Scott O’Conner In Conversation
The Namotu Host, Windsurfer & Skulldragger holds court!Read more
They’ll tell you that no man is an island, but they surely haven’t met Scotty O’Connor. While windsurfing one day back in 1987, the stocky little Aussie washed ashore on a sand cay off the coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. The island was small, the size of a football field, had two lonely palm trees and its only residents were a knot of sea snakes and a cadre of coconut crabs. But standing there, drinking in the Pacific panorama the idea went off in his head like fireworks. It’s now 24 years since Scotty and his wife, Mandy opened their resort on Namotu Island, but it’s hardly been all solitude and serenity and volleyballs named Wilson. Over those 24 years it’s become a hedonistic outpost, a postage stamp of good times, surf and occasional barroom piracy… and Scotty has been in the centre of most of it. He’s the captain of a ship that doesn’t sail anywhere, and from his sandy little crow’s nest surrounded by the South Pacific on all sides; he’s got a salty, sweeping view of the world.
Previous life… I grew up in Bayview on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I was in the same class as Tom Carroll so I surfed, windsurfed, and played rugby for the Warringah Rats. Sailing skiffs was my thing though, and I left school at 15 to make sails for $49 a week. Then when I was 18 someone offered me a hundred grand a year to windsurf and suddenly sailing didn’t look quite so great. I was the first Aussie to turn pro and I moved to Hawaii for ten years. Windsurfing was so huge in the 80s. In Europe back then they called windsurfing “surfing”; there was no surfing back then. Guys like Robbie Naish were enormous names. He was the Kelly Slater of windsurfing.
The island… I was shooting a beer commercial here in 87 and we dragged our gear up on the beach here one day and rigged up but didn’t think that much of it. There was a ton of broken coral lying around and two snapped palm trees and that was it. But we kept coming back every winter with our windsurfing crew – Naish, Dave Kalama, Pete Cabrinha, all that crew – because all of us surfed as well. Then in 94 the guy who had the lease on the island told us he was selling it and we thought it would be millions of dollars, but we ended up paying $225,000 for it. What did Kerry Packer say, “You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime”? Well this guy was our Alan Bond.
Early years… The first thing we realised was that we were a windsurf camp and Tavarua was a surf camp, because they had Restaurants and Cloudbreak, and we’d only ever come here in winter when it blew trades every day. Suddenly we were sitting here on April 1, the day we got the keys to the island, and we’re looking around going, “Geez, it’s not very windy, is it?” So we were scratching our heads wondering what to do with it when we got a call from a longboarding mag in America who wanted to bring a team down and we got a big spread in the mag and you couldn’t buy advertising like it. It was just as longboarding had that resurgence in the 90s and we had a sudden influx. Then we looked at our clientele and they weren’t your feral G-land kind of jungle guys, they were a bit older and better off, so we put in decent burés and a swimming pool.
The Fijians… I have long, sagely conversations with Waqa (pronounced ‘Wonga’, the head boatman and Fijian elder on the island) and he teaches me about how the systems work with the different tribes and the chiefs. But I’m always humbled by the Fijian culture and their way of life. It’s all about respect. A lot of the girls who work here have had babies – Eva has had five – and after three months paid maternity leave they are back working with us because the grandparents look after the kids. There’s no such thing as Fijian day care and it keeps the families incredibly tight. And while most Fijians don’t have a lot, they’re incredibly happy and that happiness is infectious. The Fijians who own the lease are from Malolo Island, but we have crew working here from all over; Suva, Nabila. Lautoka.
Cloudbreak… I think the one thing people forget is that to surf Cloudbreak you really need to be able to surf. And people just think it’s this perfect wave, but it’s not a perfect wave. When it starts getting good is at six-to-eight foot, when it starts to move out on the reef and get pretty serious. Up till then it’s a series of shorter waves that occasionally link together down the line. And it’s very unforgiving. I think the worst thing about it is you can catch the best wave of your life and flick off and the next three are already breaking and you’re going, “Where did the channel go?” As Jon Roseman was saying the other day, it doesn’t matter who you are, once it gets to that size you’re going to get those wash-throughs and everyone has to deal with it and do some laps around the tower.
