A life less ordinary

A life less ordinary

Photo: Luke Palmer

Kwab was one of the guys we used to hang with in Bundoran on surf trips. Super fun, he loved life and surfing, but we lost touch for a few years. Then out of the blue he got in touch and told me his story. He’d suffered a breakdown and was as low as you could get, when someone gave him a Carve mag to read. It literally changed his thoughts on life and set him on a journey to recovery. It was a very personal story and one I kept between us; then in June I saw a photo of him surfing in the Hinakos, on his boat, living the dream. So I asked if he would share his story with you. I am so stoked he said yes. It’s one of the best achievements in the history of our magazine as far as I am concerned. And I am sure his openness, honesty and achievements will help others.

Photo: Luke Palmer

Hey Kwab, the pics of you on the boat look sick. It reminded me of when you told me about being really down and how reading Carve changed your life. It has stayed with me all these years. Probably the best thing that ever happened with the mag… and then… well, you’ve done great!
Hey thanks. That seems like a long time ago – almost 20 years. But yeah, I was going through some difficult times back then for sure. I wasn’t actually in a newsagents when I picked up the mag. I was tripping balls in a secure psychiatric ward in St John of God hospital in Dublin. My friend brought in a copy of Carve and it was like a full-on jolt back to reality! I kept it with me and it was like my anchor; it reminded me of who I was and why I needed to get out of there!

That’s amazing. So, first off tell us where you are now and what you do – how long you have been living the dream?

Right now I’m living in Indo. I’d been coming here since the late 90s but began to transition to living over here about 10 years ago, when I set up Tradewinds Adventures with Mick (from Mick’s Place). We started to run surf trips in North Sumatra and the Hinakos with a beautiful boat called Jiwa, and got super lucky by bringing in Euge (Tollemache) as guide and coordinator. After a couple of seasons Euge had it down and it kinda freed me up to explore my new passion of free diving. I ended up teaming up with free-diving instructor Matthew Smyth, who was looking to set up a free-diving school in Amed, Bali. By 2014 I’d pretty much moved to Bali and started teaching free diving, meditation and yoga full time through our school, Apneista. More recently I’ve started to run free-diving live aboard trips to Raja Ampat, Komodo and the Banda Islands – basically just exploring these remote parts of Indonesia and the incredible beauty and life above and below water.

Sounds amazing. Do you own the boats and where is home these days – are you a pirate?!

I co-own Jiwa and work closely with another boat for the free-diving trips. I currently have my own sailing catamaran (that’s up for sale by the way) and I’ve messed around with sailboats since being a teenager. In 2007 Ciaran (Harsnape) and I went to PNG and bought a Wharram Catamaran, which was my first experience of the highs and lows of boat ownership. It’s hard work at times, but I think if you’re a surfer or diver it’s just so epic to be at sea. It’s a complete disconnection from life on land and you just have all these incredible interactions and experiences. I’m still fairly nomadic, but right now I’m enjoying being on land, living in Bali and doing strike missions to the various islands; it’s been nice to have the balance of both worlds.

