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Stow aways dodge Tavarua contest captains

Kelly Slater paddles by © John Harfield

Surf Travel

In 2004 a couple of kids hide on a boat to get close up view of the world's best surfers

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 10 July, 2013 : - - Like many of my peers, the end of Uni in 2004 was a chance to escape the beckoning clutches of society and put off the ever-looming fear of getting that first real job for just one more year. Becoming a lifelong member of the real world was the last thing on my mind. It was time to travel.  However, my best friend Chris and I didn’t want to follow the usual binge-drinking route through Asia with the hordes of excitable 20-somethings.

No, we wanted a different trip, a search for the waves that frequently appeared in our favourite surfing magazines and had decorated our bedroom walls for years. Our round-the-world ticket included destinations such as Fiji, Tahiti and California…and we were on that plane as soon as those ridiculous graduation hats had left our heads.

Around two months into our adventure, we found ourselves on the gorgeous, remote Fijian island of Nananu. After a mainly enjoyable stay (not including the ear infection after scuba diving which left me bedridden for 3 days with no pain killers and a bile coloured liquid pouring relentlessly from my right ear), we met a young Canadian traveller named Jason. He was one of those lucky few blessed with a natural white boy afro.

A few beers into our first evening together, we inevitably got into a discussion about our mutual favourite pastime…surfing. After the usual banter and exaggeration about the biggest waves we’d had, best places we’d surfed and so on, he asked us if we’d heard about the Globe World Championship Tour of Surfing (WCT) that was being held at the infamous Tavarua Island, which is host to Cloudbreak, one of the finest left-hand waves on planet earth. The wave is so heavy and unique that while the pros take it on, lucky spectators can enjoy a direct view through the tube from their boat, just metres from the end of the wave. Of course, it is in the middle of nowhere, and only accessible by helicopter or boat, so getting there is no easy feat.

Ashamed, we shook our heads. How had this colossal event passed us by? We blamed the excessive amount of cava (a local delicacy that is supposed to have minor hallucinogenic effects) that we had been slurping excessively since our arrival in Fiji. However, when the three of us returned to the mainland and phoned the docks, the people there claimed to have no knowledge of the event either.

This was before the days of iPhones and stable internet connections so we had no easy way of verifying his claims, yet our Canadian buddy swore that he had seen it in a magazine and was convinced it was happening. He urged us to come with him in the morning, and since, like most people in Fiji, we had very little to do the next day, how could we resist?


                                                     Sunny Garcia and John Harfield

So, before the sun was up, we snuck out of our dirt-cheap but homely beach hostel aptly named ‘Mama’s house’ and jumped in a rickety old taxi to the port. Lurking around the shadows like hungry wolves on the hunt, we spotted two guys with surfboards walking towards a large yellow ferry with a giant Globe sticker on it. Jackpot! We patiently waited until they were onboard, crept up the walkway and onto the deserted lower deck. Taking our hiding positions under the seating at the side of the boat and squirming with excitement, we did our best to stay quiet.

After what seemed like an age of holding our breath, the ferry finally took off, and we were heading, we hoped, for Tavarua Island. After enough time for us all to develop an extreme case of pins and needles, the ferry finally started to slow down. We figured that it was as good a time as any to raise our heads and take a look at where we were. As we each cautiously popped up, a giant smile appeared in unison across our faces. We had reached our desired destination.

All we could see for miles and miles, was the small island of Tavarua, some sponsors and press in expensive yachts, a few surfers in the water, and most importantly, one of the most famous waves on the planet: Cloudbreak. The ferry anchored itself only a hundred metres from the wave, and it’s fair to say we were all very close to wetting ourselves with joy.

As the ferry slowly filled with more surfers and sponsors, we started to realise that we were the only people without an invite for this prestigious event. We hoped that our sun-kissed hair and tanned skin would help us blend in with the small crowd, and nervously made our way to the bow, which was out of sight from the rest of the boat. We sat there, our legs dangling over the edge, watching our favourite surfers catch some of the most insane rides on the planet on one of our most adored waves in the whole world. This was the kind of stuff that we had only ever dreamt of, and had only ever imagined we would see in a magazine or video. We were in paradise.

