"I like this boat," the 43-year-old skipper says. "It's simple. You can develop a relationship with it."
But this is no dream job, he says, especially for a father of three young children who live with their mother in Sumatra. He's at the helm 300 days a year, responsible for the safety of one group after the next. He says his exit strategy is hidden in the fertile Sumatran interior—a coffee plantation. He hopes to one day export enough beans to become a part-time skipper. For now, he hawks coffee to surfers on his boats.
At Lance's Left, we encounter our first Mentawai islanders. Paddling from a sliver of sand, they soon surround our boat in canoes stacked with wooden trinkets, forming an open-water marketplace. We gesture with our hands because we don't share a language. One man proudly holds up a plaque decorated with a curling wave. "Lance's Leeft," it says in big letters.
For most surfers, this is the extent of their interaction with the rural Mentawais' 64,000 residents, who for thousands of years have lived mainly along rivers in the muddy jungles, hidden from the new nomads on yachts. Even today, elaborately tattooed shamans, or medicine men, hold sway over decisions in the settlements, where Muslims and Christians often live side by side in thatched dwellings. All are poor, many sick.
In 1999, a New Zealand surfer and doctor named Dave Jenkins was struck by the misery amid the beauty. Visiting surfers, he thought, should give something back to the Mentawai, so he founded several clinics to treat such preventable diseases as malaria, tetanus, measles and diarrhea. Today, with backing from corporate sponsors and professional surfers, Jenkins' SurfAid International has outposts throughout tsunami-ravaged Indonesia.
Rising before dawn, Albert brews coffee in a French press and motors to another island, South Pagai, to a place where he knows he'll find even bigger waves.
This break is called Thunders—for a reason. The waves here explode with a boom. On this day, the surf is about 10 feet high and scary.
Before leaving home, my one nod to my age and my familial responsibilities was to buy a surf helmet. I strap it on, even if I am flagging myself as a novice in surf of this intensity.
That morning, I streak down the fiercest, most punishing waves of my life. At least four times I think the end is near, as churning water pushes me down toward the lava rock and coral. Each time, I have one goal: Get to the surface and grab a single breath before getting yanked under again.
In our group, only Michael and Brian are out with me, riding some of the largest waves with the steepest drops. My attempts to match them push me beyond common sense. I emerge from the surf spent and mauled, with a nasty knot and a bruise on my chin where I was whacked by my board. But I'm also exhilarated, filled with a survivor's sense of accomplishment.
"Never underestimate the Indian Ocean," Albert warns me as I towel off.
That night, like every night, we enjoy our favorite ritual—photographer Al's digital slide show. Since our first day, he's spent hours in the tropical heat in a skiff near the impact zone, aiming his telephoto lens at us. His presence leads to one of the most commonly heard questions on the trip: "Dude, did you get that?" No one has ever photographed the likes of us.
Although Al's a good surfer, he's admittedly intimidated by the power of the Indo waves. For him, surfing is not about proving his mettle. "It's not just about the waves," he says. "It's about what happens between the waves"—the lulls during which you can reflect on life. When he's in the ocean back home, Al thinks mostly of an unborn son.
About five years ago, he and his wife, Susan, learned that their 5-month-old fetus was not developing a brain. With Susan's health possibly endangered, they ended the pregnancy. "We spread the ashes at sea," Al says. "I'll sit on my board in the water and picture him riding a dolphin."
Today, the couple have two rambunctious boys, ages 2 and 4. During our trip, Al runs up the biggest bill on the ship's satellite phone, staying in close touch with his sons and wife.
One of the skipper Albert's toughest challenges is to make sure all his passengers "get in their groove." Because Thunders is too tough for some on the boat, he moves us to a couple of his special spots.
Although the surf is smaller, there's not another charter boat in sight. Eight slender canoes, however, head our way while we're anchored in a cove near an island with a village hidden behind tall foliage. They're paddled by children in tattered clothes who appear to be no older than 10.
Forming a wedge at the back of our boat, they check out our surfboards, snorkeling gear and the video camera Al is using. Saying nothing, smiling little, the youngsters suddenly scamper aboard. Al shoots some footage and then replays it for them. They point at themselves in the viewfinder and laugh. Odds are they've never seen anything like this. Nor have we.