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On a Thursday afternoon in the waning weeks of November, a Brazilian-owned surf charter boat called Praya Mentawai hung up on a slab of reef off Sipura Island. The reef sits in front of one of the world’s best waves, Hollow Trees, known also as HT’s or Lance’s Right, and the boat promptly began to break apart. The occupants, a group of eleven bodyboarders, leapt into the water and swam to the beach. The vessel, however, was hopelessly stuck.
Sipura Island is a tiny, paradisal place with white sand beaches, swaying palms, and azure waters. The setup for HTs is picture perfect. The wave wraps around the southern end of the island and into a sheltered bay before unloading on a section of reef called The Office. As it continues, it runs over another, shallower section known somewhat ominously as The Surgeon’s Table. The Surgeon’s Table was the kill shot for the Praya Mentawai.
“It’s a nightmare,” Teiki Ballian, the owner and manager of Hollow Tree’s Resort, told me via WhatsApp. He was standing in the sand staring out at the wreck when we talked. “But it could have been way worse, for sure,” he continued. “No one got hurt — they got off the boat pretty quickly — it’s just that everything happened so fast.”
The lineup was nearly empty at the time of the accident, thanks to a side-shore wind that shredded the wave into an unsurfable state. The captain of the boat decided to pull the anchor, but soon realized it was stuck. That’s when he made a mistake.
“The captain left the wheel,” Ballian explained. “They were pulling up the anchor and there was a side shore wind and a side current, too, pushing them towards the waves… but then the anchor was stuck and he left the wheel and went to the front to see what they were doing. When he did that, the anchor released and the boat drifted super quickly onto the reef. By the time he ran back to try and motor away, it was too late. He didn’t calculate that it would drift that quick. That was pretty much it. Literally two minutes and it was done.”
Ballian, who was watching from the beach, acted fast. He jumped into a speedboat, tied up to the Praya Mentawai, and tried to tug the floundering vessel off the reef. “We tried to pull the back out, but the boat just starting cracking so quickly,” he said. “I saw the boat completely crack in the middle, and there was smoke coming out of the sides. I thought ‘it’s full of gasoline,’ so I let the rope go. It was too dangerous.”
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And so the boat stayed there, as it was broken apart by the waves and the reef. As of this writing, it’s nearly all gone — not because it was washed into the sea in tiny bits, but because the crew and a group of locals worked extraordinarily hard to bring it to shore, piece by piece. The remains of it — what small parts are left — are now halfway between The Surgeon’s Table and the beach. The boat’s owners are devastated.
“It is with immeasurable sadness that we inform you all that the Praya Mentawai ship has been lost forever,” they wrote on Instagram. “Now is our time to surf the wave that facts brought us and accept all we can no longer change… Our efforts are currently focused on cleaning the scene of the incident and clearing the debris.”
According to Ballian, the group hadn’t run a charter in two years and had recently invested some $50,000 into the operation. And since wooden boats can’t be insured in Indonesia, the owners are, as Ballian says, “totally fucked.”
Ballian, however, isn’t mad. “Human error happens,” he said with a sigh. “For sure it was stupid, for sure it pisses us off that this happened, and it shouldn’t have happened, but things happen.”
Luckily, the wave itself isn’t affected. Ballian told me that the day before our conversation, it was offshore and pumping. The Praya Mentawai’s remains are out of the way completely, and thanks to the hard work of everyone involved, it’s almost like it never happened. The boat was pieced apart and given to the village. Divers are cleaning the reef, taking everything they can find and loading it onto a boat. A super yacht donated a spill kit, and the diesel that spilled wasn’t a huge amount. The water is clean and the beach is pristine, and a cargo boat is on the way to remove the heaviest parts, which will be taken to Padang.
As far as boat wrecks go, the one at Hollow Trees was a relatively easy one. No huge amount of oil and fuel spilled and the boat deteriorated quickly into mostly manageable pieces. Ballian knows from experience how much worse it could have been, and he’s thankful it wasn’t. “I’ve seen other shipwrecks, and they tend to stay on the reef forever,” he said. “This thing is basically gone. At high tide, you can barely see it.”