By Phil Wright
In 1993, I applied for the position of Senior Engineer Sewerage Design , Fiji PWD. At the interview they commented on my interests – surfing and windsurfing. “There is windsurfing but no surfing in Fiji”, they said. I however knew about Cloudbreak and had heard rumors about Suva.
I was always a poor surfer and had a recent major knee operation which made me worse but I loved getting out there. In the first year in Suva, we enjoyed the birth of Marcus Lala and settled in. There were a few offers to go out on the reef but nothing ever eventuated.
In early 1994, I was taken out to Suva Reef for the first time. Shortly after I met Ed Lovell. Immediately he said let’s have a contest at Cloudbreak. It was organised in a couple of days and we journeyed west for excellent waves. Not me – I spent the morning getting dragged across the reef.
This started a close relationship and many trips in the Lovell boat with kids everywhere, just keeping gunnels above water. Soon after we purchased shares in a 14 footer (Ika Vuka) moored at Royal Suva Yacht Club and life was great.
On high tide week we would get up at 4.30am and anchor off the reef in the dark and wait until we could see before paddling in. There was one rule – can’t be late for work / school. Sometimes we would drive off with perfect 4 foot waves, no wind and no surfers.
On day we got to the yacht club and one of the security guards asked what is happening. The yachts were regularly rising up 100mm. It was simple – a massive swell. It was only Ed and me. Un-surfable. A giant washing machine. I was soon back in the boat and Ed persevered on his longboard. Soon he started yelling and pointing but I could not see what was happening. He had caught a pig in the swell. It had been washed away from the shoreline. He paddled it back on his board and we placed it in the boat. He took it home and tied it up. It ran away a few days later.
We then got the kids and surfed a submerged sandbank half way between the reef and Lami. A beautiful gently rolling bank going both left and right. Only ever saw it break that day.
WE would drive all around the reefs of Suva looking for other waves but there was virtually nothing of value except the harbour pass.
Fiji Surfing Association was formed with Colin Philp as President and Greg Inglis as Secretary. We held many contests and I was always the first eliminated and spent the hours on boats helping with judging and tabulating. Soon I was running the contests and then I was elected President of FSA.
It was all about the South Pacific Games (SPG) at Tahiti in 1995. I attended many meetings at FASANOC where they knew little about surfing, neither did I. No one had much contest experience. We were told be careful, “because the French will cheat”.
The frequency of contests increased and they were held mainly at Sigatoka. We would leave Suva at 4am and get to the beach at daybreak to set up the contest. This involved the 2km walk over the black sand, getting sun beaten for six hours then back to Club Masa for drinks and a very early night.
We had four little kids and the preparation for the day on the beach was a big effort. The young surfers would rock up hours later totally unprepared and help themselves to our supplies. We watched in amazement one day when Tim McBride went through our bags and was eating the food we had for the little kids. He was driven by four wheel drive right to the contest area but brought no water or food. Irresponsibility is the privilege of youth.
One day there was an amazing current running after heavy rain. We put the girls event in the water and in 10 minutes, 4 girls were 100m west and 2 girls were 100m east. There was no ropes, boat or mobile phones. I got a male surfer to go and help each girl, it took about two hours to get everyone back. It was very scary and it was amazing that there was no serious outcome.
A local indian shopkeeper used to come to Club Masa at about midday and sell us chilled beers. One day the surf was really good and we had hours to go and there was not one drop of water on the beach. I walked back to Masa and was filling water bottles. I suggested to the beer man to take his wheelbarrow to the beach where he built a little shelter out of driftwood. A bar on the beach. Soon everyone on the beach had a longneck. Judges, competitors, spectators all sipping in the hot sun. No drownings – not sure how.
One night we were all asleep and were woken by the sounds of breaking glass. There was a lot of yelling with more broken glass. With many young kids, we had no idea what was happening and who it was. Powerless, we had to just lie there and hope it would go away. And it did. It was all about Edwin Gardiner having been with a local girl but then deciding to be with a Japanese tourist. The attack was by brothers and cousins of the local girl. Edwin knew it was coming and he took off for the sand dunes. We were terrified but there was no real damage apart from a few broken windows.
Masa was unpredictable and anything could happen. When Marcus Oliver was in charge, it was calm but when his dad (Gordon Oliver) ran the show it changed. Constant yelling at us and demanding all sorts of paperwork and rules. It was all fun.
When the swell was large we would call into many reefs on the way back to Suva but nothing. All the way from Cloudbreak to Suva, there is almost nothing except Frigates. People would try many breaks but got little value.
Preparation for the Games
The pressure mounted as we prepared for Tahiti. Qualifications, fund raising, meetings , uniforms and selections. It was pretty challenging because everyone wanted to go but there were limited positions.
One of the fundraisers was held in a bar in the middle of Suva on the main road and my band played. I was bass with three other blokes and pumped out a bit of ACDC. It was a great night, the bar was packed and everyone was dancing.
Ed and I were constantly in contact planning and arranging. The French were nuclear testing in the Pacific and Bruce Clay withdrew from the team as a protest.
