On Being A Tavarua Boatman

Dreamy waves, saving lives, heavy beatings, and more, with Nathan Strom

The paycheck of a boatman in Tavarua comes out to zero in dollar amount. But the time spent sitting in tubes at Cloudbreak in exchange for your services is priceless. Nate  Strom, memories over money. Photo: Miller
The paycheck of a boatman in Tavarua comes out to zero in dollar amount. But the time spent sitting in tubes at Cloudbreak in exchange for your services is priceless. Nate Strom, memories over money. Photo: Miller

Every so often, a surf opportunity comes along that is so good, you wouldn’t think twice about passing it up. So when San Diego’s stylish young regularfooter Nathan Strom was presented with the opportunity to be a boatman in Tavarua, (You know, that one island where those perfect reeling lefts call home in the South Pacific?) he dropped everything, jumped the soonest flight out, and watched as a dream quickly turned into a reality.

How did you get pulled into being a boatman at one of the most fantasized surf breaks in the world?

My friend, Nate Hinck, has been working as a boatman over on Tavarua for a while now. He saw that there was a swell coming and that it would be somewhat uncrowded since it was hitting right after the WSL contest ended. He also knew I had been wanting to get over to Tavarua super bad, so he told me to hop on board and stay with him for a few weeks. I had some money saved from getting second in the Duct Tape Invitational in Tofino, so I bought my ticket right then. I showed up on finals day of the Fiji Pro to oil glass, 6-foot Restaurants with only Nate, Jackson Huffman (Son of Bird Huffman), Jordy Smith, Michel Bourez, and myself in the lineup. It was perfect – crystal-clear barrels from the top of the reef all the way down with only the five of us.

An actual dream. How long were you there for?

17 days total. That first day at Restaurants was pumping. The second day was 8-foot out at Cloudbreak, with perfect sets rolling through. That was easily the best session of my entire life. I don’t think waves can get any more perfect.

What kinds of boards were you riding?

At Restaurants, I was riding a 5’5 Stu Kenson egg and also my first self-shape ever — It’s this little 5’5″ swallowtail thruster with down rails and lots of edge throughout. My first wave sitting in a backside barrel felt so good, riding something that I made. On my last wave of a session, Kelly [Slater] had just gotten dropped off out the back by a Jet Ski when I saw it coming, and I asked him if it was a good one to take. All he said was, ‘Go.’ I airdropped to the bottom and remember seeing this big crystal-clear room. I was sitting there on a board I had shaped myself, thinking, What the hell? I never thought something like this could happen.

 

Clocked in and locked in. Photo: Miller
Clocked in and locked in. Photo: Miller

You even got a chance to tow. What was that like?

I think it was the third day of my trip. I was waiting on the boat and was kind of scared to paddle since I didn’t have flotation or anything. It was apparently Anthony Walsh’s first time wearing flotation, so that weirded me out, too. I wasn’t sure I should be out there. I saw Kelly and Connor Coffin towing into these bombs and shredding, though, so I was super stoked to get one on the tow board.

It got bigger throughout the next 30 minutes, and I was getting nervous. I still wasn’t familiar with the reef. But after Ross [Williams] was finished with his ride, I grabbed the rope. There was a 25-minute lull until Kurt Monroe, Kelly’s tow partner, finally turned around and told me I was going on the second wave of the approaching set.

Tell me about the wave? Did you make it?

As I was getting down the face, I looked up and this thing was freight train-ing and feathering way down the line. I saw the water draining off the reef and could see it was getting really hollow. It was the biggest wave of my life, bigger than anything I have ever seen before. I tried pumping down the line to get closer to the channel. I could feel the big barrel, hear it, and see it surrounding me. Really, I was just trying to get out of it because it was so big and scary. The next thing you know, I hit three chops coming up the face, and I skipped out on my side. I kept my eyes open through the wipeout, but I couldn’t see the sky or anything…just a deep blue. I got thrashed and took a few hold-downs while the rescue guys had rolled their Jet-Ski in trying to grab Jon Roseman from the impact zone. But still, nothing too bad.

So aside from all the surfing, what were your duties as a boatman?

It all starts with waking up around 5:30 a.m. and running down to unlock the boat shed, grab fuel, and prepare the boats. By 6 a.m., the first boat is leaving for Cloudbreak, so everything has to be ready, including you. There is also another boat that heads out at 9:30 a.m., but I was always trying to be on that first one. Our job is to teach the surfers who are new to the island the rules of the lineup, hand signals to let us know if they’re in danger or if they’re okay, and how to jump off the boat. It’s essentially the work of a lifeguard.

Did you have any crazy experiences on the job?

There are people going over the falls on the daily. People would break their boards, not know how to get in, and get really cut up on the reef. I didn’t go through too much, but one time this older guy was close to drowning at Cloudbreak after he got worked. His leash broke and he was getting smoked. I paddled out to him, gave him my board, and told him to put my leash on so he could paddle out of harm’s way while I swam out of the situation.

 

Between gassing the boats, dropping anchor, and saving surfers in peril, Strom soaks in some of Cloudbreak's perfection for himself. Photo: Miller
Between gassing the boats, dropping anchor, and saving surfers in peril, Strom soaks in some of Cloudbreak’s perfection for himself. Photo: Miller

What was your most memorable moment from the trip?

During my first session at Restaurants, I remember pulling into my first barrel and after kicking out, looking back to see Nate getting way more drained than I just did. It was perfect on the inside of Restaurants, and as he came flying out, we were both so stoked, cheering for each other. Also, riding my own board that I shaped was like nothing else.

Are you planning to get back for another stint?

I got asked to go back in November, but I’ll probably be on the North Shore. I’ll be back next year, for sure.