TAJ BURROW, ROB MACHADO, CJ HOBGOOD, ROSS WILLIAMS, MAYA GABEIRA AND KUDA ISSEY BATTLE IT OUT ON SINGLE FINS, TWINS AND THRUSTERS FOR THE FOUR SEASONS MALDIVES CHAMPIONS TROPHY TITLE - THE WORLD'S MOST INTERESTING, AND LUXURIOUS SURF CONTESTS.
Ed-in-chief Steve England has been high-fiving the great and good in paradise. Taj, Maya, CJ, Ross and Machado star.
Iwas sat upon the roof of a traditional Maldivian dhoni the Acara. Two boats sat bobbing in the channel. A fruit bat soared across the skies heading to roost unknown on the small island. Perfect rights peeled down the reef towards me. A handful of surfers sat, chatted and rode waves through the lineup. I had no thoughts other than to try my hardest to take in every shade of blue as the reef dropped off in the deep water. Every detail of vegetation on land, the landscape near and horizon far. To make the most of that moment in time, to try and stretch it so it lasted forever...
If there's one thing that life has taught me it is to breath in every minute of the special times. Whether that be the golden hour down your local beach, or for those lucky enough, times like this. I think I have become more appreciative, more aware of the need to make the time over the years. Especially since the dawn of social media, the greying of work/life boundaries and a new dawn in politics. I needed time out. Time to unplug, reset and reconnect with the real world. Or in this case the unreal world of the Champions Trophy.
And so I sit under a parasol on the roof of a boat aside an uninhabited tropical island. The breeze is cooling my back, polarised lenses playing with the glint of the ocean, waves rolling down the point and handful of people with no other worries than to enjoy that moment. I take time to just sit and watch. The ridicule of the ‘developed’ world is draining from me
and into the channel like the remnants of the playful waves rolling down the reef. It feels like a time that's always been, that always will be. Just the perfect setting frozen in time. I wonder if everyone I am experiencing it with feels the same way. A moment shared with a few special people, away from the lunacy of digital media and ridiculous politics. Away from profit and loss, currency fluctuations, GDP, Brexit, flag waving and nationalism. The only things that matter right now are sunscreen and hydration, and how quickly I can get to the lineup. My dreams are far from faded away, they are vivid, real and lay in front of me. Everything else can wait.
Ironically one of the first things you have to get used to at ‘the worlds most luxurious surf contest', is the Four Seasons staff and the Tropic Surf guides trying their hardest to provide a friendly yet unobtrusive five star service. The guides just want you to feel like a king. By day six I’d kind of stopped fighting it, and by day seven I was reluctantly going with the flow on the board carrying. High speed luxury speed boats I can deal with, someone carrying your board? Not sure I ever will...
Back on the tender after a surf I was admiring the gloss and polish on a gleaming red single fin when Maya’s voice floated over. 'I had the gloss coat put on especially...' She had arrived at Four Seasons very much like a 50’s film star. Audrey
Hepburn sprung to mind. Naturally confident, friendly disposition, easy to smile and laugh, with an unforced grace and style. She wasn’t as tall as I thought, for someone who rides waves that would make most of us cry, for a woman who has died twice chasing her dreams. As much as last year I was blown away by Beth Hamilton's skill and fitness this year it was Maya’s love of surfing and complete lack of ego. Usually big wave surfers have an edge. You can feel it, even when they try and hide it, even out of context. Something bubbling deep within. That drive. Most are slightly alpha, even the women are edgy. Maya is just ... nice. There's no tell, no giveaway to what she does or to how far she pushes human endurance, which is beyond the edge.
I ask her,'why big waves?' She tells me she just loves surfing and didn't want to miss out. When it got big at her local beaches and she couldn’t surf she felt she was missing out. So she just decided to surf big waves too. And that was it. She just wants to go surfing. I can’t tell you how impressed I was with her, or how funny it was watching over amped intermediates harassing her for soft three foot waves. If she was anywhere near me when I was on the peak I just nodded her in. She can have any wave she wants in my book. Like Superwoman without the cape.
Maya was up against a heavy crew in the contest. Taj was defending his title against last year's runner up, Rob Machado, who was, I think, the first surfer ever to be invited back. Personally I'd invite these two back every year. Taj is still shredding even after a year post ‘retirement’ and he emanates such a happy vibe as he bounces into the room or onto boats. He shouted the whole bar cocktails one rainy afternoon. Legend.
Machado at 43 is as tight, nimble, fast, loose and stylish as ever. In fact I'd go as far as to say he is probably surfing as good as he did in his glory days of Taylor Steele's films. I also love the fact that people still believe Rob is some kind of hippy
as he is nothing of the sort. Laid back yeah, time for everyone yeah, but intelligent, switched on, funny and has the competitive fire running deep within. Table tennis, football, surfing, anything competitive, he doesn’t want to lose. I've seen the look in his eye first hand and it is slightly scary! On the other hand he doesn’t take himself too seriously either and is quick to celebrate with his opponent whichever way a heat goes.
