Outside Magazine, October 1998
Summer 1978. My friend Bill and I had fetched up on Tavarua, an uninhabited sand tonsure ringing a low, thick copse of vegetation offshore of Viti Levu, Fiji's capital island. Today, Tavarua is a sniffily hip surfing resort. For ham-thick wads of cash, one can ride the world's (your superlative here) waves and, post-session, have scurrying minions provide grog, princely food, soft beds.
Not back then. As far as I was concerned, it was just another whistle stop on our milk train through hell. We were six weeks along in our surf trip around the world, and all we had to show for our efforts was disease, injury, and a few puling, retarded waves — waves we wouldn't have stepped across the street to surf in California or Hawaii. Waist-high slop on Saipan, nothing on Guam or Nauru, low-tide closeouts and spindly ankle-slappers in Western Samoa, mushburgers on Tonga, an inchoate beach break on Viti Levu.
We had been exiled from a Samoan village for surfing on a Sunday and chased from the water by a spongy mat of human turds in Tonga, and by three drowned chickens and one bloated dog corpse in Saipan. I had opened my big toe to the bone on an exposed root, raked my butt and lower back on finger coral. Bill shivered with vague fever, moaned nightly from an earache. Our bodies were cobbled with mosquito bites, shriveling from diarrhea. We had badly underestimated expenses. Slick yachties pitied us. Women of all nations scorned us.
Now, on Tavarua, five days of incessant rain had molded our bread; blistered and bled the labels of our food tins; ruined, somehow, our gas stove; and rendered our paperbacks unreadable, our toilet paper pulpy, our sleeping bags swampy, our driftwood unlightable. Venomous, hawser-thick sea snakes came ashore nightly, scarring the berm with sidewinding tracks.
There were no waves, the gray sea tricorn-chaotic one day, languidly viscous the next. Worse, we did not know if there would ever be waves, ever had been waves. We had embarked equipped like harmless idiots: just our backpacks and boards, a pocket world atlas, and vague self-assurances that winter storms from the Southern Ocean would send waves north. The way things were going we might as well have gone to Tulsa looking for Fisherman's Wharf. Typically, we had added Tavarua to our itinerary — paying a pornography-obsessed Fiji fisherman an usurious amount of money to land us and pick us up ten days later — on the advice of the spiteful ex-girlfriend of a cavalier Floridian who had once talked to an Aussie junkie ex-surfer in Bangkok who recalled seeing whitewater one night from the deck of a passing steamer the year Saigon fell.
On our fifth drenching Tavarua night, I decided to fold: return to America, tail between my legs. If I had failed — OK then. At least I'd live as a loser surrounded by cold beer from frost-free refrigerators, an overabundance of paper products, and most of all, certainty. Overrun surf spots, yes; adventure, no. Give me La Jolla or give me death!
I woke late the next morning to an empty tent. Odd. Outside, the sky was blue, the air dry, clean. New. A sharp offshore wind brushed my back. I looked seaward. Grabbed the binoculars. Bill bobbed on a spangled sea, turned, paddled, dropped into a shoulder-high left-hander, and flew, man, flew! Ten, 20, 50 yards — a mile! Climbing and dropping, rooster tails sweeping toward the horizon, where swells corded, humped, and pitched one set after another fanning along the longbow reef, precise as a champion marching band.
By noon the surf was well overhead, and it stayed there for days. Oh, those were heroic waves, brilliant waves, immaculate waves — made of water so clear that we coasted over the reef as if on thermals. We rode them, they let us ride them, far beyond our skill.
How sweet and mysterious and powerful that swell was: It washed away self-pity, all notions of defeat, retreat, and home comforts. It kept us courting misery and elation for another 18 months, another three continents. Why did we receive such grand, brief fortune? Maybe, in part, because we had dragged ourselves so far, so doggedly, that we had put ourselves in one of those places where hard rains can become the chance mists of grace.
A Clever Base-Ballist, Bryan Di Salvatore's biography of baseball legend John M. Ward, will be published by Pantheon next May.
Illustration by Greg Clarke