We were soon rudely awoken from our real life day dream, as the event organiser came charging down to the front of the boat and yelled at us in a brash Australian accent: "Who the fack are you guys? This is a private event, do you see any public here? How the fack did you get on this boat?"

After trying our best to calm him down, Chris and I tried playing the sympathy card about being English and never having the opportunity to see, let alone surf a decent wave before. As we were in the middle of the ocean, he couldn’t exactly make us swim back, and the only bit of land we could see was Tavarua island and we certainly weren’t allowed there, so he grudgingly said he had no choice but to let us stay for the rest of the day and the ferry would take us back that evening on its return journey. The conditions were that we didn’t move, talk to anybody or cause any sort of trouble. Deal.

We thanked him, and continued to spend an amazing but hungry day as he refused to feed us, sitting just metres away from one of the finest waves on the planet being surfed by some of the finest surfers on the planet. As the sun went down, and we headed back to the docks, the event manager had a stern word with us "Well, I hope you’ve had a good day guys, but if you try and pull this stunt again tomorrow, I’ll throw you to the sharks. OK?"


                                          The view from the boat © John Harfield

That night we drank a couple of the local ales, Fiji Bitter, and discussed what to do. Never ones to turn down a challenge, that night we all agreed to do the exactly the same thing again the next day. Same routine, same seat that we hid under, same nervous walk to the bow, same event organiser…only angrier. "I fackin told you boys not to come back, what the fack do you think you’re doing? Fackin Pommes!" It probably wasn’t the best time for Jason to mention he was Canadian, but of course, he did. "I don’t give a fack where you’re from, you shouldn’t be here," he bellowed. And I thought Australians were supposed to be chilled out.

As we had gambled, he didn’t actually make us walk the plank and had no choice but to let us enjoy yet another day bobbing around in the Fijian ocean, hooting as we watched the stars ride the insanely perfect waves.  The only difference was, today we had brought some sandwiches. Once again, we headed back to the docks as the sun started to dip below the sea, and after the event organiser swore blind that he would have security on the ferry in the morning to check we weren’t there, we each managed to get an unwanted handshake from him and promised that we wouldn’t come back tomorrow. And we actually really meant it.

That evening, we bid farewell to Jason who was off to his next destination, and thanked him for the memories that the three of us would always share. I left Chris talking about our two days of adventures to an Australian traveller called Will that we were sharing a room with at Mama’s house, and walked to the nearest pay-phone to make a well overdue call home.

Once I’d assured everyone that I was safe, told them of our tale, and had the predictable ‘be careful’ chat from my Mum, I headed back to the hostel. Halfway back, I was approached by a lean Fijian who had duct tape on his chin. As he said he was a surfer, I assumed this was covering a cut acquired from a wipeout on a reef. He asked if I knew about the contest that was being held on an island nearby. He said he had a boat that he could take us on for $50 each early the next morning.  Not quite having had my fill of watching the pros’ surf idyllic waves, I spoke on Chris’s behalf and said we would meet him on the beach at 6 a.m.

Unsurprisingly, Chris was on my wavelength, and so was the Ozzy guy, Will, who he’d been chatting to in my absence. I was sure that there would be enough room for one more guy on the boat, and we decided to have an early night in preparation for the next day.

We woke at first light, and our new trio set off to meet our captain for the day. When we arrived at the beach, the boat turned out to be more of a dinghy with a hugely oversized engine. Chris and I exchanged glances, shrugged our shoulders and decided to risk it, boarding the tiny vessel. We set off towards the horizon with Chris and me sitting on the sides of the dinghy, and Will back to back with our host on the driving seat. We spent the next couple of hours speeding towards the contest, holding on for our dear, dear lives.

