The Scuttlefish

Love the Ocean. Wish you were here.

Category: indonesia

On the Road to Meet the Andaman Sea Gypsies. Part II: Boating Amongst the Slaveships in Myeik, Burma.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

A pale-gray haze lay over the port of Myeik, backed by a droning cacophony of outboard motors and dredges. Few were talking. Almost no one was smiling. The scene looked bleak, and the scarcity of the sun didn’t brighten the picture.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

But then almost all commercial fishing ports carry this tone. It was only later, in Thailand, that I came to realize how close to the edge of hell some of these people were living.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

With no permission granted from the government to visit the Mergui Archipelago where the Moken–a small, disenfranchised group of sea-dwelling ethnic Austronesians known in Burma as the Selung–are said to live, I had left Yangon for Myeik, 535 miles to the south where my travel agent–though she’d advised against it–suggested I might find a captain willing to sneak me out to meet the elusive virtuosos of the sea.

My flight had landed earlier that day and I’d caught a motorcycle taxi straight down to the port of Myeik, which I was told would be the busiest and therefore likeliest harbor for me to hitch a ride out to the Mergui Archipelago where the Moken are said to weather monsoon season.

I had no intention of spending a single night in Myeik–I’d already lost enough time in Yangon. It was still early in the morning, and as far as I could tell, the weather looked fair enough to set sail for open water.

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“I was Just a General Prick.” Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan on Surfing, Relationships and the Decisions We Make.

Ed’s note: This is the final entry in a four-part interview with Barbarian Days author William Finnegan. You’ll find links to all the interviews at the end of this one.


“But everything felt different without Caryn: harsher, more jagged.”
William Finnegan, with Caryn Davidson, 1971. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

CD: There’s something that struck me in reading Barbarian Days, and in my own life as a 48-year-old who’s now married with kids. First. I’m glad I had kids late, and second, I still feel really, really bad, sometimes terrible, about the way I’ve treated some of the women in my life. And that’s in part because of surfing. I wonder if you feel the same way. Just judging by the relationships you describe in the book. I mean, you were almost a father at 18. I’m wondering if you ever consider that alternate reality. What if you had become a parent young, and was surfing so much of a relationship killer? Were you a selfish sonofabitch? I was. I just wonder how you look back at the relationships you describe in the book, and what surfing did to those relationships.

BF: The short answer is I feel the same way you do. Both about when to have kids – also late, in my case – and what kind of boyfriend or partner I was when I was younger. I include in the book a conversation I had with a guy named André, a big-wave surfer. We met in Madeira. He was from Oregon, and he was really young, so I was surprised to hear that he was divorced. He started telling me about it, and it was a stark little story. Surfing broke up his marriage. You know, “These women gotta know what they’re getting into,” that sort of thing. He was actually hilarious. He said, “It’s like if you or I hooked up with a fanatical shopper. You’d have to accept that your entire life would be traveling around to malls. Or, really, more like waiting for malls to open.” He wasn’t trying to be funny. He was just thinking it through, from the other side, and I thought, Wow, great analogy. While we were talking, we were driving around looking for waves, and it wasn’t good, the tide was too high, so we ended up sleeping in the car by a surf spot — just a couple of shoppers waiting for the mall to open.


Madeira, 1998. Relationship killer. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

But I never really experienced that kind of stark conflict with girlfriends over surfing. “What do you mean you’re going surfing?!” For one thing, my life was rarely that settled or domestic when I was young. More often, with a girlfriend, we’d be traveling. So I might be dragging her to Maui or Sri Lanka or wherever. The girlfriends I’m thinking of, as I say this were people with more smarts and education than I had, people who really wanted to do something in the world, but who just weren’t sure what that was yet. Which left them open to my agenda, which almost always involved looking for waves. I usually had a portable project—I was usually working on a novel—so I was okay with living in a hut in the jungle near the coast in Sri Lanka. And maybe my girlfriend had a project to work on, which would be good, but maybe she didn’t. The whole enterprise was driven by my surf mania.

