Back in the good ole days, surfing in Fiji was relatively unknown both as a sport and as a concept.
There was a spirited group of young locals surfing Lighthouse Reef. Some pioneers surfing Frigates Passage. The Americans had somehow secured Restaurants and Cloudbreak and the remaining breaks were visited by a small and select tribe of nomadic surfers who made the pilgrimage to Fiji. The visiting yachties had a monopoly in the 70s and early 80’s with little to nobody around.
This was a period pre-internet, mobile phones/email, and the likes of Facebook were yet to grace Fiji’s shores. Hence, information moved via different mediums such as magazines and word of mouth. From my point of view, I was always fascinated at how quickly he coconut wireless could travel from village to village. It was quicker than the internet ever moved and ingenious in the way it was transported from person to person.
My introduction to Fiji occurred during my early 20’s when I was posted to Fiji to work for a chain of 13 bookshops throughout the islands. During this time, I travelled the country extensively, dabbled in both the Fijian and Indian languages and visited most schools throughout the islands supplying text books.
It was during this period that I saw a great opportunity to promote surfing on a larger scale and get Fiji onto the world surfing map. Tavarua was newly established but I was always very consistent with my view on exclusivity and the tactics that were used in those days to maintain it and their dependency to keep nomadic surfers from the surfing ‘their’ surrounding reefs.
Back in the day, there was an Australian chap called Keith Martin who was running some vessels from the island of Malolo and picking up guests from Plantation and Musket Cove. I recall visiting Keith shortly after he had a visit from some heavies who ruffed him up a tad. From that moment on, I put my career on hold and threw my hat in the ring and established an alternative which was called Surf Fiji (Keith now resides in Samoa and recently visited Fiji as Manager of the Samoan surf team).
We ran vessels out of Nadi Bay and later from Plantation on Malolo Lailai. Wailoaloa locals Mudu, Pena and Aporosa were integral to that newly formed team and an alternative to Tavarua was formed.
Plantation Island Resort also became an unofficial base where the likes of Cardo Slatter (who was the restaurant manager), Kim Waters – the futuristic GM, and Vince Costello, Joe Mar and Tony Philp junior (who were all working in the watersports shed). Greg Inglis – a known local FSA charger was also a regular surfer who had a fishing charter business running out of Musket Cove.
These were the early days of surfing. Tavarua did their thing and Surf Fiji ran the vessels to Wilkes Passage, Namotu, Swimming Pools and at times Desperations aptly named. Namotu Island was owned by a Frenchmen called Louie which had a bure on it and little else.
We undertook a multitude of magazine promos out of Australia which resulted in many column inches of press. Always hooked up with a decent swell and a string of pro surfers would tag along for the photographers to shoot the action. I think by count, Fiji made it onto 7 surfing mag covers from Japan, New Zealand, and Australian mastheads. We assisted film makers and slowly Fiji was opening up as a major surfing destination.
The more memorable promo tour was the first visit from Tracks Magazine. The editor at the time was Tim Baker and he was joined by surf shooters Tony Nolan and Peter Crawford. Also tagging along was Paul King from the Surf Travel Company. The surfers were Richard Marsh from Cronulla and Derham Tuddy from Torquay.
I recall this entire group being harassed and chased around by over-zealous boats from Tavarua at the time in what was a myriad of thuggery and harassment. I also recall being jumped by 12 guys in the local Nadi supermarket and so on and so on. I never changed my course and kept on keeping on so to speak
This sort of behavior went on for a while but the true turning point possibly occurred when Tony Philp senior popped into Cloudbreak for a surf on his way back to Suva and got a similar reception. From that day onward the winds of change were in motion.
Also during this visit from Tracks there was an epic swell running one day which was similar to that in the 2012 ASP Fiji Pro. It was huge and felt like it would break in the channel. Among all that whitewater and motion, I noticed an old inflatable sitting on anchor in the channel and a dude on an ancient board grabbing rail on a beast of a wave. This was approx. 1987 from memory. The surfer was none other than Ed Lovell, who was surfing 15 foot Namotu solo, and now knowing Ed and his capacity in the water, perhaps was void of a leg rope.
