Among the upper echelons of elite, world class surf breaks, a majestic stretch of Fijian reef pass known as Cloudbreak might not be the outright global no.1, but it’s up there in a Champions League spot.
The freight train lefthander, whose name is no great etymological mystery – simply being adopted from the local Nakuru Kuru Malagi – ‘Thundercloud Reef’ is hallowed ground, or rather reef, as one of surfing’s most revered locales of all.
More than just the wave quality – for which it finds itself among a holy trinity of heavyweight Polynesian lefts with Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline and Tahiti’s Teahupoo – it’s the symbolism of Cloudbreak that resonates around the world amongst a vast majority who will likely never lay eyes on it, much less launch jauntily off the port gunwale of a Tavarua Resort boat a la Kevin Naughton from the 1984 Surfer cover.
It exists physically at 17 degrees S, 177 E, but more significantly it exists in all of our collective conscience. If ever a just out of reach paradise, an unobtainable nirvana existed in surf psyche, Cloudbreak and the island of Tavarua from which it sits a mile offshore is surely it.
The heart-shaped island offshore of Fijian’s mainland known as Tavarua, is surely the most famous walk around-able island in the world. And while now best known for one of surfing’s most exclusive resorts, once upon a time it was merely a secret x on a hidden crumpled nautical chart.
In the late 70’s, American yachtsman Dave Ritter passed through Fiji whilst working as a school teacher in Samoa, After chancing upon Tavvy, and kept things pretty hush, with word initially only getting out among a handful of American and Aussies on sailboats in the area.
As one of them, William Finnegan, explains in Barbarian Days, the summer of ‘78, there were exactly 9 people in the world that knew about Tavarua, himself having hitched a ride to the then uninhabited island and camping on the beach there. “In the small world of surfing, the wave was a major discovery. In the scarcity logic of that world, it was essential to keep it a secret.”
Of course, Finnegan and chums were only surfing Restaurants, the wave that hugs the island’s west shoreline, and the fact they didn’t know about Cloudbreak can be considered in different ways. A glaring oversight, maybe; I mean, y’all went all that way, picked out Tavvy from 330 islands in the archipelago and only figured out half the story…?
“In the small world of surfing, the wave was a major discovery. In the scarcity logic of that world, it was essential to keep it a secret.”
But here comes the iconoclastic bit: Cloudbreak’s not actually that good a wave. I mean, it’s amazing when it’s 10ft plus and perfect, but at just a bit overhead, Restaurants is by far the superior spot.
The wind tends to be somewhere between brisk and ravaging in these parts, and what’s makes Cloudbreak such a gem is that it works in the screeching prevailing trade as cross/off, and picks up all and any swell in the water. It’s the utter consistency of Cloudbreak that makes the resort even viable.
Whether simply due to geographic remoteness and the until 2010, legally-enforced guest only exclusivity, whether due to giant swell events such as the 2012 epic that was deemed too gnarly for the world’s best surfers, whether due to a lineage of elite big wave surfer/lifeguards who’ve served tenure as boatmen and had their minds blown by seasons in the South Seas, Cloudbreak’s legend remains very much intact, even in our shrunken, cynical surf world.
Deserts might be more perfect, Teahupoo both more photogenic and frightening, but there’s a timeless, regal quality to Cloudbreak that’s beyond reproach. And lost exclusivity or not, Cloudbreak enjoys a rarefied air that a decade of any backpacker with a speedboat being able to rock up and paddle out, has done little to diminish.
Cover image: Kirstin/WSL