Going Public

William Finnegan on Tavarua’s loss of wave exclusivity

| posted on January 25, 2011

For the world-class surf surrounding Tavarua, the age of exclusivity has come to an end. Photo: Winer/A-Frame

Two years ago, I contacted William Finnegan out of the blue. I’d just finished reading his epic New Yorker surf feature “Playing Doc’s Games,” which I thought was the best-written piece (all 39,000 words of it) ever penned about surf culture. I had hoped I might be able to bribe him with some exotic surf travel in exchange for a byline in SURFER. No luck. Finnegan hit me right back, thanked me for the offer, but informed me that he was slammed with deadlines and focusing hard on serious stories. For years, he’s been one of The New Yorker’s most prolific contributors in the arenas of war, drugs, disease, and the tolls they take on humanity. I relented, but told him the door was open any time he wanted to cherry pick a surf-specific assignment for us. A year later, at the New York Surf Film Festival, Finnegan joined me at a screening of Dane Reynold’s Thrills Spills and Whatnot, and after the film he pitched an idea: to return to his beloved Tavarua and report on the real reason the Tavarua Resort lost its exclusive rights to control the lineups of Cloud Break and Restaurants. By the time we left the theater, we’d agreed on the terms of the assignment, and within weeks, he was in Fiji as a SURFER reporter. Our March issue features the results of his investigations. Finnegan and I did a quick e-mail Q&A to give you a bit of background…

I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Fiji. What’s your history with the island of Tavarua?

I first surfed there in 1978. My friend Bryan and I were bumming around the South Pacific that year, looking for waves. We actually overheard something on marine radio about this great left in that part of Fiji, but we didn’t know where it was. We camped for a while at Sigatoka, a river mouth beachbreak on Viti Levu, not too far from Tavarua. Then, in Lautoka town, we got lucky and met an American surfer, John Ritter, who had been on the yacht that made the call about the great left. He told us where it was. He and his mate were, as far as I know, the first people to surf it—this is the island wave that later got named Restaurants. We got some local fishermen to take us out to the island. It was uninhabited, very snaky, with no fresh water. The only structure on the island was a little fish-drying rack. I slept on that. Bryan slept in a pup tent, zipped tight. The fishermen came back once a week. We’d go in to Nadi for supplies. There were some long flat spells. There were some amazing days. It was the best wave I’d ever surfed.


Award-winning journalist William Finnegan does some hands on research at Restaurants. Photo: Ken Seino

By the end of that season, two more surf yachts had stopped there. We were all going to keep it a secret. That, obviously, didn’t work out. But I remember seeing, in the early ’80s, a list in a mag—probably SURFER—of the “10 Best Waves in the World,” and, going down the list, realizing that I had surfed nine of them. And the best wave I’d surfed wasn’t on the list. That was Tavarua. I was still hopeful that nobody knew about it. But the word was actually out already, and soon enough it blew up. Dave Clark and Scott Funk started the resort, and you guys published an article about it, by Kevin Naughton, with Craig Peterson photos. Later, with mixed feelings, I became a customer—a regular guest. That’s when I first surfed Cloudbreak—we never suspected it was out there. I’ve probably been back eight or nine times in recent years, mostly with the same core group of old chargers, including Naughton (Of course, his son, Kyle, surfs rings around us now). When I first went back, some of the older Fijians recognized me and laughed at me—I was the guy who failed to start a hotel.

Sounds like you find a lot of time to surf despite your work at The New Yorker. How do you make room to include surfing in your life, especially considering you live in an East Coast megalopolis that’s frozen half the year?

Writing is pretty flexible work, don’t you think? If you want to surf, you just have to get a lot done when the waves are lousy. That’s what I’m always telling myself, anyway—write while the surf’s down! There are good waves not that far from Manhattan—on Long Island, in north Jersey. It’s true that the best surf around here tends to happen in winter, so you need a good wetsuit, and the time window of good waves is often pretty short, so you have to stay on top of the forecasts. Once it’s good on the cams, you’re probably going to miss it. We also get hurricane swells in the fall. But I travel a lot for work, doing overseas stories, and some of my pieces take me to surf zones—South Africa, Central America. So I can sometimes combine reporting and surfing. More often, I’ll just take a surf trip after finishing a big project. I used to go hole up at remote surf spots to write. I spent a lot of time in Madeira in the ’90s doing that. Those stints ended after I became a parent. Really, though, it would be impossible to get in the water a lot, considering where I live and what I do, without an indulgent wife and an indulgent employer.

“Playing Doc’s Games” is generally considered the best piece of magazine journalism to date about surfing, but since penning that, you’ve written little about surfing. Why is that?

