SURFING THE SAMOAN ISLANDS
No, this is not American Samoa. That’s a completely different entity in itself. The independent state of Samoa, formerly known as Western Samoa until July 4, 1997, lies about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. More specifically, if you peak a little bit northeast of Fiji on a map you will find the islands Savaii and Upolu, which make up 99% of Samoa (the other 1% are the 8 inlets). Here, it’s real island culture, it’s not beautiful lands ripped apart in exchange for fifteen story resorts, rather it’s just beautiful lands untouched and used by its inhabitants for survival. It’s not people who act nicer than usual, so they can hopefully get an extra buck or two from a tourist, rather it’s people who are actually that friendly because they’re more than content with their relatives, friends and lifestyle in their village. On this island empty fales linger along quiet turquoise ocean coastlines, dogs wander enjoying the freedoms of the lack of ownership and papayas bristle in the wind getting ready to be plucked for tomorrows lunch.
I came to this island with three non-surfers, but being a surfer, and going to an island that I vaguely heard has reefs to be surfed in boardshorts I couldn’t resist bringing my board along with me. Using my common sense, I figured renting a board in a place as such was not an option. We arrived in Apia (the Samoan capital), picked up our car and asked for directions to our fales located at the eastern end of Upolu in a village called Lalomanu. We were told, “go here, turn there and then go straight,” and you’ll be there in an hour. We of course didn’t find that to be much of help 4 hours later. This would become the recurring theme during my time on the island. After getting lost in a village with roaming pigs and accidently disrupting half the island of Upolu by driving during their sacred prayer hour of the week (Sunday, 6p.m.-7p.m.) we arrived at our fales around 10 p.m. We were greeted by a Samoan man named Toas. I would later come to find Toas to be the epitome of the Samoan people. A beautiful soul who I became close with over my time at his fales. I dropped my boardbag onto the raised wooden plank hovering over the whitewash of the south pacific waters, then passed out on the sand covered mattress and mosquito net that would be my sleeping quarters for the week.
The sun rose shimmering radiance of yellow and orange and I indulged myself in the breakfast feast the Samoans' offered us. It was mostly carbs, so was lunch and also dinner. Aside from papaya, it didn’t seem like tropical fruits were the staple on this island. Pork, rice, bread, eggs and chicken seemed to be always and only of choice. You’d seldom get the chance to feel lean and light after a meal. As a person who boasts a relatively small frame of 5’8 and on a good day 160 pounds I was quite a physical outcast amongst the locals. But they’d seem to take a liking to me. I always found they just wanted to engage in conversation and learn about you, and then vice versa. Something uncommon among locals most places. Toas, a big Samoan man everyday mentioned to me I needed to eat more. “Too skinny,” he’d say every day in the morning.” He on the other hand was about 6’3 250 pounds. He would always tell me since he was the oldest in his family he was seen as the ‘protector.’ His father also was making him tattoo his entire back for both family and religious reasons, all which were far past my understanding. He was not happy about it to say the least. Every morning we’d talk for at minimum an hour until I slipped away to hunt for surf. One day he invited me over for dinner and offered a stay at his place in his village, but that never really materialized. His over the top welcoming spirit was something that I’ve never experienced while traveling, but in terms of the surf, mother nature in Samoa was not quite welcoming.
My second day in Upolu I met a Californian expat living in New Zealand who was currently in Samoa. Oisin, had been around the island for quite some time and took me to a ‘small’ little wave that you didn’t need to access by boat. We drove about 15 minutes up the road passing the To-Sua Trench and arrived at some lagoon that you paddle out through to access the reef. Each stroke I looked to my right observing some marine life and urchins that were plenty visible every time the whitewash went away. With my 6’2, heavy litre swallow tail, I prayed I wouldn’t make a mistake. Quick and punchy is what I observed. It was late in the afternoon, not a peep was heard and the sky was stormy. Waves were coming in fast. The average height I’d say was about 5-8 feet and breaking at about 7 feet. I sat there staring into the distance thinking about 2 things: sharks and reef cuts. But somehow the stoke was high. As the first few approached the two of us weren’t about it. As the second set rolled in it was paddle, paddle and pop-up for Oisin on the first wave. He flew down the steep half-pipe like ramp that the ocean formed and I refused to look at the exposed reef I knew was there. Instead I opted to look at the dense forest towards the shore that showed a sliver of gold sand that collided with some less exposed reef. My turn was next, a smaller ramp approached me, 6-7 feet I’d say. I swear, it felt like I didn’t even paddle. Before I knew I was moving across the water and saw that the only thing separating me and the reef was the width of my board. Boom! Reef rash become a reality and blood dripped down my back. Just as I thought I was in the clear, this son of a bitch closed out on me. It was a brutal welcome gift from the South Pacific. I refused to get out of the water for two reasons. Firstly, I never get to surf in boardies and secondly, the exit via the lagoon was really hard to find so I’d have to make the choice of walking on my bare feet on reef or paddling on it with high risk of destroying my only board. I chose the former. It was unfortunate for my feet that’re used to booties.
