One of the biggest transformations I've seen over the last several decades is the transformation of surfing in Fiji from a local curiosity to a World Wide phenomenon. Fiji hosts some of the best surfers in the world in regular competition and what's also noteworthy is that nowadays indigenous Fijians are getting their surfing chops down. Fijians are competing with the best.
Surfing is not only a big deal in Fiji. It's become a big business.
No one that I can think of has been more involved with this metamorphosis than Ian (aka Kini) Muller whom I've known for many years. Ian was an advocate for surfing before the Fiji Visitors Bureau thought it was cool, and opened one of the first surf shops on Viti Levu.
We had the opportunity to talk to him at length about the genesis of surfing in Fiji, his own business and the "deregulation of the waves", in which he was instrumental.
This is the first in a three part series of interviews with Ian that I think you'll find engaging and provocative.
Q: Let’s talk a little about your own history in surfing. What got you into surfing and when did that occur? Tell us a little about your business. When did you get started and why?
A: I always loved the ocean and the beach and knew as an Islander my dream was to have some connection to it in any way imaginable. In the early 90's, I was an Aircraft Engineer who was frustrated with being treated like a second class citizen in my own country – I had a British Aircraft Engineers License and expatriates would be employed along side us and they would get way more benefits and pay than we locals would even though we had a higher rated license. I was a bit of a rebel so I bailed and decided to look for another challenge.
I went to my family island - Tavewa in the Yasawas and there I saw a wave breaking on the lagoon point - always wanted to learn to surf so thought now was the time. Ordered a board from Hawaii, because Fiji had no surf shops and since none of my family or friends surfed I decided to teach myself to surf around the age of 25. Loved it and enjoyed the lifestyle that it had. That was the beginning of a life long ride – here is the analogy of my life on a wave: very wobbly steep takeoff, unforgiving bottom turn, shaky trimming to balance myself, near barrel closeouts but staying committed until all of a sudden the big beautiful round blue tube…then every now and then … few shallow reefs to take me down but a higher trim to get over them and still in the womb of mother nature to keep me stoked in tube and still enjoying that awesome ride today.
That is how I can simulate my life setting up this surf company from wobbly beginnings. Something I would of never gotten from being sheleterd in Aviation. Setting up your own business / industry from nothing has made me proud of what I have achieved in both Aviation and as an entrepreneur …
Now 19 years have passed from those humble beginnings. We have established the Fijian Surfing Industry from nothing and I'm a testament to that. We were the first local surf company to start without a bank loan but kind assistance from a Japanese business man – Mr. Kato who believed in us and Fiji. We could not speak each others languages but we surfed together and that was all that was needed. It was a struggle, in business, to get through all those years and would not wish this upon anyone. Not many people in Fiji believed that we could start a surf company and be successful so the odds were against us all the time.
The kinds of questions we got were:
Where's the waves? Who has started a surf company, nobody, so what makes you think you can do it?
All the negativity fueled my fire to try and succeed.
Still today its hard to convince our people the potential surfing has, but slowly its starting to change thanks to our current Bainimarama Government and there liberating Policies to push us towards a new Fiji. Bainimarama will give our industry and Fiji hope …
Q: How do your products and services differ from what else is out there? What kinds of services and products do you provide?
A: Fiji Surf Co is a full service operation with our core business being Surf Tours and Surf Schools but we also have the only true Surf Shop in Fiji that sells surfing equipment,clothing and information. We also provide surf information and have a surf travel. Soon in Sept we will set up the Fijian Surfboard Company which will be the first and only company making conventional Polyurethane boards in Fiji.
There are some boards being made or have been made in Fiji but from Polystyrene which has a different feel when you surf them. For a surfing industry to grow we need to have surfboards. We have some of the best waves in the world but no surfboards – its like having rugby fields without rugby balls … If you know Fiji that would be a catastrophe with our rugby crazed nation!
Our Fiji Surf Tours like I said are the most popular because our waves are so sort after. Fiji is blessed to have the resources - crystal clear, warm water with live reefs and stunning islands. Fiji Surf Tours operate daily and have a premium service – we offer a surf photographer and are Go Pro friendly with Go Pro rentals and free wifi on the boats to upload content taken from smart phones or Go Pro's, bottled water / snacks, rental boards for those that did not bring their boards, guides who are not only some of the best around but are lifeguards to ensure your safety.
When the surf gets big we offer additional safety service with jet skis so that our guests or whoever on the reefs are safe. Another added benefit is having two separate boats that can accommodate the charger surfer on one boat and the cruiser on the other to ensure surfers maximise their time on the waves they want to surf.
Recently we have offered Private Boat Charters for the family or groups that want to do their own thing from surfing, snorkeling, fishing or island hopping. Our tours are half day with free hotel pick ups in the Nadi area.
Our people were once surfers and documented by sailors and traders who came to Fiji in the early 1900's late 1800's. Surfing died out because mostly women and children surfed naked and this was frowned upon by the Missionaries who put a stop to surfing.The name given to surfing by our people was Vakavodo Ua …
Today Fiji Surf Co is about reviving that lost art of our ancestors through our clothing brands, surfboard making and the start up of a local boardring Club called Vodo Ua to develop and promote the future of Fijian Surfing.
Photos courtesy of Ian Muller. Top photo depicts Ian and his son Niko, born on 7/7/10, the day that the Fiji Government opened the waves to the public. Second photo features some of Ian's surfing gang; and the third is the specially configured Fiji Surf Co transport boat. Final shot illustrates some of Fiji's newest products.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.