Too Fast To Stall
How Pro Surfer / Entrepreneur Tai “Buddha” Graham found his feet in Bali.
Words: Thai Little / Belly Magazine
The Early Years
I grew up a stone’s throw from the beach by Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast, Australia. We weren’t rich but we weren’t doing it tough either. When my parents split it was a bit hard – it wasn’t like she moved to the next town – she moved to Bali. “Where the fuck is Bali?” I used to think.
My parents had come to Bali together in the 70s. They loved it. So naturally, when they separated Mum returned here and has remained for the past 30 years. I feel like a lot of people escape to Bali to connect back with themselves; they come for healing purposes. There’s that calming spiritual element. You can find yourself here or lose yourself.
Bitten by the Surfing Bug
When I was 10 years old my sister’s boyfriend was giving me shit for being a boogie boarder. I was like, “Fuck that”, grabbed a board, and started standing up. Next thing you know I had a gang of surfing mates and it was impossible to pull me away from the beach. I was hooked.
Looking back, surfing has given me a ticket to see the world. All surfers share the same desires, like scoring a perfect barrel. The people you meet in surfing, it’s like a brotherhood or family. It doesn’t happen in other sports. In a lineup you sit a meter away from a dude, so you’re going to start chatting if it’s just the two of you. You’ll become mates, perhaps one day you’ll visit his part of the world and look him up, likewise, he’ll come to visit you. We’re so connected.
The Perfect Indo Itinerary
Come back to Bali, have a blowout. Single Fin will do. Then set yourself up for a little strike mission to G-Land, tick that box, then get back to Bali. Do the rounds on the Bukit and Canggu, get into a little rhythm, but don’t get too comfortable because now it’s time to get adventurous. Leave this for last because you don’t want to start off your trip getting skunked. Keep an eye on the charts, hopefully, you’ve done some listening and observing. Try to hunt a mysto wave. The adventure will pay off even if the waves don’t. Then either extend your tourist visa or come back next year and do it all again.
On The Hunt For Barrels
Surfers are some of the most selfish, egotistical people. We’ll go on the dodgiest ferry, the ghettoest planes, eat the shit-ist looking food you’ve ever seen in your life, sleep on the floor in a mosquito-ridden village… just to get a perfect wave. And nobody else gives a shit about your perfect wave – it’s just for yourself.
I love the unknown. I could just surf Keramas or Ulus every day but that would get boring. What’s next? What’s around the corner? Where’s the challenge? If I wasn’t a sponsored surfer I would still be going on missions, 100%. Every surfer dreams of scoring perfect barrels regardless of the photos and videos.
Everyone is trying to be the first at something and in the surf world, there’s someone that wants to be the first guy to surf a 100ft wave or the first to surf some crazy new slab on the edge of the earth. For me, it’s the lure of surfing the best waves in Indonesia. That’s what drives me. It’s a bit of an ego thing.
On one mission, our goal was to surf the biggest wave in Indonesia. The logistics were hectic. I teamed up with a buddy from Morocco, Jerome Sahyoun, and flew to this airport then drove 12 hours to a harbor. We had three jetskis delivered there by truck from Bali. One to tow-in, one for the camera crew, and one for rescues. The crew got into a wooden Indo boat then we take off on the skis to meet them at the spot. As we depart one ski isn’t cooperating so we tie it behind the boat.
So, we get out to this reef and the swell is huge but the wave we wanted just wasn’t on. It was 12-15ft, the wind is howling, we have a shocker session and decide to bail back to the harbor. The waves are thumping the boat as we wave goodbye and take off on the skis.
An hour into the return trip the sky has gone pitch black and one of our skis are taking in water. Fuck. We’re sitting there in the dark floating in the channel somewhere between a 10-ft closeout reef and a 15-ft outside bombie.
I ripped out the torches and a beacon flasher from under the seat and tied the skis together, adding a quick-release pin in case things got hairy. We decided to tow the broken ski out the back beyond the bombie into the path of the boat, which was somewhere behind us. It was a pretty scary ordeal. Finally, after two hours the boat came within range and I drove by them to get their attention. The drama wasn’t over as we all had to yank the 500kg jetski full of water over the side of the boat in heavy seas. It was a lot of effort with nothing to show for it, but failed missions like that make the successful ones taste that much sweeter.
