Words and photos by Gary Simpson
A surfer can travel for a whole lifetime in search of great waves yet never really catch a swell that could be categorized as epic on a grand scale. Here’s one man’s story of how a much anticipated trip to Fiji led not only to an excess of dream surf for him and his friends, but also a rare encounter with the mighty Pacific at an absolute peak of majesty, a surfer capable of rising to it, and an industry reality that potentially diminishes us all.
As I looked over the models and charts before departure I felt that I could be about to experience something way beyond what I had ever seen on my previous surf trips around the world. What showed was a HUGE, blaring, red low-pressure system swinging east off the Antarctic ice cap, spinning its wave energy in the direction of just where I was headed, Fiji.
With my preliminary charts in hand, I shared the buzz with others as we met at the airport for a red-eye flight to Nandi on the island of Viti Levu. Some of us had been together on my last trip to Namotu Island, several years back, and there was a whole contingent of new surfers, most hailing from my hometown of Santa Barbara.
Following what seemed like an easy flight thanks to the obligatory prescription sleeping pills passed out at the airport, we disembarked just as Saturday was beginning to stir with the sounds and smells of the tropics. We arrived at the boat launch at 10am sharp for a 20-minute crossing to Namotu in absolutely perfect conditions. Many eyes scanned for signs of the impending swell, but it wasn’t until we neared our little piece of heaven, with Tavarua just a scant mile beyond, that we could see signs of whitewater.
From the time our board bags and luggage were unloaded, many of us were leashed, lotioned, waxed up and ready to hit the water in a half hour. We found fun, clean 3-5ft lefts awaiting us at the reef pass called Namotu Lefts, and 4-6ft clean and fast rights at Wilkes. All the while, lurking in the back recesses of our minds, was the coming swell.
But the next day we awoke to the same clean conditions. The Surfl ine printout was giving an outer reefs forecast of 35+ft in two days’ time. So we surfed and surfed some more, in perfect 4-8ft waves, some of us heading to the outermost part of the reef opposite Cloudbreak, five or six miles away, to sample what Desperations had to offer. This kept most of us enthralled, with the exception of Bob from San Diego who tore some knee ligaments way too early in his trip. He kept with us throughout, though, and was the consummate good sport despite what we were all to experience wave-wise over the next few days.
On Monday we awoke to a marked increase in wave height. Bleary eyes in the pre-dawn light were judging the sets to be in the 10ft range, which we soon found out was a guess on the conservative side. Anyway, the surf was beginning to mack in my estimation. But it was fun and manageable for the generally older contingent of guests, depending on where one picked up the wave at Lefts. Needless to say, we were all pretty drained by the time the evening’s festivities kicked in, and we knew the swell had only just begun.
Overnight it thundered on the reef hundreds of yards out and was confi rmed as being “BIG” at first light. Many of us headed to Namotu’s smallest break, Swimming Pools, a spot that never broke last time I was there, despite the other spots checking in at 8-10ft. Apparently, it takes a significant swell for this oddity of a wave-withno- back to rear up off the reef, and this time it provided us with some truly exhilarating righthanders.
By mid morning we were really all beginning to feel tapped, and the notion of a short boat ride over to Cloudbreak to see up close the huge, curling walls that were visible from at least three miles away, sounded really irresistible. You see, Namotu people aren’t allowed to surf over at Tavarua, just as Tavaruan folk can’t surf Namotu Lefts and Swimming Pools.
We pulled up to just one Tavarua boat idling in the channel, with one ski lurking for a set way up the reef. Within moments we became aware that the rider was Shane Dorian and he picked himself an absolute gem of a wave. Afterwards, he went back out and prowled for what seemed an eternity, letting waves go by that had us all spellbound. Then it became apparent as he was guided into a thick, wide-swinging wall, he’d found the wave he’d been looking for. As I scanned his progress through the viewfinder of my rapid fi ring Nikon SLR, I was literally lost for words, hoots or hollers, and as I recall all was still around me, too. Everyone was absolutely mesmerized, speechless.
Dorian rode the wave as none of us could fathom ourselves doing. He was relaxed and perfectly tuned with the rhythm that Mother Ocean had conjured up for him. It just kind of left us dumbfounded. I remember dropping the camera to look amongst us, and wishing I could instead have caught some of the expressions I saw; many, like me, had a feeling we were experiencing something of a once in a lifetime spectacle.
After some more unforgettable rides from Dorian, we all headed back to our little speck of an island for lunch. For the rest of the day the familiar refrain was, “Geez if the trip ended now it would have been totally worth it”.
The next day came and it was still clean, but a tad smaller. Many of us were able to get some of the best that Swimming Pools has to offer, better than the previous day which had suffered some sketchy winds. I know I, as well as everyone else out, had a gas on a number of nice sets, some approaching double-overhead. The other spots were still a good size, but we were all becoming pretty brazen by then. Had we landed here in the middle of the swell, I think our mix of older geezer types and young guns would have been a bit haired with the size, power and strength of current that all but whips you up or down the take-off ledge depending on the tide’s direction. But we’d got a chance to warm up with classic conditions in perfect medium-sized surf, and after seeing really big Cloudbreak, I think we were all mentally up to the challenges that Namotu offered us.
By the end of Day Five, my arms were truly like rubber, lacking any last get-into-it propulsion, and my neck and lower back were stiff as boards. But we were all in total bliss on this little speck of paradise in the Fijian sea, enjoying the hell out of life. The swell dropped some, and then some more, but by our last day I just didn’t have it in me to do much more than chill by the cascading waterfall dumping into the pool while reading my John Grisham thriller.
In closing I have to comment on observations by others that the Fijians are the friendliest people in the Pacifi c. Speaking for myself (and others I am sure) nothing truer can be said. To all the great people who made this life-time experience a reality, I give you a hearty ‘Bula’ and many thanks, ‘Vinaka’, for all your kindness.
Upon returning from Fiji I thought I had some surf pics that were defi nitely worth sharing and, mistakenly and without much forethought, submitted them to another big-name surf magazine. Their initial response was extremely positive, until I received what was represented as a “friendly call” from one of their staff photographers. I was “asked” not to submit my photos to any other magazines as he and I were the only ones with professional camera gear to witness this particular session at Cloudbreak, and he wanted to have the “exclusive” for his magazine.
I was ultimately levied a threat that should I submit mine elsewhere, this particular photographer would contact the folks running Tavarua and see to it that Namotu guests would henceforth never be allowed to view the waves at Cloudbreak from the channel. Wow, what a heavy trip! I sure didn’t want this ultimatum to rest on my shoulders. The last thing I wanted to get into was a political fray that would jeopardize the freedom of subsequent surfi ng guests of Namotu being able to see anything close to what I had experienced. I stewed on it; then decided to get in touch with Namotu’s managing owner to see if there might be any substance to the threat. I received a timely reply that said I should go ahead and share my pictures with whomever I wanted and that there was no validity to this supposed big-wig’s threat. Thanks to TSP for the opportunity to share this with others through your great magazine.
Gary Simpson lives and surfs in the Santa Barbara area – think Rincon and Ranch – where he runs the family business his father started 40 years ago. He has enjoyed previous incarnations as a serious surf traveller, living for stints in Oahu, Guam, New Zealand and Australia. These days, at 57, he’s sure he’s got plenty of good surfi ng years ahead, but is getting back into surf photography, inspired by his experiences in Fiji last year.