Tavarua 2016

This was the 31st year the Surfer’s Medical Association has been going to Tavarua and we had members and friends from Australia, the US east and west coasts and Puerto Rico. We had a mix of members who had been veterans of Tavi 25 plus times (Paula and Ward) to newbies who were stoked to be finally coming to their “dream location”. Our group included plenty of families with about a dozen grommets who were all very well behaved. The local Fijian ladies were often babysitters to our guests young kids when mom and dad were out in the water. They once again proved that Fijians are know as the friendliest people on earth. Throughout the week I heard many comments on how well the vibe was this year, how our group all meshed together and how engaging and friendly everyone was. I agreed, it was a real pleasure to renew friendships and make new friends from quality people all over the world.

The surf this year was absolute perfection. We were blessed with sunny skies and 4-6 feet of solid swell every day with two days mid week of 8-12+ feet at Cloudbreak and Restaurants. There were daily glassy overhead sessions at Cloudbreak, Restaurants, Tavi rights, Swimming pools, Namotu Lefts, Wilks, Despirations.. we had it all. The winds were favorable all week except our last day. Then the kite surfers jumped on it and had fun. Tired, paddled out bodies rested. A few die hards went out anyways.

Every wave this year at Tavarua felt a little bit sweeter than before. Every wave felt like a gift. A bonus. I felt extrememly fortunate just to have made it to Tavi. I had a sudden testicular cancer diagnosis 5 weeks prior to leaving and I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Alive or to the trip. Fortunately, I was able to catch the cancer early and my surgery was sucessful. Recovery time then 10 days before getting on a plane I started working out. Lightly. I could barely do a few pop ups. They had to cut right through my core groin muscles. I wasn’t in great surf shape but I gave it my best.

My first session on Saturday at Cloudbreak was one of my most memorable. Paddling my new 6’8″ step up board into a good size overhead Cloudbreak wave, watching the floor drop out steep underneath me, I popped to my feet, just a bit slower this time. Then instincts took over. Weighlessness. Pit in my stomach. Fins catching, legs pumping, then gliding. Focused and eyeing this perfect glassy wall and face racing out in front of me. An adrenaline rush. I couldn’t hear a thing. And slow motion at the same time. I kept up-surfing, carving for a couple hundred yards. Kicked out before the infamous shish-ka-bob section and I paddled back out, smiling from ear to ear. A big accomplishment for me, considering all that had happened. There were many more memorable sessions throughout the week. I surfed head high glassy Restaurants with just 2 other people for a while -Jon Roseman, one of the owners of Tavi and Tom Servais the photographer. The three of us chatting, wondering where everyone was. Yes that still happens on Tavarua. This goofy footer surfed some super clean long perfect Restaurants lefts that peeled down the reef for hundreds of yards. The water was so crystal clear that afternoon, the reef so alive and close and without a lick of wind, Permanently seared in my memory bank. Jon is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, so gracious. His surfing was as smooth and stylish as any I’ve seen.

There were several stand out sessions over at Namotu Swimming Pools which I surfed for the first time this trip. Notable members at Pools were Perry Fabian, Tom and Spencer Alaman, Shane Daniels and Thomas Holthus on a couple of glassy overhead sessions. The aussie Derwent and Grainger kids were fearless and caught everything that came their way. I got plenty of super long rides out there, thouroughly impressed with the quality, size and power of Pools. Somehow, with a certain tide and swell period that wave can morph from glassy and friendly one day to some mutant slabs the next day. Pools can suck every inch of water off the reef much like Chopes in Tahiti on those days. “Mutant Pools” was the new nickname. Duck diving those beasts can be brutal and getting solidly worked happens out there. Ask anyone from our sessions. But the payoffs for getting some great waves seemed worth it.

I had a couple other members keep a journal of a day on Tavarua: Big wave SMA charger and Cardiologist Enrique Figueora from Puerto Rico obliged.
Tuesday June 27, 2016…

“The day started early, as always, around 5am. Swell had picked up, Cloudbreak was around 8 feet solid but looked strange. Some barrels were present, but mostly at the mid-inner section, leaving your at the mercy of the not-so-infrequent clean up sets. Restaurants was coming out of low tide, head high sets running down the reef. It is an incredible wave, its perfection mesmerizing, hiding the reality of its shallow, razor sharp reef. You almost only need touch it to receive a 2-3 month long “scratch tattoo”.

“Crowds slowly poured in, but thinned out towards noon. The 1:30 pm session was unreal: perfect overhead sets with only 10 guys out, 5 of them avoiding such sets. My new 6’8″ mini longboard performed flawlessly, easily taking off and flying through hollow sections. I wondered what people thought of the board, and also about my new paddling gloves…but after 42 years of surfing, you start to not care about what other people think.”

“Fiji is special, its waves are special and its people are special. All of this has kept me coming back year after year for the last 10 years. I have seen kids grow into teenagers, teens grow into adults. Some have parted to better places. All have left a mark.”

