A DAY TO REMEMBER
Story by Jason Polakow; Photos by Beaupilgrim
Just when I thought the season of south swells was over I received an alert on my computer of a massive system heading towards Fiji, my most favorite spot on the planet to surf and sail.
Heading to Fiji the last two years I’ve been slapped in the face by “Hugu” the surf god, so I was very dubious with this latest prediction. To give you guys a quick insight into why this place is so fickle you have to look at the geography. New Zealand stands right in the firing line from big southern low-pressure systems hitting Fiji. Only a very few systems have the right northern component to squeeze between NZ and Australia and make it all the way up to Fiji.
This particular system had the right direction but part of the low pressure was split by NZ making my decision a difficult one, especially considering all the direct flights to Fiji were booked solid. If I was going, it was a 24-hour flight through NZ instead of a 5-hour direct flight.
By nature I’m a procrastinator. I can never make a decision on anything, so, having something like this hanging over my head was pure torture.
The flip side of this inherited disease is that my brain does not want to miss out on any big swells. The thought of missing double mast high Cloud Break, trumps my indecisiveness and that’s how I keep the ball rolling from year to year. Two halves of my brain fighting constantly. The only people who really suffer from my affliction are my close friends, my parents and my girlfriend. That’s a lot of people actually. Sorry guys.
THE BIG DAY:
I was like a kid in a candy store on the Namotu boat heading up to Cloud Break. You never really know just how big it is until you’re there. I had two emotions rolling through me — nervousness and excitement. As we rolled into the line-up around 6am the first set came through. It was massive and a bunch of big wave specialists were already on it.
Light wind was blowing through the line-up, around 5 to 8 knots, and that was enough for me to start frothing at the mouth. Before anyone had time to digest the information I was already unrolling my sail on the boat and rigging.
Anything can happen here on days like this. It can be windy for 30 minutes then gone for the day. You have to be on the water in the line-up waiting, ready to pounce all day long — period.
I was in the line-up already with no chance to catch a set. The wind was just too light.
Sets were coming in and I was just making it over the tops of the waves by centimeters. I was paddling my windsurf gear like a surfer but only going about at 1/4 of the speed or less. I was paddling right next to all the pro surfers who were looking at me thinking I was completely nuts.
After many close calls and getting slammed by the big sets while I was dog-paddling in the water with my gear I decided to try and sit on the jet ski for a bit like I had done at Teauhpoo years past. The current was starting to suck out and there was no way I could stay in the line-up by myself.
So, the game began. Myself and the some of the best big wave surfers on the planet all sat next to each other in the line-up, taking turns to catch the bomb sets.
When it was my turn I would jump off the ski and try and pump my way onto the face of the wave. With the current running out and the huge walls of water shadowing the wind it was extremely difficult to get onto one of the bomb sets. I tried this for 1 hour with no luck.
You have to have nerves of steel to do this because you just never know what’s behind the next wave. Surfers can paddle quickly to get out of the way but I am stuck like a led weight hanging on to my gear literally as a life preserver.
I got lucky just before 8am and rolled into my first bomb set. If you have not been to Cloud Break before, then let me tell you a little about this amazing wave: The wall is so long and steep it looks like you’re dropping into a close-out. I convinced myself there was a high probability I was going down.
As I raced down to the bottom of my first wave and made my first bottom turn I did not really know what to expect and the adrenaline was surging through my body. I made way for the steep section of the lip where I made an average cut back and then dropped back down the face again. The wind was so light which made it difficult to really get speed and power out of the board and sail but I did not care at all. The wave was so big and perfect it was the best thing ever as I rode this monster out to the channel with such contentment it’s hard to describe. There was nothing easy about this place which is what makes it so special to me.
The wind had filled in slightly and I was able to abandon the ski and set my sights on catching the next bomb by myself.
