Over the past week I’ve contributed a piece of writing covering the experience of a competitor, a loser, and I will conclude by sharing my experience as a spectator. I think we can agree that the big winners coming out of this event were the spectators, its never been a better time to be a fan of windsurfing. We have people, young guys, that are going to be blowing minds and making strides in the years to come. Some, already showcasing skills that outshine seasoned pros. We’ve got a tour that’s putting windsurfing on the map in some of the most legendary surf spots on the planet. All week we’ve been humble, we’ve been supplicants to this wave of KuruKuru. I gave skin and I gave a board, and there are many who have heaped their possessions, their bodies, onto the altar of Cloudbreak. Look how we have been rewarded, at the time when we needed it most look how the sea rose to the moment and provided for us the best surf ever ridden in a wave-sailing competition. We, the spectators, whether from the live feed or from the channel itself, can count ourselves as privileged indeed.
I can tell you, from having surfed all morning before the wind came up and the sailors began to rig, this day at Cloudbreak was no joke. Several times that morning I felt I might just die, and the intensity of that feeling -chaining between the twenty or so humans out there in the lineup- just overloaded my coils. The wave was so fast and steep, that only through full commitment into the maw of a square takeoff could any waves be ridden. Out in the water, coming from Tavarua, we had the likes of Koa Rothman, Matt Meola and Billy Kemper. These guys rose to the furious energy in the swell, fanging into some of the most awesome barrels I’ve ever seen from the perspective of scratching over the top. The lineup was a clamor of shouts and callouts, friends screaming at each other to “Go, go, GO!” on a bomb set, I’ve only ever experienced that level of intensity at Peahi. I couldn’t honestly compete or keep up, but as the wind filled in and the surfers filtered out, relenting to give up the wave to the windsurf contest, I stay behind a minute or two, being a windsurfer I felt justified. It was in this last little window of opportunity that I pulled into the biggest barrel of my life, or at least since the one that broke my back ten years ago. Truly a dream section after a nightmare takeoff. The best part was that is was a wave shared with windsurfer Alex from France. We both held our line and rode the wave in unison, kicking out at the channel and gasping in wild elation. Ian Muller of the Fiji Surf Co. came by on the ski singing: “KuruKuru makes room for all!”
After my little glory moments, I joined the other surfers from Tavarua. In paddling away from the best surf I’d ever seen. I could commiserate wholly with their reluctance to leave perfect waves. As a windsurfer I could only feel gratitude to those guys for handing over the break so graciously, making their way back into longboats without a word of complaint. I drifted in between boats harboring sailors and their rigs. Each boat, and the faces within them, held the kind of deterministic energy of one set for battle. I had just come back from this battlefront, and it made me feel a kind of brotherhood with these finalists. Looking into their eyes, I could see a version of myself from the past, now changed by a few awesome experiences, and I wished for them the same. To be changed in the same way; shaped by speed and force.
As a non-competitor with no responsibilities I had the freedom to relax and spectate on any boat in the channel. So I set to paddling toward the Thundercloud trimaran, a castle in the waves, it’s gleaming ramparts bristled with camera lens, apertures glistening in Fijian noontime. As I climbed aboard I was immediately confronted with a hushed atmosphere similar to a hunter’s blind. It felt as though everyone aboard were in the territory of some rare lion, majestic and dangerous. Just then, a massive set capped on the horizon, crumbling slightly over the outer reef, growling in the deep, its surrounding swell lifted every boat in the channel, straining the mooring lines, causing each boat to grown and shudder. KuruKuru, rattling its cages as it were, came wheeling and lunging over the main reef, sending a whirling swathe of mist off its crest.
Baptiste Clorec appeared out of this mist, riding atop an even larger second wave. Driving a deep line, Baptiste faded upwind, then drew an excellent carve up into the first section. Cloudbreak began to race, but he matched its pace! It was beautiful watching him swinging on sections others would have gone around, lining up for a throaty lip to project off of into a lofty air. He soared over an entire barreling section, and some of the surfers -still anchored in the channel- gaped. He would, unfortunately get caught behind the pipeline on the landing, sending him promptly onto the reef mere minutes before the start of the Semi Finals. However, something tells me that on a wave this insane, a risk like that was part of a sane strategy, the hallmark of good Cloudbreak surfing, “You don’t know until you go”. “Sending it” as it were, is not optional here if one wants to truly ride. While this ride came through during the warm-up and most of the media crew were still tuning their equipment, it had become clear that the competition was now ON. KuruKuru had just called it officially. Proceeding with caution, though hearts raced with anticipation, the camera crews on the Thundercloud raised their lenses to KuruKuru. We all understood that the footage being captured here today was historic. In a few minutes’ time the Fijian flag hoisted aloft upon the mast of the Thundercloud, signaling the commencement of the women’s semi final.
