A Tale from the Tropics
Surfing and Lifeguarding in Fiji
It’s hard to believe, as I look out my window at perfect
tropical lefts, that not too long ago I was scouring the Gaviota
Coast for a ridable wave, coming up empty-handed at each turnout.
That routine of searching for surf, as well as the smell of musty
wetsuits and the sound of traffic, seem as unfamiliar to me now as
if I were from outer space.
I have just finished my sixth week in Fiji, as a lifeguard on
the small but beautiful private surf island of Namotu. Life is
rough. Each week, a new group (between 14 and 22 people) shows up
from some far-off place to escape the madness and monotony of
everyday life, and enjoy the benefits this island has to offer:
waves. Namotu has exclusive rights to two very fun surf
spots — Lefts and Swimming Pools. This translates to plenty of
waves for everyone without the hassle of jockeying for
position — unless, of course, your friends paddle you up the point
just for the hell of it.
When I arrived, I was handed a three-page list of “rules”
consisting of things like “don’t snake guests” and “karaoke is
compulsory.” Basically, my job as a lifeguard is to schmooze and
surf with the visiting surfers and make sure they don’t drown. No
Landing such a position didn’t take the usual
résumé/interview/call-back path as much as a few good connections.
On an island so small, Scotty and Mandy, the Australian couple who
manage the resort, are big on keeping the morale high and tensions
low. They do this simply by hiring referrals from friends and
trusted employees. I was no exception.
However, even if you’re the best friend of the best-ever
lifeguard, you’re not guaranteed a position on the island if, say,
when pondering why your new, eight-foot-long hybrid funboard is
acting “strangely,” a mate tells you that your fins have been put
in backwards. Having almost a lifetime’s worth of ocean
experience — including surfing, snorkeling, fishing, and general
comfort in the surf — is a must. Also, being responsible for other
people’s safety in the water means you have to be versed in ocean
rescues as well as have an EMT certification. With these
credentials under my belt and a solid contact, all I needed to do
was book my flight from LAX to Nadi, Fiji, and then settle in.
My first week on the job was blessed with perfect weather,
playful waves, and a lively group of guests who weren’t too
concerned about much more than relaxing and enjoying themselves,
which isn’t very difficult to do in the laid-back Fijian
atmosphere. As a bonus, the waves picked up midway through the week
as a long-period, overhead southwest swell landed on the reef
passes, bringing in punchy, clean walls for everyone. The guests
were stoked, and by the end of the week they had their fill, but
still wanted to stay an extra week.
Saturday is when we say farewell to the sunburned visitors and
hello to the next batch of fresh faces. In the interim, it also
allows some downtime for the staff, including myself, fellow
lifeguards, a fisherman, photographer, chef, and Scotty and Mandy
to recoup for another week of waves and new guests. And then it
starts all over again.
The next group, 20 thirty-somethings from California and South
Carolina, arrived just as a solid 6- to 8-foot swell was filling in
out at Lefts. They were stoked. Pretty much the whole group,
including a few spouses who were new to surfing, just piled into
the boat and charged the Left. Within 10 minutes, I was rounding up
the gals, who were getting pummeled by the wide swinging sets, and
getting them to the boats. My first save!
Once again, the swell faded slowly, Saturday came and went as
did the new and old guests, respectively, and the surf clock was
set back to zero for another round of perfection.
After long days in the surf, sleep is the most treasured
activity. But one night, after a long run of waking up at dawn,
training, surfing, eating, and back to bed by 9 p.m., I had an
abrupt awakening. Around 1 a.m., I was awakened by my roommate,
Kane, suddenly freaking out, swatting at the darkness. “What the …
” is about all I got out before I saw what he was fighting
off — about a dozen or so cockroaches crawling all over him and his
bed. When we turned on the light, we saw they were everywhere — the
walls, floors, in our beds. We went into instant battle mode, with
sandals in hand clapping anything that moved. Needless to say, our
neighbors weren’t too stoked about the clamor. In about 20 minutes,
we had the situation under control, but we didn’t sleep too well
And so it went. The cockroaches would come and go, the surf
showed its many faces, from small and playful to huge and perfect.
The guests varied as well: American university professors to
Japanese surf shop owners to Australian racecar drivers, each with
a smile and a story. As for me, I am soon heading back to life in
the Northern Hemisphere, looking reluctantly at my 3/2 steamer and
nursing the expanse of reef rash on my back — my reminder that the
past few months were a reality, for without the scar, it would
still seem like a dream.