It was April of 1995 on a night black and silver in the Arabian Sea.
I was standing on the deck of a canopied dhoni skiff backing away from a wooden dock on the islet of Kanuhuraa, in the Maldive Islands. My two weeks at Tari Village were over, and the dhoni would take me down the atoll chain to the capital of Male and its floating airport.
The dhoni backed out into the darkness, taking me with it, 10 yards, 20 yards, 50… putt-putting stern-first toward the cobalt-blue channel marker that indicated the tiny cut in the reef. Back on shore, I could still make out my host, Tony Hinde Hussein, shipwrecked Aussie-converted-to-Muslim Maldivian surf pioneer. Burly and broad in silhouette, he raised an arm high, palm out, like a salute. “Deeply faithful, mate,” he bellowed. “Deeply faithful.”
It had been an extraordinary two weeks, filled to the brim with the travelling surfer’s requisite manifest of exotic delights. Yet most memorable was not the story I was starring in myself, but one told to me on a hot, shiny afternoon as Tony and I swayed in stringed hammock chairs looking out over the most incredible surfing setup I’d ever seen. It began with a simple question: “How on earth did you find this place?”
And brother, I’m glad I took notes.
“It all started with that movie The Forgotten Island of Santosha back in 1973. I was from Maroubra, mate. Middle of the city. But when I saw that movie, even before we knew it was Tamarin Bay on Mauritius, I knew that’s what I wanted to do: find a perfect wave out in the middle of nowhere, live simple and surf. I’d already been to Bali at that point, but it was all lefts, and I’m a natural-footer. So I figured Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa was the go. The plan was to travel up through Malaysia, over to India, then find a way to get to Africa from there. That was my dream. But I had to pay for it. So I went to West Oz and worked in a gold mine, just put me fu**in’ head down driving a truck double shifts, not seeing the ocean for months. It was really hard, dirty work, but eventually I saved enough to take off chasing my perfect wave.”
“I got to Sri Lanka, where I met up with Mark Scanlon, a mate of mine from Maroubra. We ended up in Aragum Bay, but turns out, it was the wrong season for waves. I didn’t want to be just another guy on the hippie trail. I was on a sacred mission. So Mark and I were in the capital, Columbo, one day and we met this guy in a restaurant. His name was Bill Wallace, an American, and he said he’d skippered a boat from Hawaii to Australia to Sri Lanka. Said he was headed to the Seychelles, then Kenya… “whichever came first,” he said, and asked if we’d ever sailed before. “All my life!” I told him and we signed on straight away. Of course, I’d never sailed before, but figured it would be easy enough, and we were on our way to Africa.”
Found at Sea
“It seemed like a great idea at the time, but here’s what I tell people now: Don’t ever sail anywhere with a guy with an eye patch and a monkey on his shoulder. I swear to god, a monkey on his shoulder! Wallace’s boat was a ketch, Whitewings, and it looked solid enough. It was the skipper who was wrong. Only took a few days to figure out Wallace didn’t know what he was doing. No charts, couldn’t work a sextant, or even a compass. Mark and I were learning as we went, seasick most of the time and fighting with the fu**in’ monkey. Wallace said we were headed toward the Maldives, but turned out he had no idea where we were. Then one night, maybe the fifth day out, I was just ending my shift at the wheel when there’s a loud crash and the boat came to a complete stop. Our crazy skipper thought we’d hit a whale, but what happened was we sailed right up onto a coral reef, stuck high and dry.”
“We’d shipwrecked on Helengeli reef, maybe 30 miles from Male, the capital of the Maldives. Some local dhonis showed up and we began two months of salvage work. The skipper basically bailed on the whole thing. Just abandoned his boat. It was the local Maldivian fishermen who finally pulled the boat off the reef. Mark had also moved on by that point, but I eventually decided to stay for a while. I built a dhoni and began sailing up and down the atolls, delivering supplies like rice to the villages. It was the monsoon season and the wind was wrong for all the reefs that would pick up southerly swells, but as I’d sail past these setups I’d make a mental map, meaning to come back when the wind switched.”
“Months went by and the seasons eventually turned and I was sailing from Male up past Himmafushi to check out this one spot. I came around the corner and saw this beautiful little island, Thamburudhoo, completely uninhabited, and down one side peeled this perfect right, and down the other side, maybe 75 yards away, peeled this perfect left. At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was like every surfing fantasy I ever imagined. Better, because it went both ways. The swell would just hit the reef at the top of the island and peel both ways. After all the dreaming, all the work, all the traveling, all the crazy adventures with the eye patch and the monkey and the shipwreck, I took one look and said to myself, ‘My road stops here.’”
Sitting in our hammock chairs we could look across the channel to the waves Tony originally named “Sultans” (the right) and “Crystal Corner” (the left), both looking good with the afternoon low tide. “But there were many lonely years,” Tony said, looking out at his private Eden. “Mate, can you imagine being the only surfer here, surrounded by all these perfect waves, but with no one to share them with? There were heaps of times when I almost chucked it and headed home to Oz.”
I asked him why he didn’t and he spoke with fervor.
“After about seven years I almost did, even though by then I had converted to Islam and married my wife Zulfa, started a family… But then I thought, ‘No.’ I felt I had a responsibility — to guys like you. Guys who believe in the dream. Well, mate, I was living the dream here, and every day I surfed I kept it alive, all the while hoping that someday someone who believed would come along and share it.”
Tony had found paradise, and yet ultimately, found there’s no such thing as empty paradise. So in 1990, Tony convinced the Italian owners of a failing resort on nearby Kanuhuraa atoll, which just so happened to have a perfect left reefbreak of its own, to let him take over operations, founding Atoll Adventures. Guests were scarce, at first: Mark Scanlon and a few more of Tony’s mates who couldn’t believe their friend’s luck. But after visits from surf photographers Ted Grambeau in 1992 and John Callahan in 1993, Tony’s secret was out, and the surfers started coming. Surfers who may have shared Tony’s dream, but if they were honest with themselves, would admit that they lacked his level of commitment — to surrender one’s whole way of life to a dream. Surfers like me, who counted meeting and sharing times with Tony Hinde Hussein as one of the high points of a long surfing career. And who, in recognizing the thread that connected us, penned this in his guest book:
“Thus is this earth at once a desert and a paradise, rich in hidden secret gardens, gardens inaccessible, but to which the craft leads us ever back, one day or another. Life may scatter us and keep us apart; it may prevent us from thinking very often of one another; but we know that our comrades are somewhere “out there” — where, one can hardly say — silent, forgotten, but deeply faithful.” –– Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de St. Exupery.
Epilogue: In May of 2008 Tony Hinde Hussein suffered a massive cardiac arrest while surfing Pasta Point on Kanuhuraa and died in the lineup he discovered so many years ago.
Deeply faithful to the last wave.
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