“They are making more money than anybody and they should be able to surf these waves,” says Danny Fuller unequivocally of the failure of the World’s best surfers to surf Cloudbreak during last week’s huge swell. He was one of over a dozen part-time pro surfers, many of whom supplement their surfing salaries with jobs as lifeguards, firemen or in his case a part time modeling gig for French perfume company, Chanel, who flew in especially to surf the macking swell.
“It’s definitely really saying something about the tour and the type of surfers they are,” continues Fuller.
Only a handful of times in the history of the sport have swells of this size and perfection coincided with the waiting period of a high profile contest. For two weeks the swell had been mapped as it made its way towards Fiji and with the world’s cameras focused on the lineup and live action ready to be beamed out to millions around the world, World Tour fans waited. And waited… History shows a total of eight World Tour surfers were brave enough to surf in the unprecedented conditions, the rest watching the action on TV from the Tavarua restaurant like the rest of us.
“I thought they were going to send us out,” recalls Taj Burrow. “I was standing there for the next heat, kinda in shock. I’d borrowed a board off Kala and I’d never ridden a board of that size and it was crazy big,” says Taj, who would opt not to surf once the contest was called off. World number 15 Ace Buchan was one of only eight World Tour surfers who would surf that day but doesn’t believe the tour lost any credibility. “That’s what those guys train for and they were riding boards that were four foot longer than any of the boards we even had there,” he says. If it was decided the contest was on, Ace says every one of the Tour’s surfers would have paddled out though it’s more than likely one would have come in with a serious injury.
As it turns out, it only took two heats to witness injury, when Raoni Monteiro was crushed by a 12-foot lip as he tried to exit the barrel. Minutes later the event was put on hold at the request of contest director, Matt Wilson, having reached a consensus with the ASP and the tour’s surfers. Unfavourable winds had created conditions too dangerous for competitors, was the official line yet even as the wind swung more favourable and the tide dropped out creating “cartoonish” barrels along the Cloudbreak reef, the contest remained off. “The guys from the first two heats came in saying the devil wind was too evil, there were full ridges up the face and it was way too dangerous,” said one tour surfer who asked to remain anonymous. “It was probably 15ft at that stage. And then the thing that made up their mind was a 25-footer that came through, a top-to-bottom barrel. We were like, we can’t surf that! Not on our boards! Everyone was just standing round shrugging their shoulders saying we need 9’0s and vests and shit. The official people were saying we’re not prepared, no one has boards and unless you have a vest that fits, it’s not safe to go out there.”
Had it continued to run, Ace says we would have witnessed one of the most frustrating episodes in the history of surfing, with countless waves wasted and World Tour surfers simply trying to survive on their undersized boards. “We don’t carry around ten foot boards. No one really has a board that size in their quiver… Hindsight is a pretty easy thing to look back and say you should have had this and that.”
And yet Danny Fuller had only four hours to get together both a flight to Fiji and find some appropriate boards. World Tour surfers had two weeks.
Kala Alexander was another of the underpaid underground chargers (he works at a genetic laboratory back in Hawaii to supplement his surfing income) who flew to Fiji on the whim that World Tour surfers were not going to surf the big waves.
“We didn’t know for sure that these guys weren’t going to surf but what we did know was that the biggest boards these guys bring are 6’8s,” he says.
Technique and skill-wise everyone agrees the tour surfers were good enough to surf the waves but without the appropriate equipment it was madness to try. And even if they did have boards (Kala was generously offering his quiver to anyone who wanted to have a go. Mick Fanning took the chance and broke one of his 8’0s), according to Kala, not everyone is cut out for this game.
“Just because you’re a great surfer doesn’t mean you wanna risk your life. For some people that’s not gonna be fun. I don’t think you should judge them. How often do waves get that big and perfect? It doesn’t happen all the time. This was intimidating, this was fucken gnarly. I was scared too.
Fear hasn’t been enough to stop the world’s best in the past, however. Back in 1986, Rob Bain paddled out in 25-foot waves at Waimea for the Billabong Pro in what was his first ever surf at the spot. He almost died but says there was never any thought of not surfing.“I was thrown out and I was in the mindset that you have to do it, it’s my profession,” he says.
Since then Rob believes the tour has moved away from testing surfers in all conditions – “from one foot to eight foot to 20 foot,” – though also says the decision not to hold the contest was the right one. “They made the right decision because so many people had flown in who did want it,” he says.
As Kala points out, comparing this to anything in surfing’s history is bunk. “These were the best big wave riders in the world and they all said it was the best big wave session they’ve ever seen,” he says.
“It was gigantic, you could die out there. People are forgetting that these waves will fucken kill you. The people criticizing these people for not going out, it’s bullshit. People could have died that day.” - Jed Smith
All photos courtesy Bielmann/Volcom.