Between them these two surfing greats set the tone for the other competitors and guests who come to watch the comp, surf and relax. Friendly, fun, educated on the finer details of competitive surfing, and just stoked to be there they make everyone feel at home.
One day on the Explorer - the luxury cat that served as our base and office - I had a chat to Four Seasons PR guru Johann. He had worked with athletes in many sporting areas including F1 and was overwhelmed by how approachable pro surfers were in comparison. I guess our top athletes never really lose their grounding as they have to surf with us lot everyday. Where as F1 drivers and the like spend most their time training, in exclusive VIP areas, parties or locked away in residences. It was also interesting how the common love of surfing can bond all from multi millionaires to swell chasing vagabonds, teenagers to 60+ hardened 'surf for lifers', local islanders to former world champs. No airs or graces, just a nod and a “How good was today?” And off they/we all go… The common shared experience and love of an entirely futile pursuit is probably the ultimate leveller of social boundaries.
In addition to Taj and Rob we have CJ
Hobgood, equally nice, and equally has not lost any of his competitive nature. 2001 World Champion, absolute charger at Teahupo'o, hucker of one of the massiviest airs in history, star of the viral video 'faceplant into rock’ and one of the most stylish goofy foots on tour ever. Kuda Issey (Ismail Miglal) is representing the Maldives with a twin fin that I noted had magic qualities in his warm up surfs. In a fantastic twist of fate he is also a grom that Tropic Surf owner and contest director Ross Phillips gave a board to on one of his first visits to the island chain over 25 years ago. Kuda is now three times national champ and in 2015 founded "Raalhu Edhuru": a Malebased surf school with the mission to extend the sport’s reach to kids in non-central atolls through community-based sponsorship programs. Give a kid a surfboard and you can never tell where they end up. I'd say Ross's investment was more than paid back. Especially when Kuda went on to beat CJ on said twin fin in front of a cheering local squad who had come to watch from the channel. Good times!
Ross Williams rounded off the lineup Ross’s inclusion meant a highly qualified gallery on the back of the Explorer analysing each turn, every ride and throwing out scores. And there were some epic heats, real back and forth, ride
for ride, goofy versus regular humdingers across all categories. As each day went on the surf got better, the surfing got better and Taj even started throwing tens. It would take a Herculean effort for any pro to take out Taj on a right with a long shralpable wall, air sections and long tight barrels, but Hobgood and Machado did their best. Taj would ultimately edge it against Machado in the grand final, the only margin in reality being a full blown Taj tail high hack that put the Aussie out of reach. You can watch the video online to see what it meant to family Burrow.
Three days of probably the best surfing Sultans has ever seen flew by. Single fins, twin fins, thrusters, with every heat surfed as if it was world title decider. It was epic to witness. In most other sports when top players walk away they stop training, stop playing but surfers never truly retire, they all carry on surfing. And as long as they are surfing they want to surf their best. I cast my mind back to Taj's epic heats at Trestles and wondered how he would fair in the upcoming CT. A year off tour may have dampened his fitness levels a little, but you would have to say in a decent swell he’d probably still be making quarters and above. If the lefts switched on I'd also bet Machado would be up there too.
And there it was, as Taj victory danced to the traditional 'bodu beru’ drummer, champagne popped and cocktails were ordered the judges started sneaking off the Acara and into the lineup. I posted the results across the social media, pulled on my rashie and awaited a tender to ferry me out to the all but empty lineup. A four hour surf was on the cards. Maybe longer depending on how long the arms would last.
A final surf with friends as the sun dipped while drinking the turquoise waters as deep into the memory bank as possible. High line racers into the channel, high fives and one last ride on the speed boat back to base for the closing ceremony. The Champions Trophy 2017 was done. Another epic week spent with impeccable hosts and bunch of legends.
In essence this is a contest, and a hard fought one at that. In truth it's a gathering of surfers in one of the most fabulous settings on Earth. A time to disengage from the bombardment of bad news and re-engage with things that matter. Things like friendship, the wonder of nature and the blessing of surfing with all that it brings. Sometimes all it takes is a golden hour down your local beach, sometimes, and you never know when with surfing, you too could end up in the place like this.
Many thanks to Tropic Surf and Four Seasons Kuda Huraa for the good times. Full highlights are on carvemag.com
If you would like to attend next years event go to: www.surfingchampionstrophy.com
If you would like to visit Kuda Huraa go to: www.fourseasons.com/maldiveskh
Kuda Issey was given a board by comp director Ross Phillips as a grom. He repaid the kindness by becoming three time Maldivian champ, setting up a charity to help young local surfers and beating former world champ CJ in the twin fin division. ROI? Priceless
Main: CJ Hobgood sending it skyward. He surfed every heat like his world title was on the line
Right: Sultans pass local
Bottom right: Taj and Maya prepping
Main: Taj tail out, and throwing fans.
Right: Taj #winning
Bottom right: Taj's 'finance director‘ Rebecca Jobson and Sophie Machado - the events unofficial entertainment manager