The Outer Banks: Fijian Escapades

Missing his usual travel buddy and sidekick photographer, Eric Duran, Bryan Metcalf-Perez had to instead enlist the help of technology and a couple of willing volunteers to capture an epic session on the edge of a Fijian island reef…

Words & Photos: Bryan Metcalf-Perez

We had been sitting in a natural hurricane hole on the boat “Escapade” for the better part of a week, hiding from the 45 knot winds which we thought had been left behind, 1000 miles back in New Zealand. The island of Qamea has steep mountainous terrain jetting straight up from the water, covered in a majestic jungle canopy. Every morning was like waking up on the set of Jurassic Park. Massive bats flying across the bay on their daily commute. One of the reefs outside Qamea is like a giant horseshoe and all that wind we left behind in New Zealand, as it turned out, was just getting started and promised a sweet, sweet long period swell that was headed our way. Now if only the local trade winds would go on break, the session would surely be on!

The forecast had been promising light and variable winds, so the alarm clock was set for sunrise. With the last stars disappearing from the dreamy, mirrored reflection and two D2 diesels purring in unison, we were off on what would become our commute for days to come. With four miles to navigate and an average speed of six knots we would arrive at the reef in about 40 minutes.

Anchoring a 51-foot catamaran near the surf always seems to be tricky and this would be no exception. A nearby reef would provide protection from the powerful long period swell relentlessly thundering onto the coral. The trick would be to find some shimmering white sand just inside the reef where the anchor could be placed, allowing the boat to swing towards but not into the reef as well as away into the deep channel without pulling the anchor out and having it drop down a steep grade to depths beyond its reach. With a feathering throttle and a quick drop into three meters of water, we had it on the first go. This may seem like a minor win though, I wouldn’t want to go into the details of how many times the waves have been on and we had to sail past with nowhere to safely put the hook down.

With the mother ship safe, it was time to get at it. In a flash, one coffee, one hydration drink, dinghy down, foil assembled, but wait! No photographer. My buddy behind the lens for such expeditions, Eric Duran, had taken a dream job chasing wildlife on a cruise ship in the fjords of Norway. So now what? One of the most gratifying experiences in life is being told something is impossible and finding a way to make it happen. For example, “You can’t be the athlete and the photographer…”. Well, if you know me, I’m all about dreaming up crazy ideas which, to me, are simply ideas. That being said, just before jumping into the dinghy with JP who would be my tow partner, I mentioned, “So what do you think about me launching the drone from the dinghy, positioning it looking across this horseshoe of perfection, setting it on time-lapse, leave the remote on the boat, catch a couple waves, pump back to the dinghy, and land the drone back in the boat?” JP smiled wide, repeated the plan back to me to make sure it in no way involved him using or being responsible for the technology (JP doesn’t do technology) and said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” with his standard enthusiasm and pure stoke.

My wife Auriane, like JP, has an aversion to losing expensive things through hairball ideas but decided to join in on the fun as the drone retrieval officer, fins and snorkel in hand. With the drone launched, the countdown was on. 15 minutes to catch as many waves possible. The first rides were a bit rushed, dropping the rope at anything resembling a set. As the countdown continued, the pressure mounted, a crash in the impact zone would surely result in a slow trip over the reef and a very wet drone. After kicking out on another waist-high line and pumping toward the dinghy, JP swooped for the pickup, “Five-minute warning!” he said, as we considered another whip or a retreat to the channel and an early landing. We really hadn’t seen a set since launching the drone and it seemed like there must be one on the way.

With the drone hovering peacefully over the water, I decided to risk it for the biscuit. “One more” I signaled with an index finger poking out of the water. With that the mighty 15 horsepower motor was pinned and screaming as we flew to the outer edge of the horseshoe reef. We approached the zone and… nada, just a couple ankle slappers lazily rolling to the reef. Engine off and bobbing around it was time to call it quits.  “Set!” JP yelled. Pull cord, throttle, Go! Before I could muster a reply, we were up to speed and on foil. A dreamy line was rapidly approaching the reef through the crystal-clear Fijian waters. If drones had feelings, I’m sure mine would have felt lonely and abandoned as its energy source dwindled and uncertainty of altitude mounted. Unfortunately for its wellbeing, I was on another planet, soaring over a concave magnifying glass that was perfectly focused on a vibrant and healthy reef. The wave was powerful yet playful, allowing for long sweeping turns once I’d got over that initial allure of its beauty. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that view but will continue chasing it.

Snapping back to reality I was furiously pumping to the channel, and JP on my heels I launched myself back into the boat. In classic DJI fashion, the remote was going crazy squawking at me like a baby bird, long overdue for a meal. “Landing, landing, landing…” And it was mission accomplished – as these shots testify

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