As I looked out over the buzzing pack of children strewn across the boarding gate, I knew I was not ready for this trip. And I sure as hell did not know what to expect.
I'd spent the week prior in Europe, photographing Dane Reynolds and Craig Anderson flying through the air. On my last day, as the Basque sun set over the Atlantic, Ando punted one more time, sealing another amazing, progressive surf trip. Beers were shared, my bags were packed, and I headed off.
Hossegor. Biaritz. Taxi. San Sebastian. Airplane. Madrid. Wait. Flight oversold. Fight with Iberia. Airplane. Dallas-Fort Worth. Customs. Airplane. LAX. In-N-Out. Four-hour gear swap. LAX. Customs. Airplane. Fiji. Wait. Taxi. Boat. Luggage. And then, Tavarua.
I kissed the thick, coral-speckled sand as I stepped off the boat, finishing my 53-hour journey across the world. As I lifted my sand-caked face from the pristine atoll, I saw a stream of toe-headed groms march off the boats, dwarfed by the massive board bags in tow behind them. The contrast of subject matter that changed in those 53 hours truly dawned on me at that moment, and I prepared for battle.
These children are no ordinary children: Snow-white hair. Glowing brown skin. Overflowing passports. Quivers of high-performance thrusters that make up a weekend warrior's dreams. Who are they? And why are they living my childhood fantasies? I take note on the roster of this squadron of prodigies: Jake Marshall, a 12-year-old, yoga-practicing vegetarian, who is seriously the next best thing. John Mel, spawn of the Condor, Santa Cruz legend Pete Mel, who is shaping up to be one of the most well-rounded juniors on the scene. Taylor Clark, raw ability and terrifying talent from San Diego. Griffin Colapinto, the most innocent looking of the bunch, but a style-master in the making. And then, a girl, Frankie Harrer, who is beautiful, calm, and emanates maturity.
We situate ourselves, prepare boards and cameras, and hit the pangas. The swell is already starting to fill into Cloudbreak, and the airplane cramps are quickly fading into anticipation. Dark storm clouds loom over the glassy reef break, causing the barrels to gently glow in the evening light. Taylor is in the water first, and within seconds swings around into a perfect wall. He's up and racing, starting off with a quick barrel before performing a variety of high-tech maneuvers, from lightning-fast lip-slides to powerful roundhouses. I haven't seen such an amazing attack since, well, France. This kid is the real deal. And then I look back to the lineup. Jake Marshall. I lost count of the technically perfect lip-bashes he threw down on that first wave. I look around, as I tread the water among them. There's no one in sight, just our panga gently drifting in the channel. The children sing-songily call each other into waves, cheering for tricks and giggling at wipeouts. The air is thick with bliss, and nothing but.
The minutes turn into hours. The hours turn into days. And the days turn into a week. Every second of every minute revolves around surfing. If not in the water, then the group is on land, eating or resting briefly, all the while discussing every single aspect of their surfing, sessions, ambitions, and surf culture as a whole. They live and breathe surf, and it shows. Luckily blessed by nothing but good surf, each and every day was spent at Cloudbreak, with the goofyfoots finding as much shade in the barrel as possible, and the regularfooters practicing their backside attack. Colt Ward suffers at the hands of their young teenage malice—for he who looks like Justin Bieber is destined for verbal abuse. For a moment I feel sorry for him, before he stands tall in a perfect barrel that runs the whole reef, only to be spat out with a grin that no Bieber reference could spoil. Frankie, the only girl on the trip, has become the apple of every one of the boy's eyes. They all vie for her attention, and treat her like a princess. But Frankie need not command such delicate respect, for she surfs with incredible style and prowess the entire trip, eventually proving what she's made of on the last day.
We wake up to a stiff breeze and the sound of waves thundering almost completely around the island. Before even the first sliver of light begins to break across the sea, we load ourselves into the boats, squinting in the darkness to see impressive sets wash through Restaurants. The children chatter excitedly as we cross the tossed-up sea to Cloudbreak. We arrive to flawless, offshore barrels storming across the reef.
The boat creaks, stomachs knot, and waves roar. And then they are in. One by one, they paddle to the lineup, and sit, waiting for the wave that will make or break their trips.
Watching from the boat, their little heads and frantic movements can only be seen every 10 to 20 seconds, between the massive walls of water rolling through. And then, in a moment of absolute awe, a towheaded figure is freefalling, face first, over the falls of an easily double-overhead bomb.
Taylor pops up laughing. "I didn't even hit bottom!" he says. The moment breaks the ice for everyone, and shortly thereafter the rest of the mini-humans are pulling into massive barrels. Everyone charges, laughs, claims, and hoots for one another. Frankie, who should be scared out of her wits, take off on an incredible mass of water and air-drops into the wave as the crew watches in the amazement. She follows the drop up with several stylish barrels and a few daunting waves to the head on the inside reef, taking everything in stride and never breaking her even smile.
To watch the world's very best young surfers is, in hindsight, somewhat disillusioning. I entered the trip with the preconceived notion that not only would I be with surfers of lesser maturity and ability, but that the caliber of surfing would be ratcheted down several notches. All it took was a handful of kids to prove my ignorance. What each and every surfer on this trip may have lacked in polished ability or professionalism, they made up tenfold in exuberance. To see such young, aspiring professionals take the leap to the next level was to see a different, largely undocumented side of surfing. But without hesitation, I can say that I have never spent time with people more enthusiastic to surf, more grateful for every drop of water underneath them, and more hungry to experience the simple beauty of riding waves. —Morgan Maassen