If you’ve been given the green light for that dream 14-day surf trip (& your budget can stretch), how do you decide if a land camp or a surf charter is most suitable for you?
Well, we’ve put together a definitive list with the pros and cons of boat life versus a surf camp experience. Honestly, whichever way you go, it’s got to be win-win, right? Or is it?
Surf Charter Boats
“There’s something magical about waking up to the sight of a new wave each morning. It’s a bit like Xmas when you were a grommet. You go to bed, maxed out with excitement before finally waking up and being handed that gift you’ve been dreaming of all year. You just don’t get the same feeling at a surf camp.”
Indo Satu parked up at Nipussi, Playgrounds, Mentawai Islands
Surf on your watch. It’s a 24/7 surf fest. You don’t have to really think or make much effort, just indulge to the max and immerse yourself in non stop surfing. You don’t even need to paddle to the line-up! It’s also worth noting, that most of the time your boat will be anchored up at a break from dawn til dusk, so you can watch the conditions, not missing a beat, meaning you can time your session just right. This is a deal breaker with regards to avoiding crowds’ that continuously fluctuate throughout the day & is certainly one the biggest draws of being aboard a charter boat. Although you can also do this at certain surf camps (if there are waves out the front) but you’ll be very dependent on that 1 single wave working all day every day - which typically they don’t!
Surf on your watch. Pulse Surf Charter, anchored up in the Banyak Islands
Dominate the line-up. This tactic wont work at all the breaks, but let’s imagine your boat parks up at a B grade wave (still excellent in the Mentawais!) or a wave that doesn’t have a surf camp in front of it, there’s a good chance you’ll have the wave to yourself for part of the day or certainly with less of a crowd. Why? Well, charter boats are usually parked up before sunrise & so at day break, the majority of the group can paddle out together before “others” arrive. And when those others do arrive, the sight of a charter boat & a dozen guys in the water will often mean they’ll take their chances elsewhere. A good example of this is surfing somewhere like Bintang’s. It’s a great wave, with a small take off zone & no camp in front of it. Even if a few others paddle out, your group will largely dominate the line-up and that’s a real bonus.
Waking up to a new spot each day. There’s something magical about waking up to the sight of a new wave each morning. It’s a bit like Xmas when you were a grommet. You go to bed, maxed out with excitement before finally waking up and being handed that gift you’ve been dreaming of all year. You just don’t get the same feeling at a surf camp.
Just you and your buddies. Groups of 5-14 guests can potentially have a boat to themselves which is pretty special. Having all your buddies on board in close proximity is a magical experience but is certainly best without any random surfers joining in. It only takes 1 annoying alfa male to kill the vibe & 11 nights sharing with a douche bag can feel like a lifetime. That said, although you can also book an entire camp/resort, they tend to have larger capacities of around 10-30 guests, so it’s usually harder to fill.
Boat life, Moon Palikir. Perfect for groups of 10-12 guests.
Variety. Typically you’ll surf more spots than staying at a surf camp. Of course, somewhere like Playgrounds there is also plenty of variety (20 or so waves). But its not so much that you'll surf more waves, it's the fact that you'll have access to more surf zones, giving you more opportunity to score the best conditions for your group.
Novelty factor. There’s something special about hanging with your buddies for 10 days, cruising around tropical islands like a playboy & surfing the world’s best waves!
Is there any better feeling than cruising with your buddies in a tropical paradise, surfing the world’s best waves?
Avoid down time in Padang. Particularly for trips to the Mentawai Islands, those opting for a charter boat trip over a Mentawai surf camp will have the added bonus of avoiding 2 compulsory nights in Padang. This has obvious benefits as Padang is best avoided when possible!
Pricey One obvious draw back of a charter boat is that they’re god damn expensive! Surfers are notoriously frugal and aren’t exactly famed for being cashed up. Most 11-night trips range from USD 1800-2500 (AUD 2,600-3,600) whereas, on the flip side, a surf camp might set you back only USD 250 for a similar length trip. Of course, the higher end resorts can easily match the price of a charter boat, but the point is you can choose your budget.
Can your budget stretch up to 10 times more than a basic surf camp?
Confined space. Those that like their own space will struggle on a boat. The fact is, you’ll certainly share a room although that’s usually the same with surf camps. But if there’s a snorer or someone being loud (drunk!?) and if you’re trying to sleep, then there’s no escape! If you’re a light sleeper then take ear plugs and choose your roommates wisely and pick a boat with 3-4 sleeping cabins (some only have 1). It’s also fair to say that some of us prefer a bit of quiet time in between sessions, away from the noise and high energy of your buddies. If you’re sharing a boat with another group, you could easily be stuck with other guests that you’d prefer to avoid, but the reality is that you’ll be with them 24hrs a day for 11-12 nights. Not exactly ideal for your dream surf trip. If the wind and swell are playing havoc, you could also spend a lot of time stuck in a confined space, bored, frustrated & eating up time watching DVD's, or endlessly drinking Bintang’s (not such a bad thing?). Poor conditions can hamper a surf camp trip too, but its way better to be on land with space to roam and extra facilities to keep you entertained.
