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Into The Darkness

For decades Martin Daly's been the captain of his own adventure. One could very easily list him as the luckiest surfer in history, or at the very least, one of the most influential. Servais

In the late 1970s and early '80s, disenchanted with surfing's mainstream, a handful of Australians, among them a young Martin Daly, began to delve deeper into the more remote corners of the Indonesian archipelago. And while some turned to more illicit means to support their pursuits, in the early days Martin kept his dream alive by running salvage operations, diving on various shipwrecks and World War II battle sites in the off season. In 1980 Martin made his first trip up the coast of Sumatra, uncovering the ridiculous bounty of waves in the Mentawai chain. Now, nearly three decades since that initial trip up the coast, a boat trip to the Mentawais is a mandatory rite of passage for any surfer worth his salt. Thanks to a chance meeting several years ago with director Michael Oblowitz, the story of Martin Daly and the discovery of the Mentawais is just now being told. The subject of a new documentary entitled Sea of Darkness, the tale is as riveting a story as you're apt to find in surfing. Recently ESPN Surfing caught up with Martin and Michael while they were in Los Angeles together. The following is their take on went down during those early days in Indo and how they came to make a film about it all:

When did you first start searching around Indo, diving and surfing? When did you have an inclination that you were on to something?

Martin Daly: I started working in Jakarta in 1980. My mate Rosco was diving with me and he took me to a beach on the south coast of Java and we were driving down there and wound up staying at a Western-style hotel with good surf spot right out front that no one ever surfed. I figured that if you could drive down here in a car, stay at a hotel, and surf waves like this, I figured what else is out there? Then we figured that no one else had done it before. And we wanted to explore the coast of Java and Sumatra for waves.

And that was in 1980?

Martin: That was in '80, and then in '83 I rented the boat—it was the Raider then but we renamed it the Indies Trader—and then we went out on our first seaborne mission. Before that we had a Land Cruiser and we would just drive the coast of Java.

Michael Oblowitz: That's when—that 1983 trip—is when the film starts. A lot of the film was hatched around that initial boat trip.

Martin: We took the boat out to the Mentawais, and then we went to the coast of Sumatra. We discovered One Palm and a whole bunch of other waves. That's when we realized that we really needed the boat, and that's when I set my eyes on getting the boat—getting the Trader.

Before we get into it, I just want to hear about how you two got together and how the idea for this film came about.

Martin: I was down in a Florida airport for the Quik Crossing and we were getting our gates changed and going around the airport. I was with the Roxy girls and Michael was talking to one of them and it turned out he was on our flight. We wound up sitting next to each other in First Class. He was heading down to the Caribbean and was directing a movie down there. It turned out that Michael was a surfer and we started talking story and I showed him some photos on my computer. It was one of those situations where you either don't talk to the person sitting next to you or you do. When we got off the plane he didn't have a ride from the airport, and the hotel he was supposed to be staying at was closed, so he just wound up catching a ride and crashing on our couch with all of the Roxy girls for the night. We wound up doing our surf trip and then he did his thing. We got together afterwards and stayed up all night getting hammered. He said, "You know, I'm gonna make a movie about this." I didn't really believe him, but he wound up doing it.

Michael: Yeah, I'm one of the few people who actually do what they say in this business. [laughs.] If it happens at least 50 percent of the time than my batting average is good. But I mean this one was too good of a story to pass by. It involved surfing in Bali, G-Land, Mentawais, and places like that…that's how it all happened.

How much time goes by between the chance meeting at the airport and when you start rolling tape?

Michael: Martin told a lot of stories as we were sitting there drinking, which one does under those circumstances, and I wanted to see which ones would stick. Back in LA, I was meeting with Bill MacDonald who produced Rome. I told him about this guy I met in the Caribbean who discovered all of these islands and I told him I thought he would be worth having a look at. We were about halfway through a bottle of scotch and Bill said, "Can you remember any of the stories he told?" And I told him that I could remember about five of them. Then he said, "Well those must be some pretty f--king good stories if you can remember them." And they were, they were about treasure hunting and how Martin got the boat. Not so much surf stories, but the thing that got our attention was the stuff about the pirates—not the pirate stuff in the Sudan that's devalued the name good name of piracy—but the stuff about these young, white Australian pirates. Almost like neo-pirates, plundering the sea and bringing up treasure from the wrecks of Japanese war ships and stuff. We thought that there was a really good adventure movie there. So I wrote up some stuff for some producers in LA. And then the producers said, "Why don't we fly you out to Indonesia, out to one of these boats, so you can interview some of these guys." So I talked to Martin. I'll let him take it from there.

