I'm on a boat! I'm on a boat! Everybody look at me ‘cos I’m sailin’ on a boat!
Setting aside the lyrical genius of The Lonely Island for a moment, there’s one thing (and probably only one thing) that most surfers agree on: boat trips rule! I’m sure there are better things in life than cruising the tropical waters of the Maldives or the Mentawais, surfing barrelling perfection by day and sipping sun-downer bintangs by night, but for the life of me I can’t think of any right now. Maybe a night on a deserted island with Alana Bla… Nah, that’d still be better on a boat.
Yup, the boat trip is the absolute pinnacle of surf travel dreams, but lest your dream trip should become a nightmare, there are some things you need to get right. Here are 5 factors to picking a boat trip, courtesy of the experts at LUEX.
1. Your Crew
The group you travel with can make or break a boat trip – when you’re floating around on the high seas, there isn’t much opportunity to get some alone time if someone’s being a tool. You should be aiming to get a homogenous and like-minded group together, in terms of surfing ability and ambitions, standards of living, partying appetites, activity levels, etc.
You don’t want to have to motor past that pumping reef break as everyone else just wants mellow beach break slop, or to miss your morning session as ‘the lads’ kept you awake drinking tequila all night.
You also need to consider how many people you travel with. If you can fill every bed space in the boat, obviously cost per person will drop; conversely if eight of you pick a boat with ten berths, you’ll either have to pay for the empty beds or allow the operator to sell them to another group. This can be a great way to meet new people and socialise, but as you have little control over who joins you, sometimes the extra expense can be worth the privacy. However any good travel agency should have a selection of boats of different sizes (LUEX have boats starting from just two people - ideal for honeymoons) to suit your needs, or be able to match you with a similar group on a mixed charter.
2. Standard of Boat
The standard of boats available differs wildly – you can drop a banker’s Christmas bonus on a floating palace of exotic wood and brushed chrome with more class than Dame Helen Mirren, or cut costs with the sort of underpowered and leaking skeleton of ship even Captain Jack Sparrow would turn his nose up at.
You really need to make sure your whole group is on the same page re. standards and luxury. While not everyone needs or wants high end fine dining and a garage full of jet skis and helicopters to play with (yes, you read that right!), you don’t want to cut costs to the point that you get a dangerously ill-maintained boat or a surly and unprofessional crew. If you’re fond of your food, or have particularly finicky tastes or unusual dietary requirements, then ask for a boat with a quality chef, as despite the abundance of fresh fish and seafood available, standards can be quite low on the more budget options. It’s also worth considering add-ons like a video or photography service to document your adventures, or a surf coach to help you work on that backside re-entry – at the higher end it’s even possible to get a pro surfer to accompany you as a coach. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but like the cherry on top of a cake, sometimes the extras make all the difference.
The most important factor to consider is where you want to go! While there are some options in Central America and the South East Pacific, the vast majority of boat trips are based in the Maldives and Indonesia; iconic destinations well established in surfing mythology. These island chains and archipelagos are the stuff of fantasy: bath-like warm blue water, perfectly peeling reef breaks and consistent swell combine to form visions of paradise beautiful enough to stir the loins of even the most jaded surf traveller.
In general the Maldives tend to offer slightly more luxury and more manageable, fun-size waves, while Indo is the better choice for heavier and more fiercely hollow waves. There’s plenty to get at in either place though, and the list of breaks and place names reads like a dream trip itinerary: the Mentawais, Sumatra, the Central Atolls, Huvadhoo, Sumbawa… Novice right through to expert surfers have more than enough to sink their fins into whichever you decide.
It’s a sad fact of life, but the price we pay for ever cheaper and easier long haul travel is endemic crowding in the lineup, probably not helped by tantalising photos of places we’d rather all be in the surf media (sorry about that!). The flexibility of a boat trip means that if one break is too crowded you can simply motor on the next, but it’s getting harder and harder to score waves all to yourself.
If you’re really determined there are places where you can still find empty spots, but you’ll have to drop more of your hard earned, and be prepared to make the trek. The further you head off the beaten track the higher your chances of empty breaks, but as the crowds recede the costs go up: fuel and relocation surcharges can add up swiftly and vary wildly, and it’s not easy to work out exact prices without doing a detailed break down and analysis.
The heavier waves in Indo can lead to more cut throat crowds, whereas the Southern and Central Atolls in the Maldives tend to be quieter. Equally the number of breaks open to boat tripping surfers in North Male Atoll is currently limited due to the on-going wave privatisation issues, but as the Maldivian Government is making noises about abolishing the ‘home break’ regulations it might pay to keep an eye on the situation… If you're set on Indo, then consider the more remote areas like southern Sumatra, the Banyaks and West Timor/Savu.
5. Length and Flexibility of Stay
Boat trips tend to run on one of three concepts: fixed schedule, charter, and ‘open boat.’ As the name implies, fixed schedule trips run on fixed dates and routes, with little if any flexibility. The boat must be in set places at set times.
Open boats are more like floating hotels – when you rock up at the airport, transport will be waiting to shuttle you out to the main boat via a small tender. You can normally arrive and leave whenever you want, but the boats tend to stay in one area (near several surf spots), and must certainly stay near the airport. Open boats are ideal for small groups or solo travellers who can’t fill a boat on their own, but are less ideal if you have your heart set on cruising to new waves every day.
If you want total flexibility, then you need to look at chartering a boat: you have full control over arrival dates, length of stay and itinerary, and far more input on which waves and breaks you want to surf, and when.
Matt Clark – LUEX | LineUp Explorers