s too big to tow, but it could easily be kept somewhere out on the islands and be retrieved on a case-by-case basis if someone wanted to add-on that tender to the charter. It does go thirty knots, which is an advantage.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

What’s the story on the catamaran? What year is she, and where was she built?

It was built in Thailand. It was started in 1999 and finished in late 2000. It’s relatively new, but it’s been re-done three different times. When it was first built, it was built for speed. We had Cummins 420 diesel engines and surface-piercing props. The wheelhouse was a roof with isinglass (Ed’s note: isinglass is the soft, clear plastic material often used on boats for windows). It was made to be a surf-hunting machine, but it wasn’t very comfortable for the crew or the owners. When you’re driving a boat in thirty-knot winds, the rain is going sideways, and you’re soaking wet for hours at a time, it’s just not cool.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

Around 2004—and I’ve only been an owner since 2009—they completely remodeled. They added fiberglass to the wheelhouse, a windshield, and A/C so that the wheelhouse was self-contained. You could sleep in it. After I bought it, we did even more remodeling. We put a private cabin into the wheelhouse so that the boat could be driven without waking the owner. Most of the owners wouldn’t drive the boat—it was mostly the crew. We flattened out the front deck and put bench seating out. It’s kind of strange, because you’re driving the boat in the wheelhouse and out in front of you is everyone in a nice benched area—taking in the wind, taking in the spray. They love it. We have a bimini cover for the front when we’re surfing and at anchor—everyone can sit in a nice shaded breezy area. Behind the wheelhouse is a massive deck where we keep all the surfboards. The crew sleeps there, and it’s semi-covered. The crew doesn’t like air-conditioning. Below that is the salon, which is fully air-conditioned with a TV, PlayStation, and all that.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

The sleeping quarters are in the pontoons on each side of the catamaran. Everybody has a private, or semi-private, sleeping area. Out behind the salon—on the stern—is the kitchen and eating area, which is fully covered. We like to keep the kitchen area outside because of the smells and the oil—we don’t want to have a fire.

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Graphic: Nusantara Surf Charters.

It’s completely purpose-designed and built for charters. It doesn’t really get a whole lot better. Now, with all those improvements, it only goes about 12 knots. Top speed might be 13 or 14 knots. The average boat out there only goes 8 knots—they’re displacement hull boats, so you can’t go any faster than 8 knots. We’re motoring by in comfort, we’re not heaving. It’s such a better platform. There are maybe one or two other boats that are faster than us by half a knot or a knot. In my opinion, we’re the nicest boat for the money out there. 

How many crew does it take to keep the charter running smoothly?

We have a cook, a deckhand, an engineer, and the Indonesian captain, so there are usually four or five Indonesians onboard. Most of those guys will do more than one thing. The cook can do more, but he’s usually busy cooking all day. The deckhand will operate the tenders and the dinghy to shuttle people in and out of the lineup. The captain will shoot photos and do other things. The engineer is supposed to be doing maintenance on the boat and the tenders the whole time. They’re all relatively busy doing things—that’s why if we have an engineer who’s never been on the boat before, sometimes we’ll bring somebody else on. You never know how these guys will react—sometimes they’ll get seasick. There are two or three Indonesians that have been with us for a long time, and there are one or two guys that we’re rotating in or out—hiring or firing.

How do each of you operate and make out, individually? You guys, collectively, are spending just a few months down there between the five of you?

Two partners don’t ever go. Guiding fees are paid to the owner. So if I go down there, I make $2,000 guiding and my airfare is covered by the business. One owner did four trips this year. Another will do probably two trips. I will maybe do two trips. 

It’s a United States corporation, so whoever buys it gets shares of the company—whether partial or full. We just cancelled our old website and designed a new one that’s more catered to directing traffic to the agents rather than ourselves.

How are the trips by your guests organized?

If you’ve got ten dudes on a surf trip, then you have to answer questions from ten different guys. Trying to help them sort out the flights and the schedule is a nightmare. We would much rather have surf travel agents do that, then collect the dollars from the agents, pay the commission to the agent, and be done. That’s our model at this point. We do get a fair amount of repeat, self-bookings – people who have gone on our boat year after year. We’ll handle those ourselves because they know the drill and they’re easy. Any new inquiries are typically directed back to the agents to sort out their money.

What kind of paperwork do you need to operate a charter boat—legally—in Indonesia; are you licensed captains?

Everything in Indonesia must be licensed by and licensed in Indonesia, which is a joke. Have you been to Indonesia?

Once.

Have you driven on the roads in Indonesia?

Don’t remind me.

Imagine that, in the water. That’s what you have. There are no traffic laws, and there are limited laws in Indonesia regarding boating—other than laws that try to extort and extract money from businesses that make money. We have an Indonesian captain who went through all their licensing schools and he’d been driving our boat without a license for years already. He’s fully licensed now, and whether the new owner wants to keep him or not is up to them. (Ed’s note: Even if you are a licensed Captain by say, the USCG, you will still need–and want–a licensed Indonesian captain as well.) It’s easy enough to get an Indonesian captain—a paper captain, we call them—and the owners have driven the boat over the years while having the paper captain on board. (Ed’s note: In other words,  You can still play skipper of the boat if you’d like.)