Never feel dialed in. For some this isn’t so important, but for others it’s a real consideration. Especially weaker surfers. Because, typically, you’ll only surf waves for 1-2 sessions before moving on. The novelty factor is nice to surf so many waves, but you also never have the chance to really understand a wave, learn where to sit & ultimately, surf it well, since you’re only there for a couple of sessions.
Disagreeing where to surf. Although the surf guide will ultimately choose where to surf and will always do their best to accommodate the group, there can be issue’s agreeing where to surf. It certainly helps when the group are all buddies and have similar abilities. It’s another reason why charter boats are best booked for private use rather than mixed groups. Even then, some alfa males can feel entitled to put pressure on the surf guide to head to a new wave/destination against their better judgement. There can also be situations when the spot you’re already at is absolutely pumping but the call is to move to a new spot. With that said, an easy-going group of very similar abilities shouldn’t have too much trouble navigating such problems, although it only takes 1-2 inflated egos to upset the status quo.
Why leave when the surfs pumping? One of the the dilemma's of boat life! (pic: Macas, Macaronis Resort)
Bali Belly. It’s no secret that most first timers to Indonesia experience the “Bali belly”. It’s not a great way to be (anywhere) but even less so when you’re stuck in a confined space. As a rule, we’d usually suggest locking in at least 1-2 trips to Indo before jumping on a boat trip to give you the best chance of avoiding this type of situation. Sea sickness is also an obvious possibility, although there is medication to prevent its effects.
Injury nightmare. The chances are slim, especially for the more experienced surfers, but if the sh*t hits the fan & someone is badly injured, things can go pear shaped pretty quickly. The boat will be in a remote corner of Sumatra and although there are protocols for such situations, the focus will be on getting that person to safety. Resources will be required (staff/speedboats/charter boat etc) & your dream surf trip could get turned upside down.
Mixed abilities don’t work. As a rule, Sumatra is best visited as an intermediate to advanced surfer. And that applies to charter boats. In fact, it’s best to go one step further and have a really similar surf level throughout the group. If you’re all tube hungry frothers, then don’t bring along your buddy who’s looking for a soft option. It just doesn’t work. And never bring your family of mixed abilities and especially your non surfing wives/partners, don’t ever go there!
Mixed abilities simply don't work - imagine feeling obliged to paddle out to Kandui (above)
Smaller groups don’t work. If you're in a group of 4 or less, its possibly not worth the risk. Why? Because, you'd have far less say on where to surf each day and you might get lumped in with better surfers than you - or worse surfers than you. Either way, you'll probably want to surf different waves than them & this will obviously be problematic.
Technical trouble. An experienced crew should be able to avoid just about any technical draw-backs at sea, but from time to time, once in a blue moon, there are situations where charters can break down or even hit the reef (and sink!). Although this is rare, usually boat replacements are on hand – but it can be a real dampener and at least 1-2 surfing days can be lost in the process (without compensation).
Avoid techical nightmare's by staying aboard a reputable operation like the Seriti Surf Charter
Dirty drop-outs. Organizing a group to fill a charter boat is no mean feat. You'll need everyone to be committed. If 1-2 guys drop out, you will need replacements as otherwise the cost will go up for everyone else. Surf Camps don’t have the same issues even when the group size fluctuates.
No local culture. The large majority of guests who take a surf charter, will miss out on any meaningful interaction with the locals. There's no question that everyone's main priority is to get the best waves of their lives, but immersing yourself into some of the local culture should be a top priority too.
Not supporting the local communities. Charter boats will have Indonesian staff, but it's fair to say they can come from any part of Indonesia & are not always local to the Mentawai (or the region where you're surfing). Most will agree there is a moral obligation to try and "give back" to those that not only need it the most, but also deserve it the most and they are obviously the locals.
Reef damage. Every time a charter boat anchors, it damages that reef or sea floor below. Of course, resort/camp speed boats also do the same but not to the same level. And not all surf camps require speedboats.
Surf Camps / Resorts
Macaronis Resort, a hard act to follow.
