09 July 2018
Cloudbreak Big Swell 2018
Kiting, towing and surfing one of the biggest swells in Fiji
I was on Namotu Island for some meetings about two weeks before the swell hit. I was preoccupied with work and not really watching too carefully but about 10 days out everyone started talking. A bunch of surfers started asking me if there was space on the Island and whether this was going to be like the 2012 Volcom swell. So instead of heading home as planned, I stayed on for the ride.
Although the swell direction looked great, the water in Fiji has been really warm this year and caused quite a few cyclones over summer along with some great swells and excellent fishing. That warmer water has also been causing plenty of small, localised low-pressure systems that have made conditions really unpredictable. It was looking like the same thing could happen during this swell. From the moment we could see it, we were on a rollercoaster; one day was looking like 40knt onshore winds and totally unridable. The next it was looking perfect. Basically it was a wildcard and nobody could make a decision; one minute they were coming, the next they weren’t.
In the end everybody came.
And I mean everybody except kiters and windsurfers. I was chatting to a few and most decided that without the trade wind pattern in place it was unlikely to work for them. For a lot of us the best thing about this swell was the slightly smaller one that hit beforehand. It gave us the perfect opportunity to warm up with some fun tow sessions at Cloudbreak and another at Wilkes. I’m talking scary-big 300-400m freight train rides that you were locked into. If you know Wilkes you’ll know what I mean. It gave me the chance to dial in my tow boards and get comfortable. I also had a few great paddle sessions at Namotu Lefts, so by the time the big swell hit we were ready to roll.
Even up to the day of the swell it looked like torrential rains and howling winds. In the morning we headed up before first light, even though the swell wasn’t supposed to fill in until the afternoon. At dawn we could see it was already huge and each set got bigger as the day went on. The wind swung around to a light side-offshore and although the rain backed off a little, the day was cold and uncomfortable for everyone on the boats, including the photographers. A lot of crew weren’t prepared for temperatures like that in Fiji.
Just after dawn maybe one or two people paddled out plus about three tow pairs. We were just trying to figure out if it was paddle-able and in the morning it was the tow crew who were getting the best rides. I towed in the morning first thing then the wind came up, just enough to kite. There weren’t many surfers in the water so I came in and set up my kite. The wind was light – not something that works very well for big waves and can be a recipe for total disaster. To make things worse, the wind was now pretty much straight offshore, another bad combination that meant the wind was pulling me one way and the wave the other. I caught a few waves but it was scary; once you were on you were fully committed and felt really out of control. I’d hold on and hold on and then kind of explode and get ripped out the back. The biggest thing I struggled with was that the offshore wind would come up the face of the wave, hit the kite and then send the kite out of control. The kite would fall off the back of the wave and leave me stranded in front. Basically all the things that can go wrong were looking like they’d go wrong. I wasn’t able to enjoy the wave and spent each ride holding an edge and hanging on for dear life. On one wave I ended up getting smashed and sling-shotted out the back of the wave, losing my board in the washing machine on the inside. After a few hours it turned up but I didn’t kite again that day.
In the end I had a few waves and was happy with that but realistically it just wasn’t a kite day. Years ago I probably would have pushed the limits, kept forcing it and ended up in trouble. These I’m happy to paddle or tow surf or kite so I just let the conditions dictate what’s best. Unlike other days at Cloudbreak, kiting just didn’t feel right that day. I guess the biggest thing for kiting big waves is having the right wind - otherwise it’s just too risky and virtually impossible to get down and enjoy the wave.
For the rest of the day the wind never really came up. There were 30-50 guys paddle-surfing and 3-5 tow teams with nearly every wave getting ridden – a great thing. It was amazing sitting back and watching the day unfold and soaking up the energy in the water. There was an incredible safety crew in place so there was a great feeling of safety and camaraderie. Without doubt a day I’ll never forget.
I was on a 12m prototype kite that’s soon to be in production by BWSURF.
I was on my Dylan Longbottom tow boards. They’re great – he’s a really talented surfer and big wave charger who knows what he’s doing in big stuff. Equipment wise I had everything I needed. The boards were epic for tow surfing but at the end of the day the wind didn’t cooperate.
All photos by Peter 'Joli' Wilson