Yvon Chouinard told me about it. We were yakking about travel, eating sashimi, drinking Hinano on a yacht in the Tuamotus. Founder of Patagonia, Inc., Chouinard saw much of the tropics—surfing, sailing, exploring, bonefishing—but he hadn’t surfed the wave we discussed.
“Somewhere I’ve always wanted to see,” he said. “Untouched nature, lots of reef passes, no surfers, good surf. All you need is a local fisherman to take you out.”
“Why haven’t you been there?”
“Probably because there aren’t any bonefish.”
Chuck Corbett of Tabuaeran, to where Chouinard once sailed, later confirmed the claim to me through email. A longtime merchantman and an expatriated American on his own atoll of idyll, Corbett had seen and surfed more Pacific obscurity than anyone.
“Would you like an insiders tip?” he wrote. “Buy a small Japanese truck for around a grand or less, then buy a 10-foot aluminum boat with a 15-horsepower outboard. Ship from San Francisco. You will find epic, world-class surf—up to giant sizes, too. When you’re finished, you can sell the car and boat. Nobody knows the island sits with Tahiti in waves because the surf is a minimum of a few miles out, on a barrier reef.”
I was on-island at 3 a.m. after four flights, with two bags, two surfboards, and no expectations, not even for sun. The terminal was a dim concrete room with flaky paint and a foul restroom, a small sign glued above the sink: Please keep our airport environment clean and fit to work in, especially our restrooms.
At the curb outside was an old brown sedan, an orange light on its roof, which made me think it was a taxi. It was, though its driver was asleep—as was the pregnant middle-aged woman in the back seat. Both of their jaws bulged with betel nut, a natural sedative enjoyed with great vigor on the equator.
I tapped on the driver’s window, startling him.
“Taxi?” I grinned, showing him some cash.
The driver stared blankly through the windshield.
“Where you going?”
“Palm Hotel? Okay. We go Palm Motel.” He started the car.
About a mile on, he pulled over in front of a small store festooned with cheery but faded beer posters and advertisements for the latest food shipment from Hawai’i (New York Steak just in! and Now Fresh California Iceberg Lettuce!). The driver eyed me in his rearview mirror, his face sweaty and fretful, like he was going to faint.
“Sir, I stop here.”
“Do you need to buy something? The store looks closed.”
“No. But I not drive you to hotel.” He put a finger on his cheek. “Very tired.”
“So you’re dropping me here?”
“Yes. I call new taxi.”
We sat in the car and waited. The road was dark. Nothing moved. The air was thick and muggy. I was grimy. The driver lowered his head, tilted the seat back, and dozed off. Rain began to fall. I closed my eyes, listened to the jungle crickets, and thought: Two days ago I was in a down parka and driving 80 mph on a Los Angeles freeway.
A longtime merchantman and an expatriated American on his own atoll of idyll, Corbett had seen and surfed more Pacific obscurity than anyone.
Then came bizarre color visions of a rodeo I’d never seen, cowboys I’d never met, cowgirls in tight jeans, bull-riding, steer-wrestling, sunglasses, tobacco, bourbon, paper plates and fatty meat, pickup trucks, aluminum folding chairs, green hills, bright lights, dirty fingers clutching pink ticket stubs. So lucid it was, I shot upright and yelped when the driver slapped my left knee.
“Sir! Taxi here!”
An hour had passed. Dazed, I tossed my bags into the other car, which was smellier, with damp cloth seats. The driver made a futile stab at conversation.
At last he deposited me in the rainy darkness outside my hotel, in the middle of the forest, several miles from the nearest village. The air smelled of plumeria and moss, rain and ripe fruit. The silence was deep. Eventually a clerk led me along a ferny path to my room—actually an old wooden bungalow, full of insects and geckos—where I showered and slept till noon the next day, awakened by an errant rooster and croaking toads. And, somewhere in the distance—Chouinard’s “it.”
Amid a wet land chilly West Coast January, DEEP chatted with John V. Campbell, founding partner, president, and CEO of San Diego’s Matuse, Inc.—a kingpin in the modern eco-wetsuit movement—to talk geoprene: your green friend in the black world of wetsuits.
DEEP: What’s geoprene?
CAMPBELL: Geoprene is limestone rubber that is 98 percent water-impermeable. Standard petroleum rubber—what most wetsuits are made from, especially the kinds that are initially ultra-flexible—is maybe 69 percent water-impermeable. This means a geoprene suit is lighter, warmer, and remains insulating for a longer period of time. Everyone knows what an old wetsuit feels like and what a poor job it does with insulation. Geoprene suits retain their insulation qualities because of their unique microcell structure.
In 2005, when Matuse was still just an idea, only scientific aficionados and wetsuit wonks knew about limestone rubber. Today, limestone rubber has become much more commonly known among the surfing populace. There is—and probably always will be—a huge gap in quality between the Chinese versions of geoprene and the materials made by Yamamoto in Japan. Moreover, to take things up another notch, there’s a marked difference between standard Yamamoto rubber and the geoprene used by Matuse.
DEEP: Why are geoprene suits pricier than neoprenesuits?
CAMPBELL: The best customer understands the difference between price versus value. And consumption is the biggest enemy of our environment. The longest-lasting wetsuit is arguably the most eco, like a car that gets 200,000-plus miles of use before trade-in. The way for a wetsuit to last long simply means keeping the customer happy. Wetsuits that keep their customers happy are consistently warm, comfortable, flexible. Solid, reliable suits have an MSRP of $300 and above. Excellent suits have an MSRP of $500 and above. Either way, paying $200 or $300 more for a suit that lasts another two years equates to X amount of dollars per day over the course of 365 days—effectively a depreciation schedule via wetsuits.
...EARTH'S REMAINING PETROLEUM RESERVES ARE EITHER NOT ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE OR ARE COSTLY FROM AN ENVIRONMENTAL STANDPOINT. MOTHER NATURE DOESN'T DIG DRILLING BIG HOLES ON SPECULATION.
DEEP: How do geoprene suits affect the environment?
CAMPBELL: Geoprene is essentially bubbles or foam that forms like a loaf of bread. The bubbles, or cells, all have the same size and cell-wall thickness. With the constant compression and elongation every wetsuit endures, the pressure is evenly distributed throughout geoprene’s perfectly aligned cells. Hence the cells remain intact. Long-lasting rubber cells make for exceptional heat retention and efficiency.
Standard neoprene wetsuits have a cell structure with irregularly shaped cells and randomly thick and thin cell walls. Over time, the oil-based neoprene cannot withstand in-use rigors and will not retain its water impermeability/insulation. This is why an oil-based suit is much warmer the first time its worn compared to the 10th time it’s worn. Oil-derived suits function like kitchen sponges because they absorb so much water.
Petroleum is a dwindling resource. And tapping into the earth’s remaining petroleum reserves is either not economically feasible or is costly from an environmental standpoint. Mother Nature doesn’t dig drilling big holes on speculation. By comparison, there are estimates that there are roughly 3,000 years worth of readily accessible limestone (99.7 percent pure), which is used to make geoprene. Geoprene suits make for a compelling functional and environmental alternative, especially when evaluating the sustainable raw-materials they’re made from, the customer’s demands, and how they fulfill the intended utility of a wetsuits. Plus, I think they look better.
Find out more at matuse.com.