There was a parade through Suva for all competitors for SPG. Our whole team had to march. It was a great day and a major achievement to get everyone there. Surfing had arrived, it was accepted by the nation as a real sport.
The final team was Manager: Phil Wright, Judges: Chris Mulder & Juana Lovell, Coach: Jon Roseman, Captain: Mathew Light. Surfers: Edwin Gardener, Waqa Matia, Isei Tokovou, Ulai Niunitoga, Kneeboard: Todd Bower, Longboard: Ed Lovell, Bodyboard: Ratu Druku, Ladies: Carli Lovell.
We were told that the Pacific Franc was highly valued due to the French military presence in Tahiti and a Fiji dollar would not buy much. So we decided that we would buy some duty free alcohol at Nadi to share with the team after our contest was over.
Jon Roseman was appointed coach about six months before the contest and immediately went overseas. Ed and I were acting coaches. He arrived back a month before the event. At the airport Roseman was a no show and we were heading for an international contest without a coach. A bit of a panic. He arrived a few days later (We later found out he had missed the flight, and spent a lot of money and time catching alternative flights to get to Tahiti).
Tahiti – South Pacific Games
The accommodation for SPG was a training school in Papeete and we had mattresses on the floor. We shared our room with the sailors including John Philp. JP and Tim McBride (swimming) were with us so often, you could be mistaken that they were part of the surfing team. There was plenty of activity including regular visits from the girls canoeing team and many local girls. The accent of the local girls was awesome and we would just sit back and encourage them to tell us stories so we could listen to their accents.
Each night as I went to sleep I would put my hand on the box with 12 bottles of spirits – it was like a ticking time bomb. No one attempted a sampling, the booze was not touched during the contest period.
There were rumors of attacks by Tahiti independence groups for the SPG and the opening ceremony was a security challenge. We had to wait at a soccer stadium to minimise the time in the streets. A long day but no problems.
The surf contest was at a beach break a bit like Sigatoka but closer to the shore with black sand and a two storey judging tower. The waves were ordinary but surfable for a contest. There was a 20km drive from camp to beach that we shared with the golfers on a truck. There was always problems and plenty of waiting for le trucke which always eventually arrived. We got to know the golfers really well.
One day while waiting, Chris asked Ed why there was no tide movement in Tahiti. I fell asleep and when I woke up he was still answering the same question. No easy explanation.
The FASANOC officials came one day to watch how a surfing contest is managed. We were lying on the beach with music playing and girls (wahine) in bikinis wandering around. They said – “Is this how you prepare for your contest ?” Yes. It was hard for them to understand compared to how a sprinter or boxer prepares.
As Manager, I always turned up to the necessary meetings and the team always attended formal occassions in the correct uniform. We developed a good relationship with the officials.
We were second in medal count to Tahiti in surfing but could not win a gold medal. We came second in the Tag Team and that was the biggest result. Guam was third. Carli won three medals.
Our best chance for a gold came in the Kneeboard where each country was only allowed one entrant and the Tahiti contestant got an interference. He then turned on the most defensive attack we have ever seen. He sat on the inside and every time Todd went to take off he would take off and then when Todd pulled back he would pull back. Very frustrating.
Druku (Donkey Horse) did really well in the bodyboard and belted the lip with a strong surfing performance. The Tahitian kids were doing tricks but not good surfing moves but they got the points and Druks did not make the final. I decided to take him out for a few drinks but we had not been out on the town and we did not know where there was a bar. We walked out of our camp and a ute was driving slowly past and I said “Hey mate, do you know where we can get a beer” Bad move. There were three huge locals looking for trouble and they started making aggressive comments looking for a fight. We walked off and found ourselves next to a French military hospital with a 3m wall. They followed. Every fight I am in, I win by 100 meters, I run. The problem was we could not jump the fence and they kept following us trying to run us over in their ute. Of course Druks was up for a fight, not me. Luckily we got to a built up area, crossed the street with the help of lights and got away from them. We found a bar and a girl’s night out. Druks spent the night making them laugh with his stories.
Final Day of Contest
After a week of strong competition, it was over. Time to open some of the bottles of spirits. I mixed up a punch with a few bottles. Ed was annoyed when I gave Carli a small drink. There was a band. We were going to spend the night in the judging tower and get a trucke the next day. The Tavaruans were very popular mainly because Isei had been on the front of an international magazine. The locals wanted to take them home and meet their families. It was getting very confusing. What if I lost one ?
We partied on and I was dancing all over the place. I heard a young lady say, “Come over here and dance with us, there are so many single girls”. I opened my eyes to check the talent. Hardly a girl over 16.
A strange thing then happened. After the week of trucke problems, I told the office we don’t need one. Then a driver came up and said he is ready. I said no thanks. Then another one came, so I thought maybe it is time to go back. After lecturing the surfers not to get too drunk, when we walked out the party area we had to step over Chris (40 year old Australian) who was a Fiji judge and drunk on the ground. We picked him up threw onto the trucke, jumped aboard. We sang, danced and jumped all the way back to the camp. The driver did stop and told us to remain seated.
