Fiji’s Dark Horizon
Reports from the channel as Cloudbreak puts on the show of a lifetime
“This is… awesome!”
It was 8am and Owen Wright had already caught three of the best waves of his life out at Cloudbreak. He got back to the boat after wearing a 10-wave, 12-foot set on the head that demolecularised his board and thrashed him royally. He was giddy. “Where’s the Tour chaplain?” he jokes. I comment to Owen that I didn’t think he was religious. “I am now,” he replies. Parko is climbing into the boat beside him. He’s been caught by the same set and has broken his second board of the morning. He’s lost another two into the lagoon with broken leashes. “Well,” he says to the born again Owen, “that set just baptised you.” The sun had barely broken and already the signs were there. By the end of the day it would be 10 feet bigger, and, as Nathan Fletcher described it, “Richterising.” It was surely the most eventful two-heat day in pro surfing’s short life.
The day had broken to peels of thunder filling the Fijian darkness. With the swell forecast to arrive overnight there were plenty of shadows walking the boards on Namotu Island, straining for a glimpse of anything white on the horizon. It was raining biblically, and through the noise of the bullets hitting the tin roofs you could hear a stirring out in the Pacific. It was here. It was now just a matter of deciding whether the contest would set up at Restaurants—which was only chest high with the swell too south—or move on out to Cloudbreak which, by early reports, was reasonably wilder, several times overhead and just as girthsome. When the news broke that the contest is moving out onto the reef at Cloudbreak, the assembled deliver a round of applause. The every surfer wants it out there, although they haven’t yet seen it. Kai Otton is in the second heat. “I’m ready!” He boldly declares. “I think.”
We boat out with Taylor Knox, Gabe Medina and Yadin Nicol and Cloudbreak appears as the Loch Ness Monster on the horizon, a strong easterly offshore tearing the top quarter off solid sets. Yadin is on a 6’6” and knows it’s a kid’s toy out there. The three jump off the boat and make it 30 yards before a good chunk of the South Pacific rears up on the ledge and not only takes them out, but every other surfer in the lineup. It’s the same set that catches Owen and Parko, and once it eventually relents the inside reef at Cloudbreak is scattered with bodies and boards. It’s carnage, and the water patrol are scooping up whatever human flotsam they can find before they go hunting all the sticks that have been lagooned.
Hawaiian, Dave Wassel swims by our boat trailing the tail of his board. “Which way to the Pipeline?” he cackles. Wassel has plenty of company. Overnight there’ve been new arrivals. They’re mainly Hawaiian, pretty well every big-wave paddle guy on the payroll. The roll call goes something like this: Mark Healey, Kohl Christenson, Kala Alexander, Makua Rothman, Nate Fletcher, Pete Mel, Ian Walsh, Jamie Sterling, Reef McIntosh, Dean Bowen, Ryan Hipwood, Jeff Rowley, Ramon Navarro, Derek Dunfee, Danny Fuller et al. Forgive me if I missed anyone, but the flight from Hawaii into Nadi last night must have had roof racks on it to carry the boards. The lineup is full of long, block-coloured boards, and gentlemen perched upon them out in the shipping lanes. Healey rode a 9’0” because his only other board was a 6’2”. The early hour on the reef is frenetic yet sublime. Under heavy skies Parko gets a wave he describes as the most perfect he’s ever ridden, then adds a caveat that it moved like a tsunami, the supernatural speed at which it moved consuming him, chewing him up and spitting him out on the inside. He paddles back out on his third board of the morning and is back in the boat five minutes later carrying only its tail.
And then there was the small matter of the contest. The question wasn’t one of “contestable,” but more “survivable.” No one was quite sure whether what we were seeing was the top of the swell, or whether there was more of it lying over the horizon. But the contest, by now, has its own life and cannot be stopped. The Tour needs heats in these waves to quell naysayer and build credibility—and days like this don’t come along every day of the week. It’s cautiously green-lighted. The first heat is Bede Durbidge and Adam Melling, roommates back on Namotu Island and two guys who’d lobbied three days ago to have their heat called off when a light onshore ruffle started blowing across the three-footers on offer. Now, that afternoon three days before suddenly seemed a whole let better as they stare down a lineup that is 10-foot bigger, 12-foot bigger, and very, very angry.