Other subjects have seemed more urgent, I guess. I don’t really have a beat, but I’ve written mostly about politics, war, poverty, organized crime, U.S. foreign policy, globalization—more hard-edged topics. I have been working on a book, a memoir, that’s mainly about surfing, but it’s not really journalism. It’s about the places I’ve surfed, the guys I’ve surfed with—the autobiography of a surfer, not a reporter. For better or worse, I’ve rarely put the two together.


Although many believe that the end of exclusivity will significantly increase crowds, the heaviest days at Cloudbreak will still thin the herd. Dave Skard pulls in above the shallow reef. Photo: Winer/A-Frame

You told me that you went to Fiji expecting to learn that it was government corruption or corporate scheming or some combination thereof, but in the end it really came down to relationships and one small group’s desire to return Restaurants and Cloudbreak to public-access status. Do you think that shift was inevitable? Also, as a longtime Tavarua visitor, are you sad about the result?

I am sad, of course, about losing the chance to surf—occasionally, and at considerable expense—great waves with sparse crowds. I don’t think the shift was inevitable. If Tavarua Resort had treated Fijian surfers better—given them more access to Cloudbreak and Restaurants—the 2010 Surfing Decree that opened them up would never have been issued. The group that’s happy about the decree is actually not small. There are more than 1,000 surfers in Fiji, by one count, and a hell of a lot of Aussies, and plenty of surfers from other places as well, who are all stoked about the new arrangement. But they were never effectively organized, so they had no leverage. It was really just a couple of Fijian surfers who managed to channel the general frustration and get the government to act. If those two guys hadn’t been really annoyed, it wouldn’t have happened. I don’t think, by the way, that the old arrangement was defensible, politically. I just enjoyed its fruits. And I don’t think the new arrangement is any good, either. It’s going to be rife with profiteering, bad crowds, and people getting hurt, the whole usual nightmare at great surf spots.

Would you rather surf perfect Restaurants or perfect Cloudbreak?

In my experience, both places get better as they get bigger. The biggest Restaurants I’ve surfed, which was back in the day when there was no restaurant, was probably double-overhead, and it was the best wave I’ve ever surfed. Cloudbreak is a less machinelike, brawnier wave. I’ve surfed it a bit bigger than that and absolutely unreal, but it gets even better, as you can see from the pics and video of that September 2010 swell, at a size that I’m not interested in trying to ride. Perfect Cloudbreak means 20 feet and breaking on what they call the Third Reef. That’s out of most people’s league. Certainly, it’s out of mine.

  • alex

    it is entirely possible that this is the coolest man on the planet.

  • Mik

    Having surfed mid-range size Cloudbreak with a handful of people, I feel lucky to have experienced it. This article adds allot to the past and current history of the experience. I really enjoyed the Fijian surfers I met, and can appreciate their views. Thnx.


  • pile

    I ran into the author surfing in mex years ago, and he is one of the coolest guys around(and a great writer)

  • james

    The law change was driven by tavarua but also with a desire to free up all of fiji’s previously ‘locked’ island breaks.

    I surfed there last October and felt, and was informed, that the crowds had not increased by anything dramatic, but maybe that will change. There will probably be some profiteering but what was the taverua resort doing over the past many years – it was mostly an all-American exclusive joint that prevented locals and others from getting any access.

    There are many new breaks available to all now, and going by the observation that Fiji is actually a very poor country, I’m sure most will welcome more tourist dollar at least more direct to the people than channeled through international hotel chains.

    For now it seems a happy medium has been reached.


  • dave

    “Playing Doc’s Games” is indeed classic. It’s available to New Yorker subscribers. I’m fortunate to have the paper copies.

  • Ed

    Finnegan’s a great writer… not just a “surf nostalgic” with a pen, though they too have their niche. That being said… this is the first time I’ve uttered the phrase- “I can’t wait to read that article” in reference to a surf magazine.

  • charliep

    i can’t believe i am saying this, but i can’t wait to get the new surfer to read this article.


  • TWON

    i cant wait to go to tavi!

  • Tony Carson Big Island

    No one, no one, should ever have to pay anyone, to surf a wave. What a soulless experience, open your wallet, give someone some money, and only then, get “their” OK, to paddle out , into the God given free ocean, to catch a wave.This has to be the total opposite of what surfing is all about. And when you leave, they probably smile at you and say “hope you enjoyed your stay, come back again some time, and oh, just one more thing, don’t forget to bring your wallet, ( so we can stuff our wallet, from your soulless experience). Let’s hope those days are gone forever on Fiji.

  • Armando Brinks

    If Finnegan wrote an article, than I will buy Surfer magazine (it will be the first time in over 5 years).

