A Study in Scarlet

Reflections from the channel on the second day of competition at Cloudbreak

Embodying the Dream Tour. Photo: Glaser

Driving out in the longboat you can see it, miles away, a giant red triffid floating and shimmering just above the horizon.

The tower at Cloudbreak has clearly had some work done on it since I last saw it a few years ago, when it was a claustrophobic, guano-encrusted bird rookery. The only people you’d consider sending out there back then were surf filmers, but it’s been cleaned up, the Fijian chippies have improvised some extra levels, and the blood-red Volcom livery can be seen not only from the longboat, but also surely from space. From this far away I can also ascertain the swell has hung around and something may well indeed happen today.

I’m a day late to this Volcom Fiji party, having been stuck in every godforsaken airport between Aceh and Nadi while the contest got underway yesterday. I’m in the longboat early this morning with a group of Fijian women heading out to Namotu Island. The girls have just done the morning shopping and have loaded the boat with bread and yams—starchy South Pacific staples. There’s very little of the carb-free variety out here. I chat with Soba, who I remember from the island four years ago, back when she was the most ironically named barkeep in the world, and the busiest person on the whole island keeping the beers up to convict surfers. No such amoral revelry as yet, but the contest is running today and guys will be losing and things may get a little more boisterous by day’s end.

We load the boat full of professional surfers and drive out to Cloudbreak through the bottomless channel that divides the islands of Namotu and Tavarua. The early morning freesurf is a spirited affair but is being clearly owned by Damien Hobgood. Them good ol’ Hobgood boys have a sixth sense with the tube out here and it shows. Damo glides through the tube of the morning, initially drifting high, then rail slipping smoothly down as the thing chambers out on the inside. As flawless as it is, you need a navigation plan for the tube out here as it wormholes down the reef, flaring and compressing, with no two waves the same. It’s a bit of art and a lot of science and Damo is one guy who has it wired.

First heat of the morning sees Kelly Slater up against Fijian triallist, Isei Tokovou. It should be a canter for Kelly—and in the end it is—but the heat has moments. I remember Isei surfing here in years past, surfing his piece of reef with muscular command but lacking the rounded edges that come with surfing more than one wave your whole life. Isei doesn’t have the typical tall, loping Fijian build. He’s built more like a rugby fly-half than a back rower, and the way he moves reminds me of Fiji’s greatest rugby player, Rupeni Caucaunibuca. Kelly builds slowly, using 23 years of knowledge out here to find some sweet corners and clean tubes, but Isei catches the one. He drops in deep, grabs his rail with a couple of giddy-up pumps pulls into the abyss, into the tube of the day. The handful of Fijians in the channel—and everyone else for that matter—erupt, only to deflate when Isei appears in the whitewater halfway down the reef.

Watching in the boat with us is Isei’s good mate, Ulai. He’d surfed two rounds of the local trials himself, but missed the final round because he was busy driving the boat to pay the bills. Ulai tends the outboard motor, occasionally throwing reos off incoming swells, but he also doubles as Isei’s sideline coach. “Shoulda pumped one more time, bro, he would’ve come out. Would’ve been a 10.” If he’d come out it would have been a 12. It was the wave of the day, and when Isei got clipped his goose was cooked and Kelly was safely through to the next round. Kelly proceeded to spend the rest of the day sitting on the bow of the marshalling boat mindsurfing nearly every wave. He’d sit there and watch the sets hiss and slither down the point, his fingers mimicking his board as he threw it into all the sweet spots. He talked about surfing up the point—way up the point—and backdooring the ledge section, popping out of the barrel where everyone else is taking off. Kelly may have surfed waves in his head today that will win him heats—or a contest—later in the week.

When the first 10 finally arrived it came from an unlikely source. Gabriel Medina has never been to Cloudbreak before. When the Brazilian kid pulled into an inside drainer and immediately threw five furious pumps, you figured he knew there was something waiting down the line for him. There was, and he later called it “the best barrel of my life.” Kelly had missed the wave and came running out. “He got a 10 on a three-footer? Was it really the best wave of the contest?” Kelly knows what this wave is capable of doing, and thought the scoreboard powder should be kept dry for later in the week when the real fireworks begin. He went back to his yoga on the bow of the boat, Titanic-style, staying loose for the battles ahead.

But the big dogs may have to cool their jets for a couple of days first. The promised pulse still lies well below the southern horizon and we won’t see the first tickle from it until Thursday. It will be substantial when it gets here, and we could be looking at a weekend finish if local conditions fall into place. In the meantime we could be stuck in worse places. As your correspondent posts we’re sitting in the bar on Namotu, the Celtics and the Heat have just gone into OT, and Parko has just gone chasing wahoo. Kai Otton and Michel Bourez are taking the boat for a late splash at Swimming Pools, and the Fiji Bitter sitting on the counter thinks it’s in a beer commercial as the afternoon sun shines through it, the palm trees sway in the background, and a single drop of condensation rolls down its neck.

Click here for the full results of day two at Cloudbreak.