We've outdone ourselves with our Notes from the Line-up guest this contest: Stuart Johnson has lived and surfed in Fiji since 2010, working for the FijiSurfCo as a full-time photographer, life guard and boat man – taking hundreds of pros and Joes alike to catch the waves of their life around the Cloudbreak area. Aside from surfing with, shooting and watching tour guys for the past 6 years, Stu also works as the beach announcer for the men’s and women’s Fiji Pro events. He also writes the occasional article for magic seaweed, so he even comes with some surf-journalism nous. He knows Fiji, he knows the surfers and he knows the contest. Now he’s sharing it with you:
Tell me a bit about yourself and your connection to Fiji:
It was all timing. My wife Lia and I were actually here the same week that Cloudbreak became public (the Tavarua Surf Resort had previously maintained exclusive rights over the break since the 80s), and we were determined to surf the place before heading back to Hawaii. While we were out there we met Ian Muller; who was the owner of the Fiji Surf Co and one of the main people behind the push for public access to the break. We told him our situation and, before we knew it, we had jobs as lifeguards and photographers working for him. He knew that the changes to public access would be massive for his business and we were just in the right place at the right time. Now we are business partners and we have never looked back.
What’s your day-to-day like?
We get up early each morning, visit the different hotels to pick up surfers and then take them out to the reefs. We have 4 boats and we generally split them into ‘cruisers’ and ‘chargers’, depending on how experienced and serious they are with their surfing. We take them to one of the reefs, shoot them all day, and bring them home. I’m usually back by about 3pm, downloading the photos from the day and posting them. Lia and I also have our own photography business that we work with in our spare time.
Yeah? Go on then; give it a plug.
Sure, it’s a wedding photography business that specialises in destination shoots around Fiji. We have been doing some really cool stuff with under-water shoots and just playing with the way that couples can interact with the beautiful tropical environment. We actually did a shoot just today with Bethany Hamilton and her husband Adam. You can find us at http://liaandstu.com/
Nice. Speaking of Bethany, the women’s event was all-time this year. What were the highlights for you?
Other than Bethany – obviously - the stand-out for me was Carissa. She looked like AI on some of her turns; going super vertical and pushing really hard off the top of the wave – ‘off the button’ as Ross would say. Plus those two barrels in her Quarter and Semi, she was surfing so well. Not that I want to take anything away from Defay – she was ripping out there and she won fair and square - but Carissa was the form surfer and she was just unlucky that the conditions deteriorated and that it turned into a wave-catching contest. Defay’s bottom-turn is so smooth though, probably the best on tour, and it really set her up well for her positioning and her turns. She was definitely a worthy winner.
The quality of surfing in the women’s event has improved so much. If you compare this contest to, say, two years ago, the quality has really jumped. There are so many more of the women really attacking the lip or the top of the wave, where as it was more being surfed hard off the middle in the past. I thought it was a great contest.
Have many of the men showed up early? Who’s been putting in the hours?
Wilko showed up for the tail-end of the big swell that saw Damo, Dane G etc. getting those massive ones. He had a few good sessions out there, but went home when the women’s event started. He seemed like he was in good spirits, there was no sense of pressure or anything. He was tearing the bag out of 4’ Cloudbreak.
Stu Kennedy was also here before the women’s event, but it didn’t look like his equipment was really doing it for him. It looked too loose for here. It will be interesting to see what he rides for the event.
Caio’s been here early with his girl Alessa. I think there are a few question marks over whether he’ll do well though.
How are the forecast conditions looking?
I think that they’re a good chance of running R1 on Sunday, possibly even into R2 over Monday as well, but after that the forecast is pretty flat. We’ve got a really nasty high pressure system just sitting there between Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully we will see something long-range as we move towards the end of the waiting period; there are rumours that there could be something. As for Sunday, it will be pretty similar to what we saw in the women’s event: some barrels, lots of critical turns and waves around the head-high range.
Who’s been standing out in your eyes over the past few years? Any early predictions?
Kelly Slater. Depending on which boards and equipment he brings this year, he’s definitely the guy out here; he’s the master. Kelly surfs this place like few other guys can; you’ll see footage of him surfing right up the point, past the other guys, and just racing through that top section – which is terrifying – and back-dooring the sections where other guys might only just be paddling in. It’s pretty much just him and maybe a couple of locals that can do that.
Medina goes for it. He just doesn’t lose out here; he’s good for a semi finish at least.
Kai Otton does really well at Cloudbreak. I always feel that Kai pushes himself to achieve out here. I know he’s had a quiet year, but he’s my darkhorse pick.
This year’s wildcard, Tevita Gukilau, could cause a few upsets too.
Really? That’s funny you say that because we were researching and found that no local wildcard has ever won a heat out here.
Yeah, that’s correct. He’s actually half-Aussie though, he grew up in West Oz. All of his details are actually in my article (here), but the short version is that he’s really solid. He has QS experience, he has a small wave game, he has a big wave game – I honestly think he could win his R1 heat against Miguel Pupo and Adriano de Souza. You should check the trials video if you want to see him surf (here).
Italo is going to kill it, Ace is one of the guys who always surfs really well in the free-surf sessions, and Nat Young is also worth mentioning out here too. I also think Kolohe’s going to do well here again this year.
Conner has a great affinity for the wave, he’s powerful, he goes vertical, and he just surfs really naturally out here. He’s definitely my pick of the rookies for this event.
Jordy is one of those guys who you’d think would do really well out here, but he just hasn’t gotten the results. He almost looks like he’s out of rhythm or something. I’m sure he’ll be really hungry to do well this year.
Who would you choose out of the veterans Mick and Joel?
Mick, definitely. He’s a machine. Joel probably out-surfs Mick out here in the free-surf sessions, but Mick just doesn’t make mistakes in his heats. I’d even pick Mick over Kelly because of his contest game, his focus and his commitment.
*Post Script: Joel Parkinson has pulled out of the event with a knee injury. He has been replaced by Dusty Payne in the draw.
Do you play fantasy surfing yourself?
Yes. My wife and I both have a WSL team. We have this rule that we can’t pick the same surfers, so she usually picks her best team and then I get what’s left. I used to play Fantasy Surfer a while back, but I switched when WSL created their own game. I might get back into FS though, we’ll see.
Can you tell us your team of 8 for Fiji?
Ah, not off the top of my head. I’d say Ace, Gabe, Kelly, Joel. Maybe Mick. I’ll have to get back to you.
*Post Script: Stu sent his team through after making some changes for the new draw. Here it is:
That would be great. And let us know if any of the rookies are standing out.
Yeah, I’ll do that. I’m keen to see how they go as there are a few that I haven’t seen surf out here yet. They will all probably arrive in the next 24 hours or so…
Well thanks so much for your time and your insights. Good luck with your fantasy team.
No problem. You too.