For those who fancy themselves as carefree, sandy-footed children-of-the-sea types, this story may at times induce bouts of envy, disdain and possibly even nausea. Whereas most travel trips evolve into journeys into our souls, this particular journey led its passengers nowhere in particular, save for the abyss of debauchery. It all started when nine of the world's hottest surfers were invited by Red Bull on a first-class, all-expenses-paid deluxe charter through Fiji's Southern Lau Group aboard one hell of cruise ship to partake in their groundbreaking new contest format, dubbed the "Red Bull Five-By." The 177-foot luxury liner maintained a huge support staff, high-definition film crew, onboard masseuse, fully stocked bar, and enough toys to keep the boys (and girls) happy for a fortnight. The impending adventure (and lack thereof) was too enticing for us to miss.
Ian Walsh and Keala Kennelly are dealt a bad hand by Air Pacific when they first meet Alex Gray, who, in typical budding-California-pro style, is sitting on the floor against a wall in LAX's international terminal, trying to make sense of his guitar. In order to meet up with the cast and crew, both Walsh and Kennelly fly from the islands to L.A., then jump on board another flight heading back over Hawaii to Fiji. Direct from Oahu to Suva is seven, maybe eight hours; these two are spending more than 20 in the air.
After a few bulas at the airport and a brief air-conditioned bus ride through the cane fields, we arrive at Nadi Harbor. There, tethered to the dock, bobs the 177-foot, 33-cabin Yasawa Princess. On board: two tending skiffs to ferry people about as needed, two WaveRunners (because they're a must-have for every hip surf trip), a complete crew from captain to cook (even down to Sam the bartender), a spacious 100-person dining room, an air-conditioned lounge, and enough supplies to spend the next six months getting lost. The opulence stops short of tennis courts, and we're missing a pool and sauna, but then there is the onboard driving range on the sun deck. Thoughts of gluttony on the high seas are taking hold.
"Are you kidding? That's our boat!" cackles Alex as we pass through the Blue Lagoon Cruises' security gate.
Cabin keys are doled out (everybody gets their own suite), board bags stowed, remaining loose odds and ends tied up, and by late afternoon the Princess shoves off, beginning a 12-hour sail around Viti Levu, over to Suva, to pick up the rest of our traveling companions.
We slog through a slow, misty morning when Andy Irons and his girlfriend Lyndey roll up to the Suva dock along with Bruce Irons and Jamie O'Brien. The heavy hitters took the direct flight in. It's safe to say that Lyndey, as the only non-surfer girl on the boat, save the masseuse (but she has a moustache), will certainly be inducing a bad case of the wandering eye in just about all the cast and crew, especially as the days wear on. Mick Fanning also makes his way up the gangway. He didn't bring his girlfriend—in fact he's single and much prefers it that way. "Oh mate, I didn't even bring any magazines. Don't need 'em, I got me a pretty diverse memory bank."
Once Aussies Ben Dunn, Beau Emerton, Tony Ray and Ant MacDonald make the Princess home, we head back to sea.
Nightfall comes quickly, and once the poker chips on board are discovered, Ian and Bruce corral everyone in for the introductory night of Texas Hold 'Em. Some forms of surf talent can be easily applied to the poker table. Ian Walsh's bravado is clearly an asset, as he lures his victims in with his familiar ante-up phrase: "Are you in or out, slut?" O'Brien, however, nervously bends and folds his cards. Andy's surfing may be the best in the business, but his poker face isn't, as he still wears it all on his sleeve. In a Napoleon Dynamite-esque tone he huffs, "God! Why? Why do you have to bend the cards Jamie?" Then he throws down a two of diamonds and a seven of spades.
According to the captain it'll be another night's sail before we reach the first spot. Besides a few bruised egos at the card table, spirits are high. Everybody's slipping into Fiji time.
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The mornings are the most peaceful time on the Princess. Sipping a fresh cup of coffee, Andy's silently been watching the horizon. Our Fijian guide Ian walks up, telling him, "Dis place is called Doc's, it's a good right. On big swells it reels. I discovered it a few months ago when I came through here with some doctors."
Mick, maybe a little more motivated than everybody else after overcoming his hamstring injury, paces on deck as the skiff's lowered. "Come on ya cunts, let's go, let's go. What are we waitin' for? Let's go!" he babbles. "Is anybody else sweating? I'm hot. Is it hot? I think I've had too many espressos, mate."
To nobody's surprise, Mick is the first in the water. Bruce and Andy catch the next boat out, while the rest of us observe for a while. Andy is looking pretty casual, as you'd expect him to be while on vacation, yet he still takes off deeper than everybody else and toys with a racy shallow section. For the most part though, he seems to be goofing around until Lyndey, already in her third outfit of the morning, comes out to watch. Andy promptly elevates his game to another level, demonstrating to all why he holds three World Titles, and the girl.
True to forecast charts, the swell's begun to shift direction, moving from the east to the west. Ian led us to a reef in the middle of the ocean, literally, at least 15 or 20 miles from land. On one side a right stacks up, looking like a mini-Sunset on the bigger sets. Across a shallow lagoon (the reef never broke the ocean's surface), past two oxidizing shipwrecks, a zippy, Restaurant's-like left spun down the reef. Because it is every surfer's sworn duty to name a spot "Shipwreck's" if there is a dilapidated boat anywhere in the general vicinity, the lefthander will for evermore join the ranks of surf spots named after nautical misfortune.
The ocean has gone flat, and restlessness is beginning to threaten morale. But, wisely, the trip organizers at Red Bull know a thing or two about the value of playing nanny to a boatload of misfits. A little structured playtime always cools the heels, and they've planned accordingly. Keala, Alex and Jamie get their hands on spray-paint and paint-pens and acrylics and have an arts and crafts day. The poker rages on. Then Bruce, Tony Ray, Ian Walsh, Ian Muller and the captain go fishing, but only the captain scores, hand-lining a 40-pound tuna. While the deckhand is gaffing the fish to get it on board, two sharks snap out of the water. It's a quick reminder of what's below.
All appear tranquil through the afternoon until the Aussies disappear. Something is up. Then Beau resurfaces, dressed to the hilt in Aussie garb—cape, headband, shorts, socks, T-shirt—all bearing some form of the country's flag. Turns out the Aussies' are fulfilling a civic duty: celebrating Australia Day, that country's Fourth of July, but instead of fireworks, there's beer. It starts with somebody buying a round of drinks, then some drinking songs and rabid toasting to all the "mates" that couldn't be there, then somebody buys another round of drinks. After 18 rounds of this, the night concludes with a "longest drive" contest off the sundeck.
After the patriotic evening, we make landfall for the first time in nearly a week, on a tiny island called Matuku. A few hundred years ago the locals would've greeted us with brain-forks in hand, and Alex would have been slow-cooked like veal tenderloin. But times have changed; instead all we had to do was just play rugby. With pride still ringing, the Aussies seem to think we have a chance at making it a game. But this village of 200 people is home to the best rugby team in Fiji. Our rag-tag team arrives to the field donning sandals and trunks. The Fijians all have cleats and matching jerseys.
"Ah, come on mates, let's go," Beau cheers, still drunk, trying to rally the troops. "It's just a little game of footy."
Less than an hour later we limp back on board, a sore, sorry, grass-stained lot.