Words and Images by Joel Coleman
I work as a surf and ocean photographer. Yes, I’m one of those guys that travels the world, with a camera, taking photographs of breaking waves, the ocean’s beauty and the people around it.
It is through this line of work that I found myself standing on the back deck of the PNG Explorer while she sat at anchor in Buka Harbour, Bougainville, PNG. I was drinking from a coconut for breakfast and watching the sunrise through the thick steam of the dense tropical morning when it started to pour. Big heavy raindrops, thick raindrops, raindrops that had me soaked in seconds, yet still luscious and warm.
PNG really is paradise. But standing on the deck, soaked, having spent a few weeks in this amazing part of the world doing nothing but hunting for waves, had left me craving something, more surf. It is my understanding that your thirst for surfing is never quenched, rather, immersing yourself in saltwater and riding waves simply leaves you wanting more. Sure, there may be the temporary elation of being ‘surfed out’ when your muscles reach the point of exhaustion and your skin has been roasted by the tropical sun, but give it a few days and your mind will start to wander again, you will start to crave something, crave surfing.
At the beginning of any surf trip there is a vast array of emotions pouring out through uncomfortable hours in economy class airline seats to the sweaty plastic benches of a developing nation’s airport departure gates. Yet once the crew’s wave count starts to tick over into the double digits, then the triple digits, something happens. People start to live in the present.
You can never really enjoy what you are doing now if you are looking to enjoy something better in the future. But after a good few days surfing, the orange robed monk in all of us comes to the forefront and stills our fragile minds, minds that have been corrupted by modern society and the older guys who were meant to look out for us as grommets at the local board-riders contests, but instead took us to the pub.
We find ourselves enjoying every second of what we are doing, while we are doing it. Surfing is about the present and that is exactly what you become when all you do is surf.
But how do I survive? How do I pay the bills? How do I look after my family if I spend so much time surfing? Let’s be real, the pro-tour is probably not knocking on your door! If I could answer these questions I would, but I can’t – you need to figure that our on your own.
To be honest, I struggle as much as anyone with the work vs. surf equation. I find myself sneaking off for a mid-morning session and wondering why it is that I am lucky enough to be out in the water when most others are chained to their jobs. But with a little lifestyle engineering and some real effort on your part, you can find a new direction, and a path that not many others are trudging along.
I’m not talking about finding yourself on a ‘weekend retreat’ three hours from the city with every other yoga loving, latte drinking ‘soul surfer’. I am talking about the real deal. After all, you don’t just find yourself standing tall in a heaving barrel after surfing once a week your whole surfing life at your local beach break. It takes years of practice, dedication and commitment to get there, so stop living vicariously through the photographs in surf magazines and go surfing already!
What does any of this have to do with a trip to PNG? As I mentioned I am a surf and ocean photographer, I spend my life photographing other people getting incredible waves. The amazing charter aboard the PNG Explorer to the island of Bougainville came about whilst I was on my second surf charter in PNG in 2012 and I saw a photograph of a wave hanging on the saloon wall of the boat. A photograph of an empty wave with a guy sitting on his board in the channel, hands on his head as if to say ‘Oh my God would you look at the size, shape and beauty of this wave’. I asked the captain where it was and he said ‘Bougainville’. Any one who surfs knows my next question: ‘Can we go there?’
Just over twelve months later we were on our way there. Some things take time to organize and a trip to this most remote region of PNG is no easy task to pull together. Bougainville, as recently as the late 1990’s was considered a no-go zone due to the civil war known as ‘The Crisis’. It was described as the largest conflict in Oceania since the end of World War II. Today, Bougainville is beginning to, albeit slowly, welcome people back and, like many other conflict torn yet wave rich regions around the world, surfers, through the efforts of Andrew and Jude Rigby who operate the PNG Explorer have been amongst the first people to again start revisiting the region.
The Bouginvillian people were amazing to talk to. The older generation of men that came out to the PNG Explorer to talk with us were often very well educated, skilled people who, through the civil war, had all but lost their ability to make a living. Bougainville used to operate the largest open cut copper mine in the world providing PNG with 45% of its national export revenue. When the crisis took over the island, the mine closed. It remains closed to this day. Effectively this has meant the people of Bougainville have been left in limbo with an older generation of well educated, skilled people now relying on village life and subsistence farming to support their families and unable to get the same level of education and trade skills for their children as they were able to receive before the conflict.
At the time my Bougainville journey was coming to an end, I was standing in the rain wondering if there was even one last chance to get a little more surf stoke before heading back to Sydney. Unfortunately the swell just didn’t play the game and the trip ended with a lot of surfing days, but not a lot of great surfing days.
Ten days later I was in Sydney where the surf had been terrible for weeks and the Australian Open of Surfing was trying to hype up 1-foot onshore dribble into a ‘spectator sport’ at my local beach. It was a Thursday morning and I was awake well before darkness faded. With little to do and the onshore wind still howling as it had done the whole night, I sat down at my computer and started stalking around on Facebook. Within a few minutes of logging on I received a message from the captain of the PNG Explorer which read: ‘The swell of the season is on its way, is there any chance you can get here by tomorrow night to make the next charter?’ I dropped everything I could, cancelled everything else and probably left a few people wondering where I had disappeared to. But inside of 30 hours I was back in a bunk in the wheelhouse of the PNG Explorer settling in for the overnight steam to the surf. The next ten days were pure bliss, epic sessions, hollow waves, reef cuts, broken boards, big smiles, cheers from your mates and a tonne of laughs. A last minute trip like this is why you surf. It’s why I photograph the ocean and it’s why I wrote this article.
During a late evening barrel fest, once the sun set and the fading light made it too dark to photograph, I paddled out into the line-up and had a shocker trying to get a few waves, pitched over the falls, feet first air-drops onto the reef, then darkness ended the session. I went back to the boat frustrated and disappointed with myself. A friend of mine, legendary surf guide Andrew “Darty” Dart, offered me a few pointers for surfing what is a difficult and very technical wave. He also mentioned it is hard to have a foot in both camps, as a surfer and as a photographer. I felt torn. I wanted both. I was getting pointers from a man who sold everything and moved to PNG to dedicate his life to surfing the region’s incredible waves. He gave up a house and a business for a bunk bed and an endless supply of barrels. A person who made his decision, chose his path and now, between the difficulties of running a charter boat in PNG and the bliss of the tropical sun on his shoulders, gets more barrels than anyone else on earth. I recently found out that on the next charter he hit the reef and is now the lucky owner of seven stitches in his head, a black eye and a perforated eardrum. Still, it is this kind of dedication to surfing that I am getting at, if you want to surf, I mean really want to surf, you will engineer your life to ensure you can.
The next day I photographed an incredible morning of surfing. So many epic waves were ridden and I filled memory cards documenting the ocean’s perfection. Then the wind came up and forced us to retreat back to the boat and wait out a squall. Later that day, when the sea glassed off again for the evening session, under cloudy skies I decided to leave the camera behind and just go surf. It took me a while and a bit of swapping around between the borrowed boards I was using until I found my rhythm, paddled into a decent wave and made a clean exit out the barrel into the channel. Internal compass reset, I felt content.
So now it’s up to you. Break the cycle. Hunt out another way. Reset your compass and figure out how to spend more time surfing, more time in the present. After all I am confident that looking at these photographs stokes the fire inside you and what you really want right now is to surf these waves…