My favorite sailor from the first semi was one who smiles in the face of danger, unflinchingly brave Coco Foveau. Coco was the only competitor from the women’s field to also go for broke in the warm-up, riding high and deep until the wave raced beyond her. She didn’t suffer much damage but definitely gained the advantage of desensitization from fear and hesitation. This bolstered bravery carried right into her heat as she barely had enough time to make it back to the lineup before the official start. I doubt it was enough time to let the blood cool. Again, Cloudbreak is just a different place, with a different philosophy. Mark Angulo would’ve loved competing here, he would’ve shined in the chaos, and he would’ve loved the way Coco took this wave head-on.
In heat 2 of the semis, Sarah Hauser put on an absolute clinic in terms of how Cloudbreak can be ridden. She avoided many of the pitfalls experienced by other pros, reading two steps ahead as she drew an expert line. In windsurfing, there’s a place for fearlessness, and then there’s the added skill to balance it with a strategy. This is the tempering of raw material into a gem of solid sailing, Sarah Hauser proved her metal in the semis.
As time went on in the women’s semi final I couldn’t help but feel as though I wasn’t getting the full Cloudbreak spectating experience. From our vantage point aboard the Thundercloud, we could see straight into the biggest barreling section of the west sets. Riders would soar from outside into deep bottom turns, disappearing for a moment before accelerating up into massive projections off the lip. But after landing, their subsequent trials in the closeout Shish Kebab’s was often obscured. I made the decision to move from the silent hill upon which our media and judges kept their vigil, descending into the water, moving back towards the anchored boats resting furthest inside, closest to reef of Shish Kebabs.
The shift in perspective changed everything. As the men’s semi got underway I found an added dimension of spectacle awaited. There was a section breaking on the inside ledge that stood up abruptly and mounted a severe peak which stood out above the squaring barrel like a challenge, like an entity. With what felt like unnatural timing, spurred by some hidden force of reef and swell interaction, came this formation, bowing up to the sailor, bearing down with the full might of its terrible force. It’s a peak, a feature of the wave that has firmly planted in my memory, tenuously connected to a youthful impression of El Capitan. The first time I saw that mountain I was a teenager. I remember it standing alone as the most foreboding of megalithic granite structures, the light of the sun unable to fill the void of shadow it cast across the surrounding landscape. No other mountain looms with such a forlorn sense of cognizant foreboding. No other place fills you with such a feeling of walking with giants. Nowhere else can a mountain of granite wear the face of a stern patriarch, set with judgement. So it seemed this awesome wave had grown a face which was to meet the windsurfer. This face was not malicious but assertive. It was here beneath the fell gaze of this massive peak that so many lost their gear, for there was no escape once a sailor had traveled into the vacuum of the west bowl, a corridor without end or hope of release, the inescapable shadow of El Capitan. Straightening out, because of the light wind and force of water drawing up the face, only got a man so far as to be in the direct line of impact of the lip. As it heaved impossibly far, leaning out to reach the sailor, the lip would explode on the reef and send gear high into the air on the wings of so much whitewater with nowhere else to go but straight up.
We could only watch from the boats as our friends, foundered in the shallows, treaded water breathily after what must have been a violent hold-down. Often times, another stern face would already be forming on the crest of the following wave, glowering down on them with equal omniscience. From prior sessions I know the experience. There was no way out of there but to take the beating and limp over Shish Kebabs. Robby Swift, Marc Paré, Takuma Sugi and Antoine Martin all received brutal punishment in the same spot.
Despite the atmosphere of survival, these semi finalists were resolute in their valiance, determined to thrive. For the third day in a row, rounding out a straight flush of competition days, Baptiste was the standout performer. Watching live, there was a general sense of mysticism behind the kind of speed Baptiste was able to sail with. The wave is fast, so fast it can often outrun a sailor, and an air, while impressive, often put a sailor behind the crashing lip. Baptiste, however, had this uncanny ability to project out further than the racing barrel. It wouldn’t be until hours later, going over 200fps footage on Jace Panebianco’s RED, that we’d discover an interesting point of difference. While other competitors approach the lip, they would kick their tails, stalling slightly to present the bottom of their boards to the throwing lip. In a similar way that surfers kick-stall into the barrel, these sailors were kick-stalling in anticipation of the air section. But Baptiste maintained a much more front-footed approach to the lip, carving on-rail right up to the late hit. This was just a split-second detail and though it was likely imperceptible to the naked eye of the judges, the difference was evident in the way he boosted off the lip, flying higher and farther than the rest.
