Story Told By: Tavarua Boatman Steven Chew AKA “SLi Utie”
A howling whistle from what sounded like a gang of tropical ghosts moshing through the little heart shaped island’s interior. Branches snap, crackle, popping and coconut cannonball’s whizzing by as we secured the cyclone shutters of Tavarua’s restaurant that were already coming loose. This was the main protection buffer between us and the office cement bunker as the eye of the cyclone crept in. This was no joke any longer; Cyclone Winston was here after doing circles around us for a couple weeks already, like a toying shark going in for the final kill.
If you have been to Fiji and to its little pearl of magic called Tavarua island you are one fortunate human. Not only is the tropical beauty, perfect waves and amazing natural energy here that make it a wet dream come true so appealing, it is the Fijians who host and work here that have an other worldly quality of big laughs, huge smiles and an even bigger heart that truly makes this place like no other. When I was asked 19-years ago to come help the Tavarua crew as a volunteer boatman show the guest a good time while keeping them safe, I was truly honored and couldn’t believe my luck (especially because I am a goofyfooter in goofyfooter paradise).
There are many wild and fun stories, crazy and gnarly ones over those years of the times here on this little speck of an island that you can walk around in about 15 minutes, maybe longer if you have really soaked your soul into what the locals call “Fiji Time,” with the mantra being “go slowly bro.” But this story is about my experience here on Tavarua with the diabolical, Cyclone Winston, the strongest recorded storm in southern hemisphere history with deadly force winds that hit up to 230 mph and perhaps stronger gusts.
Storm clouds brew over @tavaruaislandresort as they evacuate guests ahead of Cyclone Winston’s arrival.
Close friends, Rickarua (one of the owners) and Dylan Fish the General Manger of Tavarua had been keeping a close eye on Cyclone Winston as they do for every cyclone in the storm season down here in Fiji. Winston had formed around Fiji when I first got here on February 5th. Later that week we were evacuating guests when Winston, then a category 3 cyclone, was approaching us from the West-to-East. Most of the guests left leaving a pretty empty island with a few fun surf sessions at the Tavi Right. Winston decided to barely bypass us and went underneath the Fiji islands and headed further East to do some damage to Vanuatu. Winston then stalled out and started to head back West towards Fiji picking up speed and strength like a juiced up Tasmanian Devil. At this point the storm forecasts were starting to look bleak and a week later we were telling the new guests that Winston was back to his old tricks and heading towards us as a category 5 cyclone. (If there were a higher cyclone rating it would have been a category 6 or higher). Which was a little concerning to sat the least.
February 19th we evacuated all the guests, some bailing to Oz, New Zealand, or back home to the States. The vibe on the island had turned from wet dream to “Oh shit!” The Fijians natural all day smiles were not up to par and they walked around in quite, concerned, whispers, asking each other about the storm coming as they made preparations before most of the staff left the island to secure their own homes in the village a short four mile boat ride to the main island. As we waved goodbye to the final boat, all that was left on the island was a skinny 23 foot panga boat, a small skeleton crew of Fijians, Indian maintenance workers, the resort management, and three volunteer boatmen including myself, fifth teen people in all. This was our cyclone crew to save our precious heart shaped island from being blown away.
Saturday morning February 20th, my birthday, I awoke to breezy grey skies. The storm forecast reportedly having the cyclone center hitting us around midnight. I checked the surf out in front of Restaurants and saw that it was starting to turn on its cylinder tube machine. Really consistent short interval swells wrapping around the island. The seas were getting loose with a lot of water whipping around in the channels. But the surf was not on our agenda today. It was go time. Our small crew started securing the island. Moving anything loose, big or small, out of sight from the approaching Winston fingers that can turn a simple object into a flying machete. After hours of heavy lifting it was time to start sandbagging the restaurant that sits on the beach only fifty feet from the ocean’s edge. The tides were extreme as an approaching full moon was coming. Lucky for us the tide was low in the middle of the night when we were suppose to be gobbled up by the eye of the storm. We were breaking our backs by early afternoon but there was no time to think about it. Reports were coming in that Winston’s storm surge was beginning to drop its fury on the coast of the other side of the main island of Viti Levu where the capital city of Suva is. God have mercy on those little shanty Fijian villages that are generally pretty raw structures made of wood and corrugated tin roofs that turn into flying death traps in cyclones of this magnitude. Winston wasn’t backing down as winds over 200mph were reported.
By late afternoon we had battened down the hatches on Tavarua. Rickarua and Dylan seemed to think we were ready for the worst. The office bunker was wrapped in Kevlar tarps with thick hardwood panels underneath covering the windows and front door. Mattresses were laid down on the floor of the reception office like a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone had a spot to try and sleep and ride out the storm for the next few days. We didn’t know how long we were going to be bunkered down hiding from Winston’s clutches.
