Our World The surf never sleeps

Night surfing in Bali.
Picture: Finns Beach Club.

For a Bali high, try catching a break at dusk. Ian Lloyd Neubauer writes many are night surfing, under lights, in a bid for peace and quiet.

Surfing is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. According to the International Surfing Association, the community grew in size from 26 million people in 2001 to 35 million in 2011. Based on the same growth trajectory, there may now be as many as 45 million surfers worldwide.

The sport's stellar growth poses a fundamental problem because waves are a finite resource. The parallel growth of people who travel to surf has given rise to “localism” — a phenomenon where locals intimidate travelling surfers to discourage them from stealing “their” waves. From Snapper Rocks in the Gold Coast to Uluwatu in Bali, “localism”, “surf rage” and surf-related violence have become commonplace.

Intense competition for waves has given rise to a small subculture that uses moonlight and novel lighting solutions such as glow sticks tied to vests and surfboards with specially engineered LEDs to surf at night. 

In 2011, Australian pro surfer Mark Visser made history when he rode a 10m wave at the Hawaiian surf break Jaws at night using an LED board.

But night surfing depends on moonlight — and is inherently risky. Sharks are more active at night and can hunt in the dark, while night surfers can’t count on being rescued by lifeguards. On October 27, 2015, big-wave surfer Alec Cooke paddled out after dusk at Hawaii’s Waimea Bay and was never seen again. Three days later, the body of Kenneth Mann, a surfboard shaper who often rode waves at night, was found tethered to his broken surfboard on California’s Encinitas Beach.

But a new solution pioneered by Australian expats in Bali that uses stadium-type floodlights is allowing surfers to ride waves safely at night.  


LIGHTING THE WAY

The first case of surfing under floodlights was documented in 2011 when two Bondi Beach locals went surfing under the floodlights of a beachfront ice-skating rink.

“It was great fun to have the country’s most famous beach to yourself,” one of the surfers told Britain’s Telegraph at the time.

A year later, the world’s first commercial floodlit surfing venue opened on Keramas Beach on Bali’s east coast. Home of the annual Corona World Surf League Protected surfing event, Keramas has a reputation for barrels and 10-foot swells. But it also has a reputation for “bad vibes from overzealous expats and local surf guides”, according to Magicseaweed.com, an online surf forecaster 

Growing demand for waves at Keramas inspired Tony Cannon, the Australian co-owner of Kommune, a surf resort on Keramas, to install floodlights so his guests could surf uncrowded waves at night.

“For our first attempt, we got some big floodlights and put them on the roof of our buildings,” Mr Cannon said. “But there were lots of shadows and people had problems seeing the form of the waves. So we engaged lighting engineers from Australia — the same company that did the famous light towers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

“They looked at our problem and designed two 30m-high stadium lights with 14 high-powered globes that shine light 500m into the sea. There was a lot of trial and error because they had to make sure the globes weren’t positioned in a way that blinded surfers. But after a few attempts, they got it right. Each globe now points to a different part of the break so surfers can see waves coming and rolling down the reef.”

SAFER AT NIGHT

Stadium lights aren’t cheap. Kommune spent $210,000 on its system while replacing a single globe costs $1100.

To mitigate the expense, the resort charges $20 for a one-hour session, allowing 18 different surfers to ride the waves every day between 7pm and 10pm. The resort also employs four professional lifeguards in case surfers get into trouble.

“Most of the injuries from surfing are crowd-related,” Mr Cannon says. “Things like people taking off on waves they shouldn’t and smashing into each other or causing fin cuts because they’re desperate to catch waves.”

Adds his business partner Wayne Moffet: “We’ve never had a single injury in the evening but we’ve witnessed some pretty bad ones during the day, as is expected on any beach where you have lots of people surfing.”

Some of the biggest names in surfing have ridden waves under the lights at Keramas: Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater and Sebastian Zietz, to name but a few. “They had a bit of trouble seeing and understanding the waves on their first few goes because the waves present differently under the lights — it takes a bit of getting used to,” Mr Moffat says. “But in saying that, they all surfed really well.”

To help regular surfers do the same, Kommune has developed a system where its lifeguards get into the water and help surfers select the best waves.

“Because we have such perfect waves with very defined break stops very close to the beach, our lifeguards can position themselves behind our guests and push them on to waves,” Mr Cannon says. 

“Once they get used to it, we can teach people how to read waves at night. During the day it’s all about the shape and form of a wave but at night it’s about the colour. A dark illumination is a sign of a good wave.”

CREST OF A WAVE

In 2015, authorities at Varazze in Italy’s north-west, one of the busiest waves in the Mediterranean, took a page out of Kommune’s book and installed a series of 8000-watt floodlights at the end of a jetty.

In 2017, the city of Lima in Peru followed suit, installing four cement poles with two 1000-watt LED floodlights at La Pampilla Beach.

A second venue is also now offering floodlit surfing in Bali: Finns Beach Club in Canggu, where two 12m-high stadium lights illuminate the Berawa Break every evening.

“The idea came about when we hosted a world ironman event last year,” says Finns’ spokesman Chris Loock. “We had 20 of the world’s best ironmen competing and had our floodlights on when they were paddling out. They told us the visibility was excellent so we started turning them on every night to let our guests swim in the water. Then surfers started using the lights, too.”

He adds: “We don’t charge people to surf under our lights. But there are no lifeguards, so we urge people to surf at their own risk.”

Maxime Mansat, a surfer from France, is among a handful of surfers who’ve taken a shine to floodlight surfing at Finns.

“One of the best things about surfing is that the sport is really unpredictable,” he says. “But sometimes the waves can be all the same and it gets boring.”

“But when you surf at night, it’s very different,” he says.

 “It’s really tricky to read the waves so you have to rely a lot more on instinct. 

“A few of us drop in on each other now and then, and we’ve had some close calls, but nobody’s been hurt. It’s much more challenging than normal surfing.”

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