A Ladies’ Boat in the Mentawais

by Sachi Cunningham

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Bianca Valenti catching some tube time. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

It’s on every surfer’s bucket list who fancies themselves hard core. Once an unchartered gold mine of perfect waves kept secret by a hand full of buccaneers, we now know “The Ments” like it’s our backyard break from surf and social media. “Macas” and “HTs” are tossed around as household names like “Pipe” and “Mavs”. The trip has been perfected into a 10-12 day trip that, for a mere $2000 – $5000 (not including air fare) you can surf for 6-8 hours a day, have a personal chef keeping your belly full and unlimited Bintangs (that’s the local brew) to pass the time while you rest and rehydrate. If you’ve played your cards right, you’ll be with 5-10 of your best friends, all charging surfers having the best surf trip of your life. No neoprene. Schools of angel fish and fluorescent green coral at your feet and waves long and consistent enough that you feel like you’re practicing your swing at the driving range. Barrels for days.

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This is why you come to the Mentawais. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

That was the fantasy that I saw materialize for male surfing friends over the years, or an occasional wife or girlfriend lucky enough to safely join a boat of frothing men in search of waves.

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Our home for 10 nights and 10 days, the Samudra Biru, or “Ocean Blue.”  Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

Then the opportunity presented itself recently to get in on an all women’s boat trip to the Mentawais with my favorite home break homies from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I was not going to let anything get in the way. I left my 2 ½ year old daughter with my husband who, fortunately for me and the negotiations that come with both parents being surfers, had already celebrated his 40th birthday with a crew of friends at the Macaronis camp a few months prior.

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Left to right, Bianca Valenti, Monique Labuschagne Kitamura and Leah Guillermo paddle out. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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From left to right, Rebecca Wunderlich, Suzie Yang, Cindy Yang, Bianca Valenti, Leah Guillermo and Beth Price sizing up the lineup. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Two days of travel goes much faster when you’re with a group of friends. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Our guide and boat owner Cindy Yang kept us all happy. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

These photos are a few of the highlights of a magical stretch of time. The women, all based in the Bay Area, are “professional surfers” in that they’re good at what they do to pay the bills, and they’ve all figured out how to build their lives around surfing regularly. Ranging in age from 29-44, we had among us four moms, a dentist, a few firefighters, an entrepreneur, exercise physiologist, project manager, event planner, teacher, biotechnology expert, chef, filmmaker and one legitimate pro surfer who happened to be the 2014 women’s big wave champ.

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Bianca Valenti setting up for some more tube time. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

There are boats and land camps everywhere now. The secret is out. Yet despite this, I felt like we were breaking ground in relatively unchartered waters. There were a handful of women staying on land camps, but very few on boats. Definitely no boat loads of women with a bench as deep as ours.

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Left to right, Bianca Valenti, Anna Wankle, Leah Guillermo, Rebecca Wunderlich and Wendy Chan. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

On one of our last days we met an Australian Captain who had spent the last 20 years working on boats in the Mentawais, including the original Indies Explorer. I asked if he had ever seen a non-pro boat full of women, and he said no. We had the added distinction that our guide and partial owner of the boat is also the first female guide in the Islands and of course, shreds. We played by the rules and didn’t let any wave go unridden, save a few poundings that left three of us with respectable reef tattoos and one dislocated shoulder. Needless to say, despite the injuries and jellyfish stings, it was a whole lot of fun.

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Bianca Valenti getting some air time. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Monique Labuschagne Kitamura is pure style and grace. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Monique Labuschagne Kitamura all smiles after another great session. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Suzie Yang, Rebecca Wunderlich and Beth Price stretch and talk story in the boat’s TV lounge room. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Suzie Yang enjoying a Bintang at the end of the day. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Leah Guillermo enjoying the morning view. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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There were other ladies charging in the lineup, like Santa Cruz Ola Chica swim wear CEO Aylana Zanville, who spends a few months a year working at a land camp in the Mentawais. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Mother of two Sabrina Ritchie is all smiles at the bow of our boat en route to a tiny island near Bat Caves. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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“Popeye,” one of our outstanding crew. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Suzie Yang calls the father son tandem team into her wave. Perhaps not something you’d be likely to see if the lineup was full of amping dudes. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Leah Guillermo, AKA Avatar in her full body SlipIns SkinPhoto: Sachi Cunningham.

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Rebecca Wunderlich gearing up. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Beth Price and Leah Guillermo stretching between sessions while Suzie Yang takes a rest. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Beth Price is one of the first women to surf big Ocean Beach. The experience paid off in the tropics. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Wendy Chan sporting her new Okiino leggings and Carve Designs rash guard while waiting for the next set. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Rebecca Wunderlich bottom turn. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Bianca Valenti paddling out in the rain. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Bianca Valenti gave a clinic in every spot we surfed. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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If there was a barrel to be had, Bianca Valenti was in it. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Monique Labuschagne Kitamura warming up. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Sure the butt shot is cliché, but hey, if you’ve got it … Monique Labuschagne Kitamura paddling out. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Signature Kitamura style. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Monique Labuschagne Kitamura is all smiles after a few pumps down the line. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Bianca Valenti. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Bianca Valenti. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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San Clemente surfer Matt Thompson on what we were told was the best day at Rifles all season. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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The back of Thompson’s wave at Rifles. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Boats and the occasional dolphin were our most frequent visitors. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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Our Captain, Dodi Chandra AKA “Bong” and stellar cook, Ucok. Read more about Nusantara Charters and Samudra Biru (which is for sale, by the way) in a Scuttlefish interview with co-owner Mike CoricaPhoto: Sachi Cunningham.

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Another beautiful sunset on a perfect day in the Mentawais. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

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The end of the day meant motoring off to new islands and adventures. Photo: Sachi Cunningham.

Sachi Cunningham is a multimedia journalist and filmmaker, and Professor of Multimedia Journalism at San Francisco State University. Her award-winning work has been screened and featured in film festivals and media outlets around the world including the New York Times and PBS Frontline, with subjects ranging from international conflict (watch her recent PBS Frontline feature, “The Rise of Isis“) to environmental issues and artful profiles of some of the world’s most prolific waterpersons including Olympian Michael Phelps and big wave surfer Garrett McNamara. View her portfolio here.

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