We ran out of sandbags but were hoping we secured enough with what we had. We were all gathered on the front deck. The sea was getting pretty unruly at this point in the late afternoon and the tide was high. “Kiddie Land” the small usually knee-high beginners spot had head-high peaks coming in about forty yards off the beach in front of the restaurant. It looked wild but fun. “Pescado” aka Dylan Fish says “SLi it’s time for a birthday surf!” Young Trevor, Rickarua’s, 12-year old son we call, Scoopaloops, grabs a couple soft tops for himself and I. Pescado cruises back with a long board and a cooler full of Fiji Gold beers. “Shotgun cyclone session SLi. Happy Birthday bro!” Pescado exclaims. We skull our golden nectar of the Bula Surf Gods, give thanks and praise that we don’t get annihilated by Winston and run down the beach to launch into some wild rodeo style party waves. Good fun as the skies liquefied into a “Dark & Stormy” Bounty Rum cocktail that had too strong written all over it.
Things seemed secure after the short surf as we gobbled up some chicken curry and rice that the kitchen girls had whipped up. Salote the chief’s daughter and her kitchen wing girl Boogie found a moment to bake a birthday cake for me. It’s kindness like that, which makes this island worth fighting for our Fijian family. As we toasted with birthday tequila shots to take the edge off and a bottle of Blonde Siren Wine from my wine company, Purple Corduroy, which I had brought to share on a special night. This night only seemed appropriate as any other since it could have been the last night of my life. The Kevlar tarps in the restaurant breathed in and out all around us like giant lungs. Winston’s evil eye was approaching.
Rickarua busts into the office bunker chased by palm fronds and debris. “We need some help. The Kevlar cyclone shutter screws are coming undone!” Brandon my other boatman bro and I jump up and run into the storm trying to help, Coconut cannonballs shooting by as we go. We tried to stay low running to the inside of the restaurant. The Blue Dawgs (the island maintenance team) the real heroes of the minimal structural damage as well as the fast thinking of Rickarua’s McGyveresque jimmy rigging of rope through the Kevlar tarps and then wrapping around the solid tree trunks of the restaurants support pillars was our first line of defense. The wind was getting too strong to be outside. Rickarua and the Blue Dawgs finished securing the restaurant. All we could do now was pray to legendary Fijian, the awesome humanitarian and friend Chief Druku, who had passed away three months prior, to help us. We all took our slumber spots in the dark of the office bunker as cyclone Winston scratched and howled at the building from all sides.
It was hard to sleep even though I was so beat from all the moving and lifting the last forty-eight hours. But the sounds outside never got any stronger then when we were outside rescuing the Kevlar. At light of the next morning, around 6am, Rickuarua and Dylan we’re tripping. They have been in strong cyclones before and were stunned that it didn’t get any worse through the night. They thought we were stuck in the eye most of the night. But when we finally got some minimal telecommunications we learned that we were just on the out skirts of the eye and that just a couple of miles up the island chain the damage was a lot worse. Rickarau said it was like we were in some kind of protection bubble when he later looked at the color graphed storm charts. I chalked it up to Chief Druku helping us from above, looking after his family and friends. It was a miracle that we had escaped Winston’s wrath. But for a lot of Fiji this was not the case. When the days following reports came in of the utter destruction that occurred north of us, many Fijians were left homeless, without possessions, many injuries and even deaths.
Cyclone Winston delivered widespread destruction throughout Fiji. Relief efforts and help are still needed. The Fijian Government has set up a disaster relief fund which can be accessed here.
The clean up and repair on the island was extensive for the next week to get things back on point. The first Thursday after the cyclone which is usually Tavarua’s “Meke”(Party) Night, where the Fijians have the kava drinking ceremony with local song and tribal dance for the guest. This special day was also the “100 Day Ceremony” of Chief Druku’s passing, where all the Chiefs and families around the area come to pay respects and gratitude to the ascended chief. This day the perfect wave they call “Restaurants” that lies out front of this island paradise lit up to double overhead perfection with glassy long tubes. I surfed for seven straight hours till the sun went down, giving thanks to the almighty Bula Surf Gods and my old friend, the master of the meke, and protector of the island Chief Druku. Much gratitude Chief, stoked I didn’t get clobbered by a coconut cannonball.
Steven “SLi Dawg” Chew grew up in the artistic surf community of Laguna Beach with both creative juices and salt water flowing through his veins. From an early age it was evident that young Steven possessed a special artistic talent which also translated well in the ocean, accomplishing much as an amateur surfer while a member of the famed NSSA National Team from 1987-89. The dawg-eat-dawg world of competitive surfing really wasn’t SLi’s bag baby so, after high school he headed to San Diego State University to pour his creative energy into studying art and philosophy. Since that time SLi has served as a surf ambassador for many of the top action sports brands; they commission him for his artistic abilities as well. During the late 90s, SLi joined a new team of famed individuals – the exclusive Tavi Boatmen, who serve as lifeguards and conduits of fun at the world-class surfing resort of Tavarua, Fiji.