We finally arrived and pulled up at the reef, with, surprise surprise, only boats carrying pros and sponsors present. We sat just metres away from the break, thinking that we would finally have a relaxed day as we watched Kelly Slater score a perfect 10 on the heavy left hander that is Cloudbreak. Everything was going great as we ate our pre-made sandwiches and our driver toked on a joint. He explained that the cut on his chin wasn’t actually from a reef cut as I’d assumed; it was from a knife fight. At this point I looked down and saw a large amount of water around my feet. I felt the need to draw his attention to this.

Seemingly unconcerned, he handed us old ice-cream tubs which he just happened to have in the boat, making me feel as if this wasn’t the first time that this had happened. We scooped out the water as our captain did a big, noisy lap around all the contest boats. It’s fair to say that we were not making many friends. All seemed well as we repositioned ourselves near the wave. Shortly, the boat started to fill up again. We went through this same routine four times, whilst being yelled at by pros and sponsors for making so much noise and disturbing the contest.

Finally, our driver said that we had to return to the mainland. We only just had enough time to get a photo of Kelly Slater as he paddled past us on his way to his next heat. We set off but only made it about 100 meters when the engine conked out completely. After trying to restart the engine a few times, our dodgy Fijian captain got the oars out and rowed us over to a large yellow boat, which looked familiar. "Mate, they definitely won’t let us on!" We yelled.

As predicted, our old friend the event organiser wouldn’t let us on. Our Fijian driver yanked the chord on the engine one more time, and in doing so smacked Chris right in the cheek. Right, enough is enough…we jumped overboard and swam to the yellow boat and pleaded with them to let us on. Some kind hearted soul encouraged the organiser to let us on…he turned out to be from the film crew of Love Island who were having a break from filming. They let us on and gave us a beer each and laughed as we told them about our day so far.

Once again, all seemed good, until the captain of the boat started asking questions. Being English, Chris and I stayed quiet and polite. Being Australian, Will started shouting and swearing at him. This probably wasn’t the best idea, as the guy kicked us off his ferry and onto a tiny boat, which took us over to Tavarua island. As we landed, a rather large Fijian headed over to us. Oh dear, we thought. His opening sentence came as a bit of a surprise: "Sorry about that guys, that’s not how we do it in Fiji" he said, as we explain what had happened, "Have a beer…and some lunch."

He took us over to some palm trees and we sat on the beach, with the surprisingly friendly owner of Globe, who was organizing the event I should add, and watched the surfing from a new and equally amazing location. As we lay on the beach, we noticed a small film crew walk past, filming an attractive blonde girl. As we peered closer, we realised that it is the English model Abi Titmuss, who must have been filming a part in Love Island. Not being able to let the moment pass us by, we hollered a chorus of “Hellos!” to her. In return, she smiled, waved, and flashed her assets at us.  Classy chick.

That just about topped off our day and we lay back contentedly until the sun went down and the event finished for the day. Suddenly, something crossed my mind. How are we going to get back to Mama’s House? After much pleading, eventually someone arranged for a rowing boat to get us back to the large yellow ship. As soon as we boarded, I spotted surfing icon, Sunny Garcia. Despite his reputation for a fist-swinging hardman, he was very welcoming and invited us to hang out with him and the other surfers that got knocked out of the contest that day.

As we sailed back, we chatted with Brazilian surfers, Rennie Rocha and Victor Ribas. Rennie went below deck, and brought up the tail of Bruce Iron’s board, which he had snapped that day. As we talked the universal language of surf and they told us what they wish they had done differently in the competition that day, the Brazilians signed the broken board for me, which now hangs proudly in my bedroom. We said goodbye at the docks to our new pro surfer friends, and thanked them for an amazing experience.

All in all, even though I didn’t even get in the water, this was without doubt the best surfing trip of my life.

Source/Author: John Harfield

Tags: Tavarua, Globe, ASP World Tour,

Travel: Surfersvillage

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