The current time of the year was August. Samoa only has two seasons, the dry (May-Oct) and the wet (Nov-Apr). The dry season means big South swells for the island. Waves can range from 3 feet to 15 feet. The rest of the week I would be dealing with the bigger end of that spectrum. I figured surfing here would be about finding the beauty within the sublime.
The next few days mother nature wasn’t quite cooperating with the miniscule amount of surfers actually on the island. The next 3 times we showed up to a surf camp (which was basically fales that had a boat to take you out to the reef), it would be onshore or the wrong wind direction. When I met a Samoan guy apparently named ‘Dave’ he told me I’d missed barrelling waves at coconuts by a day. When I tried to surf Boulders it wasn’t even working. I wasn’t to upset about this one. It’s a left-handed lava rock point break that holds the biggest of south swells. It breaks over a gnarly reef too, so I think it was for the best. I instead toured the island with my non-surfing friends who of course could not careless about the swell and the wind. On this island everyone seems to be family. We got lost on the opposite side of Upolu from where we were staying and a clerk at a small shop told us, ‘yeah my family owns that fale.’ Then at the little fruit and meat cookie stand a ways away down the street it was the same response. Not sure if they’re just looking for good conversation or they weren’t kidding. But the people took us in as their own. I ended up playing rugby in a Samoan village with a few guys who apparently were on their national team, got a boat ride to Namu’a Island (15-20 minutes off the coast of Upolu) and drove along the main highway with heaps of cows on the road.
On the last day of my trip Poseidon woke up from a deep slumber and was pissed it seemed. I’d really had a lack of surfing on this trip and the only thing I had to show for it was a few waves and a sliced up back from a punchy reef break. I dragged my friends out of our fale over to Salani surf camp at five o’clock in the morning to meet up with one of the boat drivers. When I got there he told me to come back a 3 p.m. and it should be ‘good enough.’ My friends were verge of taking my surfboard and chucking it out the window because of the faulty early wakeup as we drove the 35 minutes back to our fale. When we came back at 3, the boater, who actually would be a guide who I would surf with was an American from Florida. I asked him what we were looking at for size and he points to the smallish roof I was under. He goes ‘nah, not too bad, you can handle it.’ The Samoan exaggeration effect of time apparently turned into calculating wave size for him. We boated to Salani right. 8-12 feet was my guesstimate looking at it. We were the only one’s out there. We probably were 20% of surfers currently on the island. Did it barrel? Occasionally. Was the reef sharp? Yes. Was it a halfpipe ramp take-off? Yes.
We paddled out and I’d never been so focused surfing. The wave was thick and broke hard over the reef. On my first take-off on the shoulder I fell onto the reef and felt the power of the wave as I took one to the head. And then I took another. Duck-diving under this cerulean wall wasn’t the most fun experience either. It had the same feel as surfing the lagoon. It was fast, but bigger, and hollower. This wave had my brain working at all times. The rip pulls you far away from the take-off point if you aren’t paying attention and the dark blue water can give you the chills. I thought Samoa might end me. The surf here was nothing like I expected. The water wasn’t as light as expected and the rides weren’t relaxing like the videos picture the South Pacific to be. It was more of a rewarding experience. You’re mind needs to be firing on all cylinders because you’ll either get pounded or you’ll be nowhere near a breaking wave. As the sun begun to set after 3 hours I looked over to the dense green forests with rising mountains that weren’t quite tall enough to pierce the clouds and realized the oxymoron of surfing in Samoa. The beauty of lonesomeness in the water contrasted with the semi-daunting conditions. The inviting people of the island contrasted with the complicated judgments of their notions. Great people, harsh conditions. Surfing is an oxymoron, isn’t it? The beauty of gliding across a crisp face, but the agony of getting caught in a double under. Why should surfing Samoa be any different?
Photography: Olivia Gorham