Every winter through the nineties, a small crew of surfers from St Agnes and Porthtowan decamped to a remote archipelago off the coast of North Sumatra, Indonesia. Some of them spent the spring and summer working for Chops at our surfboard factory at Wheal Kitty whilst others lifeguarded the local beaches; all of them rode Chops’ boards. Last summer, twenty years since the last visit and just over thirty years after first discovering their own wave-rich paradise, the extended crew reassembled with a healthy quiver of Cord boards to reacquaint themselves with the legend they created.
“I was nineteen when we first found our way out there” recalls Robin Kent. “That trip was with Minzy (Martin Mynne) and my dad and brother in 1991. We were some of the first British guys to go up to the Hinakos from Nias, but not actually the first.”
That first visit started out as a trip to Nias. That alone involved some serious and committed travel; a flight to Kuala Lumpur, a ferry across the Straits of Malacca from Penang to Medan, a sketchy 12-hour bus ride across North Sumatra to Sibolga where they boarded another barely sea-worthy ferry that took 12 hours to get them over to Nias Island before a final bus ride down to the fabled Lagundri Bay on the island’s southern tip. For many surfers, after all of that travel time, being at one of the best righthand reefs in the world whilst it was still relatively uncrowded would have been enough. But the call of discovering new waves is strong in some, and when they were shown photos of perfect waves with even fewer surfers on them on a nearby island chain, a small crew of them made a plan and chartered a local fishing boat. The fishing boat was a glorified canoe, which thinned the numbers somewhat, but Robin joined Martin Mynne (Minzy) and a few others for a week of 150 metre long reeling overhead lefts in the Hinakos all to themselves. After a visa run back to Penang, plans to travel down to Sumbawa were swiftly changed when Minzy got a roll of film developed and showed the rest of the crew his photos. They all returned this time, chartering a more seaworthy boat and taking enough food and water with them. They scored incredible waves – 6-10 foot barrelling A-Frames with no other surfers to be seen.
“We spent the next 10 years doing good stints (mainly UK winter months) out in the Hinakos, and from mid nineties onwards we bypassed the crowds of Lagundri Bay and went direct overland to get a shorter (5 hour) boat ride to the Hinakos,” says Robin. “We had pretty much empty waves up there, compared to the busy and compact line up of Nias. A small crew of French surfers were doing the same as us through the early to mid nineties and carried on into early 2000s.” James Hendy first headed out there in 1996. “I went on that trip with Rabs - we did it on a shoestring budget and overland all the way. It’s often said that the journey is as memorable as the destination, and that is my most vivid memories of my trip. It was such a crazy mission and we were rewarded at the end of the road with uncrowded pristine perfection, and meeting Robin, his brother JK and some other close friends in one of the most remote parts of Indo.”
These waves, and this experience, were in stark contrast to spring and summer at home in Cornwall. The waves were perfect but they were big and powerful, and there were no creature comforts.
“The Hinakos pick up a lot of swell, and rarely goes below head high but can often get too big when the swell turns on, so we had to take decent size boards to cope with the size” says Robin when talking about the boards that he and other Aggie boys had shaped specifically for their winter missions. “We were basically camping” he continues, “we had a big very rudimentary stilted hut that was right on the beach. It was divided up into a couple rooms, so we would spread all our gear out, lay out all of our padded board bags for mattresses, and tie up our mozzie nets from the timbers. Initially we had to take all of our supplies with us to the islands, making fires everyday to cook and spearfishing.”
James Hendy recalls daily trips to the well in the centre of the island to get their “drinking” water, which was brackish and that they had to strain thorough a rash vest and boil for three hours before drinking. When the weather turned bad and they couldn’t go spearing for fish to eat, they had to sit out the storm and survive on dried noodles, rice and cabbage, sometimes for more than a week at a time. It was hardcore by modern western standards, particularly when you consider that they were living like this by choice for the sake of scoring perfect empty waves.
This time around, the assembled Aggie crew took a different approach. “We liked the remoteness of being up in the Hinako, but I definitely wouldn’t cope with all the hardships these days!” laughed Robin. That original hut on stilts was still there, but after the massive earthquakes of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and then another in late March 2005 that both had their epicentres very close by, just north of Nias island on Sunda Trench fault line, it now sits 40 metres inland. Those earthquakes lifted the island by about two metres, so where the hut once had waves surging up to and under it at high tide, it’s now 40 metres back from the water’s edge behind a ring of jungle that had been growing for the last 17 years on land that was once underwater reef.
Rather than relive past experiences, it was agreed that a boat trip would be more comfortable. Old friend and nineties Hinakos mission accomplice Eugene Tollemache now skippers the Jiwa, a 75ft twin-masted Sulawesi phinisi that offers dedicated surf charters around the Northern Sumatra archipelago.
Last summer it all came together, and Cord head shaper Markie Lascelles joined original pioneers Robin Kent, Martin Mynne, Rab Dakin, Nick Jones, Greg, Luke, and James Hendy, alongside James’ son Koa and Finn Roberts on the Jiwa for a twelve day feast of fairy-tale Indonesian surf.
“This time the trip for me was very different as my son and I travelled the short trip up from our home in Bali,” James said. “However, upon meeting the boys including Robin and Rabs who were there on the first trip, we made a quick decision to ditch our flights from Medan to Sibolga and do the 12 hour drive across North Sumatra instead. The reason for the drive was that we wanted to out-run a storm that was brewing that the boat would get caught in if we started at the port we had intended. So one day ahead of schedule the boat moved up the coast and we drove to meet it. This reminded all of us what an insanely hairy and arduous mission driving in that region is… but what was happening seemed to be the only way we were going to do it. It was like it was scripted to remind us of the old days!”
As well as revisiting the classic spots that the boys helped to pioneer, being aboard the Jiwa also allowed them to move about a bit more and surf some of the spots that had been just rumours or had yet to be discovered back in the day. They had an afternoon at a mystery slab-right that nobody had heard of, although that may be because it was barely surfable and only Markie and Robin elected to try and take it on.
“From out at sea, the islands looked much the same. But they all had this new band of new growth around them” James said. " It’s mind blowing to think that a land mass could change so much in a few minutes. The waves have obviously been hugely affected but most of the key features of the wave shape are still intact. Asu is a very different wave with the end barrel section we called the Purple Ledge now completely high and dry out of the water. That wave now breaks off the back in deeper water and the wave has become much softer”
For Markie, it was the fulfilment of a bucket-list trip that he’d been daydreaming of since he was at secondary school, having spent every Easter holidays hanging around his dad’s surfboard factory and on the beach absorbing the stories and tales from the returning older guys who had just got back from a winter in Indo. As a shaper it was great to test-drive some new boards and new ideas in solid surf over tropical reefs, and on a personal level it was special getting to shape a quiver of boards for the boys on the trip that was once a task that his dad undertook each autumn. Bawa may have been where Tom Curren showed the surfing world what could be done on a 5’7” Fireball fish back in 1994, but for several seasons before then and ever since, our boards have been a tool of choice for some of the committed crew who pioneered these waves.