John Callahan and his rag-tag team of contemporary conquistadors are out to prove that discovery is still very much relevant in this modern world of Google maps, social media and rapid information transfer. They constantly scour Google Earth and ocean patterns to seek out new, untouched surf destinations.
Often, the surfing comes secondary to the adventure of finding a virgin stretch of coast that, perhaps, has only been frequented by local fisherman. Planning only goes so far in these remote hamlets and much of the logistics (transportation, accommodation, foods) occur on the fly.
At age 55, Callahan, who’s travelled to over 60 countries and pioneered more than 30 surf spots worldwide, is constantly on the go. Luckily, we tracked him down at his home base in Singapore where he’d just returned from the outer-most reaches of Indonesia.
THE RED BULLETIN: Adventure athletes like surfers, climbers and kayakers tend to always seek out new, untapped areas. Why do you think that is?
John Callahan: Human nature, basically. We will always want to know what we don’t know, see what we haven’t seen and go where we haven’t been. Once the pioneering Southern California surfers had more or less mastered the beachbreaks in Santa Monica Bay in the late 1920s, the next step was to drive up to coast to a new secret spot at the mouth of Malibu Creek and try to ride the long, peeling waves there instead of going straight into the beach. Surfers have been looking for new waves ever since, in every corner of the globe.
To what or whom do you credit the origins of your lust for exploration and adventure?
My family moved around quite a bit before we arrived back in Hawaii in late 1969, so perhaps the previous four years in Japan or the subsequent extended period in Hawaii afterwards had a lot to do with it. Hawaii promotes itself as a place where people want to go, but if you are actually from there, it can be a different story. Many Hawaii residents eventually want to escape the profound physical and mental isolation of being stranded on a tiny group of islands in the middle of the vast, empty North Pacific Ocean.
Who are the go-to cast of characters that join you on most exploratory missions?
Our surfEXPLORE group of myself, Erwan Simon, Emiliano Cataldi and Sam Bleakley have completed more than 25 projects worldwide in Africa, Asia and the Americas. As we are all good surfers, well-educated and extremely solid travellers, we have massive combined adventure travel experience and enough brainpower in remote and difficult areas that we can interact well with locals, get valuable information and come up with solutions to problems to keep moving towards our goal, which is to find, surf and document new waves. We have at least 25 additional destinations in our data bank and with a consistent source of funding, we could do many more surfEXPLORE projects.
Explain the process of discovering a new spot from start to finish.
There is no rigid formula, as each location is different. Our methodology is to start with research. We may see a Google Earth image or a random photo on our Facebook feeds or read a paragraph in a magazine or book and from there we try to learn as much as we can about a possible destination.
There is general info like how do we get there, can we get a vehicle, is there a place to stay or do we need to bring camping gear. And then there is the wave analysis — trying to find out if a particular location can get swell, how much swell, what time of year it may receive swell and what the annual and monthly local wind and rainfall patterns are.
If everything looks good after the basic research, we now have a set of parameters we can work with for when and where we might get waves. Then it’s time to prepare a budget — how much a project is going to cost and where we can source the funding.
How does modern technology help you in your exploration?
Everything we have been doing would be possible without modern technology, but it would be far less efficient. It would take much more time and cost a lot more money.
For example, to make a surfEXPLORE trip to Madagascar 100 years ago, we would board a ship in Marseille, France instead of an airplane in Paris. And rather than a Google Earth image of a promising left point on the west coast, we would have a French government nautical chart of the coastline, rolled up in our pile of charts and hand-engraved maps.
Six months later, after transiting the Suez Canal and running a gauntlet of vicious pirates in the Red Sea and on to the Indian Ocean, our ship would arrive in French colonial Madagascar. After a four-week trek across the island with 65 porters and a train of 20 donkeys carrying our tents, cases of vintage Bordeaux, foldable bathtubs and other baggage we would arrive at the point and make a camp. After six weeks of gentlemanly pursuits like bush camping, fishing, hunting game with shotguns and collecting museum specimens of plants and insects unknown to science, we would know if it was a good left point.
So from our perspective, modern technology has been an amazing and wonderful development. It hasn’t hurt adventure tourism, it’s the best thing that has ever happened. The fact that a massive database of satellite images on Google Earth, a database that costs millions of dollars in satellite construction and launch costs to assemble, is free to use to anyone with an internet connection is frankly incredible.
Are there other people like you out there doing the same thing? Or do most folks think the world is already completely mapped out?
There are a few who would like to be “surf explorers.” After they’ve done a few projects, most of the people who want to find new waves learn that it’s actually a very difficult thing to do. Going to an unfamiliar place to look for new waves that have never been surfed is for masochists and people who are slightly crazy and certainly obsessed.
The fact that our surfEXPLORE group has been able to find, surf and document dozens of new surfing locations in Asia, Africa and the Americas is a tribute to our persistence, the generous funding of our sponsors, our unique skill set of being able to do the research and execute a viable plan of action and to our ability to engage with locals on the ground in a number of languages — and in many cases, our own money well-spent.
What is the one thing (other than a passport) that you absolutely cannot live without while on the road?
My personal preference is to have a camera of some sort on hand at all times, either the full DSLR setup or more recently, a mirrorless camera, action camera or phone camera. I’m not a huge fan of the “smash and grab” style of spontaneous photography, but there is no substitute for having a camera on hand when you are supposed to be the photographer!
One travel accessory which all of us in the group find to be indispensable is a good headlamp — this simple device puts light where you want it, when you want it and is so much better than a torch in most situations that we never make a project without one for each of us.
What advice would you give someone who wants to go somewhere new and unexploited on their next adventure?
Do the research. If you can commit yourself to an extended period of research from a variety of sources before taking a course of action and making non-refundable expenditures, then you have a much better chance of success.
Of course, you could throw a dart at a map on the wall and decide to go to that location, but any attempt at exploration for new and unsurfed waves will have a much greater chance of success if you know as much as possible about your intended location before going there … or even pricing a ticket.