Martin: It was my 50th birthday trip. Michael shows up with Shaun Tomson. We're on this trip with a few of my West Java hillbilly buddies and Dave Barnett. And we drove the boat from Bali to Padang to G-Land and we had the biggest swell in 40 years. Pretty memorable trip. Michael got his interviews with all the guys on the boat, and there you have it.

Michael: I got about 50 hours of interviews with Dave Barnet who is Michael's mentor, and with Rosco, who's been with Martin since they were very young. We were also with Shaun, who filled in a lot of the blanks about pro surfing. Him and Bruce Raymond, the president of Quik International, were there and added a lot. So there were a lot of interesting people on the boat. I coupled the interviews with the footage that my son and another editor, Rob Tayler, shot. We got a really good sense of the story. When I got back I turned it into a 10-minute clip and I took it to some other investors. From there it started to shape into a feature film.

At that time I said to Martin that John Milius, who had written Rome and produced it with Bill Macdonald, would be interested in the story. So I said to Martin, let's meet with him in Los Angeles. We met with him in the Havana Room in LA and John started talking about his ideas. John gave his opinions on the surfers from that era that went to G-Land and Bali, dodging the Vietnam War and everything. And then what I found is that I had a historical background and ethos to place Martin's story and the boat. His story about the Indies Trader with Dave Barnet was not a solitary movement, but was in fact a direct result of a historical movement to go Asiatic and move East and discover new places. All of this was a direct result of the Vietnam War, and that's what I wanted to do a documentary on.

So it started off as a feature film, but then it turned into the documentary film it is now?

Michael: Even though we brought along a bunch of high def equipment: A Super 16 camera, two HD cameras, four or five Super 8 cameras, and recording and editing equipment to do a feature film, I was pretty aware that if I played my cards right and got access to some of the archives I could always end up with a very good documentary. I was covering both bases with an eye on one. The documentary is always contingent on having access to the archival footage that a lot of these guys filmed back in the day. Guys like Dan Merkel, Jack McCoy, those guys who got their cred at Sunset Beach, and had moved to Indo along with Gerry Lopez. So they were now filming down there. Meanwhile, Martin and Rosco and Dave Barnett had a camera as well. It was in the '80s and everybody had a camera back then. It was sort of the advent of Reality TV. So the more I became of the wealth of info that was in the archives, the more I realized that I had a documentary. When I edited it and showed what I had to Milius, he said to me, "My god, I don't even know if you can do a feature film that's gonna be better than this documentary." A lot of these guys have such amazing tales to tell. How many actors can do that?

Martin, were you guys shooting stuff on the first trip in 1983? Did you have your own stash of footage that contributed to the film?

Martin: My friend Rosco had been judicially dashing a few bits and pieces away with his mother in Australia. And it was in reasonable shape. Just in a beta cam. He actually has some footage of the first surf at Lance's Right. I think Michael's got that in there somewhere.

Michael: Yeah, I think that's in there. It's through the rails of the boat and you see them trying to ride this right and they wipeout and they wipeout and they eventually get it. This is what led to the documentary. All of this footage. It was incredible finding that first surf.

Martin: I don't think the surfing was incredible.

Michael: Authenticity is incredible in this day and age. What I was really trying to do in the film was find a dream that inspired all of these desperate guys. They all had this dream to make money and surf and with all of the tourists popping up they wanted to get as far away from Bali as they could. They wanted to get away from everyone, be free, and go surfing. That's what they set out to do. Some used illicit funding to pay their way; Martin found the need to work on an oil rig; that's what he did. He came by his money one way, and the G-Land guys came by it another way. But sooner or later the jig was up for the guys at G-Land and they were shut down by the government. Whereas Martin and Rosco were getting their funding legally from salvage diving and the like and had their sh-t together. And then they ran into Dave Barnett with his boat the Raider. And that's when they put together this trip to go on the Raider, which became the Indies Trader. And that was the start of it all. And if they had a boat, they could find a way to keep doing it.

Martin: And the dream is still going. Look at the Indies Trader IV and the rodeo flip Jordy Smith just did.

Michael: Martin was actually driving the boat when that happened. There's so much there we're hoping that HBO or someone can give us a 10-part series to tell the whole story. It was very difficult to do and not alienate anybody and make a coherent film that tells a story that is more truth than fiction.