  • kent

    will gladly travel there at surfers expense to pen an article “kook from east coast has breakfast at newly opened restaurants” let me know ed when you want me to go bags are packed…..thanks for the call ted…

  • Tony Carson Big Island

    Just have a few issues with Mr Finnegan, in his article, he said, and I quote ” I am sad, of course, about losing the chance to surf, occasionally and at considerable expense, great waves with sparse crowds”. Seems he is saying, that he is sad, that the previous pay to play scheme, is gone. He also said, and I quote, “I don’t think, by the way, that the old arrangement was defensible, politically. I just enjoyed its fruit”. He just enjoyed its fruit. That’s like saying, just because prostitution, or child labor, are legal somewhere, its OK to partake of it.. If something is wrong, its wrong, and selling (or buying} waves is wrong.

  • Tony Carson Big Island

    To surfer mag : Two of my previous posts, (same as above), have disappeared from your web page, ( this is the third), if you can’t take a little heat, (the truth), please let me know . Tony Carson Big Island

  • Olivia Platt

    I was simultaneously enthralled and enraged by William Finnegan’s article: enthralled by the level of experience, nuance, and intelligence Finnegan brings to the issue, and enraged by the lack of objectivity. Indeed, Finnegan is an adept critical thinker and fair-minded journalist–when he is not writing about surfing. Whom to vilify in an article about a turf (water) war? Well, certainly the villain will not turn out to be the resort who is feeding you, taking you surfing, and who has hosted you and your cronies annually for the last decade. It is only in the above interview–not the published article–that he owns up to his bias:

    “I don’t think, by the way, that the old arrangement was defensible, politically. I just enjoyed its fruits.”

    He also writes [about a memoir he is working on]: “It’s about the places I’ve surfed, the guys I’ve surfed with—the autobiography of a surfer, not a reporter. For better or worse, I’ve rarely put the two together.”

    Perhaps if Finnegan were not a famous journalist, and perhaps if his article in Surfer magazine did not address an issue in which politics, corruption, greed and elitism are dangerously in play, I would not have expected the objectivity he is accustomed to providing in his “serious” pieces. The final anecdote in the article about the Fijian surfer at Restaurants makes a clear rhetorical choice: leave the reader with the sense that the “riff-raff” has been let in, to the chagrin of the rich foreigners–who of course know best how to keep order.

  • Wheeler

    I recently dedicated myself to studying two writers this year: William Finnegan and Jon Lee Anderson. read Finnegan’s article Silver or Lead from 2010. it’s about a Mexican drug cartel. Unbelievable. Finnegan is one brave dude.

  • Chaplain Chip Rohlke

    As a former Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in Fiji for $130 a month in 1977 I can say I’m glad they opened up all the breaks. This should always have been the policy. I remember surfing Sigatoka back in ’77 with two other volunteers & glad to have the company. Nobody bothered you about surfing & loved you enjoying their waves.
    Went back in early 90’s & stayed at Tavarua…pretty basic back then but thought the exclusive rights to the breaks was very discriminating to locals and those of modest means(including myself). Not everyone is a doctor or lawyer.
    Fiji certainly is a poor country but they are happy…they have God, community & family & are truly content and blessed people.
    We should learn from them what’s really important.
    Someday I’d like to stay in a village & take a boat to the breaks…living a simple life with the most wonderful people on earth.

  • Clay Feeter

    I cannot put down William’s new book!

    And if only he could tell even more stories about the San Francisco Ocean Beach scene and as we called him Mark ‘Doc Hazard’ Renneker — what a character, what an inspiration!

    Like the time Mark tried to surf Potato Patch, the very scary far outside reef outside the San Francisco Bay.

    BUT MY BEST DOC STORY is from my last winter of living there, 1979

    -(sorry i JUST missed you Finnegan but i got a job as a TV news reporter on Guam and was off for there later that year)…

    … middle of winter during a beefy triple overhead swell.

    Doc Renneker and I were the only ones that paddled out at the middle beaches where it’s always biggest.

    …we paddled and paddled for what seemed like at least 45 minutes.

    I finally got out and holy shit I was at least a half a mile off shore

    I had never been that far out in the ocean before in fact I could see Sutro Tower so clearly as if I was out in a boat in the middle of the ocean!

    I looked everywhere but Mark was gone!

    I was really freaking scared, all alone, but kind of digging the fear…

    I finally decided to ride one of the middle sized waves which were still at least 15 foot faces

    As it closed out I dropped to my stomach and held on for life as the whitewater explosion shot me out into the flats…

    Rode it all the way in on my stomach

    …only later did I learn from Mark that he had given up and gone down to Sloat Street!

    Ps I loved reading in the book about friend Dave Alexander. Tim Bodkin and Bob Wise