I later did some charters with Ed to Kadavu where he was a constant source of entertainment and one of the best watermen I ever traveled with. His kids were very young at the time. I think Budgee was yet to hatch. Carli maybe was in play. I was proud to see both his daughters’ names making their mark now surfing for Fiji. Very cool.
John Philp has always kept me abreast of new developments in Fiji and I was thrilled to read word-by-word the Surfing Decree which was in itself an amazing piece of literature. It has been more than 25 years ago since those days but I get back occasionally as my wife’s family own a house at Malolo Lailai so I can see how far the sport of surfing has come. I recently gave these Tracks articles to the FSA for safe keeping when JP visited me in Sydney recently.
When the ASP Fiji Pro hits Fiji in June each year, I tape every heat on Fuel TV and watch it live in my living room. The women’s event was huge this year with some gutsy performances. I have not had the pleasure of watching Kelly Slater live but believe him to be the best sports athlete of our time across all sports.
During my time we toured approx. 50 pro surfers all of whom had their own distinct style. The best I ever saw was without a doubt Mark Richards and perhaps Simon Anderson who invented the thruster. Mark was a freak of nature and could paddle at twice the speed of other mortals. The first time I surfed restaurants was with MR. It was a great day.
The first surf shop in Fiji came next in an arcade in Nadi. It was largely supported by Terry Fitzgerald from Hot Buttered who was very supportive and Brian Creagan from Ocean and Earth. We worked off stock that was a year behind in Australia and developed a good customer base.
Scotty O’Connor was also a first time visitor, when we were engaged to do a promo for Freesail Magazine which came out of the same stable as Tracks. I recall his first visit with professional wave sailors Holly North, Dave Sheen, and surf shooter Tony Nolan. He did a couple more trips and then started inviting the likes of Robbie Naish, Pete Cabrinha, Mike Walsh, Rohan Cudmore and co to the region.
Scotty was clearly taken with Fiji after spending many seasons in Hawaii and has never left Fiji and resides on Namotu, having built a great setup for both surfers and windsurfers alike. Scotty has become an integral part of the surfing and wind surfing wave of euphoria that exists today.
I do recall one epic day at Cloudbreak when MR was slashing in the morning and a flurry of professional windsurfers hit the afternoon session when the trades hit. Was another memorable day. This was a turnover day at Tav/Cloudbreak and the previous part-owner Scott Funk was being reasonable about the situation. Dave Clark always held a different point of view.
I cannot recall any other surfing zone around the globe that encountered an exclusivity as long as the reign Tavarua held over Restaurants and Cloudbreak. This is also unique to Fiji.
Shortly after, we ran the first surf competition in Fiji which was held at the Hideaway Resort in 1991. There were some cracking local surfers who were used to gnarly rights from Suva Lighthouse. Matthew Light always stood out. But there was a group of Suva surfers that could hold their own.
I get a real charge from watching some of the Fijian wildcards charging Cloudbreak in the 2012 Volcom Fiji Pro. It is true to say that surfing has come along way. The surf shops are of great quality, the boat operators are many. But the waves remain unique. A great days surfing in Fiji is something that will etch into your subconscious forever and a day.
I note when the swell hit in one of the recent Volcom days an internet audience of 15,000,000 was recorded across the period of the event. This has indeed changed since the first day I met Ed Lovell at Namotu when we were less than a dozen. Surfing has the opportunity to eclipse Vijay Singh being the highest sports draw as the surfing and wind surfing industries grow.
Congrats to the FSA making their 20 year mark on the universe. I cannot wait to see what great surfers will emerge from Fiji in the coming years. Ed Lovell remains an inspiration to us all seeing he is still surfing at 108 years young, which is impressive in any man’s language.