What does it take to be the bitch, the foil, the man servant to surfers on vacation? Phil Goodrich explains.
December 2005. I was already saving and planning my trip back to Indonesia when I received an email from a boat captain that I greatly respected.
“It’s a new resort so we can’t pay you but you’ll get room and board and you can surf and paint all you want. Just take the guests surfing.”
I was over the moon! I got chosen to be an Indonesian surf guide! Some would consider it a dream job: endless days of perfect waves, drop the guests off in the lineup, answer a few questions. How hard could it be?
For the last five years I had been traveling to Indonesia the hard way. I was always alone and staying in the cheapest and most feral of accommodations. I would haggle every rupiah to its lowest price. I studied the language and culture. My whole existence and identity was based around Indonesia.
What I didn’t realise was that I had become an emaciated cliche. When I got invited to be a surf guide on the island of North Sipora, I didn’t realise what kind of personality traits were required to be a good surf guide.
It started off badly. Roger was our first guest. He was a civil servant from Sydney. His boat trip plans fell through in Padang so the resort was his plan B or C. He let me know this straight away. His smug face suggested that he was doing us a favour by booking and being the first guest.
Roger reminded me of a cross between Fred Flintstone and Herman Munster. At dinner on our first evening he brought a guide book of Mentawai surf breaks to the table. It was battered and dog-eared with extensive notes in the margins. He began giving me a verbal pop quiz about each wave. In reality, I was new to the Mentawais. My area of expertise was Nias Island. One of the co-owners had taken me around on the speed-boat and shown me most of the spots and I had taken notes as to what wind and swell direction were optimal.
I was in no position to offer much of an opinion and the resort’s promise of internet and a cell phone had fallen through. This meant that I had no way to check a surf forecast and the resort was located on the leeward side of the island. The closest spot was Icelands which meant it was a 10-minute boat ride and impossible to tell what the conditions were like.
Unbeknown to Roger, the main owner had informed me that because we only had one guest it didn’t justify using the amount of fuel necessary to reach the Playgrounds area. I was told to secretly keep him in our local vicinity which meant Scarecrows to Icelands. Roger told me at the end of dinner that he was keen to score Rifles, a very fast and shallow right in the Playgrounds area. I felt trouble brewing immediately.
On our first morning we came around the channel at Tua Pejat and pulled up to a wave we nicknamed Ombak Tidur (Sleepy Wave). Absolutely flawless five-foot peaks were spinning across the reef. There were no charter boats in sight. No local fishing boats. Roger was unaffected. Ombak Tidur was not in his guide book.
“We should go to Rifles,” he said.
I was trying to wax my board and apply sunscreen at the same time.
“Roger, IT’S GOING OFF RIGHT HERE! THERE ARE NO OTHER BOATS. It’s just you and me, man! We have it to ourselves!”
“I’m the guest here and I want to go to Rifles,” he said.
“Well, I’m the guide and its firing. We’re surfing here,” I said as I dived off the boat.
I watched as he fumbled with all of his gear and clumsily paddled into the lineup. I called him into a nice set wave and watched as he slowly tried to get to his feet. Roger did an excellent cartwheel down the face and got washed all the way inside. I didn’t see him again for maybe four hours.
I surfed until I couldn’t paddle anymore and got barrelled on just about every wave. As I approached the boat I noticed his arms folded across his chest and a scowl on his face.
Things got worse for Roger and me. He didn’t enjoy lefts and 7 Palm, Scarecrows, Telescopes and Icelands were the four closest breaks to the resort (all lefts). For the rest of the week he let me know how good all of the other waves in the Playgrounds are must be.
Roger complained about me when he got back to Padang on the Sumatran mainland. I only got to guide about five more trips and combined with my constant nagging about the internet and cell phone reception the Italian owner had enough. I listened as the chef received a phone call at dinner.
“Yes. Uh huh. Ok. I’ll tell him. Bye,” muttered the chef. “That was Seb. He says you’re fired mate.”
The motherfucker didn’t even have the balls to fire me face to face or even tell me directly over the phone.
So what makes a good surf guide? The finest example was Christian Jon Barton (Barts). I say this not because he passed away this October but because it is a plain fact. The guy was a legend in every sense of the word. He had the unique ability to combine confidence, knowledge, skill, patience, and people skills. He was a fiend for perfect waves. He coveted the best conditions possible for the guests and the mundane questions that plagued most guides would not faze Barts. The most challenging circumstances were water off a duck’s back. Within the rumour-mill and back-stabbing world that is Padang (the charter boat departure port) he was able to transcend all of the petty feuds. This allowed him the freedom to work for multiple charter boats and resorts. He was liked and respected by all of the captains and resort owners and especially the guests. He could mingle with top 16 WCT surfers and affluent, awkward old guys. He made every guest feel important. His confidence was contagious so everyone believed that they were headed for the best possible waves according to the weather conditions. He embraced all of the roles of a surf guide – coach, weatherman, referee, first aid expert, cheerleader, ding repairman, board caddy and psychologist. He juggled all of these hats while patiently waiting for the set of the day when he would pull in and get spat out or destroy the lip with expert precision.
Indonesia has not been the same this year without Christian. I’m working as a surf guide at Macaronis Resort for a few trips and as much as I’ve tried to honour his memory I still fall short. My people skills are still atrocious. I come off as aloof and indecisive. I’m usually just learning names when people are about to finish their trip. Although I am clearly better than that first attempt in 2006 I can still wear the badge of The World’s Worst Surf Guide.
(This video short is a collection of Phil’s waves as a surf guide. And to see his artwork, click here!)