The one thing I need to talk to you guys about is windsurfing these sorts of waves with little or no wind. It’s extremely difficult. Once the windsurf gear is moving faster than the apparent wind, negative pressure accumulates between the water and the bottom of the sail. This forces the sail upward and reduces your power ability. That’s why when you see me bottom turn I’m trying lay the sail over as close as possible to the water without hitting it. Not many people would have experienced this phenomena and it makes it super difficult to cut back as the sail wants to move towards the barrel of the wave, reducing your power to zero. You’re basically holding onto something that is creating negative power. Like trying to ride a bike without a chain. That’s what’s it’s like. Annoying as shit!
Don’t get me wrong — I was having the biggest rushes of my life out there with a grin from ear to ear that is still on my face even as I write this story now. Just thought it would be nice to give you some insight into the technical aspects…
The wind had now filled in to 10-12 knots and I was able to catch more waves and at times have some positive power in the sail. As the morning rolled on I was able to catch at least five of the 10 big bombs sets that came through that day.
I was also able to catch the biggest set of the day. I remember being on the outside and seeing this massive wall coming towards me. I had to be in the perfect spot. Just a few meters too far out and there was no way to catch it. Too far inside and you would never make the section. When you’re catching waves this size with very light wind you’re pumping like a madman out of the straps and as you start your committed drop into the wave you have to spring back and get into your straps perfectly otherwise you’re going down. I’ve done this many times at Jaws over the years and had good and bad luck trying.
I was able to get into the straps as I dropped in super late and charged through all the surfers that were scrambling to get out the way. 12-foot surfboard guys were getting tossed all over the line-up as they swam down and under the breaking wave. Some of the guys that were more on the shoulder were screaming and cheering for me as I raced down the line to try and get around the first section.
As I made my first bottom turn I could still see flashes of brightly colored boards in the whitewater all around me. I rode this bomb all the way to the inside and felt the adrenaline tingling again through my skin. It was not so much the performance level of me windsurfing out there but more the rush to drop in deep and just make it to the channel.
It was so surreal to be the only windsurfer out there sharing waves with other surfers and exchanging shorts stories in the line-up after each wave.
As always, I got a bit too cocky and went too deep on one of the big sets and had to straighten out and 30 feet of white water came crashing over my gear. I held on to the bitter end but with power like that it’s just impossible to stay with your gear.
I had another rescue ski to help me and he was able to get in and get me after the set had passed. I put on my flippers and jumped off again near the inside reef and swam to my gear. You have to time your jump off the ski between sets and swim to the inside quickly. If you take too long and a set comes you’re going to get shredded on the razor sharp reef.
I spent the next hour swimming around shallow reef trying to get to my gear. It was low tide and it’s impossible for any boat or ski to get inside. I had to walk on super sharp rocks to untangle my gear from a coral head and then swim it to the inside where there is a little lagoon for the ski to pick you up.
I rushed back to the ski as quickly as I could to get new gear.
I sat once again in the line-up waiting for my turn to get a bomb. The wind had dropped again but with my adrenaline and confidence at an all time high I wanted one more. I waited and waited, as I only wanted the biggest sets. Another hour went by. Then another…
On the horizon I could see there was something massive but did really have time to re-position. I was already sitting about 20 feet outside the furthest surfer so I thought I was good. We went over the first wave. A huge south set was already upon us breaking way up the reef and outside our position. There was no way to get out of the way. I sat on my gear trying to relax and lower my heart rate as the white water approached me. These are the times you have to keep your shit together and focus.
As I went down under the whitewater I heard the mast pop instantly then I tried to curl into a ball and deploy the CO2 suit. This helps but only to a certain extent.
After I came up, everyone else started popping up around me in the white foam and I knew then that my day was done. The wind dropped to zero right after that set and I was so tired and exhausted I was happy to make it back to the boat in one piece.
I would like to thank the many people of Namotu Island that helped me on this incredible day. I would also like to thank all the video guys that walked over shallow reef and braved it out on the boats to get the shots I needed. We all love what we do whether you’re on or off the water. I love working with motivated people!
Photos: Beaupilgrim, J.Polakow (Go Pro)