Wheels up! In mid-May Duane De Freese and long-ago college pal Mike Ryan flew across the Pacific headed for Kandui Resort, a surfing mecca in the Mentawai Islands chain in Indonesia.
Lying roughly 75 miles off the west coast of Sumatra, Kandui is located right in the middle of one of the world’s most prolific wave regions— commonly known as “Playgrounds” in the Indian Ocean. It is hidden among the palms on this remote island of stunning beaches, lush vegetation and turquoise lagoons. There are 21 ocean breaks within a 30-minute long dugout canoe ride from the small Karamajet Island, home of Kandui Resort. Epic surf can soar through the spring and summer months.
Welcome to the sixth go-round of the Senior Citizen's Surf Tour.
If the name Duane De Freese sounds familiar, it should. For more than three decades he has been one of the key Florida voices championing the economic and environmental values associated with common-sense ocean and coastal conservation. Currently the executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Council, De Freese regularly faces a multitude of challenges in the monumental clean-up effort of the lagoon.
A trim man with a thatch of silver hair, at age 63 De Freese has never quite shaken the surfing bug that in recent years has taken him to some of the most far-flung, glorious surf destinations on the planet.
"It takes three to five days to decompress and adjust to the power of the waves and shallow reefs. After 11 days with no shoes on and waves every day, I'm thinking I'm never coming home," said De Freese with a laugh. "It’s tough to forget work responsibilities and the plight of the Indian River Lagoon, but on these islands I try to immerse myself in the environment, letting it take over. If I get a few good rides each surf session and don’t get hurt, I figure I'm beating the age clock."
De Freese's affinity for the power of water took shape growing up in East Rockaway, N. Y. a half-mile from the Atlantic. His summer days were spent surfing and fishing, and reveling in the beach lifestyle. As a teenager he worked in his parent's garage learning the art of building a surfboard-- the shaping, sanding and glassing. After acquiring a degree in zoology up north, De Freese packed his bags and headed down to Melbourne with its nearby beaches and earned a graduate degree and Ph. D. in marine biology at the Florida Institute of Technology.
The Senior Citizen's Surf Tour started out as idle chatter in 2012 over a few glasses of wine, a pair of college and surfing buddies exploring a far-flung surfing adventure. Thirty years had passed since they had last spoken. That evening evolved into a series of sojourns to some of the most treasured surf spots.
In May 2016 De Freese and his wingman Ryan traveled to El Salvador's Pacific coast where mountains cascade to a rugged coastline. El Salvador's coastline is blessed with more than a dozen world class right point breaks which swell over rock bottoms on the ocean floor to form larger. Like Mizata Point, where waves maintain their speed and size for the length of the ride.
To date De Freese and Ryan have travelled to California, Bali, Tortola, along with multiple trips to Cardon, Mexico and the Mentawai (MEN-tah-why) Islands. While there is endless surfing and plenty of good cheer hanging out with fellow surfers at their destinations, danger lurks. In 2012 during his trip to surf the break at the Hideaways in Mentawai Islands, De Freese was pitched off his board entirely swallowed in swirling waters, before landing squarely on a reef. He suffered two fractured vertebrae and two damaged discs. It kept him out of the ocean, and in physical therapy for nearly six months.
The travel team in May were Mike and Chris Ryan on a father and son surf adventure and Jamie Randall, a first timer to the island. This was the fourth visit for Mike and Duane to Kandui.
A trip to the Mentawai Islands chain involves a lot of work. Flying to Los Angeles, to Singapore and on to Jakarta, then to Pandang. Finally, a four-hour ride in a brawny speedboat over the Java Straits brings you into Kandui Resort. His traveling party stayed in an uma, a native longhouse made by weaving bamboo strips together to make walls and thatching the roofs. It fronts the Indian Ocean.
Waves are indeed Mentawai’s most prolific and viable resource. Southern low pressure systems in the Roaring Forties send open ocean swells the length of the Indian Ocean. In the Mentawais the energy is groomed into world class waves at places named Rifles, Hideaways, Bankvaults and Kandui. The gang spent five to six hours in the ocean, three sessions a day with waves head high to slightly overhead quality waves with lots of choices.
The Mentawai Islands possess one of the world's most fascinating and preserved indigenous cultures home to its own people, language, and history.
“You meet really interesting people on these trips, all with a deep love of the ocean and surfing," De Freese noted. "The locals are deeply connected to the ocean environment. While some of the locals can be seen in surfing T-shirts and ball caps, the tribal shamans will visit the surf camp clad in traditional loin cloths and covered from head to toe in tattoos."
De Freese and his crew enjoyed dinner around a campfire in the evening feasting on local fish, and strange but bountiful fruits from the tropical rainforest. Afterwards they watched the tribesmen play their wood-slatted ritual drums and perform traditional style of dances on wood boards that are inspired by conflict, nature and animals-- monkeys, birds, and snakes.
"There is not much verbal interaction, they don't speak much English," De Freese related. "But their smiles, eye contact, a sincere handshake show their gentle nature. The shaman share a tradition, a bowl of live sago palm grubs. It’s an acquired taste and texture. Not everyone can handle putting a live grub in their mouth – bite, chew, swallow and then take a quick drink.”
De Freese saw first-hand the intersection between the 21st century surf and tourism influence and the traditional ways of the island tribes.
“Kandui Resort is strongly committed to sustainable tourism and support of the local people,"
De Freese noted. "But with influences from the mainland, tourism and sea level rise these indigenous tribes face a challenging future."
For De Freese, yes, surfing is an addiction. But is there a addiction more noble than surfing?
"It's a sport and it's spiritual as well, " De Freese explained. "You're interacting with others, but it's very much an individual pursuit. At each shore break you're laying on your board in gin clear waters analyzing the wind, the tides, the swells that are forever changing. We had young kids on this trip who surfed circles around us. The older I get I'm taking a more relaxed approach. At each destination, I'm liking it better and better."