King of the tides

Bore-surfing specialist Antony ‘Yep’ Colas recently took on the Batang Lupar on Sarawak’s Benak River

Some are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them. In the case of the self-effacing Antony ‘Yep’ Colas, it was certainly a case of the latter when last October he turned up at Sri Aman, a small town in Sarawak.

Each year the town hosts the Pesta Benak, a festival held in honour of Sri Aman’s chief claim to fame: a tidal bore. Bores occur in places where extreme tides push upriver against the current with enough force to create a wavefront. Waves in Brazil, France, England and China have all been surfed in the last 10-15 years but the one on Sri Aman’s Batang Lupar river had only been ridden in a native canoe, so in October 2009 Colas signed up along with a bunch of other bore-riders to put it on the surfing map.

Having previously surfed the Brazil’s Pororoca on the Araguari River and the Chinese Guanchao on the Qiantang [see story in Action Asia, Jan/Feb 2008], Colas is something of a tidal bore specialist. This was just as well as none of the 10 other riders invited from around the world showed up!

Not only was this disappointing, it also left him potentially boardless. Riding river bores is usually for longboarders only. The weak waves mean you need the momentum that a big board can generate to get the really long rides that are the whole point: the Guinness World record is currently 33 minutes! Colas was coming to Sarawak from the Mentawais and had no longboard with him –  he had planned to simply borrow one for the Benak.

“I learned about the massive no-show a week before”, he said later. “At the time, I was fortunate enough to be on a surfing boat trip in the Mentawais and it turned out that Lee, a British guest, had a longboard and snapped it! He gave it to me which was a generous offer then my other problem was to fix it before D-Day. I had three days in Kuching, [state capital of Sarawak] and I quickly found Tony, a Chinese guy, who had never seen a surfboard but who would make resin boats. For a first repair, Tony did a really good job. Okay, he put four iron sticks in the foam for rigidity, which added some weight, but again for $30, I cannot complain.”

Armed with his battered and unusually balanced board, Colas was as ready as he could be, and now, as the only surfer to have taken on the challenge, he had become something of a celebrity. The head man in Sri Aman, its Resident, Abang Shamsuddin Abang Seruji, was keen to capitalise on the historic first. He’d laid on a media boat with two professional photographers to catch Colas’ every turn, and after each day’s riding, there were dance performances, autograph sessions and more photos.

Besides the media boat, there was a rescue launch too – less to avert a possible drowning than to be on hand should the local wildlife rear its head.

“The Batang Lupar is notorious for man-eating saltwater crocs which can grow really big. Like huge! That is the intimidating part … But when you look at most of the killing scenarios, you understand that crocs dont ‘bump & bite’ like sharks, they ambush like cats.” Happily, the bore itself plus Colas’ motorised escort seemed to be enough to keep the crocs at bay in the end.

Another concern was the tides. The highest tides in a month fall around the new and full moons and are sometimes termed king tides. Colas worked out they would need to be at least 5.5m, and preferably more than 6m high, to create a useful wave on the Batang Lupar. Subtract those tides that would occur in the dark – not the time to be out in the water with crocs and other unseen hazards – and that would mean having only a few days a month on which you could ride.

Colas homework paid dividends and he was able to log around six hours of riding on different sections of the wave. “That is a lot of riding time!”, he said happily afterwards. “Especially the first section before Sri Aman, which is 5mins long and a pretty punchy left, providing? endless space for cut-backs until your legs turn into jelly.”

Some sections though suffered from a lack of water in the river rather than not enough coming in from the sea, the pre-monsoon timing of the visit meaning any sizeable tide just closed-out the wave.

Colas was left exhausted but ecstatic at the rides he got, and perhaps a little bewildered at the welcome he had received: “The local people have been riding the Benak on canoes for almost a century”, he said. “Thanks to the internet, they knew people surf the bores in different parts of the world. And they were really waiting for someone to come and surf their bore.”

Job done, Colas passed his much-abused longboard on to his host. The Resident had mentioned having tried surfing once previously, near Adelaide in the early 1980s. Perhaps the 2010 Pesta Benak, to be held on April 28-May 2, will see him become the first Sarawakian to ride his town’s pride and joy.