“Surf camps are way more flexible when it comes to your group. Whether you’re a single surfer, traveling with your girlfriend or bringing the entire family, surf camps can cater for just about everyone’s needs.“
Local knowledge. Although charter boat surf guides have an amazing understanding of the entire region, they will not be as tuned into local conditions in specific regions, especially when it comes to somewhere like the Mentawai Islands. They will know the main waves in each region but won’t react to changing conditions like the local camps will. This can often be the difference when scoring an hour to yourselves at a world class wave and those are the sessions you’ll remember.
Be in tune with the waves. One of the selling points of a charter boat trip is the amount of variety and waves you’ll surf. And although true, the issue with that is you’ll never quite get dialed in with many of the waves. When you stay at a surf camp, especially with a wave out the front, you’ll be way more in tune with positioning, understanding the wave & when to surf that you’ll increase your confidence and wave count.
Timing your surf sessions. Of course, this applies to camps/resorts with waves out the front. If you take a charter boat then you can ultimately surf when you like too. But the biggest difference is that if you’re staying at a camp then you can surf whenever you like without others noticing you’ve gone for a (sneaky) surf. When you’re on a charter boat, everyone else is watching the same wave too. But if you’re staying at a surf camp then quite often people are out on one of the camps speedboats, hunting for waves or they’re back at the camp having lunch or a massage. No question about it, there will be windows of opportunity for you to score sneaky sessions. Also getting up for an early surf, chances are others will hear you getting up when you’re on the charter boat. You can be way more stealth like when you have your own bungalow. Its also worth noting that certain resorts have boats that are “ready to go”, for example Kandui Resort that has a number of boats available including a dingy that is ready to shuttle you to any of the local waves (of which there are half a dozen!).
Always stay at a camp with a wave out the front ("Pitstops", just a few feet from Mentawai Surf Retreat)
Enjoy Freedom, privacy and personal space. These basically fall under the same umbrella & are on the polar opposite to the confined space of a charter boat. Surf camps offer private bungalows (and private bathrooms!) & plenty of room to find some quiet time. This is particularly awesome when the waves are average or you’re looking to rest, maybe from too much surfing or you’re looking to heal a cut. And if there’s someone you’d like to avoid – then it’s easily done at a camp (unlike on a charter boat!).
Better facilities. Down time is not to be over looked. Unless you’re a grommet, many of us will be pretty tired after 3-4 days surfing & looking for ways to relax in between sessions. Facilities go a long way to making a surf trip, especially when it comes to swimming pools, yoga classes, pool tables, SUP’s etc. There’s a lot to be said for a well-stocked bar too! The same is true for Wi-Fi and those that are reliant on the internet for work or for checking in with the family, as charter boats rarely get reliable internet connections.
There's a lot to be said for good facilities over the cramped nature of a charter boat. Driftwood Mentawai
Medical Personnel. Although the charter boats will have trained medical staff on board, their experience is probably questionable as they won’t be full-time medics. On the flip side, resorts such as Macaronis Resort and Kandui Resort have resident doctors that are ready to attend to minor injuries and assess you accordingly. Of course, none of the resorts are capable of treating serious injuries, but rather they are ready to arrange transport to the closest hospital (typically Padang), if some one is in need of serious medical attention. Systems are in place and although these situations are quit rare, you can sleep well at night knowing you're in good hands, depsite being located in such a remote corner of the globe.
Avoid the long overnight crossing. For trips to the Mentawai islands, the roughest nights on board a surf charter are the first and last night from Padang to the islands (and back). The 120 nautical miles crosses the Mentawai straight which is essentially open ocean, taking around 12-14 hours, depending on conditions. Things can get rough. Its fair to say its not the most ideal way to start (or end) your trip. On the flip side, surf resort guests will be taken across on the "fast ferry" that’s way more comfortable and a lot faster, with typical crossings of around 4hrs.
Any size group, families & mixed abilities welcome! Surf camps are way more flexible when it comes to your group. Whether you’re a single surfer, traveling with your girlfriend or bringing the entire family, surf camps can cater for just about everyone’s needs.
Land camps are the clear winner when it comes to families & mixed groups (Aloita Resort, Mentawai Islands)
Waiting issues. If the camp/resort doesn’t have a wave “out the front”, there can be an issue waiting to go surfing, when others aren't ready. This can of course be due to other guests, but it can also be the camps staff too (Indonesian's are typically way more laid back than frothing guests!). It's fair to say though, that Western managed camps are usually on top of these types of situations, especially compared to the more locally run land camps.
Malaria & Dengue. Although it’s unlikely you’ll contract Malaria or Dengue, especially if you’re diligent with covering up and spraying at dawn and dusk, you are certainly more likely to contract them than if you were on a charter boat. With that said, the more reputable resorts have procedures to limit its transmission.
