One more big wave and our little boat is going down. Ours wouldn’t be the first ship to sink in this notoriously stormy channel between two Mentawai islands – although this wooden bath toy barely qualifies as a ship. With each battering swell, the weathered planks flex and moan as if to say, “I wasn’t built for this!”

I turn to check on Kailani Johnson. The 21-year-old pro surfer from Bali has her earbuds in, head nodding to a rhythm. Her eyes are focused on the whitewater steadily rinsing over our boat’s tiny portholes like the inside of a car wash. If Kai is nervous, she’s not showing it.

We’re stretched out on our backs, side by side like sardines in a tin can, the boat’s roof mere inches from our noses. I can’t help but feel like we’re in a floating coffin. In the rear of the boat, our captain is squinting into the storm, eyes locked on the horizon while swells converge on us from all directions. He’s soaked from head to toe, a damp cigarette slotted defiantly between his lips. He pulls out his phone and shouts something into the receiver. I can’t make it out, but it sounds like panic.

Kai removes one earbud. “What did he say?”

I smile and try to act as though our current situation is as normal as sitting in Bali traffic. “I think he told his wife he was gonna be home late for dinner.”

I first met Kai years ago in Rote Island when she was a wide-eyed 15-year-old grommet on one of her first surf trips outside of Bali. I was helping produce the water scenes with Kai and fellow Bali youngster Varun Tandjung for the film Kulari Ke Pantai by award-winning Indonesian filmmakers Mira Lesmana and Riri Riza. Kai was soft-spoken and thoughtful, easy to work with.

Since then, Kai’s surfing career has taken her to places that quiet grommet only dreamed of. Winning a WQS event, becoming the No. 1 ranked female surfer in Asia and qualifying for the WSL Challenger Series two years in a row. Most recently she represented Indonesia in the ISA Olympic qualifying competition in El Salvador. But it’s still hard for me not to think of Kai as that shy 15-year-old kid, who last winter in Hawaii still couldn’t order a glass of wine at dinner.

She’s the precious cargo on board and I can’t help but feel responsible for her. What am I gonna tell Kai’s family if something happens? Will the Indonesian government have me deported for endangering one of their best hopes for the Olympics? Will Kai step up and charge the XXL swell due to hit during her first trip to Mentawais? More importantly, will we even make it to the Mentawais?

The good news. We made it safely to paradise. The not so good news. So did everyone else. We pull up to Hideaways on the Kandui Villas resort boat for our opening salvo and are greeted by spinning lefts over the shallow reef, but with this south wind, every other camp and charter boat in the area has the same idea. It’s a hungry lineup, made ravenous by the long lulls between sets. As is often the case, Kai is the only female surfer in the water.

A pack of six Brazilians is jealously guarding the main peak like hyenas defending a dead carcass. One heavily tattooed alpha male insists on paddling for every single set wave that comes in and then cutting in front of everyone straight back to the top again. Kai jumps off our boat and paddles confidently into the fray, patiently working her way to the front of the line. But after 15 minutes without her catching a wave, I’m starting to stress. How are we gonna get clips of Kai for our project if everyone out here is surfing like panic buyers at the grocery store before a hurricane?

“Fuck these guys,” I say. “Come on, let’s take the next set. I’ll block for you.”

“Just chill, I got this,” says Kai. “No one’s gonna give me waves, and I don’t expect them to. Once people see that you’re going for it, that’s how you get respect.”

Kai is the youngest daughter of Richard Johnson and Ade Handayani. Richard was a young California surfer exploring Hawaii and Bali in the late 70s and early 80s in search of perfect surf and adventure when he met Ade, a beautiful Balinese girl from Klungkung, East Bali. The two soon fell in love, got married and settled in Nusa Dua, Bali, where they started a building supply company, making custom doors and windows for resorts and villas around the island.

At four years old, Kai was already surfing with her father and older sister, Pua, at the Nusa Dua beaches around her home. One of her earliest memories is stand-up surfing on a bodyboard at the inside waves in the lagoon at Geger Beach. When Kai was in the first grade, the teacher asked everyone in the class to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were doctors and firemen and even a movie star. But Kai was the only professional surfer. She drew herself riding a big wave and holding a first place trophy. With her father as her coach and sister Pua, four years older, pushing her with a healthy rivalry, Kai’s surfing developed rapidly. She and Pua competed in all the local grom and boardriders comps around Bali, and by 2018, Kai had become the WSL’s No. 1 ranked female surfer in Asia.

“To this day, I’m a firm believer that you speak things into existence,” says Kai.

When the next Hideaways set looms on the horizon, Kai is up and in the spot. The alpha hyena is already licking his chops and making plenty of unnecessary splashing in an attempt to mark his territory on the gem of a wave. But he backs off when we sees Kai paddle with commitment from deep behind the peak. We all watch buckets of spray from the back as Kai makes a sharp bottom turn and belts a steep section, recovers at the bottom and continues the wrap four more turns before kicking out over nearly dry reef on the inside.

“To this day, the majority of the lineup is men,” says Kai. “I’ve always felt this expectation that because I’m a girl, I have to go for it in order for a lot of the guys to respect me. I grew up with that mindset from my dad, you don’t have to catch every wave, but the waves you paddle for, you better go.” This might be Kai’s first trip to the Mentawais, but she’s made it clear to everyone in the lineup that she’s not just here to watch. She will go.

My back is on fire. “How’s it look, doctor?” I ask, wincing from the lime juice searing into the freshly grated flesh across my shoulder blades, courtesy of an angry west swell Kandui closeout section over sharp dry reef.

“You’ll live,” says Kai.

She catches the worried look across my face in the bathroom mirror. “Don’t worry,” she adds. “I’ve been dong this since I was little.”

When her dad would return home with a surfing injury, Kai and Pua would be enlisted to administer first aid. “Mom wasn’t good with blood,” explains Kai. “One day my dad might come home with a big slice across his back. Another day I might have to learn how to dig urchin spines out of his feet with a needle.”

With the calm of a seasoned medic, Kai asks me about work to help take my mind off the pain. We talk about the Rip Curl Padang Cup holding period we just wrapped up, and Kai’s historic performance at Padang during the event Warm-Up, when she was the standout performer and snagged one of the best barrels of the day in front of legends like Taj Burrow, Clay Marzo and Mason Ho.

“I feel like I showed just a little bit of what I can do,” Kai says of her breakout performance in heavy tubes. “It was really cool and really special and I would love to show more of that side of my surfing.”

Kai asks me what’s next after our Kandui trip and we compare upcoming travel plans. Kai will return to the WQS travel grind, with three events still remaining on the 2023 Asian regional schedule, Cloud 9 in the Philippines,Taiwan, and Korea. After the Asian leg concludes, she’ll head to the North Shore for the upcoming winter season.

“Traveling has taught me how to adapt,” Kai says as she swipes on some triple antibiotic ointment and expertly bandages me up. “Whether it’s traveling, or competing in a heat, or just life in general, you have this perfect idea of how you want things to go. But sometimes things don’t always go that way. And when you’re trying to force things, it takes you out of the flow. Surfing and traveling have taught me to just go with the flow.”

Kai’s wise words ring like a salve and my shoulders finally relax. I’m starting to understand that she is no rookie. She’s a pro. Professional athlete. Professional traveler. And she’s been working to achieve this lifestyle since she was in the first grade. This whole trip I’ve been worried about watching out for Kai, but it turns out she’s been watching out for me.

“I love solo traveling,” continues Kai, “but it’s really important who you have around you.”

After our Mentawai adventure, I couldn’t agree more.


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