One of the best surfing waves in the world is called “Cloudbreak”. It is also one of the most challenging. It is a heavy barreling wave that breaks over a shallow, razor-sharp coral reef. It is located near a heart-shaped island called Tavarua which is part of Fiji. When it is “breaking big”, it has the likeness of a runaway freight train cutting through the pristine waters.
When my wife, Heidi, turned 49, she started planning something special for her 50th birthday. She and her best friend from childhood, Karma, share the same birthday, and had decided to celebrate together. Heidi and I have a timeshare that can be applied to a number of different resorts all around the world. She and Karma were looking at a world map of their options and decided that it would be fun to go to Fiji for their big 5-O. With “free” lodging, we would just have to shop for a good deal on the airfare.
Heidi asked me what I thought about the idea of going to Fiji with her, Karma, and Karma’s husband, Bill. I smiled widely, raising my eyebrows, wondering if she was serious. I knew that Fiji had some of the best surfing in the world and I immediately began to dream about what that might be like. I had been surfing several times each week, for about five years. I was not great, but I was better than your average weekend warrior. I was not sure how close our resort would be to good surfing, but I imagined we would be staying on white sandy beaches with gentle waves rolling in. I could not have been more wrong about this.
We spent the next year looking forward to this exotic vacation. I trained hard during the cold winter months of heavy Northern California surf, preparing for what in my mind was going to be a surf-vacation.
Getting out of Humboldt County, where we live, is never easy. To begin our trip to Fiji we first had to drive six hours to the airport in San Francisco, and then make the short flight to Los Angeles. The flight from Los Angeles to Fiji is extremely long, taking approximately eleven hours. Because the flight is at night and crosses the international date line, we landed two days after we took off. There was no escaping the weariness and the jet lag from the long journey.
Our resort in Fiji was located on a small island connected by a bridge to the city of Nadi. There was a beach next to the resort, but there was no surfing. The water there was flat, making it good for paddle boarding, sailing, swimming, and jet skiing. Resorts and restaurants lined the beach.
I quickly discovered that the only real surf spots in Fiji are located on offshore reef breaks. To get to one of these, a person must sign up for a trip with the government-owned, Fiji Surf Company. They provide transportation from the resorts to a quiet lagoon where their boats stand by. I signed up to go on a surf trip during our third day in Fiji. Heidi and Karma signed up for pedicures and poolside crafts. The person organizing the trip insisted that I would have the choice of a number of different surf breaks for a variety of skill sets.
The van picked me up at 5:30 a.m. I sat down next to an Australian surfer who has been coming to Fiji to surf every year for the past 15 years. Next, we picked up a surfer from Southern California. He had just arrived after spending weeks surfing Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu. He had gone from the airport to his hostel where he had just checked in. Another Southern California surfer met us at the lagoon, along with the surf guides and two of the best Fijian surfers in the country.
As we prepared to board the small boat, the guide went over hand signals that we would need to know if we found ourselves injured on the reef. We sorted out our surfboards and shoved out into the pristine flat water of the lagoon. The air was cool and the sun peeked over the horizon as the boat aimed towards open water. The guides joked about the dangers of the reefs, telling stories of gnarly head injuries they had witnessed. They emphatically told me to “Stay high on the wave inside the barrel”. I felt a swarm of butterflies enter my stomach. “We’re going somewhere easy, right?” I asked.
We went straight to Cloudbreak. This has been called a “perfect wave” and it is the favorite of the surfing legend, Kelly Slater. Because it is an offshore reef, the boat shuttles surfers to the edge of the reef where they jump overboard and paddle to the break. Unlike typical beach breaks, your feet never touch land. It feels strange being miles from the shoreline.
As we approached Cloudbreak I could see the white explosion of water breaking in the ocean. The guides were giddy, saying it was “going off” that day. I felt cold and exposed not wearing a five-millimeter thick wetsuit, booties, hood, and gloves. I wasn’t in Humboldt County anymore. In these tropical waters, I would surf barefoot with board shorts and a long-sleeved rash guard. My teeth were chattering with a combination of nervousness and the chill of the boat ride.
The ocean was relatively flat, except at Cloudbreak. The reef forms an abrupt shelf on the ocean floor that goes from 500-1000 feet deep, to extremely shallow. At low tide, the reef appears above the surface of the water. The deep energy of the ocean swell hits the shallow reef pushing a wave upward. It forms a wall of water that stands up before breaking with speed and force. A beach break will dredge sand off the bottom. The wave on a coral reef break remains crystal clear and thunders as the sound is compressed inside the hollow mouth of the wave.
As we sped closer to the reef the waves appeared to grow bigger. I watched in awe as a surfer was spit out of a perfect barrel. The next wave had a surfer on it who was not so lucky. He was thrown from the top lip of the wave, free-falling onto the shallows. His board was broken in half and he was holding his bloody shoulder. A jet ski zoomed to his rescue. I had been told that when I fell off my board, to “Be sure to fall as flat and shallow as possible – like a starfish. You don’t want to hit the reef with your feet, legs, or head.”