Paid to Play
There’s nothing hard about being a pro surfer. Some guys whine and complain about the travel, which makes me want to slap them across the head and say “Man, put things into perspective, go and get a real job. Experience life doing a 9-to-5 and you’ll do whatever you can to keep the pro surfer thing going.” Anyone that gets paid to surf is very, very fortunate.
When you sign the contract, you have a job to do. It’s a business deal between the brand and yourself. As a “free surfer,” your job is to be seen. If we’re going on an adventure we need to have something to show for it. Photos, videos, social media, magazine exposure. That’s the trade-off for living the dream.
Brands should want you for who you are, and they should be aligned with what you do. For my role at Billabong, in addition to being the “adventure guy,” I also help the creative team with the production of their photoshoots. I froth on that side of things. I’m here to make sure their top pro’s like Parko and Italo are being looked after when they are in town and connecting in the right way.
Making Bali Work
In my early 20’s I went through a stage where I wasn’t overly ambitious – just plodding along like a lot of young people do. I was back on the Gold Coast working as a lifeguard living paycheck-to-paycheck. I had a moment with a mentor and he asked me, “Are you happy?” The truth was, I wasn’t.
So, what would make me happy? How about taking charge of your life, surfing pumping waves every day, eating healthy food, and being surrounded by fun, beautiful people? All roads lead to Bali, but I needed to find a way to make a buck to get by.
I arrived with 4 grand to my name and a quiver of boards. I rented a house for three-quarters of it and I spent the remaining money repairing it. Through my networks, I started hosting all sorts of travelers who wanted to tap into the local knowledge I’d built up over the years: where to surf, where to eat, where to party.
That venture took off and my toes were in the wax daily. I was stoked I had gotten that far… but I was hungry for more.
The Road to Success
In 2007 I started a weekly party called “Black Dog” with some local surfer buddies. It was all about having fun – raw and unpretentious, Friday night’s only, a platform for talented bands to share their music. At the time, no other venues were doing live music or underground art exhibits and people weren’t going to clubs until after midnight. It was wild! After a few years it got so out of control we had to close it down.
I began to take on some consulting work for bars around town. I helped launch La Plancha, did a few gigs at Potato Head, and even had my own night at Eikon in Kuta which was firing back then. I was playing music and hosting events, then I kinda thought, why don’t I just start my own? I teamed up with local surf legend Made Kasim at a location above the Uluwatu cliff in south Bali. We called it Single Fin. We started with practically nothing, but like Black Dog, it turned into a monster.
Getting people to come an hour from town wasn’t going to be easy, and at the time the only people around were surfers who were in bed by 8 pm. There was no “Sunday Session” in Bali, but it’s the norm in Australia, so we took the concept and made it ours, filling a gap in the market.
Looking at the Bukit area now, it has evolved into a great alternative to Seminyak and Canggu. All the little hostels and losmen’s are full, there are other venues springing up and everyone is prospering.
Now I’m focusing on my new venture called The Lawn. It’s this vast grassy area on the beach at Canggu with an epic pool overlooking the surf and sunset. Old Man’s and Deus were already in the neighborhood catering to the party crowd so I thought, let’s step it up and do something classy yet casual. Bring your lady for dinner and a nice bottle of wine. Bring the kids – there’s a play area. Not everyone wants to get shitfaced wasted every night, believe it or not.
Originally, Single Fin was a small cafe taking up 60m2 of space. Now it covers over 2000m2, employs 150 staff, houses two retail stores and three joint ventures. All this amazing growth in a few years. We’ve been in way over our head at times controlling it all but have learned to maneuver along the way.
Tai Buddha in 5 Years
Surfing. That’s where I’ll be. Personally, I’d like to have some groms of my own. I’m getting married soon to my lovely fiancé and hopefully, we’re still going strong and doing what we love to do. Business-wise, I hope to keep growing when I see opportunities that fit my values and lifestyle. Surfing has given me so much and I would like to give back where I can. In five years I just hope to be doing good things, to be known as a good dude.