“Tavarua-for 10 years I have typed that password in my office computer more than 15 times a day, so you can say it never is out of my mind. Time to make a change, new password will be *********”…-Enrique

We had many excellent conference talks this year that included the latest in skin cancer, ophthalmology, surf injury imaging, spinal stenosis, traumatic brain injury, environmental impacts of anesthesia, cardiac risks, gluten/gastrointestinal issues, and improving your surfing. Surf coach Matt Grainger’s talk and tips on the first night was a game changer in upping our surfing skills. “Take 4 more strokes!” paddling into the waves was heard and reminded by everyone in the lineup all week. Debra Holthus did an exceptional presentation given her deepy personal family account on Traumatic Brain Injury. Everyone of us were inspired and impacted by her storytelling. Thanks to all who presented and kept us informed and entertained nightly throughout the week.

Prior to village clinic visits, arrangements were made in the US and Fiji to have medications purchased and donated through the volunteer efforts of Dr. Ethan Wilson and SMA pharmacist Lori Reisner of UCSF. Paula, Ward, and Maja Smith had a hand in these efforts from start to finish as well. A huge Fijian vinaka to them for their big hearts and countless hours of volunteer effort. Wednesday afternoon a group of us took the boat over to our first village visit in Momi. We had a productive clinic and attended to ophthalmology needs (thanks Gus!), blood pressure checks, skin infections, musculoskeletal injuries, and various other ailments. School supplies were delivered and needs assessed for next year. We were able to stock the village with antibiotics, BP medications, antiinflamatories, scabacide medicines, and a few others. The village nurse was extremely appreciative as the medicines we bring are the only meds the entire village has for the entire year.

Stanford Orthopedic Spine Surgeon, Dr. Todd Alaman, shared his journal entry on Thursday, June 29, 2016…
“We awoke Thursday to another day of beautiful skies and thumping surf. Predawn coffee was drunk, the aroma infused with visions of epic waves to be had that day, and beatings to be doled out…The hard core crew headed out to Cloudbreak on the 6am boat, and Spencer and I opted for a less intense, and hopefully less crowded session. Made it out to swimming pools, where we found no one else out, side/offshore wind, and great rights coming through that were about head high. One after another, we took lap after lap, playing with variants on our surf technique until finally joined by two of the aussie kids and a guy from another island-great waves had by all.”

“After breakfast, the boats loaded up for the trip to Nabila village, laden with medical supplies that the group had collected. On arrival we were greeted with cries of “Bula” from all around, kids running everywhere in their excitement. The village health and community center, built in part by funding from the SMA, is a tidy place in the center of the village, the inside a cool respite from the sun. We all gathered in a circle headed by the village elders at one end and Enrique at the head of the SMA group. The Kava ceremony began, and Enrique presented our gifts of kava root, clothes, and medical supplies to the village. Grimaces and clap triplets abounded as the kava bowl circulated. The older children of the SMA were particularly excited by their inclusion in the ceremony!”

“The group then split into two parts- one to visit the school and deliver school supplies, and the other to run the health clinic. The school group were met by grateful teachers and students, and then a game of touch rugby broke out and continued for the rest of the visit- some of the aussies breaking out skills not used for many years! In the health clinic, many of the town of about 350 people lined up to have blood pressure and vision checks, wounds assessed, and various musculoskeletal complaints addressed. The reading glasses were particularly needed and appreciated, as were the anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. We were amazed by the prevalence of diabetes and hypertension, and by the many logistical issues hampering treatment. Discussion perculated on potential future health projects the SMA could be involved in at the village.”

“We returned to Tavarua to continued outstanding surf and a high tide, and headed straight out to Restaurants to enjoy the tapering swell still throwing up waves that were well overhead. The mechanics of that wave are an amazing thing to witness- perfectly lined up ramps, growing as they head down the reef. What a wave! As the sun set that evening and the last wave was ridden, the beach bar began ramping up for the night. Stories of waves made and missed abounded, many of them true… Another great day in Tavarua!”

The injury count was moderately low for a week on Tavi. I got washed up on the reef at Cloudbreak Thursday after a long morning session. No booties. Spent an hour barefoot on the reef, duck diving and getting pushed back forever over one foot of water at low tide razor sharp shish ka bobs. Relentless nonstop overhead barrels exploded in front of me. Everyone on the boat cheering me on. I finally got a jet ski rescue. They cut me some slack-cancer survivor and all. (No wonder they have skis for the pros). Black eyed, hands and feet shredded and bleeding all over the boat, exhausted. A handful of docs saw how delirious and beat up I was as I stumbled in back on the island, sent me to my bure to recover and took over village trip duties in Nabila. Slept half the day, bandaged and I recovered. Note to self, reef booties for low tide Cloudbreak. Our group also left a few broken boards behind, some bruises, a torn meniscus, the usual reef cuts but nothing too serious. I did stitch up Dr. Tom’s scalp after his head bounced off the reef at Restaurants. No worries though he kept on surfing. So did I.

We look forward to coming back next year to SMA’s 32nd annual conference on Tavarua. I talked to many members who wanted to come back and we already have several commitments so far. Tavarua has now added two brand new high end villas-connected together and each with two bedrooms and 2 luxury bathrooms with wrap around decks that opened the day after our stay. Thanks and a big Vinaka to all who came this year, for the village clinic and school volunteer help, to those who lectured, and to those who contributed to the village scholarship fund. I’ll be the trip coordinator again next year so be sure to get in touch with me if you have interest in coming- Brian McArthur (bmcarthur5@yahoo.com)

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