I had trained for months to prepare for this part of the trip, but I felt woefully unprepared. It was daunting to realize that the only wave to catch was a “stand up barrel” and this was specifically one of the most difficult waves in the world to catch. Anxiety intensified. I also had been handed a surfboard that I had never used before. Its size and shape were foreign to me. I felt completely out of my element.
Those surfing Cloudbreak that day included some of the best surfers in the world. These professionals had extensive experience surfing reef breaks. Here I was, with five years of experience learning how to surf. Not only that, but surfing is a sport that takes years of dedication before one is able to excel. I imagined getting in someone’s way. I imagined getting thrown by the wave onto that shallow reef.
I paddled slowly towards the shoulder of the wave. As I watched the professionals flying out of those deep barrels, I froze, far from the peak of the wave. I was unwilling to put myself into that place where I would either be thrown onto the reef or catch the wave. Catching a wave meant taking a risk. I lacked confidence in my ability to surf the wave. I paddled around a safe distance from the real action.
I fought my fears, but my fears won.
I was humbled. Maybe even humiliated. After ninety minutes of staying safely far from where the wave might break, I paddled back to the boat and climbed the ladder into the boat. I was cold. I wanted to go somewhere else where I actually could catch a wave. There was one other person in the boat who was as frustrated as I was. All but the Aussie paddled back to the boat after two hours of surfing. He wanted to stay at Cloudbreak. The rest of us took the boat to an easier surf spot called Namotu Lefts. We stayed there for another two hours. It was crowded, which meant that nearly every wave was taken by another surfer. In spite of the crowd, I was thrilled to catch a couple of waves and was mesmerized to see the colorful reef through the crystal-clear water as I sped along. Thankfully, the people surfing on this break were not nearly as intense as those at Cloudbreak.
We piled into our boat and began the trip back to the resorts. Exhausted and hungry, it was still just noon when the boat stopped in the shallow water just off the beach where I was staying. I jumped overboard and fell on my butt in the water. If I hadn’t lost all my dignity earlier, this was the final straw. Wading to the beach I walked to the pool without looking back. I quickly found Heidi and Karma sitting at the poolside in the sun proudly showing me their pedicures.
“How was your trip? Did you have fun?”, they asked.
I looked out on the horizon towards Cloudbreak and thought, “No one here has any idea what is out there.” My experiences seemed so distant from where I was now. I had been berating myself with vicious self-talk. I was frustrated by my fears and by my ineptitude.
“Sure. It was pretty fun” I lied, “I need to get some food.”
After sour reflection on my experience, the next day I resolved to do another surf trip, on my own terms. I called Fiji Surf Company again, making my intentions clear: “I am not interested in getting stand up barrels. I just want to catch a lot of waves. I also don’t want a shortboard. I will take an 8’0 funboard please.”
The van picked me up two days later, again at 5:30 a.m. Now I knew what to expect. I stuck to my game plan. At the lagoon I selected my board, making sure it had the size and volume that would get me into waves early and easily. I was there with another group of surfers and I didn’t pretend to be a professional surfer. I proudly told them I was a beginner and I wanted to go somewhere other than Cloudbreak.
The guides took us far offshore, dropping one surfer off at Cloudbreak before investigating another reef called Tavarua Rights. The swell was peaking nicely in the middle of a concave-shaped reef that created long right-handed waves, one after another. No one was surfing the wave and I was the first one to jump out of our boat. I had a score to settle with myself and I didn’t want to hesitate and allow fear to get a foothold. I also didn’t want to have to compete for the wave with anyone else. I made my way to the reef and lined up behind the peak that was breaking. As the wave approached I began to paddle hard. I heard the crashing of the wave just to my left. The compressed sound intensified as it raced towards me. I set my focus to my right where the wave was just starting to grow steep. The wave pushed my board and I stood up quickly. Accelerating to the bottom of the wave, I turned hard to the right, maneuvering back up the wave face. It formed a glassy wall. I sped to the edge of the wave where the reef ended, and the water grew flat. I had not fallen. It was exhilarating and I was ready to catch another.
More surfers arrived and we spent the day trading waves on that fast-moving, beautiful and predictable wave. It was my first consistent experience surfing a reef and I felt as if I improved dramatically that day. Going back to our resort that afternoon, I felt redeemed.
We all fail in various ways. It takes courage to get back up and try again. This is the only way to learn many things in life. We regroup, adapt, and adjust our actions and attitudes based on what we have learned about ourselves. Perhaps you have recently failed at something you thought you could do. Do not give up. You have learned a great deal and because of that experience, something better is going to take place.
Brothers and sisters, I know that I still have a long way to go. But there is one thing I do: I forget what is in the past and try as hard as I can to reach the goal before me.
• When have you tried to do something that was beyond your abilities? What did you learn through that process?
• How has fear and anxiety prevented you from taking risks?
• How have past failures helped you change? Have they held you back?
• What is the Lord teaching you through the current struggles you are going through?