The government makes the charter industry pull the boats out every year and get inspected and certified, which costs us anywhere from $10,000-$30,000 every year. Yet, fishing boats and other boats that are non-revenue-generating—they don’t even have lights. They sink all the time.

Right. It’s mayhem out there.

I’ve seen a huge tugboat with a mile-long towline, towing a barge—with I don’t even know how many tons of palm trees—at night, without a light on. 

That’s terrifying.

It’s essentially, “driver beware.” We try not to drive too much at night in the channel just because of things like that. You could get a towline that will cut your boat in half. I’ve seen the dumbest things, safety-wise, that you could ever imagine. I’ll get off my soapbox here, but there’s a culture of extortion. If you want to park your car in a parking spot, and some guy is walking by, he’ll put his hand out and want a buck just so you can park. 

That’s why someone really needs to be down there, supervising the maintenance, and supervising the crew when they’re working on the boat or buying supplies. It’s basically a license for everyone to steal when the owners aren’t there. That’s really what hurts our bottom line. We’re charging $30,000 for a trip, our individual trip costs are averaging about $15,000 and we pay fifteen percent to the agents. But then, remember, you still have maintenance at the end of the year, or at the beginning of the year. What’s leftover is $25,000 to $50,000 on a year-by-year basis. If someone were down there, maintenance would be cut down to $4,000 to $5,000 instead of $30,000 and our trip cost would be cut in half. I’m sure that there’s skimming going on, but unless you’re there, how can you prove it?

Our local person who handles our transport—who is our local agent for the boat—is very honest, but we’re paying her to run it via the skimming. The next owner has to go in there and start slowly taking it away from her—in a nice way.

That’s pretty much it. For us, I’m too busy to deal with it. Dave (one of four other part-owners) will probably never go back and he’s a little bit soured. He’ll stay on and help on anybody with the transition—with the agents and handing it all off while keeping those relationships solid. Our best booking agents are the The Perfect Wave out of Australia—they love us, but that’s not to say that when another boat drops their price, they won’t sell to them.

The Australian dollar is a huge component. Last year, when the Australian dollar was down, our boat didn’t do that well. And neither did others, because no one from Australia was going. It’s important to react to the economic times down under. If the Australian dollar is low, you have to drop your prices to keep booked. We didn’t do that . . . We were charging $35,000 a trip. If you looked at the other boats, paying $5,000 extra for our boat was a great deal. But when you’re talking about some guy that works in the mines in Australia for half the year, the difference between $2,500 and $3,500 is a lot.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

A lot of the guys that were going last year were going on the donkey boats. They didn’t care that the boat was going eight knots, they didn’t care that there were full of cockroaches, all they wanted to do was go surfing. That was our fault. We should have just lowered the price down to $28,000 or $29,000 to keep the cash flowing. It’s like a hotel—something is better than nothing. I’ll take $3,000 a trip profit vs. zero, but the other owners didn’t agree with me, so we only did nine or ten trips last year because we didn’t react soon enough. When the Australian dollar gets stronger, we can raise our prices again because there will be more people going. Until then, you’re just going to have to be aggressively priced in the market. 

Right now we’re at $29,000 and we booked the entire season this year. That’s all we needed to do last year, but we didn’t do it in time to attract the bookings. We have two or three bookings for 2016 already. We tell people that if they want to book a year out, we’ll honor the previous year’s prices. That typically gets a lot of people stoked. But you never know what’s going to happen. When all this footage comes out of the Mentawai Islands during the last big swell, there’s going to be potential for lots of booking because everyone will think, “Those waves are so huge, I need to get there next year. I’m doing a trip.”

Free marketing!

It’s literally like that. There’s an ebb and flow to it. My opinion is that if the owner isn’t down there at key times—in the thick of it—the business will just continue doing what it’s doing. Everyone gets to go surfing, they make a little bit of money, and it’s a vehicle for that lifestyle. Honestly, if you surf, and you love surfing, there’s not a better place to go surfing. It’s a playground. It’s Disneyland. That will intoxicate a lot of people. I know people that have sold their entire businesses and moved over there and started a resort for a boat. It’s that good. That can also be a potential buyer—someone who has a lot of money and doesn’t care if they make any money. They just want to surf.

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Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

Fair enough. I’d like to say I’d be there in a heartbeat, but it takes a certain breed to live there full-time; I couldn’t imagine doing that year-round.

That’s the thing. Even though it sounds really cool, after a couple years of that lifestyle—I don’t want to say it wears off, because the waves are so good. We’ve had groups on our boat that have gone nine or ten years in a row. They do it annually. You get more waves on a ten-day boat trip than you’d get most places in ten years.

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What an unfortunate sight to have to endure, day in, day out, for the rest of your life. Photo: Nusantara Surf Charters.

Contact Mike Corica through his Craigslist ad or by phone (760-578-3989), and visit the Nusantara Surf Charters website to see and learn more about the operation. Time is not on your side. -OJB

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