Restaurants… That wave is a skatepark – so perfect – but it can also get a little shallow and intimidating. The other day I was surfing it and got bounced and I knew I’d lost a heap of skin and Wes Berg, the ironman was there and I paddled over to him and showed him my head and he started digging around in the cut and pulled out a chunk of coral the size of a 10c piece. But the other great thing is that on the Namotu side of the channel across from Restaurants, is Swimming Pools, which is the funnest righthander and a wave everyone can surf.
The best surfing seen out there… Probably Kelly last year. Sorry Mick and Joel and all my good Aussie buddies, but that was something else. Kelly blew everyone’s minds, just the way he fits into the wave and the way he goes into places on the wave no one thinks possible. The best heat I ever saw was Occy and Luke back in 2000, a quarterfinal. They’re both close mates of mine and they were pulling 10s, 9.8s, and I was sitting in the channel on the ski with a beer just losing it.
Pro surfers… I don’t know what we can and can’t say here! In the beginning when Quiksilver showed up with the Indies Trader anchored out here and Greeny and Lawo and Wayne Lynch and Jeff Hakman were all here, only half the crew were in the contest and everyone else was partying. That’s where the island’s reputation started I think, but we’ve had some wild times since then. The Skulldrag initiation (if it’s your first time on the island you’re made to drink a ‘Skulldrag’, essentially every spirit known to mankind mixed together in a glass) generally gets things going, and in the old days a lot of fun was had. We’ve had a few incidents with Hoyo and Hedgey (Nathan Hedge once paddled a racing ski drunk in the early hours three miles from Namotu to Cloudbreak) but the wildest night we’ve had it came from someone you wouldn’t expect… Bede. Everyone on the island has some kind of scar from these occasions.
“Kate Winslet. She was great value. She was awesome; rolled her own ciggies, swore like a sailor.”
Roll call… We’ve had Tom Hanks stay, and the chick from Titanic, what’s her name? Kate Winslet. She was great value. She was awesome; rolled her own ciggies, swore like a sailor, nothing like her characters in the movies. We have the guys who own Google come here a lot, and there are a lot of billionaires you wouldn’t know who come out and stay. As for the favourite surfing sons, obviously Tom Carroll has always been a favourite here, and Occ and I travelled together for six weeks back in 1985 with Cheyne Horan, which was a story in itself. We were products of the ’80s, we did what the 80s told us to. But obviously Mick and Joel were always favourites.
Sketchy… I guess fracturing my skull was pretty heavy. I was surfing big Wilkes and took off late, landed on my head, fractured my skull and opened myself up. I also tore my rotator cuff in my shoulder, which I didn’t even notice at the time because my head was a bit sorer than my arm. I came up and the whitewater was redwater. They stapled me together over on Tavvy then flew me to America to fix my skull. Other heavy situations? We’ve found floating bodies out here with sharks attacking them – missing fishermen – but surfing wise we’ve been quite lucky.
The big day… Mate, I just felt privileged to be there watching it. I remember years ago Conan Hayes towed a big one – before Laird got his one at Teahupoo – and I remember it was the first wave I’d seen ridden that looked like a cartoon. But the big day two years ago, the volume of water and the power on that day was something I’d never seen. It was puling fridge-sized pieces of coral off the reef like pebbles. I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think I’ll see anything like it again.
The South Pacific… You respect any ocean in the world, but the South Pacific while we have some perfect sailing conditions we also have these things called tropical cyclones. We had one last year, Cyclone Evan that reached 279 kays an hour. The eye of the storm went straight over the top of us. I was in the bar, which I figured was the safest place to be.
Still kick yourself? Isn’t it every boy’s dream to live on an island? I feel a bit lucky here. I don’t kick myself because although a lot of things have gone my way, I’m here because I’ve worked bloody hard to get here. You know, driving back in some afternoons in my fishing boat, you’ve surfed perfect waves with a handful of great crew that morning, you’ve caught some monster fish and the water is sheet glass and blue and you can see 150 feet down, you kinda figure, this is pretty good. I could be stuck in traffic back home on the Bilgola bends right now. I could be losing my mind in the rat race.