Friday, April 16, 2010

Report/bitch from the field. Dave "Chav" Devey, on Sumatra.

The Ethics of Boat Charters

I have recently come back from a brief 14 day Indonesian trip. Its not my first, but the waves, the people and the whole Indonesian experience will always keep me going back. But surfing in Indo is becoming more and more popular, and it is becoming harder to find a quiet wave. It amazes me that you can travel for days over land and sea, and not see a western face, then as soon as you turn up at a break, maybe 10 hours from the nearest small town, and boom! There are 20 westerners in the water!

We were at a quiet break in south Sumatra. Maybe 7 losmen allow for people to stay and surf the break and those losemen are quickly increasing in number. (Up from 3 last year). The lineup wasn’t busy by Bali standards, but it was busy enough with maybe 20 people in the water on a busy day including a couple of local surfers. Everyone was staying locally, so everyone had had some contact outside the surf with each other. There was a good vibe. People calling each other onto waves, congratulating each other on good waves caught and generally being nice to one another.

The following morning we were graced with the presence of an additional party, as a boat turned up in the night and dropped an extra 10 guy’s in the water, in the form of the Canaries’ crew. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist, nationalist, or surf fascist and these guys could surf really well, but as soon as they turned up the whole vibe of the water changed. These guys were snaking every wave, dropping in on everyone and generally behaving like they owned the place. All of a sudden, it was “them” and “us”. Our waves were just made a whole lot more stressful, a few harsh words were spoken and things generally took a turn for the worse. Surfing well is not an excuse for being rude in the water.

Now I am not criticizing these guys for taking a surf charter. You pay your money and you get your waves. The cost of some of these charters, I could imagine I would feel like I owned a break having paid that much money, but what do you actually contribute? You spend no money with local people, in locally owned establishments. You aren’t contributing anything to the local economy and you don’t meet any of the local characters. You aren’t experiencing anything of the country in which you are staying. Living on a boat, you are just putting money in the westerner’s pocket who owns the boat. Only some of that money filters into the local economy.

I was under the impression that you take a boat charter to go to locations and surf breaks that are otherwise inaccessible. It doesn’t show much consideration to the people who have made the effort to travel overland to these places (in some cases a good few days of local busses and transport) to rock up and start talking all the waves.

To add insult to injury, the boat then just stays moored outside the break for 4 days straight, dumping the remnants of every meal over the side amongst god knows what else, making a noticeable difference to the water quality and leaving everything from sweet wrappers to entire chili’s to wash up on an otherwise perfect beach.

So whose responsibility is it? As I said before, you pay your money and you get your waves. The boat captain should be aware of the impact that running a boat can have on other people and the environment. There are plenty of inaccessible breaks to surf. Why drop a boat load of people on a break where people have worked hard to get there and surf. For that reason I have come to the following conclusion: Taking a boat charter, is like paying for sex. It’s a great ride, it gets you exactly what you want and when you want it, however its expensive, it’s dirty and it exploits others. It’s up to captains and those who take boat charters to show some respect for the environment, and the breaks and surfers on which they descend.

 Absolutely Chav and myself and all the boys and girls who went round Nusa Lembogan, Lombok and Sumbawa trip for 8 days, we hated it, especially the way the waves kept doing that whole spin dryer thing that lured us away from our freshly squeezed and delivered to our hamocks papaya juices. Those shacks with the free wildlife and malaria down at Balian were much better.


  1. It's complicated (like everything). There's nothing necessarily ethically wrong with taking a boat trip, but the specifics of the boat trip can throw up some issues. The same is true with any sort of travel, especially if you are a wealthy person in a poor country. It's a challenge to evaluate the effects of your actions.
    With this qualifier stated, generally I agree with your conclusions Dave - if you travel to a developing country it is your responsibility to ensure that your money finds its way in to the local economy. (I'm looking forward to my money finding its way in to the Morrocan economy at some point...)

  2. If you get a cheap charter, with no life jackets etc like our little sojourn, then the real bonus is that we put money in all the mechanics pockets we past....may be less reliable yacht charter is the solution!