It could have been the flight attendant whose name, Nakati, was Fijian for “It was meant to be.” Or, it may have been the ominous lightning that struck right in front of their Jet Ski and boats as they rode out into the dark water. All Kaua‘i’ born Kala Alexander and his group of big-wave surfers knew was that something special was happening just off the coast of Fiji in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
As glassy waters welcomed the morning sunrise, a growing presence brewed beneath Alexander and the other surfers awaiting the swells at Cloudbreak. Soon the ocean started churning out mountains of water. They began at 10 feet. Then they rose to 20, then 30 and possibly larger. Before Alexander knew it, he was being met by wall after wall of what he called “the best surf I’ve ever seen in my life.”
It was June 8 and the Association of Surfing Professionals Volcom Fiji Pro had completed the second round of competition at the world class break. While fans of the ASP World Championship Tour eagerly awaited the continuation of the competition, what they were treated to instead was a once in a lifetime experience.
After a few heats officials called competition off for the day. The conditions were too erratic. The winds were too strong. It was too dangerous. Luckily for those watching, those words weren’t in the vocabulary of the near 40 big-wave hunters that remained out in the break.
Surfer after surfer fell into the lineup, waiting to conquer the biggest waves they’d ever seen. The waves matched the riders in quantity, as one hurtling mass of water after another rolled through the line. Riders dropped in on waves like massive halfpipes, lending control of their lives to the dictation of the water. The names were there. Mick Fanning. John John Florence. Ian Walsh. Josh Kerr. Kohl Christensen. The Hobgoods and the Kaua‘i-born Reef McIntosh, who many say laid claim to the best wave of the day.
Alexander, who grew up on Kaua‘i before becoming a staple of O‘ahu’s Pipeline, said he was lucky to be there. Just a few days before the historic swell, he was debating whether or not to purchase a plane ticket to Fiji. Some of his friends were telling him the conditions were looking ripe. Others said it wouldn’t be worth it.
“Luckily I listened to (McIntosh),” Alexander said. “Two guys I know decided at the last minute not to go. It’s got to be the biggest regret of their life right now.”
Alexander had wanted to surf Fiji since a similarly epic swell last summer. He had bought boards specifically for the trip and had waited a year for the opportunity. But even for someone as experienced as Alexander, watching waves bigger than houses crash down was an intimidating experience.
“Until I surfed this wave I though it wasn’t that hard of a surf. Just that typical type of stuff from someone who hadn’t surfed the area,” he said. “That wasn’t the case. This was a gnarly wave. A lot of people got pounded that day.”
On Alexander’s first wave he had to penetrate out the back of the wave.
At 43, Alexander was the senior statesman of the lineup and he knew he couldn’t withstand the power of the ocean for too long. He said his neck began to tighten up after the first wave and had to make sure his second one counted. With such high surf, Alexander said being out there was a calculated risk and that he wanted to catch one before he tightened up further. Those swells can be death sentences, he said, and being anything less than 100 percent could be catastrophic.
When he pulled into the next wave, all he could think about was riding it as hard as he could.
“I was focused on making that wave count. It’s like a relationship with a woman. You can’t half-ass it,” he said. “You can’t hesitate for one second or else you could get seriously hurt.”
The dangerous waves and the lack of proper equipment kept some of the ASP’s top riders out of the water. Those that were out there were the true big-wave riders, but Alexander said he, nor anyone out in the water, holds it against the riders who chose not to play with fate. While some contend that the ASP should run the competitions under the theory that the best surfers should ride the best waves, Alexander said the tour heads made a smart decision.
“It was the right choice. I don’t judge others for not going out. It’s life-threatening, death-defying waves. It was super dangerous,” he said. “And all the waves were caught by the free-surfers.”
But for those who went out and came back in one piece, Alexander said they took back more than a couple of bruises and a good memory.
“Never has there been any tube riding going down like that,” he said. “It ended up being in my opinion the best session in history.”
• Tyson Alger, sports writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or by emailing talger@ thegardenisland.com. Follow him on twitter.com/tysonalger.