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.

Cullen O'HaraI 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 problem.

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 after that.

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.

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