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Beach Grit

Yemen: The most perfect wave ever!

Chas Smith

by Chas Smith

Chapter 8: Or how Al-Qaeda smashes Kelly Slater.

(I am writing a series about Yemen because what is currently happening there is terrible beyond. My inaction disgusts me and so I am going to introduce you to to the country because… the place, people, culture all deserve to be saved. Catch up, if you wish, on the links right here… (Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7)

And so we left the mountains and its Al-Qaeda in order to return to the coastline and its unexplored potential. And its Al-Qaeda too. It took half a day to wind from Ataq down to Bir Ali. I remember watching the countryside pass by the open window. The homes engineered throughout the centuries to keep men away from women. Towers that hid secret stairways and doorways. Goats out front chewing scrub. Bower Horse sold in random side road kiosk.

Bir Ali was the first place on the map that looked like it would have surf. By “looked” I don’t mean a careful bathymetrical plumbing or any accounting of swell direction. No. I mean it was the first place up the coast from Aden where there was any variation in the coastline on our giant foldable map. Bays and spits etc. Coastal variation, to my mostly Oregonian mind, meant surf. When the land stuck out like a tongue or formed a cove then waves would appear.

We arrived into the wall of sweltering coastal humidity with my anticipation at an all time high. Bir Ali. It sounded good, sounded exotic, and would also look good on the page next to my feathering barrel. Bir Ali. Barrel Ali.

Yet there was nothing. Not even ankle slappers. We drove up and down the coast, into the bays, out on the spits. We climbed a large hill that might have been the buried remnants of an ancient fort and peered to the northeast and nothing and peered to the southwest and nothing. Major Ghamdan entertained himself by shooting his Kalashnikov at two young men on the beach. I remember them rushing away and Ghamdan’s laugh.


We rented a boat from a regal looking fisherman and he took us to the places we couldn’t see and nothing. I was almost devastated. If nothing in Bir Ali and waist high Aden was our best find how angry would Sam George be? Son of a bitch. He would be angry.

The heat. The heat and the dust. And depression began to set in. We had been on the road for maybe two weeks at this point and had two and a half months to go. Two and a half months for waist high Aden. Middle eastern travel, especially when the roads turn to dust and the heat is inescapable and Arab music videos can’t be found challenges even the stoutest disposition. Did you ever watch the film Jarhead? I am not generally a Jake Gyllenhaal fan but he captured its essence perfectly in that movie. Perfectly. Maybe it is the 5000 extra years of history bearing down. Maybe it is the lack of alcohol. Maybe it is the way the sun hits the dust then hits the soul. All I know is when depression hits in the middle east it hits. And hits hard.

I went to bed that night in some hot room depressed and woke up the next morning depressed. J. and N. wanted to explore further. I wanted to leave and continue toward the next town, Mukallah and must have bitched to the point of forcing the issue because we left Barrel Ali in our rearview and we left its semi-combed over potential.

Depressed. I remember feeling depressed then, staring out the window at the flat coastline as it passed by. We curved inland for a minute, ate lunch, probably bought qat, then back to the coastline.

And waves.


They were unrideable, messy, slamming into small rock cliffs but waves. Waves. Magic. Waves. We were all craning our necks, driving stupidly slow, holding our breaths and then rounded one more corner. 10 kilometers outside Mukallah there was a wave breaking that had a left and a right.

And fuck.

We pulled over immediately, ripped the coffin from the Landcruiser’s roof, pulled boards out and trunks on and stepped down huge rocks into the water. Waves.

We paddled shoulder to shoulder not knowing how deep it was or anything else. The water was thick and murky. And warm. We made it outside. Sat. And then a wave stood up. I paddled, caught, dropped in, popped up and ecstasy. Pure unbridled ecstasy.

Photographic evidence shows I was wearing a long-sleeved rashguard and that the wave was generously head high but it was a wave. A proper wave. And we surfed that thing for five hours that day, until the sun set all the way. I couldn’t believe it at the time and the emotions of that day have been so branded onto my heart that it is impossible to write about it objectively.

It was the best wave in the entire world. A right and a left. Head high and ridiculously fun. Uncrowded because we were the first people to ever surf it. It had gone unridden for 5000 years. A wave. An honest to goodness wave dead smack in the middle of Yemen. I was so in love that I begged to name it after my wife, the one I am thankfully divorced from today and hate. That wave is still the highlight of my surfing life.

That wave is probably why I hate Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch so much. His inland atrocity is the opposite of adventure. It is guarantee. And it is in my ex-wife’s backyard. Fuck them both. Long live uncertainty. Long adventure.

Long live Yemen.