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We’ll Never Let Anybody Know. And We Stupidly Believed That Would Work. From Tavarua to Nias with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan. The Third of a Four-Part Interview.


Kevin Naughton on the cover of the 1984 Surfer Magazine issue that revealed Tavarua to the World. Before this, William Finnegan surfed the island in blessed solitude. 

Editor’s Note. Recently, I fired up Skype for a chat with author and longtime New Yorker reporter William Finnegan. In his recently released New York Times bestselling memoir Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, Finnegan has written a sweeping, engrossing narrative that literally took six decades of living to write. Today, Finnegan talks about stumbling onto what are today among the most famous spots on earth – surfing them completely alone, and the tragedy of the commons that’s unfolded in the years since. All the interview entries are also linked at the end of this one. — CD 


Barbarian Days. Well worth 1926 pennies.

Chris Dixon. Something that really struck me, and I’m sure you had this discussion with other surfers who read Barbarian Days, is the scale of your hits in your surf travel. I’m reading the book, and I’m thinking, I’ve been there, I’ve been there, I haven’t been there – but I know about that place. I’m reading the book, and just shaking my head and wondering aloud, was there a point – maybe Tavarua when it was exposed by Surfer – was there a point where you realized, holy shit, I had these experiences in places that would become seminal in surfing; Nias, Tavarua, Grajagan, Jardim do Mar. I’m sure some felt remarkable, like real discoveries, but did you feel some of these would become seminal places in surfing? Does that make sense?

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A Ladies’ Boat in the Mentawais


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.


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.


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.


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


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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The Atlas of Surfing History: A Visual Tour of Surfing Through Time

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Above: “Ghana, West Africa.” “In 1835, writes Smith, “the captain of an exploration ship describes people surfing…” the shores of Ghana in West Africa. Art: Ron Croci.

While Polynesian folklore and legend surrounding surfing dates back many centuries, some of the earliest (Western) historical records of surfing come not from the South Pacific, but Syria, according to author Joel Smith and illustrator Ron Croci’s forthcoming book, entitled The Atlas of Surfing History: a journey through time, due out in early 2016.

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Above: “Syria.” Oil on panel. Art: Ron Croci.

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Help S/V Carthago Sail Water Filters Around the World to Those Who Need Them Most

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Gina Harris and Jose Castello aboard Carthago. Photo courtesy of Couch Sailors.

S/V Carthago, a Beneteau 423 will be departing from San Francisco Bay this fall, and aboard it will be my good friends Jose and Gina who are quitting their jobs with plans of circumnavigating this fine globe. For their voyage, they’re joining nonprofit organization Waves for Water as “Clean Water Couriers” to collect as many portable water purification filters as they can and deliver them to the places they visit that lack clean or accessible water.

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A Devastatingly Effective Ocean Series Shows a 164-year-old New York Times Still at the Top of Its Game.

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Screen grab from the NYT’s: Stowaways and Crimes Aboard a Scofflaw Ship

On September 16, 1851, publisher Harvis Jarvis Raymond launched what would become western journalism’s most loved, hated and famed ship of state. This was the day the first The New York Daily Times rolled off the presses. Since that fateful day, humans from William Randolph Hearst to Bill O’Reilly to Richard Nixon have lobbied and prayed for the demise of journalism’s great Grey Lady and the newspaper of record for the world. It ain’t happened yet.


Everyone who read or wrote for the first edition of The New York Times has been dead for a long time. 

As a writer honored to have an occasional byline in the Times, here’s my personal opinion as to why, even in the face of ascendent technology, occasional scandal and blunder, and the bluster of blowhards who want her sunk, the Grey Lady remains defiantly afloat.


Photo from Stowaways and Crimes Aboard a Scofflaw Ship by Basil Childers/NYT

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


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.


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.

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