"The Chippa Wilson Show"
Or ten days on a boat with 11 grown men.
Day one, it’s 4:30 am. There’s a post-anti-anxiety awakening somewhere in my arms and legs; I’m strolling through the Nadi International Airport.
“Bula!” yells a large man in a skirt, his skin a weathered tobacco brown.
“Bula!” shouts a woman with a red bindi dot on her forehead.
“Hola,” I reply, dumbly.
The fluorescent lights cast shadows behind us as we shuffle through customs. Guitars strum upbeat G-C-D progressions; the crowd’s wide-eyed, friendly and singing. Is this just what they do between flights? It must always be this way.
The Gypsea, er, Vonu Express.
Musket Cove, I was told. Head there. Wherever there is. Get a cab; get on the Maholo express; follow instructions. Try and get into contact with some guy named Saxon, from a beer company that I saw on tap at the airport.
Vonu’s footing this boat trip, filming promotionals in preparation for their upcoming launch in Australia, and last-minute, asked if I’d want to come along. So I’m on the back of a boat (after arriving a day late for the trip), watching the sun peak it’s milky orange head over an island. The scene is grey, purple, serene and no one’s receiving texts, DM’s, Facebook messages, emails, Skype calls. As I choose a boat, in front of me are more than 300 islands to choose from, which I would be reminded no less than ten times in the next few days, by Vitu, a man with an infectious, gold-toothed smile.
We land on Musket. A dingy arrives; it’s that Saxon guy I’ve been looking for almost frantically. We putter around Musket Harbour and arrive at a boat called the 'Gypsea'. On deck, Harrison Roach pokes his head above from the standing shelter covering the boat’s oar. We introduce. He sighs, hungover and lies back down. The only gent I’ve met, previously, is Chippa Wilson, who is below deck. This will become the norm.
“Ah, didn’t know you were coming!” he says with a smile.
“Big night?” I ask.
“Something like that,” he laughs.
We’re waiting for the rest of the group to meet at the Gypsea. She’s a glorious vessel, blue with white stripes running along her belly, surf bags strapped to the deck. The taste of sea salt but mostly sweat blesses our soon to be sunburnt, chapped and peeling lips.
Chippa, alive, somewhat well, and all the mood and feels of black and white.
Saxon leaves to grab the rest of the crew with the dingy, and returns with Tai “Buddha’ Graham, Ari Browne, brand ambassador/photog/filmer Jay Buttons, photog Woody Gouch and filmer Andrew Gough.
Someone stated the obvious, “It’s gonna be crammed.” There are three crew members: Our Captain, Jerry, a handsome Fijian man with chiseled jaw and dreadlocks wearing a Mad Hueys’ sweater; Veta, the deckhand, who has never frowned and will not permit any hand an empty beer for the next ten days; and, Nani, our dutiful cook, who hung below deck for the majority of the trip, blasting DMX through iPhone headphones, spending eight hours a day whipping together three massive meals for 11 of us in total.
The boat can comfortably sleep eight but, there’s room on the deck.
“This is Morgan,” Sax tells the group.
“Oh, that makes sense,” Jay says, confusingly.
Mr Buttons and Sailor...no, Captain Jerry.
The swell hasn’t arrived. We drink and marvel at the remarkable visibility beneath these smooth seas. The archipelago is gorgeous, and apart from Chippa, it’s everyone’s first time in Fiji. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen water so blue,” says modern explorer, and alt-board charger Harrison.
On the third day, everyone’s sick. Chippa’s below deck, in his cave, sweating above the sheets with a nasty cold - quarantined. Woody can’t keep food down. Ari’s feeling it. Buddha tells a story of the time Taj Burrow and crew had to get flown out of the Maldives – a reassuring story about everyone getting ill to the point of needing medical attention. Our boat, although adrift in the open ocean and being blasted by SE tradewinds, is a cesspool.
Harry slipping into something a bit more comfortable on a mid-sized Cloudbreak drainer.
Day four, the midday sun: hot, our seasick sweat: ice cold; and Restaurants, nausea be damned, is as appetizing as ever: ruler-straight with slightly overhead tubes running down the reef. The swell is meant to build through the next few days. Pent-up excitement overpowers lack of sleep. The crew's glad to be off the crowded, rocking, sickly ship. The local boatmen tell us it's the biggest day they've seen at Restaurants in recent memory. While it looks almost playful from the boat, sets steamroll through occasionally pushing double overhead.
Chippa and Woody are near-death. Ari’s pale, his skin's translucent. The waves are unbelievable. “I’m going to wait for the tide to drop and paddle out,” says Buddha. Harrison concurs. I surf the first session alone. After an hour, Harrison meets me in the lineup. I’d just pulled into a closeout (or, a wave I wasn’t skilled enough to push through on my backhand) went down with the lip, brushing my foot across the bottom of the razor-sharp, very alive reef. I show Harry my foot. “Ah, it’s not that bad,” he says. “Shit spot though.” The arch of my right foot—in the exact spot that sits on the arch of my tailpad—looks like it was shaved with a potato peeler. It will be the bane of my existence the next six days, growing more infected and cratered with each passing afternoon.
We surf all day. Buddha and Harry only come onboard to replenish: water, a bite to eat, reapply their Ella-Bache SPF50. “You headed back out?” I ask after lunch and a midday beer.
Buddha, "all dressed up."
“I didn’t get all dressed up for nothing,” says Buddha and jumps off the back of the boat.