Not to be outdone, Ricardo Campello used the advantage of his more powerful gear and larger frame to engage in slashing under-the-lip cutbacks. At times his feet, driving deep into the throwing lip, would lift above his head, inverted, before the arc of his turn rounded out into an air-drop recovery. The fan of water this turn created would catch the insanely strong updraft created by the barrel. Water from his board jetted upward, painting the sky, something that could only be possible on a wave like Cloudbreak.
Robby Swift and Marc Paré started off the second semi with a set that rounded the reef in perfect timing with the beginning of the heat. At the raising of the Fijian flag, they faded into the pit. Their waves were beautiful, the riding perfect, but the narrow exit on these monsters grew tighter as the riders dipped into turn after turn, hungry for more of this insane wave. It was here that the aforementioned “El Capitan” wave judged both of them for their greed. The section came up so swiftly that it raised alarm bells all over the channel, everyone voicing aloud their vicarious terror in one voluminous uproar! I can’t imagine what the rider’s experience was like, watching the wave mount for an attack you could not hope to turn away from.
It seemed that at this moment a marked shift in energy had come. KuruKuru was nothing to play with, it demanding respect, protocol must always be observed. A perfect time for Antoine Martin to come fanging into another set, riding with audacious flare, the gaunt face of the west bowl already rearing to meet him. Call it hubris, foolhardiness or the desire to know, but Antoine launched himself at it. In a place where a surfer would be pumping like mad to outrun the foam ball, churning like a singularity within the barrel, this windsurfer harnessed the wind and flung himself out over the brink. In landing, the first point of contact was mast against crashing lip. For a split second his sail was as a hand in the barrel, pressing against it, stalling inside it, effectively tube riding a windsurfer. His board, however, could not manage the massive leverage applied via the sail. Fins unable to find purchase, his board spun out and swung wickedly up with violent force of drawing water going straight into the mouth of the barrel. Carnage ensued, a hideous wipeout of gear curling with the snarling lip to be gnashed into the razor sharp reef. This was another moment best captured by Jace in 200fps, at the moment when glory turns to calamity, and Antoine’s eyes widen to the reality of his impressing doom. I think he saw death.
For a long time Antoine was just gone, safety jet skis marshaled along the reef, but there are certain places where a person is just alone. It took the majority of the heat for him to come out of that Shish Kebabs zone, for the ski to lift him out and towards his gear, then out into the lineup. He must’ve been shaken, but had no time to recover himself. Three minutes were left in the heat and they passed quickly. With 30 seconds left Antoine took one more stab at a wide set but couldn’t get in. Again, I think a lot happened to Antoine out there that we can’t know but can infer based on any brushes with disaster we’ve faced. His confusing actions in the wake of that wave might be better understood given this context.
I conclude this article, two days after the events of Finals day, back in the channel of Cloudbreak. It seemed the best place to try to understand what we saw in the water that day. There’s something special about this wave, the Mana, as Polynesians have identified it, is strong with karmic “knowing”. As violently as it exacted its chiropractic adjustment of the sailors, it retracted its wrath. A paced and ordered calm seemed to resume in the water. It set the stage for the final, a clean slate.
Sarah Hauser picked up where she left off in the semis, finding that perfect line on waves with just enough wall to work with, but not so much west in it that the wave would bend into an inescapable trap. Sarah had one wave where I genuinely mistook her as Antoine Albert sailing through the heat! She approached the wave with a different attitude having acquired a solid base of scores, busting her fins out off the top of a looming outer section before carrying all its barreling speed down into a flawless lay-down bottom turn. Her resulting carve a thing of perfection. There’s no doubt that Sarah deserved the win here, she rode immaculately.