Volcom’s Richard Woolcott, the architect of the Tour’s return to Fiji, is sitting on the nose of the marshalling boat as Bede paddles past. His investment in the Fiji contest is suddenly seeming a very, very good idea. The boat erupts and Wooly yells out, “We’re with you Bede!” before returning to his seat and whispering, “from right here on the boat.” All the big dogs paddle in one by one and suddenly Bede and Mello find themselves very, very alone out there. Bede has Abe, the tour chaplain, caddying for him but is unsure whether it’s going to help him much. As they sit there waiting for the hooter to sound a 15-foot rolls on disconcertingly through the lineup.
The pair step up. They break the ice with a set wave each. They relax, as much as you can in 15-foot surf. A set rolls down the reef and the pair are clawing for the horizon. Melling is five yards inside Bede. “He’s either sweet or he’s not sweet,” offers Matt Wilkinson from the marshalling boat. Melling is soon on the tail of his board diving for the bottom. “Not sweet, I’d guess,” says Wilko. It ends Melling’s heat and almost ends Melling. The two return to the boat unsure exactly what just happened, but return as heroes. They’ve lost no friends with their performance out there today. The next heat paddles out; Kai Otton and Raoni Monteiro. No one in the contest is riding their own boards. They’ve all done deals with the big-wave guys to lend sticks. “Not lending,” says Kala, “renting.” The tour guys have brought 6’8” big boards and they’re two-feet undergunned. Otto borrows Dean Bowen’s 7’2” and snaps it, then grabs a 7’0” from water patrol member Billy Watson, which he loses when his leggie snaps. Raoni rides an 8’6” but blows a knee when he pulls into the inside section four times overhead.
The contest goes on hold. There’s a light chatter on the faces, but the real concern is that the swell is nowhere near peaking. The sets are less frequent but when they do present themselves they’ve got a darker side. I watch from the boat with John John, who’s in the second heat of the next round, and the kid’s eyes are spinning. Five minutes later I watch a green, yellow and orange charge from deep up the reef and get spat out onto the inside. I look next to me and John John isn’t there.
That’s when it arrives. Rudely interrupting our lunch on the boat, we can see it charging up the reef from the south. It’s a set, a big one, a beautiful view of Hell. The boats scatter, the surfers scramble for the horizon and the channel erupts with whistles as the first wave stands up. It’s 20-feet if an inch, barreling, and drop-perfect. Only Nate Fletcher is in the spot and he spins his lime-green 10’10” around and strokes toward it, but even Nate, who famously put himself in harms way in Tahiti last year knows it’s got death by misadventure written all over it. Kala Alexander watches on from the marshalling boat, saying, “That might just be the heaviest wave I’ve ever seen, brah. I don’t know if I wanted Nate to catch that wave or not. You could fit this fucking boat in that barrel.” Our boat is a 150-foot luxury cruiser that is pumping South Pacific disco tunes across the lineup as men sit in a Waimea pack and queue for the waves of their lives. It’s a strange ol’ scene.
It’s all still happening now, as I write, and it’s getting bigger. The sets are consistently 20-foot now and still building. We drive away from it as a set charges through. It’s perfect; as sectionless and consequential as Teahupoo but breaking for 200 yards. Ian Walsh gets the first one. Ramon Navarro gets the second and escapes a guillotining to be rewarded with an inside tube the size of a two-story house. Jeff Rowley takes the third from too deep and Damo Hobgood seagulls it, side-slipping into a 15-foot soul arch on the inside. Parko takes the fourth and (despite pulling from a limited pool) scores the greatest lefthander of his life. It’s a pantheon of paddle out there and there is some scary, scary shit going down here right now.
Taj and Owen have just come in from the usually placid left out the front of Namotu Island. It’s 12-foot and getting bigger and squarer by the minute. “It’s a proper fucked up wave out there right now,” says Taj of the Namotu left. “Cloudy must be 30 foot,” he says. It is. There’s next level shit happening out on the reef as we speak, and the bleaters already and predictably concerning themselves with why the contest was canned need only watch the footage from late this afternoon to gain an inkling as to why. Guys were surfing with oxygen canisters and vests. Mick Fanning has just walked in fresh off the boat and says, “It’s like Teahupoo at 25-foot out there. I just broke Kala’s 8’2” and I need to text him. I thanked myself for making it to the boat.”
“Fiji is the new black,” says Kai Otton as he watches another set, a bigger set, roll down the reef at Namotu.
Fiji will tell more stories tomorrow.