Fiji Field Log
With small islands come a limited number of options when a good swell shows up – so it was a case of “he who dares, wins” for Cole Kawana in Fiji, as his crew planned a pre-dawn raid on Cloudbreak in advance of being overrun by the surfing majority…
Words: Cole Kawana
Photos: Glenn Duffus
Badum, badum, badum… rhythmic thumps on the Lali call out group gatherings across the islands of Fiji and indeed on Namotu as well. The wooden drum is carved from a solid block, like a horizontal canoe hull, the wooden slit drum has well-worn parallel lips along the top and bottom that form the resonating chamber. The edges of the drum are almost soft, hard wood beaten into splinters at first, and then slowly, over many hundreds of rings a year, the splinters wear down into shallow bowed wear lines like stone tiles on a well-worn pathway. Each double-fisted slam comes from overhead, the left arm hitting just before the right in a rapidly increasing crescendo. The call is for dinner – plans the next day are ceremoniously made across the table with close friends from around the world. Nowhere else on earth is the foiling potential for all disciplines so tightly concentrated.
Namotu and Tavarua Island are sisters situated just off the coast of Nandi, Fiji. Famous for their surfing, of course, these patches of sand are quickly becoming a pilgrimage for some of the most reliable foil waves suited for just about any branch of the sport. Each island has a protective barrier reef encircling them with reef passes separating them. The majority of water sports are concentrated in and around these passes, working from Cloudbreak (the perfect place to start a downwind run along the reef pass, and also has the potential to get some tow foiling or next level winging done) you have the first long pass with Tavi Rights on the opposite end. Restaurants (beware, high tide only!) is the corresponding left off that same heart shaped island. Another pass brings Swimming Pools and its little brother, Mini Pools, perfect for onshore winging and foiling at all tides along the deep water drop-off. Working along that same barrier you reach Loveshacks, which can be easily connected on the right day via foil through to Namotu Lefts (the legendary spot where we all first witnessed Kai get a two-for-one). The dream side offshore trades make wingfoiling this spot immaculate, if you can get beyond the fickle wind shadow of the island. Finally, crossing the last pass, you get to Wilkes and its inside foil garden – wrapping swell trickles endlessly along the inside sandbar, yielding endless reforms over vibrant purple, blue, and green corals.
A well-advertised swell happened to grace us, bringing with it a flock of migratory pro surfers chasing the pulse. It was decided at one of those dinner table planning sessions that pre-dawn patrol tow foiling Cloudbreak was our best shot at getting some waves to ourselves. You can hear the surge in energy the night before through the closed barn doors, and when you crack them at 4am to wake up, you can feel the vibrating air from the swell churning out those noises. The skis are sent barreling down the coral land mine-filled slopes and somehow unhooked by dexterous fingers in the dark. The first step into the water is shockingly not as hot as expected – a benefit of getting up this early is the extra padding from all the neoprene will not be unbearably hot.
On this trip, Ryan Arzy – Guest Editor on The Friday Pump newsletter for this magazine – is my tow partner. We set off – we should have about a 15-minute head start from the first surfing boats according to the plan, but some last-second foot strap adjustments have us set off together. No worries, the ski can book it. Can’t see the reef, we’re navigating by mental map. These newer skis have an overeager gas indicator that no one has figured out how to turn off, and it starts screaming. We stop, then start, then stop; and again, and again. We trying to diagnose whether we are on empty or if the sensor was just designed to cruise on a flat lake and is upset at being woken up so early to chaotic open channel energy. The surf boats creep up on us as we lose our lead. Deciding to push on possibly without gas, we arrive at the lineup in the moments before the first pre-dawn light appears. We toss the Freedom Foil Boards J.A.T.O. (Jet Assisted Takeoff) with Lift Foils 72 LCX front wing, 20 carve extended tail, and 32×2 mast out for its inaugural ride.
You realize how visual of a sport foiling is when you can’t really see – that may sound obvious but really in the dark you recognize that although foiling taps you into so much unseen wave energy that surfing skips over, your direct feel on the wave’s mood is muted. In surfing you are set into the belly of the energy, you can feel the angry bumps and hold onto the wall with your hands, digging your body deeper into the face. Riding this new kit, which was specifically designed to be flatter, faster, and with near unlimited speed was at first tricky. Pulls 1-5 were explosive, the stall speed was incredibly high, maybe in the low 20s, and required some refocusing. Once up, the speed shrunk the mast size to feel about 24”, speed also let the water column climb down the mast and cause a breach much more quickly than expected. Finally, there was an adjustment to the speed on the wave, the first 3-4 waves I was set uncomfortably deep and somehow ended up on the shoulder for the majority of the ride. Of course, in the back of my mind, I didn’t want to take a tour of the inside reef searching for the all-black board in the dark – this certainly would be a lost cause.
The surfers began to arrive and sus out the conditions, so by necessity we took the ski deep, way deep. The goal was to be so far up the point that the engine roar could not even be intelligible. So perhaps another eighth of a mile up the point we were indeed quietly alone and in a new section I had never ridden before. The gear felt good, so we let a good 20-30 minutes pass in search of a wide swinger.
I was set deeper than I have ever been in any watercraft. I let go of the rope with about 100’ of shoulder reeling ahead of me. Amazingly one deep bottom turn brought me through… the incredible thing about riding gear so suited for these higher speeds is that, once dialed, it effectively shrinks the feel of the wave and the length of the lineup. It was the closest feeling to surfing I have felt in foiling. And strangely this well-overhead wave felt shoulder high and playful. Reaching the shoulder, another 50’ section reared, and I decided to go for it and work through the whitewash. Incredibly, and without noticing, while fighting around the section I ended up shooting way past the surfers and the boats, through the Shishkabobs end section and out into the channel. Ecstatic and with a jump, I steered into the channel to await my pickup, but to my surprise, the energy return from the foil was incredibly elastic. The speed from the wave easily held through the flats and now out to sea. I connected a two-for-one! And then a third. The foil is so streamlined that at speed it became incredibly easy to pump. We ran it on repeat all morning – and then again the next day.
Badum, badum, badum… the island tides and winds and swells all coalesce and call for a different type of foiling each morning and each evening. When you can dance to this rhythm there is no more wonderful place to be a foiler.