Photo: bradshawkrollphotographic

How did you get into the lifestyle?
I’ve always been into outdoor sports and studied outdoor education at Uni. Way back in 1994 I did a seven-week work placement in Ireland, where Jon O’Neill was the owner of the centre. Him and his senior instructor Noel were both crazy good wave skiers and were hitting the surf every day before and after work. I went straight back there once I graduated and stayed for a couple of seasons before heading off around the world chasing waves in Indo, Australia, Samoa etc. When I came back I settled in Bundoran, secured a management job and was escaping the winters with trips to Indo. I remember writing to my dad to say: “I’ve kinda made it… good salary, company car etc.” I thought that was it career-wise, but it all changed pretty fast! After getting to the point where I was literally losing my mind, I knew something had to change. It was actually good in a way as it put everything into perspective, and I was freed from the expectations of what I thought I should be doing. I resigned from my job and knew that I wanted to go surfing, so I moved back home to Newcastle and scratched together some money in a call centre to take off to Indo. I only had enough to see me a couple months, but I just wanted to surf, heal and try to digest what had happened with the whole breakdown/ crisis episode. Anyhow, it ended up being the best decision I ever made. During this trip I was introduced to a solid meditation technique called Vipassana, and learnt a basic yoga sequence from a guy called James who was hanging out at one of the breaks. It was kinda weird, but everything just flowed naturally from there, and rather than second guessing myself too much I just went with it. For example, I got chatting with a guy on a yacht when I was out surfing this pumping left called Asu in the Hinakos and he was like: “Man, if you’re travelling back and forth to the UK/ Ireland, you should bring some jewellery with you”. He’d done well with taking it to America and thought it would be worth a go. I got back to Bali and bumped into a guy who was wholesaling to shops in Holland and he’s like: “Come with me”. He literally takes me around all his suppliers, tells me exactly what to buy and gets me his business rate… I didn’t even have any money, so I put like $500 worth on a credit card and smuggled my little stash back to the UK where I sold it all! That was the start of 10 years of wholesaling to shops and making way more than I’d ever earned before; it also led me to trading at big music festivals in Ireland and the UK. I used to laugh that I was designing women’s jewellery and body painting as it’s so far removed from what I’d known, but it was fun and gave me the freedom and financial support to get started with Jiwa and Apneista. And now I’m back doing what I love.

Photo: Pete Frieden

“I prioritised my mental health, stopped worrying about what other people thought and looked at ways to reduce stress in my life.”

What do you think got you down? I mean you boys were the life and soul, so when you told me what happened I was a bit shocked. It was so out of the blue.
Mate, I honestly didn’t see it coming. Everything was good, I’d just come back from a trip to Lakeys where we’d had mental waves and I was flying back to the UK to meet my girlfriend and jump back into a job managing one of the outdoor centres in Bundoran. I got back to find I no longer had a relationship, was really having to push really hard at work and it also felt like I was going through some sort of spiritual crisis. Long story short, I stopped sleeping, got paranoid and completely lost my shit, which ended up with me needing to go to hospital. You know I’ve looked back on this and whilst I can’t nail any one thing, I think I can say with certainty that, before this happened, I gave zero thought to my mental health. Things just happened and I’d deal with it, just shrug it off or push it somewhere deep and forget about it. What I’ve learnt since is that these feelings, traumas, experiences – well they don’t go anywhere. They are stored and waiting for an opportunity to be seen and dealt with. And I guess in my case this series of events was my trigger for everything to come bubbling up.
And how did you get over those times?
Hmm… Good question. I was kinda lucky as I had a strong feeling throughout it that although it was painful it was also necessary. I also had an amazing crew of people around me. My mate Warren was a rock, as were my family, close friends and many of the community in Ireland. In terms of strategy, first off, I talked. It sounds obvious, but it was probably the first time I could have brutally honest conversations with my family and friends and that was so healing. Also, I prioritised my mental health, stopped worrying about what other people thought and looked at ways to reduce stress in my life. I ditched coffee and alcohol, explored alternative therapies like Reiki and worked at being more healthy and on getting good sleep. I also slowly started to look at some of those things that surfaced and started to understand a little more about myself. As I mentioned before, I was also led to study Vipassana meditation and did a number of silent retreats, which were hugely beneficial and grounding. I learnt some really good life lessons that I’ve applied to many areas of my life since, and it’s probably what led me to free diving, as aspects of the two are very similar. Vipassana is only one technique though, and there are many mindfulness meditations that you can learn online or through an app. You can even just become more aware of your surroundings whilst surfing or walking – or anything that keeps you rooted in the present moment and stops your brain from jumping around! To be clear this is just what I did for myself. We all have different stories running and I’m certainly no expert. It took me time and I see my mental health as an ongoing process. I have basic techniques that keep things in check, warning signs to watch out for and, if I needed to, I’d go straight to talk to someone or visit a professional. We do need to ditch the stigma that still exists around mental health. People need to understand that it’s all just a part of being human and it’s actually often a perfectly normal response to events/ experiences and living in a fast-paced crazy world that can seem soulless at times. There is some cool stuff out there to help people. I’m following this podcaster called Blind Boy at the moment, who’s got a whole heap of great episodes on mental health and building a daily routine for yourself. He puts it across in a really fun but constructive way, so it’s well worth checking out. I’ve good friends who work in the health service and it seems like there are some excellent therapists available, but I do wish this was much more accessible and even taught in schools alongside physical ed and nutrition. Some of the techniques are super basic and it seems silly to wait until things get bad before you discover them. I keep having, ‘why the f**k didn’t someone explain this before’ moments. Anyhow, I just hope that anyone reading this will understand that whilst it can be scary at times, there are people who can help you through it and you’ll be a much happier, healthier person if you do open up, get help and do the work.

