Words: Alex Murray
Pics: Ben Reed/ISA
Alex Murray made the pilgrimage to the hallowed surf spot of Cloudbreak, Fiji, to do battle against the world’s best stand up paddle surfers at the ISA World SUP Champs. Here’s how it went for him.
I left the UK a couple of weeks before the Fiji World Championships were due to start, to acclimatise and try and get used to the waves. Two eleven hour flights later I was on the other side of the world in beautiful Fiji.
After a short drive, and a couple of boat rides, I arrived at my destination for the next ten days, the stunning island of Malolo. Wanting to sample the true Fijian surfing experience, l had initially looked at staying on the islands of Tavarua and Namotu but both were fully booked. After a lot of internet research and still wanting to experience the island feel I finally decided on the Funky Fish Resort on Malolo, which turned out to be far better than I ever thought it would be. Having checked in I discovered the resort was deserted, there were only two other guests!
Looking at the amazing views towards Cloudbreak we were then called for lunch, the most delicious Kokoda (raw fish and coconut milk soup – the national dish of Fiji). With what felt like about twenty staff looking after the three of us it was amazing. I couldn’t have been more content.
Post-breakfast the following morning we were met by our boat captain. The ride from the resort to the closest waves at Wilkes and Namotu takes about twenty five minutes. I knew I had truly arrived when we passed a large shark and saw flying fish gliding just in front of the boat. We dropped anchor by the reef at Namotu and whilst watching perfect clean three foot waves, with only two surfers in, I waxed up my 7’5″ SUP ready for my first surf in Fiji.
Not knowing what to expect board choice for Fiji had been a bit of a challenge. Back at home, in the shaping room before I left, I had planned to take three boards. But in the end I gambled on taking only two SUPs and a surfboard. 7’5″x 26″x 4″ squash tail three fin, 7’8″x 26″x 4″ pin tail five fin and a 5’6″x 20″x 2 1/4″ pin tail five fin surf stick.
Not only was I concerned about the size and type of waves I would encounter, but also the weight and spiralling costs of excess baggage. Simply lifting my bag with three boards, paddles and a surfboard was a total back breaker. I’m not sure what the check in staff thought!
Getting ready to enter the water I first covered myself in waterproof factor 50 and then jumped off the boat into crystal clear water that was warm as a bath. After an incredible couple of hours surfing I bumped into fellow team mate Tina Beresford (who had already been out in Fiji for a few days). I got back to the boat totally dehydrated and burnt to a crisp. Gulping down gallons of water and applying tones more sunscreen we upped anchor for a first look at Cloudbreak.
With quite a crowd out and intimidating looking waves I opted to take in my surfboard instead of a SUP. The speed and power of the wave, not to mention the shallowness of the reef, was mind blowing. The standard of surfing was also extremely high, the line up dotted with top pro surfers. Paddling out and watching Shane Dorian tearing into a set wave right in front of me was incredible. I managed to snag a few good ones and was fortunate not to hit the reef. We returned to resort via Cloud 9 (a cool bar built of wood out at sea on the Malolo reef), then an early dinner and on to bed – the end of a perfect day. The following morning I was up before dawn and it was time to do it all again.
After five more days of surfing fantastic Cloudbreak and Namotu, in waves ranging from waist high to overhead, I was eventually joined by another UK rider Charlie Grey. And then eventually the rest of the GB team.
Following lunch we all went back out to Cloudbreak and had a great hour with only seven of us in. A perfect day surfing was made complete when our boat was joined by a huge pod of dolphins surfing off our bow on the way home.
With only very small waves on offer the following day, and a big swell forecast, we opted to rest, snorkel and hike the hills of Malolo. With great views from the top and superb snorkelling it was yet another great experience.
After an early surf at Namotu we then lucked into a small, but perfect session at Restaurants. Initially with only three of us in, this amazing wave was breaking onto an insanely shallow reef. Even the slightest touch of the razor sharp coral resulted in injury. But what a wave.
Before we went back to resort, with the swell still building, we stopped to take another look at Cloudbreak. A great move as we were soon to witness the ‘Kelly Slater Show.’ To our amazement he moored his jet ski next to our boat and then paddled over to surf directly in front of us in full on double overhead barrels.
After a couple more days practising we sadly had to move from our fantastic resort to the mainland. It was finally time for the World Championship opening ceremony. The next morning we departed onboard the mothership from Port Denarau out to Cloudbreak for the start of the surfing competition. I was up in heat two, a heavy draw, against French champion Benoit Carpentier and the eventual winner, Hawaii’s Zane Schweitzer. The twenty minute heat went by in a blur. I had a few waves, but sadly I was out and moved into the repercharge scheduled for the next day.
Due in the first heat the next morning, it was a nervous boat ride back out to Cloudbreak. Sadly the waves had dropped in size but fortunately I made it through to the next round. After making a few more heats I was extremely pleased to still be in at the end of the day and up for a chance to surf in some bigger waves that were predicted for Saturday.
Relaxing for the four race days before the final of the surf comp wasn’t that easy, or actually that relaxing. Having too much time to think about the predicted 10′ swell that was arriving certainly got the butterflies going. Leaving port in the darkness on that last morning was probably the scariest build up to a surf session I’ve ever experienced. Thankfully Glenn (team captain) and the other British racers were on board to help and cheer me on. Seeing kitesurfers out on our approach to the wave did not help to relax the nerves either.
Glenn had kindly offered to be my spare board caddy. When it was time for my heat he and I jumped off the back of the boat which felt like stepping off a cross Channel ferry in a raging storm. The ferocious wind was wiping up the already enormous waves. It felt impossible to paddle away from the moving boat which had not yet managed to anchor due to the huge swell. We tried to grab hold of the start buoy but it slipped its mooring so worryingly we found ourselves drifting further out to sea.
Moving closer to the reef we eventually found the other guys waiting for the heat. The scary start got worse when seconds later Mexican Felipe Rodriguez zoomed past on the back of a ski with his board in half (he actually snapped two that day). At this point I was thinking the gamble of bringing only two boards might have been a mistake.
The heat started. Just standing up in the strong wind was challenge enough never mind trying to be in the right position to get on a wave. It was so frustrating every time I thought I had one I’d get blown back or the wave would die out and I’d miss it.
Finally I caught what felt like a good one. It turned out to be the most intense wave I have ever ridden on a SUP. The few seconds I rode will stay with me forever. So too will the scars I picked up from hitting the reef at the end of it! Unfortunately I didn’t get the score I needed and with only three minutes left to go I tried but couldn’t catch another wave. Before I knew it my contest was over.
Watching the fearless performances of the guys and girls that went through to the finals in serious conditions was truly amazing. An added bonus was standing on the top deck of the boat after the competition had finished and watching Kai Lenny free surf for an hour. Fresh from charging fifty foot Jaws he made double overhead Cloudbreak look like it was nothing. My admiration for him continued the following day when he caught and passed all the other teams in the final of the relay race. He is on another level for sure.
Later that afternoon it was back into town for the closing ceremony. Team GB happily finished in twelfth place overall, even without a prone team. Then, finally, a few drinks in celebration were enjoyed at the after show party before sadly getting ready for the long journey home. The end of what really had been a trip of a life time.
Thanks to all my team mates and to the ISA and Tourism Fiji for putting on a great event. Most importantly I’d like to thank my amazing family and friends for helping and supporting me. Fetch Surf Co. and Vaikobi were awesome for supplying our team outfits. A big thank you to my sponsors:- Outsider TV, Cornish Bed Company and Escape Surfboards. And finally thanks to BSUPA for paying my entry fee.