This article first appeared on VICE Indonesia
It's got some of the sharpest reef on the planet. It can churn out giant, thundering tubes up to three stories high. And if things go terribly wrong, it's between eight and 24 hours from the nearest high-caliber emergency room equipped to handle your broken ass—depending, of course, on the availability of ferries, flights, and funds in your bank account.
Welcome to Indonesia's deadliest wave—a secret spot we've been asked to keep nameless that's off an island in a remote part of Sumatra.
“It’s definitely not a spot for the fainthearted,” Mikala Jones, a Bali-based, Hawaiian-born underground surfing legend, told VICE. “You definitely gotta want it. You gotta be just as tuned-in as if you wanna surf [Hawaii’s] Pipeline or any wave of consequence."
Jones has spent more time than anyone else mastering this deadly piece of reef. The professional freesurfer and tube-master, grew up on Oahu's North Shore, a stretch of coastline that just happens to be home to heavy waves like Banzai Pipeline and is widely considered surfing's ultimate proving ground. Maybe that's why Jones is so at home on such a deadly wave. He's been surfing monstrous waves that could definitely kill you for as long as he can remember. And Jones thinks that this wave in Sumatra, his own secret slice of heaven and hell, is up there with the best in the world.
“I remember being pretty scared shitless. They were some of the biggest barrels I’d ever seen outside of Hawaii. That was an eye opener.” —Mikala Jones
“Being from Hawaii and surfing over shallow reef, it’s kind of what I’m drawn to, you know," Jones told VICE. "Trying to surf waves at that kind of level is what I like to do and want to do, that’s what I live for in a wave, and sometimes you have to go for not so user-friendly waves to get away with surfing with hardly any people around."
A wave is energy expressed as a force of nature. But this secret spot is one of those waves that requires a massive swell to really go off. It's only when intense storm cells brew off the coast of Western Australia, churning the ocean into a frothy cauldron of energy and motion, that the conditions reach their peak. This means that Jones' world-class wave only breaks a couple times a year. And when it does, he is one of the few surfers willing to take it on.
“People know about it, they just don’t want a piece of it,” he told VICE. “It’s below sea level and the reef is intimidating and the rocks on the inside are intimidating… I had a couple bad wipeouts and you get your arse handed to you real quick on a silver platter."
Jones told me that the first time he laid eyes on the wave he was only 15 years old. It was one of his first trips to Indonesia, and the wave he saw then scared him as much as it still does today.
“I remember being pretty scared shitless,” he recalled. “They were some of the biggest barrels I’d ever seen outside of Hawaii. That was an eye opener.”
The wave has only gotten more dangerous since then. A series of earthquakes in the region over the past decade has made the reef even more shallow, with some of it now protruding from the water, including “three Volkswagen bus-sized rocks” which now wait for you on the inside if you come unstuck. While Jones has been fortunate—and skilled—enough, to avoid any serious injuries at the spot, he still suffered countless bone-jarring wipeouts, broken boards, and, at least once, a nasty run-in with the reef.
“If you decide to try and climb up the reef it’s some of the sharpest reef in the world hands down,” Jones told VICE. “I walked 100 yards in an hour,” he said of this one time when he slowly picked his way across the reef after a particularly bad wipeout.
But the wave also serves up “pound-for-pound” some of the biggest, roundest barrels in the world—the ultimate rush for any surfer. Jones likens it to the “red-headed stepchild” of North Shore's more famous Pipeline or Tahiti's angry, unpredictable Teahupoo. But unlike those waves, which break in the same spot every time, the Indonesian counterpart offers three different take-off spots. A surfer has to commit early and paddle hard into position while, at the same time, remain ready to go into self preservation mode should the wave do something out of character, which often does.
“You just gotta roll the dice,” Jones said. “It’s definitely a good feeling if you can make the drop and make the wave. You’re getting an A+barrel for sure. If not you’re getting an A-Plus beat down.”
The worst injury he’s seen on the wave was this one surfer who “straightened out and ripped his whole cheek off his face.” All things considered, he admitted that the “risk is probably higher than the reward,” but this also keeps the crowds down, which, for a professional surfer, is everything.
“If you get a couple out there it’s addictive, it just kind of lures you back even though the risk is probably higher than the reward,” he said. “If it was a perfect wave there’d be people on it. It’s not a perfect wave [but] sometimes you gotta surf more of a dangerous lineup to surf waves by yourself."