DIY surf trip. Many of the more affordable camps are “Do It Yourself” & you basically have to search for waves yourself each day. Although this can be fun and is all part of The Search, it can get old pretty quickly when you’ve realized you’ve missed the best waves of the day. Its either really important to get a surf guide who can tell you where to go or to opt for a surf camp that includes daily boat rides to the surf (Mentawais, Telos, Hinako’s etc), rather than Krui or Simeulue which don’t.
With many surf resorts (that rely on speedboats), you face the frustrating reality of having to wait for others.
Ethical point of view. Land camps win out easily, no competition there. Staying on land you support the local economy and community. Of course, the best scenario is to support “locally owned” surf camps. But let’s not forget that there are plenty of camps that are operated by Westerners that have Indonesian wives (and children), who also buy local produce (when possible), including fuel & who support local boat builders as well as employing local staff. On the other hand, charter boats typically buy all their fuel and produce in the town/port where they’re based (usually Padang) and not in the islands themselves. Some staff might be local but certainly less than the surf camps.
Tsunami. Whether we think about it or not (or simply prefer to put it to the back of our minds), a Tsunami will strike again in Sumatra. When and where and how impactful, no one knows. It could be tomorrow or rather in another 5 or 10 years and still have little impact. Or could it be the next big one? Either way, most surf camps are prepared & have some kind of evacuation plan in place. Some are naturally better than others. Again, the higher end resorts will typically have the best safety systems with tsunami towers and/or high ground to escape to. Charter boats will typically head to deeper water given some prior warning.
Its certainly a difficult choice for some of us and ultimately depends on what’s most important to you. They are 2 amazing but different experiences. Both focused on surfing and you can ultimately score the best waves of your life at either. But the devil is in the detail and that absolutely comes down to personal preferences.
Charter Boat – ideal for groups of 5-14 that are experienced surfers of similar ability
* Surf on your watch
* Dominate the line-up
* Waking up to a new spot each day
* Just you and your buddies
* Novelty factor
* Avoid down time in Padang
* Confined space
* Never feel dialed in
* Disagreeing where to surf
* If you’re unwell
* Injury nightmare
* Mixed abilities don’t work
* Smaller groups don’t work
* Technical trouble
* Dirty drop-outs
* No local culture
* Not supporting the local communities
* Reef damage
As a general rule, we’d suggest that groups of 5-14 surfers, that are of similar ability are best suited to taking a charter boat. This can easily be a group of young rippers or quite often, more experienced, older surfers, who are on a birthday trip with their mates. It’s quite a generalized statement but if you’re an easy-going bunch that like the thought of being stuck on a boat with your closest mates, then it’ll usually be a winner. With that said, if you do decide it’s the trip for you, be sure to pick a reputable charter boat. They will burn more fuel & go that extra yard in chasing waves & get you where you need to be quicker and safer. They’ll also offer way more flexibility and will be willing to go the whole 9 yards in every aspect of your trip.
Be sure to check out our blog How to Choose a Mentawai Surf Charter
Seriti Surf Charter, exploring North Sumatra
Surf Camp - ideal for small groups (1-4 guests), families, mixed abilities & non-surfers.
* Local knowledge
* Be in tune with the waves
* Timing your surf sessions
* Enjoy freedom, privacy and personal space
* Better facilities
* Medical Personnel
* Avoid the long overnight crossing
* Any size group, families & mixed abilities welcome
* Interact with the locals more
* Give back to the local communities indirectly
* Waiting issues
* Malaria & Dengue
* DIY surf trips (low end)
* Extra nights in Padang (Mentawai trips)
* Less variety
It's fair to say, that for the vast majority of surfers, a surf camp / resort will be a better option. So when you do start looking for a surf camp, be sure to stay at a camp with a “wave out the front” so you can pick and choose when to surf there. Or at least have a surf package that offers daily boat rides without restrictions, where you can access at least 1-2 local waves when you choose to.
If a surf camp is for you, check out: The definitive list of Mentawai Surf Camps (Northern Mentawai)
The view from above, Kandui Resort, Mentawai Islands
In days gone by, the surf level was always good enough that you wouldn't have to think too much about stuff like this, but these days, it seems the “surf standard” has been somewhat diluted. So, make sure you're honest with your selves about your ability and those that are joining you for the trip. This will also reign in everyone’s expectations for the good of the group & it’ll help you make the right decisions. Its also well worth notching up at least 1 or 2 trips to Indo if you’re considering venturing out on a boat. Any trip to Indonesia should always be an incredible experience, it’s just a matter of picking the right option for you - and those that you’re travelling with.
If a surf charter is for you, be sure to check out our blog How to Choose a Mentawai Surf Charter
For anything else, get in touch!