Then the trouble.
Sitting on a bench in front of the camp, were three FASANOC officials. We had to carry Chris past them. Then Waqa went walking to look for a girl who invited him to visit. Ulai went looking for Waqa. I then went for both and Ed came looking for me. It was the biggest argument Ed and I had in our years together. We then all walked (sneaked) past the officials.
There is a saying in cricket, the best form of defence is attack. When I went to the FASANOC meeting the next day I had no idea what they knew about our night before or if we were in trouble. I opened the door and said “Can I have a trucke for tomorrow for a surf trip”. Silence. Oh no. Then the whole room broke into applause. They were delighted with our medals which got Fiji into overall second for the games. They liked our behaviour as well. Not sure they were aware of all that was happening. They told me that I am now a kai viti. It was a great experience because I was the only kai valagi who was a manager.
The officials were waiting for Tony Philp who was a world champion windsurfer . There was an argument about him staying in a hotel to get a good night’s rest but he was told he had to stay in the camp. Pretty unreasonable, because he would have had to share the room with us non-professionals.
After the Games
We were finished in a week and the games went for two weeks.
We got in the habit of sharing a bottle of booze after dinner, then give each surfer an allowance and off they went.
I told them that I have 4 kids at home, in Tahiti I had 12 kids and I wanted some space. I caught a ferry by myself off to Huahine and got some nice little waves. In the backpackers, a girl walked up and said do you come from the island? There I was escaping from Papeete, Suva, Australia and Phillip Island and my cover was blown. Had a great time cycling around, it is a magnificent place.
Ed continued the one bottle per night allocation. When I got back all was well.
Then came the closing ceremony with all the young girls wearing coconut shell bras and dancing. A young girl came up to me and asked if I remembered dancing with her at the surf party. No. She wanted to swap my Fiji tracksuit top for her bra and do it now. Of course I said no, but Druks and I had a good talk to them and the photo of us with a couple of the girls is one of the best photos of my life.
I am as bad a guitar player as I am surfer but took my guitar to Tahiti. The last night, I gave my guitar to a Fijian bloke and he started playing and what followed was a most amazing experience. All the Fijians sat on the mat and started singing and singing and singing. It was the most spiritual experience of my life.
Athletes from other countries would come up to me and ask to stop them singing and I said – sorry. I don’t know how to stop them. It went all night until the sun came up.
A similar thing happened on the plane home. Everyone just started singing for their vanua. It was a great feeling and then the managers were welcomed off the plane by the Prime Minister.
The next big event was the organising of the Oceania Games at Cloudbreak. Australian was invited with Aboriginal participation.
A huge amount of organisation – especially for the accommodation. It needed all of Tavarua, Namotu and many yachts.
The waves just did not do it and we spent two weeks on a flat ocean.
Back in Australia
Finally, our five years ran out and we came back to Australia.
Carl who was catching big waves at Suva when he was seven, came second in an open contest when he was 8. He was probably the best surfer in Australia for his age (9) when we came back. Despite his excellent start at Suva, we knew that to get further we would have to live on the Gold Coast with warm water and more competition. But we like it where we live at Phillip Island and did not move. He won several Australian titles and was flown to Europe when 13 by Quiksilver with Julian Wilson, them being the two best juniors. Carl did not go on with competitions but can still surf very well – big waves, barrels and a some air action. He begun working as a Lifeguard at Cloudbreak last year.
Ryan our oldest is now is a Geomatic Engineer and is in Samoa working with SPREP managing the environment of the Pacific. He has a rubber boat and is finding new surf breaks. Melanie is a Town Planner living in Melbourne, not much of a surfer. Marcus Lala made the Victorian surfing team for Australian titles and has one more year of university. He is a keen Aussie Rule footballer and this year the Island won our first championship for 24 years. Very big celebrations and lots of fun and good footy. I still participate as an umpire, blowing the whistle trying to stop the exuberant youth from punching each other.
Early this year Waqa Matia was staying 100m from our house and we caught up with him. Carli Lovell visited once. We occasionally get emails from Ed Lovell and from John Philp.
I have worked in PNG where I caught up with some people we met in Tahiti. I also worked in Mauritius.
Nowadays at the age of 61, I still surf and take part in the local club contests. I work as a Water Engineer in Melbourne. I am also an elected Councillor for my local shire. There are seven councillors. At the last election, all were voted off except me and I have 6 new councillors to work with. My ward is a beautiful part of the Victorian coast and I my responsibility is to protect the coast and make sure future generations can enjoy a clean ocean like our family has.
Irene says we should go back to visit Fiji. But I don’t want to. We had such a good time and it can never be repeated. The world keeps turning. If we go back, some of the good times will be squashed by reality. Over time, we tend to remember things better than they really were. I will stick with what I think happened regardless of it’s inaccuracy.
Fiji was excellent to us as a family and I am forever grateful. I am honoured to be part of the history of FSA. Good luck with another 20 years. Then more.