Interview: Jim Banks

By Michael Kew

Jim Banks, happy he stayed home. Uluwatu, 2015.

Few folks can thrust you into your stash of Google Earthed screenshots. That A-frame peak near the fishing village. Those three lefts fronting dense jungle. These two reefs pinching that small port entrance.

Hey, Jim—is this one a sand point?

Banks knows. He’s scouted it. Likely surfed it. He can take you there.

Rather, he could have.

Since age 17, Banks has been gripped by Indonesia’s surf wealth. Now 56, he lives at Uluwatu, light years from his urban Sydney youth and its brief pro-surf stint which, in 1980, found him ranked 14th in the world. That year, he won the OM Bali Pro. Also the same year he left competition to focus on his self-shaped boards, testing them at cryptic reefs like Grajagan and Desert Point.

In 2009, full of lore, he launched the Indo Odyssey, a peripatetic, continuous, beyond-the-box surf charter. Bali-based, the Odyssey was six years of wander and wonder, shuffling punters atop ocean wilderness to question marks and proverbial stones-unturned, to proven swell-magnets and isolated old-faithfuls, most with no land access. The archipelago’s surf seemed limitless, its quality superb, crowds an impossibility.

Back in Denpasar, a superlative confetti of “Best ever!” and “Amazing!” blessed Banks and crew before they pressed Pause, posted diaries and dreamy lineups online, provisioned, collected new guests, and hit Repeat. From Aceh to Rote, the Odyssey roamed wild.

Last June, after another sublime run, Banks pressed Stop. Midway through his 40th Indo season, the Odyssey was over. —Michael Kew

 

 

Michael: Owning no vessel, how did you swing the charters?

Jim: I leased boats, which was always an issue of getting other peoples’ boats up to speed, or dealing with boats that hadn’t been looked after properly. I’d have to carry the responsibility of that. It was tedious. But I’ve still got a customer base—I still have the mailing list—and there are a few guys who say they’d really like to do some more trips. It’s quite possible that, in the future, if I come across a boat I can trust and is ready to go, I might do a few under-the-radar trips. Not advertised. I’d just contact my customer base directly and do a few sneaky trips here and there.

 

Michael: Was yours the only charter business dedicated to such remote exploration?

Jim: No one was doing the entire Indonesia coastline like we were. Probably 99 percent of the boats were running out of Padang and doing the Mentawais and the Telos. There are a few boats in the Banyaks, and there are a few out of Bali doing Sumbawa and Lombok. I think there’s one boat down in Rote, doing some trips. Everyone is pretty localized.

 

Michael: Conversely, you were combing distant swaths and finding dozens of new spots.

Jim: Yeah, that’s right. Some of the places we would visit, I was curious and I would go in and talk to the villagers and ask them if they’d seen surfing before. They’d say, “Yeah, there was a boat here last year,’” and I’d say, “Oh, that was us!” (laughs) We were the first to surf at a lot of spots. At some of the best waves we found, we would pull up to within 50 meters behind a couple of places in particular, and everyone on the boat would say, “Oh, bummer—no surf.” You couldn’t see the wave, even from 50 meters behind. I’m pretty sure no one else has surfed those spots.

 

Michael: What zone has the highest concentration of great waves?

Jim: You’d have to give it to the Mentawais. For the level of quality and conditions, that place is pretty hard to beat. West Sumbawa is also good, but it’s busy now.

 

Michael: What about the Odyssey has surprised you the most?

Jim: I’m amazed that a lot of the places we went to are still under the radar. That was always the dilemma for me—how do I promote these trips without giving away the locations of the surf spots? I had always hoped, when I started doing the charters, that I would have enough interest from my own customer base to fill the trips without having to really market or advertise them. Didn’t work out that way. At the end of the day, though, I have other things I’d rather do. I prefer to be hands-on—I like making stuff. I really like building guitars, so I want to get seriously into that. Right now I’m only geared up for electrics, but probably (this) year I’ll be geared up to make acoustics again. It’s another one of those professions where you get paid miserably for an amazing amount of skill and knowledge.

 

Michael: Like surfboard shaping.

Jim: Exactly! (laughs)

 

Michael: Why stop the Odyssey?

Jim: I’m not really a business guy. The whole thing started off as an adventure, but like so many great ideas, they just end up turning into businesses. It became very stressful trying to keep boats running, chasing customers, and filling seats. A massive amount of risk for pretty low financial return. We found a lot of amazing waves, and yet it was still difficult to fill seats! I came to realize that most surfers aren’t very adventurous. They want it all guaranteed and packaged—a TV dinner, you know? Unfortunately, it’s sad but true. I went through a stage thinking we weren’t finding good enough surf, but then I went to Sydney and I went to the beach and I looked at what people were surfing, and I thought, “Yeah, we’re finding amazing surf.” It used to completely baffle me—we’d have people inquiring about a trip, and they’d want to go to the Mentawais, which would’ve been a waste of time. I could take them to amazing surf with no one around. Such a rare opportunity, because in 10 or 20 years, maybe there will be people around. I used to surf Desert Point by myself. During this last swell, there were 200 people in the water. I used to surf Uluwatu by myself, G-Land by myself, Nihiwatu by myself—all these places. I could tell that some of the spots like Ulus and G-Land were going to get busy, but I actually believed that Desert Point wouldn’t. It’s hard to get to, it’s fickle, and the average surfer probably doesn’t really want a wave like that. I was completely wrong. (laughs)