Who Was the First To Paddle Out at Cloudbreak?

26 Aug 2020 1 Share

Cloudbreak in 2016. Photo: Stu Johnson//Fiji Surf Co (via Magic Seaweed)

Cloudbreak in 2016. Photo: Stu Johnson//Fiji Surf Co (via Magic Seaweed)

COASTALWATCH | TRAVEL

Story by Matt Rode

Every wave has its story, and Cloudbreak’s is one of the best. The crown jewel of Fijian surfing, Cloudbreak is one of the best-known waves in the world. It was on the world tour for more than a decade, has played host to some of the most pivotal big wave sessions in history, and is Kelly Slater’s favourite wave. In other words, it’s basically a household name. But this was not always the case.

Back in the late 1970s, the surf potential in Fiji—and the entire South Pacific, for that matter—was largely untapped. Those were the golden days of surf exploration, when anyone with a sailboat and a board could potentially unearth the next greatest wave on the planet. And that’s exactly what happened when John Ritter sailed into Fiji in 1978, during a multi-year trip that took him in search of waves and adventure.

Empty at Cloudbreak.

Empty at Cloudbreak.

Ritter based himself in American Samoa for four years, teaching at a local school and sailing to the surrounding island nations in search of waves on a 38-foot trimaran. One of his trips brought him to the barrier reef located between Tavarua and Namotu Islands, and as soon as he saw Cloudbreak, Ritter knew he needed to stay for a bit.

He ended up surfing the wave for three weeks before heading elsewhere to search out other waves. But that first trip to Cloudbreak would pave the way for what one day became the world’s first luxury surf camp—and one of it’s greatest big wave sessions.

Rumours slowly spread about the world-class lefthander in Fiji, and Dave Clark finally made his way there in 1981, on a surf trip with his brother. The two camped on a small, deserted atoll adjacent to the Cloudbreak reef for $3 per day, and Clark decided that he might as well start an eco-camp there.

Three years later, Tavarua opened for business—and that year, surf vagabonds and itinerant journalists Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson came for a visit. Naughton was photographed jumping out of the boat with a perfect Cloudbreak barrel spinning in the background, and as soon as that photo ran, everyone wanted a shot at the world’s newest, best wave.

Dozens of historic sessions have gone down at Cloudbreak since then: dominant performances by Tavarua boatman Jon Roseman, bar-raising rides by Slater, and Owen Wright’s recent double perfect heats in 2015 are just a few that come to mind. But it was a 2012 session during the world tour contest that redefined what was possible at Cloudbreak—and in XXL barrels in general.

The event was called off mid-morning due to the swell being “too big”, and as soon as the horn sounded to end the second of the day's only two heats, 30 of the world’s best big wave surfers paddled out and began put on a clinic in flawless, humongous barrels that soon earned the session the name Thundercloud. The incredible day was capped off with one of the most incredible waves ever photographed—an oversized unicorn that caught Mark Healy out of position and would likely have vaporised him if he hadn’t pulled his leash with milliseconds to spare.

There have been a handful of other XXL swells at Cloudbreak since then—and thousands of sessions in waves that were more manageable, if not exactly user-friendly—but the Thundercloud swell was the one that brought Cloudbreak full circle, finally showing us exactly what John Ritter’s historic discovery was capable of.

This article also appeared on Magic Seaweed

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