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Girl’s Eye View Of The Women’s Fiji Pro

Thea McDonald-Lee claims a spot in the channel at Cloudbreak and reflects on a contest that redefined Women’s Professional Surfing.

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The single judging tower at the Fiji Pro stands like a flag sunk into the surface of the moon. The engineering is undeniable, the conquest unimaginably great. Yet as I watched an ASP staff member half shuffle half float a black waterproof case over a hundred metres of coral reef in ankle high water to get to the tower, surfing competitions suddenly seemed as technical as sending someone to the moon.

Three and a half hours from Sydney, 30 minutes in a taxi, chilli ham sandwiches packed and an hour boat ride from Denarau later, I was finally looking at Cloudbreak. The contrast couldn’t have been greater from the beaches in Rio de Janerio and Coolangatta, or even the semi remote waves found along Victoria and Western Australia’s south coasts. There was a complete and utter absence of crowd.

There was no one beside me hassling for a better photographic position and not one Chia Pod stand in sight. The only thing that stopped me from mooring metres from the breaking wave was the ASP jetski driver who asked me to move further down the reef to make room for the tri-deck catamaran M/Y Cheetah. The vessel is the competitors changing room, their warm up area, their boardroom and the media stage. Jetskis take surfers from the aft deck to the line up and the Tavarua resort long boats continuously ferry the athletes to and from the island.

Apart from the transport needed to manage the logistics of running an event in the middle of the ocean, the only other spectators were vacation surfers having a quick look and a cruising sail yacht. “You wait until the men are on next week, the channel will be packed with every boat in the area” I was told by a local Fijian who runs a surf school just outside Denarau.

There were definitely signs of a new swell with long waits between sets causing heat restarts and an out-of-character Lakey Peterson (USA) failed to catch a wave in her round 2 heat. The girls knew they were being watched by men around the world. Their determination in the water demonstrated their understanding of the importance they surf well at this big wave event. Although a few jokes were passed around about the girls hash tagging on jetski rides back into the lineup, the general consesus from the men was they are worthy of being in Fiji.

“I was surfing inside at shish kebabs the other day with that blonde chick…”, “Tatiana Weston-Webb” I interrupted. “Yeah her, she was going nuts, she was ripping!” my housemate for the week told me over a Fijian Bitter

When the rise in swell caused the event to shift over to Restaurants the girls battled against the chop in head high waves. I could hear Joe Turpel calling it “perfection”, but it wasn’t until after the lunch break when the wind dropped and the size rose that the waves truly went world class. You know it’s good when big wave surfers show up. While the girls navigated gaping barrels at Restaurants, Laird Hamilton was a mile away at Cloudbreak paddling in on a SUP.

The spotlight didn’t stay on the girls for long. Their 3-day event rushed to finish at Cloudbreak before the northerly wind ruined the waves that had already claimed one of Laura Enever’s surfboards and forced Nikki Van Djik to withdraw from the competition after a nasty encounter with the reef. The 30 minute female expression session was called off early and the boat loads of male pro surfers eager to see the competition end, were already waxing up.

Although standouts Malia Manuel (HAW), unsponsored rookie Dimity Stoyle (AUS) and a crazy barrel from injury wildcard Tatiana Weston-Webb (USA) had surfers and Fijians hooting and cheering, it was the Aussie veteran Sally Fitzgibbons who victory lapped around us all. She takes out the first female Fijian surf crown of the current world tour and it’s safe to say the women will be welcomed back at Cloudbreak.

Click here for more images from finals day at the Women’s Fiji Pro. 

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