“Whoa, this one's skitz,” Ari points from the Gypsea, holding a fidget spinner in his other hand for some reason. Every vessel in the channel guns their motors as the set rolls through. It’s twice as big as any we’ve seen, and swings wide of the reef, avalanching and sweeping the crowd towards Tavarua. Broken boards litter the inside; people are dry docked; the crowd, that was mostly out of their league, scrambles back to their boats.
Restaurants and Cloudbreak are really crowded these days, often with people who have no business being out. This happens even on bigger days: There’s no battling sets; you can get dropped off at the top of the point. Everyone’s on vacation, hungry to get their dollars’ worth of waves.
“All the sudden, I turned around and this girl was sitting in front of me in the lineup,” Buddha said later that day of the rogue set. “The girl could barely paddle! We were all telling her to paddle to the channel. I ended up shoving her by her board's tail through a wave out the back. I swear, she would’ve died,” he laughed, hiding a certain panic in his voice that only comes with the fear of someone else’s well-being. “There was another guy out there, in a vest and a hood. He told me he paddled from the mainland. An absolute psycho. He could barely stand up and was taking off deeper than anyone, on waves nobody wanted.”
Sleepy eyes and tropical wax brought to you by Harry, Ari and Tai.
"Did you see the kid that knocked himself out?" Harry asked. "He was giving it a swing, ended up going over the falls and came up unconscious. His buddy had to take him back to the boat!"
Later that night, over beers, we reminisce. At Sunset, Ari Browne locked into a layback tunnel that gave him a long tour of the reef. Harry was charging. Buddha was slipping into backside tubes, lacing set waves stylish snaps. And, Jay, the handsome devil, just looked gorgeous on a surfboard. Meanwhile, Chippa slept.
Through all our excitement, Buddha surmised, “It was good, kind of like a shitty day at Desert Point.” But, when you live on Bali, own a few of the most desired bars and clubs and do nothing but surf big, perfect waves; it’s easy to be jaded.
“You can tell he’s used to being the man in Bali,” Chippa laughed to me later.
Ari Browne and proof that sometimes sunsets are prettier without color.
The next morning we arrived at Cloudbreak with the rising sun and Mr Wilson resurfaced.
"Ah, day one of the trip!" he said with the outstretch of his arms.
"Whoa!, Whippy Chilson! Heeeeee's back!" squeaked Ari Browne.
"It looks kind of scary," chirped Chippa. Actually, "Scary" was the word of the morning.
Looking through the haze as we approached, Cloudbreak looked big, windy, washed out, unruly. Harrison scrambled for a step-up he didn’t have, while I considered not surfing my ego told me I had to (plus, I had a step-up he could maybe use).
The artist formerly known as Whippy Chilson thriving in the tropics.
The wind had blown all night. We sat on the boat, staring into out a magnificent mess, wondering why we were all in sweatpants, sweaters and beanies. The XXL Cloudbreak playing field was offering “tens and twos” as Buddha put it. The wave, as flawless it looks on film and on paper, is nowhere near perfect.
Chippa grabbed his 6’0 Morning of the Earth channel bottom twinnie; Harrison borrowed my 6’8, since the biggest board he brought was 6’2 twin fin (leaving me with a 6’2 channel bottom); Tai grabbed his 6’4 pintail; Ari and I sat on the boat.
"The waves don't really get overhead high where I'm from," he smiled. "It doesn't look very good either."
So we sat on the deck. We watched. It looked challenging. Harry sat out the back determined to get a bomb. Tai found a few closeouts and long walls for turns. Saxon and Jay filmed from the tower. We ooo’d. We awed. We ate cookies. We ate chips.
Just a spec in the crystalline sea.
Then there was Chippa.
For a man regarded as one of the world’s most innovative aerialists, his handiness in big, hollow surf was unexpected. But anyone that's seen him surf will exclaim, "he's a freak!" While Harry (who’s known for taking small twin fins out in double overhead caves over shallow reef, and Tai, who spends the majority of his time chasing hollow fare around Indo) struggled to find makable tubes. Chippa stood tall. He swung on waves that no one wanted. And in the end, came out with the best clips of the trip.
After about an hour of watching on, I turned to Ari. “Well, I think I’m gonna go out. You wanna come?”
“It’d be rude if didn’t huh?” He said and grabbing his 6’6. We met Chip in the channel. “How was it?” We asked.
Out of quarantine and over the shish-kabob section.
“I dunno, kind of scary,” he said looking at an imaginary wristwatch. “Well, it’s time to go take my antibiotics,” and paddled back to the boat.
When I made my way into the lineup, Buddha told me, “the trick is to go for the ones that look like they’re gonna closeout. You’ll get the most tubed on those.”
“Ah, wonderful,” I laughed. But it was true. The bigger closeouts had lesser repercussions and better visions than the smaller inside sets that would later drag me across the shish kabab section for a few bloody kisses. The nice thing is, after you bounce off the reef a few times, the crystal clear, heavy surf over shallow, very visible reef become less intimidating - if only just slightly.
There goes that handsome devil, Jay Button.
I asked Tai how it’s been. “Kind of all over the place,” he said. “Haven’t been able to get many good ones.”
“I’ve watched you snag a few,” I said.
“Nah," he laughed, "it’s just the fucking Chippa Wilson Show."
Tropical chic with Chippa, Harry, Jay, Nani and some other crustacean apparently looking the wrong way.