I watched the finals from aboard the French boat. That isn’t the name of a particularly French boat but a general descriptive term for any boat occupied by French. This method of describing French territory extends beyond boats for there are French villas, French tables at dinner, French WhatsApp groups. There’s also a certain French way of doing things, like the Germans they are always on time, their time, but here in Fiji that always seems to be the right timing for everything. It was, unsurprisingly, a focal point of energy for both the men’s and women’s finals. We had Sarah but also Coco to root for, Morgan was a ball of nerves watching his girlfriend play casually in waves of enormous consequence. He didn’t show it, until at one point Coco kicked out of a relatively small wave up the reef, with a wide set looming on the horizon, a critical misstep. “Pump,” he kept saying “pump… just try pumping a little Coco… just frickin pump!”
As the women’s final concluded, and Morgan could take a breath, we discussed our pre-heat predictions. Truly, my money was on Swifty. Robby Swift rides with the classic measured pacing of one who knows when to push and when to fade, the mark of a keen surfer. While surfing, Swift has been getting the biggest and best barrels out of everyone here, learning the positioning and rhythms of Cloudbreak with eagerness and genius. I really thought that if anyone had the mojo to counter Baptiste’s flow, it would’ve been Robby. And at the opening exchange of the heat, it seemed my prediction might hold water. Robby timed another perfect set, one of the biggest, and went to work on it with a style that blends many of the Greats: Polakow, Prior, Josh Angulo and even some notes of Naish mixed to great effect.
In the semi heat prior, Takuma Sugi cut open the side of his face during a brush with the reef. It didn’t stop him from making the finals. Still bleeding from eye to cheek, he let out a warrior’s cry, and was back out in the lineup prepared to swing for the fences again. In terms of fandom, I follow Takuma the closest and get most excited about him as a windsurf athlete. He’s the total package, a skillful down-the-line wavesailor, fearless in the air and in high winds, and a freestyle wizard. He’s in the stage now where he’s going for maximum effectiveness in competition, but just imagine when he starts throwing his own stylistic flare into everything he does, blending his multiplicity of talents into one unique flow. And Takuma’s got the spirit to do something like that, he’s a one-of-a-kind type of guy. I feel that in this final we saw a glimpse of that flow. Takuma hit a switch, probably around the time he kissed the reef, where he realized it was about more than points, more than a ranking, it was something personal between him and this wave. A dance ensued, tight, erratic, full of raw feeling, like a Koto.
In the end, no one could touch Baptiste. Ricardo came very close, and had he had access to some of the set waves taken by the other guys, who knows? The nature of competition is fascinating in that sense. But Baptiste Clorec was the name that deserves the praise here, the recognition. His style colored the event through and through, it’ll be his shots gracing the Fiji Surf Pro 2024 posters. There’s so much about this dude, he’s a genuinely stoked young man, impressively riding his self-made gear setup with a surf-inspired style, full rail-line commitment. I can’t wait to see what he does next, many are hoping he goes to Pozo!
As I said before, it’s been days since the event of the Finals. And while my previous two stories came out in a flurry of furious typing, an all-night -into the next morning- blitz, this article came out slow. It’s amazing how everyone has come down after that day, the energy is so much more subdued around the villas, on the boats, in the water. Everyone, it seems, can breathe again now that it’s over. It took me some time to find the personal significance in all this winding down, and how to present it in the context of a spectator. I think I’m just really happy that everyone is ok, I’m happy everyone made it through this. It brings me a lot of joy listening to the boys describing their best waves, seeing how it flushes them with warm feeling. I think as fans we just want to see people doing their thing and loving it. Windsurfing makes us happy so it stands to reason that those who are good at it are able to express and promote happiness, just by having fun. The world-weary tour sailor in me wants to disagree, but when a thing like the 2023 Fiji Surf Pro happens, with its pure beauty, its ideal perfection, I know in my heart that we are doing something right in this sport. I know we have something special, and the means to share it with the world. I thank every one of you who has tuned into the live feed, shared and commented. I thank the people who have read these stories, watched the behind the scenes videos. The fans of the sport are driving this tour forward. The support is inspiring an incredible effort from everyone involved: the media teams, the organizers and sponsors, the athletes. We are all working together to get the best events out to the windsurfing public, the surfing world, and beyond!
Sitting in the channel cheering on my favorite athletes, surrounded by friends, some of them my longest most endearing relationships, forged through windsurfing. Again, “How did I even get here?” came to mind. It had never been a better time to be a fan of windsurfing than that day, that hour in the lineup at Cloudbreak.
Text by Bernd Roediger
Photos by Fish Bowl Diaries
For full event details, see InternationalWindsurfingTour.com/Fiji