This story was originally published by SURFER.
Ed's note: The ChachFiles is a travel-based photo series in which photographer Ryan "Chachi" Craig lets us ride shotgun on his strike missions around the world, looking for new angles on some of the best waves and most intriguing personalities in surfing. Check out his latest gallery here.
Two years ago, Lagundri Bay was hit by a swell of massive proportions. Large swells bombard the shores of Indonesia all the time, but what made July 25th and 26th, 2018 unique was the number of talented surfers that all decided to descend on the tiny island of Nias, at the same time, as one of the largest swells recorded in the Indian Ocean (in recent memory) slammed the island chain. And although we hear the cliché terms "once in a lifetime" or "biggest ever" thrown around loosely, there were certainly moments over the course of those two days that deserve such praise.
I was visiting Australia when I received a text from Hawaiian charger Billy Kemper about a potentially large swell projected to hit Indonesia - more specifically it was heading straight for Lagundri Bay. The usual questions followed: if the swell was on, would I been freed up and interested in going? And maybe more importantly, would I be able to make my flights in time?
We initially went to Nias for the swell set to hit on the 19th and 20th of July. It was a really big swell, by all accounts, but quickly became an afterthought as the forecast grew and grew and we eventually concluded that we were in for a treat. A swell of historic size was headed our way, one of the biggest swells (on paper) to hit Indonesia in the 21st century. It seemed like the entire surf world knew what was coming; people from all over Indonesia, Hawaii and Australia flew to the remote island. With a forecast this large, it was assumed that not many waves in Indo would be able to handle this much swell. Many of the iconic breaks around Bali would be maxed out and the Mentawai's were also a risky bet.
We decided to stay put. And what happened over the 48 hours on July 25th and July 26th ago will be burned in my memory forever.
Keep reading to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the historic swell unfolded.
Getting to Nias is somewhat straightforward but making sure that board bags make it on the same flight yours is a whole different story. The guys -- Eli Olson, Billy Kemper, Nathan Florence and Koa Rothman -- wait on the tarmac to physically watch their boards get loaded onto our plane.
Billy Kemper and Nathan Florence, prepping for a massive swell and making the long journey to Lagundri Bay.
The night before the days of days. Frontrunners of the new swell started arriving in the evening hours of July 24th, overlapping the fading swell from earlier in the week. For a lot of surfers arriving last minute, this was their only chance to get wet before the forecasted swell went XXL in the morning.
It is clear from the first few sets of the morning that Wednesday, July 25th was going to be a special day. The raw power of the swell was obvious. Debris and chucks of reef were rushing up to the edge of the buildings as each set looked increasingly more dangerous. Only a few surfers made it to the lineup, with almost every wave going unridden. And yes, that is a surfer paddling over the top of the shoulder - looking dwarfed by the sets.
After a grueling swim out from the reef's edge, this was one of the very first sets I photographed being ridden. With blue skies and warm morning light in the background, this wave was virtually flawless from my vantage point. A few frames further on in the sequence landed Miguel Blanco the cover of the October 2018 issue of SURFER
At one point during the swell, a lone boat drifted into the lineup and was absolutely destroyed by a large wave. In total the whole event took about two minutes. As the swell continued to grow, this boat detached from its mooring and drifted into the lineup. It barely made it over the first wave and was wrecked by the second. To give you an idea of how big the swell was, the set that hit the boat was in fact, not a set at all. I was sitting to the inside of the surfers and this was my vantage point of the boat, clearly drifting along the inside. After it was hit by the two waves amd the boat literally disintegrated without a trace.
Jesse James Johnson, flying towards an exit in a flawless morning tube. Although Jesse might not be as well-known as some of the other surfers that were at Lagundri Bay for this swell, his skill set is on par with the best of 'em. Growing up on Kauai has definitely shaped this kid's ability to surf waves as heavy as this.
Some of the best surfers in the world were out the morning of the 25th scratching their heads on how to approach the growing swell. The waves were moving so fast that many surfers simply didn't have paddle power to get into them. Although lots of waves had been surfed, most all of the sets were still going unridden until Matt Bromley changed all of that. This wave set the tone of the morning and realistically, the tone of the whole swell. Bromley paddled back to the lineup to the sounds of hoots and whistles from the boats and entire lineup.
Instead of getting taller, many of the sets simply started doubling up and morphing into thick-lipped monsters.
Peru's Sebastian Correa isn't one to shy away from huge closeouts at OTW, so it's no surprise he was a standout this day at Nias. He positioned himself slightly further on the inside to get under these crazy double-ups while somehow still carefully avoiding some of the bigger sets of the morning.
The wind picked up during the middle of the day and the swell continued to grow. For a brief moment during midday the lineup was empty and during the early afternoon, only a few guys were paddling around. It was near victory-at-sea. Towards the late afternoon though, the wind mellowed out and it looked as though the peak of the swell had passed. About ten guys gave it another go, as most of the town watched on the reef's edge. Most sets were below-sea-level mutants, terrifyingly beautiful but too difficult to catch.
After chatting with Justen "Jughead" Allport earlier in the week, I was super happy to see him arrive at the hotel late Tuesday night with a beer in hand. In typical Jughead fashion, he joked about how he probably wasn't even going to surf in the morning and that the forecast was terrifying. Not only was he out there the following morning, he paddled out in the dark and had already broken a board well before most surfers were out. That minor setback didn't stop Jughead's marathon day of surfing though - he was one of the few out in the afternoon and continued to stay out into the evening hours, carefully positioning himself for a few gems.
A lot of surfers felt under-gunned during the peak of the swell. There was lots of talk about what the day would have been like with a few jet skis there for tow-ins -- or better yet, for rescue. Mark Healey had a different approach and brought much bigger boards then almost anyone else; he had a handful of huge waves on Wednesday evening and got into many waves with relative ease.
The 26th was another absolute dream day of surfing. The swell had dropped from the previous day but was still massive, still bigger than most swells that hit the island chain. The water color transformed back to its more identifiable green, less debris was in the water and the conditions were perfect. Matt Bromley continued where he left off the previous day, almost toying with the slightly smaller surf.
There were still plenty of sets catching everyone off guard if they weren't paying attention.
I've always marveled at Laurie Towner's casual style in heavy surf. Laurie was absolutely in his element out there and it was a treat to watch him navigate some huge tubes in person.
What doesn't always translate to photographs is how quickly a wave breaks or how much energy draws off the reef. Ian Walsh paddled his ass off to get into this wave as it doubled up and grew and as the energy marched into the reef. After getting a little held up at the top, he got a good pump in the barrel before the shockwave ate him alive.
After a much-needed lunch and tons of water, it was back out to the lineup for the afternoon session. Blue skies had parted ways to a more moody setting with the threat of rain for much of the rest of the day. The ‘Keyhole' was finally more approachable but still required precise timing. Nathan Florence and Mark Healey, making the dash in between sets.
One of the cleaner and longer tubes ridden on Thursday evening was by Australia's Carl Wright. Most waves were too fast and a lot of surfers were having trouble finding an exit but this wave funneled along the reef perfectly as Carl pumped up and down a handful of times until he was eventually spit out into the channel.
With prevailing overcast skies, Lagundri Bay started to resemble the previous day, with darker water and a much less inviting look. Billy Kemper, setting up his drop on another meaty one.
Perfect Nias...well, depending on your definition of "perfect", that is.
Nathan Florence, locked into another flawless tube just as the rain began to really take over. We all headed in shortly after this, simply exhausted from the 48-hour run of some of the heaviest surf to grace Indonesia.
This story was originally published by SURFER.