Wish You Were Here: Mick Fanning, Matt Wilkinson, Conner Coffin and a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean
Welcome to the land of boardshorts and bikinis, non-stop waves and empty lineups. Welcome to Made For Waves, Maldives.
It’s 9amon Day Oneof the trip and we’re anchored somewhere in the Southern Atolls of the Maldives. As far as travelling goes, it wasn’t our finest day. We left our departure airport with a team of six people and arrived in Male with five. Somewhere along the way the airline caught wind of the fact that Gabby had less than six months left on his passport, and there was no amount of begging, borrowing or grown-man sobbing that could convince them to let him board our final flight. With our wits a little worse for wear, there wasn’t much else to do but say a hurried goodbye and get on the plane without him. There was a big-ass boat waiting for us in Male and we weren’t about to miss it.
The Search must go on.
The water surrounding the boat is a vibrant turquoise and the rays of the morning sun create an underwater light show broken only by the lazy meanderings of the occasional manta ray. Looking to our right, you can see dozens of tiny islands shimmering like bright emeralds upon a sapphire horizon, and to our left - the island utopia of Niyama where our swell has found its home. To be honest, it seems a little unfair that a place already endowed with such abundant natural assets could also be home to one of the most rippable left- handers on the planet, but 100m away there are glassy 4-5ft sets rolling into view and not a soul in sight.
Gabriel Medina would have f*cking loved this place.
The wave, known as Vodi, can be a fickle mistress who needs a solid southwest swell and light northerly winds to show her true colours, so when she does you simply have to sunscreen up and settle in for as long as she’ll have you. Conner, Mick and Wilko spend the better part of the day under the blistering tropical sun catching every set that comes through. The only other person who paddles out is an Orthopaedic Surgeon named Daniel who surprisingly shreds. The resort owns the wave so it’s rarely crowded, especially when there's a solid swell. It’s also conveniently parked right out the front of a reggae- blaring, cocktail-flaring Tiki bar run by a Jamaican guy named Tony who has the best dreadlocks in the history of everything. As the day wears on and the sun continues to beat down relentlessly, the alluring appeal of the Tiki bar finally surpasses that of the ocean and the boys dig their feet into the velvet white sands of Niyama for the first time.
At this point, it's probably worth mentioning that most of the crew is accustomed to being piled underneath their gear in the back of beat-up trucks; abandoned to a rugged stretch of coastline where resorts are a foreign concept and the malaria risk is high. For veterans of The Search, it wouldn’t seem unusual to be asked to pack a 6mm wetsuit and life vest for a trip, but it does catch them off guard to be asked if they'd prefer beach-style buffet or à la carte seafood for lunch. We resign to the fact that it was simply a fortunate fusion of atmospheric activity that brought us here. There might be lobster and champagne today, but who knows where tomorrow will take us.
As the sun melts behind the clouds and our moods dissolve into a rum infused haze, we wrap up the first day of surfing and go in search of something a little less wholesome. We've heard whispers of an underwater glow party and needless to say we are not going to be satisfied until we found out exactly what the f*ck this means..
It’s 9amon Day Twoand we wake up to 37 unread text messages. Rarely a good sign. The waves are firing and the aftermath of the last night’s debauchery is proving just as hard to rinse off as fluorescent glow-paint caked into facial hair. As our overwater bungalow eases into focus, we pull our sorry asses out of bed and leg it to Vodi where we’re greeted by another day of absurdly dreamlike waves.
Given the state of play, it’s little surprise that some steam has been blown off these last few days. There’s a lot going on in the minds of our athletes…. World Title dreams in the lurch, World Tour requalification hanging precariously in the air, and the great unknown of retirement… there are different pressures everywhere you look for our athletes. But not here. Staring out at the tropical scene in front of us, the turbulent picture of competitive surfing seems worlds away. In a different ocean. On a different tide. One that can safely be forgotten for a few days.
Hours later when basking in the afterglow of another dream session, it occurs to us that we could very easily just stay here in this 7-star resort with its world-class waves.
“Maybe The Search is over? Maybe it’s already been found?” – muses Conner.
“Not bloody likely” - The Ocean responds. Our guide has just caught wind of a swell about to hit a day south of here, so we quickly snap out of our spoiled reverie and re-board the boat. In the distance, storm clouds dance above deep turquoise seas and a feeling of electricity sweeps over us all. As we raise the anchor and set sail for the vast unknown, Mick snaps a sunset selfie with a beer in hand and texts it to Gabby.
“Wish you were here brother”.
Just before our reception dies and all ties to civilisation are lost, he responds with a disheveled portrait of someone who has just travelled for 48 hours and is in dire need of a shower. I think it’s pretty safe to say that he wishes he were too.
It’s 9amon Day Threeand we’re sunburnt and out of sorts. The wave we just travelled 8 hours to surf isn’t exactly the 5-6ft slab that the forecast promised, and we’re about as far away from any alternatives as anyone on the planet.
By late afternoon, the boredom becomes unbearable and Wilko and Conner commandeer the dinghy in search of something, anything, to keep it at bay. Across the channel they find a tugboat carrying a concrete barge that’s run aground on shallow reef. Our guide says it used to be a good left, but the tugboat fairly well fucked it. Still, it’s not that often that you get to surf a wave that has a concrete barge in the middle of it, so the boys paddle in to see what they can make of it.
At first? Not much. The barge seems to sap the energy from the wave, leaving it wobbly and weak. Mick soon decides to approach it from another angle, and with a board in hand and nothing but an algae covered rope for support, he scrambles his way to the top of the barge and jumps onto the wave from above. Wilko and Conner follow suit, and the afternoon becomes a fierce battle of who can do the most impressive barge jump without breaking their knees. It’s not the most conventional surf shoot I’ve ever witnessed, but hey, at least it keeps us sane.
It’s 9amon Day Fourand nobody has had a wink of sleep. Every boat trip has that one night where shit is flying out of cupboards and somebody is violently ill, and last night was our night. Since the swell dropped in the Southern Atolls, we made the decision to start the long journey north in the hopes of scoring Lohis or Sultans before it fades to nothing.
Mother Nature howled prophetically all through the night, so it’s little surprise when we arrive to 1ft waves and rain so thick you could actually drown.
Our last day in the Maldives evaporates before us as we sip on coffees that gradually morph into something a little stronger. When the clock strikes midnight and we say our final cheers before bed, there are questions still lingering amongst leftover ice cubes; in the spaces between the lashing raindrops. Did we make the most of it? Did we follow the right swells? Should we have surfed more? Less? Harder? Better? If Gabby had just one more week left on his passport, would everything have been different?
Preparing to board our long flight home the next day, it occurs to me that this is the very essence of The Search. No matter how good the swell was, how much fun was had, how perfect the weather - there will always be a part of you that wonders what more could have been explored. You can search for a lifetime for the perfect break or the perfect session, but the answers can only be found in fleeting instants, like sand captured in the palm of your hand that will eventually fall away.
I check my Instagram one last time and see a photo of Gabby sitting comfortably at home with his dog, wearing the shorts he was meant to be shooting on this trip.
“I missed you.” – He writes.
And even though the sentiment is not aimed at us – hell - not even aimed at our species; and even though I can already hear the onslaught of shit that the boys are going to give him when they see him next, it’s safe to say that the feeling is most definitely mutual.