Written by Zander Morris
How a near-fatal motorcycle accident — and later a broken back at Desert Point — led to a life of chasing tubes.
On my way to Drifter in Uluwatu to chat with Ricky, I realize I don’t know his last name. He’s in my phone as Ricky Mentawai. I know that’s not it. His instagram handle is Ricky Nomad. That can’t be right either, can it?
If it is Nomad, this life of his — bouncing around the Mentawais running Sibon Charters, while taking photos and packing big pits — is some sort of strange destiny. “No, it’s not Nomad,” he says with a laugh when I bring it up. “My last name is Estevez, but I’ve never really told people that. I don’t know why, I’ve just always wanted to fly under the radar.”
At 38 years old, flying-under-the-radar is exactly what Estevez has done these last 18 years. While he didn’t start surfing until his late teens, he’s been more shacked than most in Indonesia in the years since, and you’ve likely never heard of him. Which is perfectly fine. Estevez, like the rest of the Drifter ambassadors, is motivated by the tube, not by notoriety.
"My path to Indonesia was a bit all over the place. I grew up in California but I had other interests when I was young, so I didn’t start surfing until later in life. I was 17 when I bought myself a surfboard. It hooked me straightaway. It took years of being a total kook and having no real idea what I was doing — all I knew was that I loved everything about it.
Directly after high school I enrolled in the fire academy, was set on becoming a firefighter/paramedic. Surfing in between classes was another highlight of those years, well learning how to surf. Just before graduation I had a really bad motorcycle crash. I almost died. It really realigned my perception, made me confront time, I mean the fact that we don’t have so much time on this planet, and thus reconsider how I wanted to spend it. So I bought a ticket to Mexico and a camera, and traveled by bus through mainland Mex, surfing along the way. I ended up in Puerto Escondido. While I was there I met some guys that were going to Australia, so I flew home, sold the rest of my stuff so I could scrape a couple thousand dollars together, and I joined them."
"So I bought a ticket to Mexico and a camera, and traveled by bus through mainland Mex, surfing along the way. I ended up in Puerto Escondido. While I was there I met some guys that were going to Australia, so I flew home, sold the rest of my stuff so I could scrape a couple thousand dollars together, and I joined them."
"A few months later my tourist visa in Australia expired. At this point I was 20 and infatuated with surfing. I had seen pics of Indonesia in the magazines, so I figured that was the spot to go. I flew over to Bali with a couple of shitty surfboards, and that’s where it all really started for me. It was immediately a dream come true. Deserts. Lakeys. Lembongan. I surfed all of those waves during my first trip, plus I went to G-land and the Ments. I definitely wasn’t good enough to be surfing those places yet, but it was a trial by fire and I had to get better really quick."
"I bounced between Oz and Indo for a while. During those years I was working odd jobs in Oz and I made a decision that I needed to find something that could support my surfing addiction. The fire academy was out the window [laughs]. I always liked photography and videography, so I bought a Canon body and a water housing, and I picked up shooting in the water fairly quickly. I loved it. I wasn’t surfing, but I still felt like I was a part of the ocean, you know? Then my accident happened.
I was brought on by one of the surf companies to shoot photos of their team in the water at Deserts, and I got caught inside down in the shallow section before Grower. I crushed my T3, T4 and T5 vertebrae. It was gnarly. The day before I had nailed a sick shot that ended up being a two-page spread in one of the mags, so I was feeling confident. I thought I was in a good zone, but I had been sucked down into a really bad spot and this big double up landed right in front of me. I couldn’t do anything about it. The wave picked me up and slammed me on my neck in less than a second. It felt like a shaft went through my chest."
"It was a long and grueling recovery, but I ended up on the other side without permanent damage. I got lucky. I still wanted to shoot photos and I still wanted to spend my time in Indo. That was when a friend offered me an opportunity to shoot photos of guests on a charter up in the Mentawais. It was a new boat and they needed photos. They ended up offering me a chance to invest in the business, which is now Sibon Charters.
On the very first charter, the surf guide didn’t show up, so it was on me to take photos and also guide for the guests [laughs]. Trial by fire again. But I realized I really liked doing it, and it was something I wanted to do.
So, yeah, both my shift to traveling and my shift to operating charters happened after a major accident. I had nightmares after both accidents, and would wonder about why bad shit was happening to me. But looking back, I can see there’s always a positive out of every negative."
"The ocean is something that commands respect. There’s a difference between demanding and commanding. Up on the equator, things can change in an hour. We’ve had many crossings where we’ve not anticipated a storm and got caught in the middle of a huge one. But for us, safety is always priority number one. We don’t cross boundaries. We don’t push it. Even if that means changing plans and flights.
My worst experience was an unforeseen mechanical issue during a crossing. Our shaft snapped at night, in big seas. I had to get in the water with a flashlight — in gnarly conditions — to tie off the propeller to the railing so we could make a temporary fix.
The worst accident I’ve seen? I feel like I’ve been lucky. My medical background helps tremendously. I’ve stitched up over 100 people. And not just on our boat; I’ll help anyone that’s around. One thing you learn really quickly on a boat in the Ments is that help is not on the way. If I see blood, I sort it out.
Guests needs come first. But there was a time where we were at Macaronis and it was firing, and somehow nobody was around. It was as good as it gets. But the guys on the charter weren’t up for it. It was too heavy for all of them.
"These days, there’s almost always one guy that wants it and surfs really well. On firing days, the majority does not rule [laughs]. I always tell the others: There will be plenty of small fun days where it will be perfect for everyone to surf, but if we pull up to pumping tubes and one guys wants it, I’m not gonna let his dream crumble."
At one point in my life I thought I was too old to pursue new passions. Like surfing. Or getting barreled. But I know now that you’re never too old to pursue new things. Just don’t doubt yourself. And don’t let anything hold you back. Age, time, whatever it might be — get that out of your mind and just go send it.
My biggest sacrifice? I don’t have a house, I don’t have anything [laughs]. I don’t make much money. Everything I’ve made I put back into my lifestyle. I have started buying some land recently, and hopefully, that will pay off in the long run. But I’ve never really been worried about it, either. I’ve just been focused on learning and experiencing life and taking it as it comes. I’ve just always wanted to do it all. All the pain, all the joy…I wouldn’t change it for anything. So I’m not sure I’ve really sacrificed anything. Through these experiences, I’ve evolved into who I am.