Photo: Luke Palmer

Now I guess you have lot of business administration to do, but your lifestyle looks amazingly good, and you’ve got a good crew on Jiwa?
I’m handling the business side, but I have great support from Katrin who does all the emails and admin etc. Euge jokes that my role must suck as he’s only ever sending me pictures of pumping waves I’m missing, or stuff that needs to be repaired and paid for! That changed a little last year as I’ve been out on a good few trips and been able to reconnect with the boat and crew. So, so lucky to have them. Euge is a legend, is tailormade for the job, and the Indo crew are epic – as anyone who’s been onboard will attest to.

One question on everyone lips with Insta, Google maps, lots of boats etc is – “are there still secret spots in Indo?”

No none! (laughs) Seriously though, it has got a lot harder, but there are still places that are very off the radar. There’s a lot of people who come here for two weeks or a month and they want to hit the highlight spots and chill in Bali; they don’t have the time or want to take the risk of going to an unknown region. But I think that’s where you can find the hidden gems. I’m always amazed how good a job Euge does of getting our guests in the water alone, which you would think would be almost impossible in ‘normal’ times, although it’s definitely been a bit easier these last two seasons!

And how have you been getting on in Covid times?

Yeah, tough times. Clearly it’s very sad for people who have lost friends and family to Covid. Financially Bali has been hit super-hard and it’s been devastating for many businesses and employees involved in tourism throughout Indonesia. We have been incredibly lucky that our guests have supported us and were super accommodating with regards to not demanding refunds etc. We’re working with them all to reschedule and get them here asap. This has enabled us to keep paying our staff and limp through – so if you’re one of those people massive, massive thanks!! In terms of surf, last year was epic! We had a few dream trips in the Ments, surfed the whole way down through the Telos completely alone. I also went to Deserts (a wave I’ve avoided due to the frothing crowds) and got to trade waves with a handful of crew calling each other into sets. So yeah, if you were a surfer in Indo in 2020 you scored! This year is definitely busier but still nothing compared to usual. Indo is open and people can get here if they’re willing to quarantine for five days, so there are guys coming and we’re hoping to get some of our pre-booked groups out later in the year. Until then we’ll keep trying to run trips with the surfers that are already in Indonesia, and we’re also offering some really cheap deals for December to March that will hopefully appeal to the UK/Euro surfers who want to get away.

What’s next for you – do you have any other ambitions or plans, or are you just styling?

After my year-long surf hiatus I’m getting drawn back towards coaching free-diving again, and maybe developing some online workshops for people to tap into. Also it’s interesting that you approached me for this article as I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health, psychology and learning more about it – so it’s kind of another pointer in that direction. I have a few possible projects in the pipeline, but for now I think I’m just cruising and taking some space to see what comes in. This whole situation is totally out of our control, so I figure the best thing to do is to stay calm and take things day by day. I’m trusting that everything will work out for the better and well, if not, then we’ll just have to adjust and cope.

For more info check out Jiwa Surf charters – tradewindsadventures.com and Apneista freediving and Yoga at apneista.com