On 11 April 2015, I embarked upon an extended pacific island getaway. Fed up with the 9-5 grind, I handed in my notice and set sail (by plane…) to Apia, Samoa with my young family. The attraction of a six-month sabbatical to a pacific island is self-evident – year-round sunshine, temperatures that rarely drop below 27 degrees Celsius, a laid-back culture… and of course great surf.
Clearly, Samoa doesn’t have the same enviable reputation for world-class surf as neighbouring Fiji. There is no Cloudbreak or Restaurants equivalent. Samoan waves do not frequent magazine covers or digital edits spinning throughout cyberspace. However, Samoa has its fair share of excellent, relatively uncrowded, waves and water temperatures that fluctuate between 26 and 29 degrees Celsius!
Though, island life is not without its quirks. Life moves very slowly. My best advice is to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. On Samoan roads, for example, the speed limit ranges from 35 kph in villages to 55 kph on the open roads. People often drive at much slower speeds to avoid crater-like potholes and a myriad of objects including coconuts, chickens, palm fronds, stray dogs and machete-wielding men (off to work at the village plantation).
Many of the oddities you experience in Samoa also extend to the surf line-up. Don’t expect to rock up to first good looking wave you see and paddle out. Water access doesn’t come free.
If you hop in a boat with a surf guide such as Manoa Tours, Maninoa Surf Camp or Samoa Surf Secrets – then you can’t go too far wrong. Pay your boat fee and they will take you to one of the surf breaks that they service (not all boats go to the same breaks).
Unlike Fiji though, there is a palpable rivalry between Samoan boat operators with semi-regular confrontations over mooring ownership and usage, alongside tales of ineptness – perhaps to dissuade customers from utilising a rival service. Conflicts aside – the surf guides possess the necessary know-how to pilot you to a quality wave in the glorious crystal clear, temperate waters - with minimal fuss.
It is when you look to avoid the cost of a boat journey that you're more likely to run into problems. Many villages allow you to pay a koha of between 10 and 40 tala (Samoan currency) for access to the break. Some may attempt an additional charge for each surfer – particularly if you are not a familiar face. After paying your dues, you can park your vehicle and complete the noodle-arm-inducing paddle out to the reef. Side note: don’t park your rental vehicle under a coconut tree, or you risk a hefty insurance bill courtesy of the falling coconuts.
It is worth noting that some locations are attempting to privatise breaks with access only via the resort… unless you know the right people. Despite receiving village approval, and half a dozen locals already in the line-up, my first paddle out at Salani caused quite a stir as local businessman rallied to protect their turf! If you are only heading to Samoa for a few days, and want to avoid any conflict, it’s probably easiest to just take a boat!
The dry season in Samoa runs from May to October and this is when the south swells roll in – offering waves aplenty on the south side of the islands. Unfortunately, this is also when the trade winds blow abundantly, so get in early, or select a break less affected by the south-east (SE) trades. During the wet season, the north side of the island fires up, though typically this offers smaller sized waves.
Samoa offers a diversity of wave options from short punchy hollow barrels to long rippable walls. Rights. Lefts. A-frames. Did I mention they are uncrowded? But beware, Samoa is not a learn to surf location. Sharp, shallow coral reefs mean most locations are more suited to the accomplished boardrider.
Just out from Aganoa’s black sand beach is some of the best snorkelling on the Island. When the swell kicks up it is also home to a powerful classic left-hand point break. Boulders is protected in the SE trades and will hold up to 15 foot. The wave is not for the faint-hearted, it begins breaking at approximately six-foot, and features an extremely sharp and shallow reef, the wave breaking alongside an ominous looking rock wall.
On one visit, I witnessed a Canadian single fin enthusiast attempt the steep hollow take off only to be mercilessly punished for his choice of craft. His board slipped free and was battered against the rock wall for good measure. The tour operator’s advice to “man up and go in there and get it”, seemed contrary to typical health and safety advice. It turns out there is no personal liability for tourist operators in Samoa!
Tafatafa and Nu’usafe’e Island
Tafatafa and Nu’usafe’e Island are serviced by Samoa Surf Secrets. The hard case Australia owner ’Nugg’ is a former professional snowboarder - come Island dweller. Back in 2015, his boat appeared to be on its last legs, while also matching the Samoan "she’ll be right" attitude perfectly. Tafatafa offers a fast barrelling right-hander on a south-west swell, with a shorter and bowlier wave when the swell is more from the south-east. The nearby Vaiula beach fales provide a wonderful base camp for your day at the beach.
Nu’usafe’e Island, also known as Devils Island, is a little further afield. A 15-minute boat trip to a remote island delivers a freight train left, with three take-off points, and importantly, a break that works in the problematic SE trade winds.
The Left, at Tafitoala, is a wonderfully consistent left-hander, and a go-to for several boat operators. A fun wave under head high, it becomes a fast throaty barrel once it starts to get overhead - and gives a wonderful mini Teahupo'o impression in a large swell.
The wave can feel very crowded with a dozen surfers in the line-up, although it is not uncommon to surf it solo. Keep an eye out for turtles in the line-up, they can be a hazard.
Salani Right and Left
A short boat ride from Salani resort brings you to a punchy bowly barrelling right and fast pinning left. Both are world-class waves and well worth a visit.
Venture north of Upolo and there are a plethora of waves between 30 mins and 1hrs drive away. Tiavea village offers waves when the south side of the island is out of action – though a 4×4 is mandatory to get down the bumpy mountain road. Closer to Apia, visitors can share a wave with local Samoans surfing on ramshackle boards minus fins, with and chunks out of the board the size of dinner plate. Many still surf their local break with consummate ease. If you don't fancy taking your old board home – consider leaving it as a parting gift.
Park up in the car park and you will see the surf straight in front of you. Don't worry if you can’t find someone to pay the koha – they will find you.
Even when crowded, the local Samoans are extremely accommodating. Any wave I paddled for came with the cry of “Palagi” - and the locals pulled back to offer the wave to a paying customer. How is that for service?
Samoa is home to many other popular, and secretive breaks depending on the time of year. It is certainly worth popping the island nation on your surfing bucket list. However, if you are heading to Samoa, make sure you're well covered for supplies. The solitary surf shop offers the very basics like surf wax, leggies, boardies and bikinis. But don’t expect to be able to hire a quality surfboard. Bring your own. And don’t forget to tend to your reef cuts when you are there – those things can get feral (speaking from experience).