THE 9/11 SWELL THAT HIT TAHITI
Surfing or sailing big Teahupoo wave break is an entirely different ball game compared to when it is mid size. The wave shows no mercy to the week and elevates the bold to whole new level of surfing folk law. Sitting in the channel when it’s huge, literally sends shivers down your spinal cord.
The combination of the waves daunting reputation and its thunderous, raw truly epitomizes itself as one of the heaviest waves on the face of the planet. 20 feet separates you from the safety of the channel or a true ‘ass lickin’ that you will never forget.
Water pours off the reef and drops down into a cylinder like cavern, the likes you’ve never seen. The slightest rail change or mid face trim can result in disastrous complications. The ‘hold downs’ are intense and you better have your vest on if you want to come up before the next wave mows over you.
There’s just no faking it. You’re either getting the barrel of your life or you are ‘shoulder hopping’ it with your friends in the channel wishing you had packed a plate lunch for an excuse. Adrenaline quite quickly turns to embarrassment.
If you look at the reef from the air you can see why the wave behaves the way it does:
There is a small keyhole in the reef that allows a small channel to emerge. Its vee shaped bottom allows almost any watercraft a spot along side one of nature’s most spectacular sites.
The other unique thing that separates this wave from most others is the fact that it breaks below sea level. You are actually so much lower than the water level that you feel like you’re in some sort of dungeon waiting to be let out.
Different views of Teahupoo, Tahit // Photos: Tim Mc Kenna
The back of the wave is basically flat, so, from behind there is no way of gauging on just how big the wave is. All you can see are massive amounts of white water getting shot backwards as the wave explodes onto the shallow reef. The cries from the people in the channel are quickly dampened by the thunderous noise of the wave as it unleashes its fury upon the reef.
Usually the implosion of the first wave sends so much white water in so many different directions that the second and third waves are -more often than not- unrideable.
Surfers scurry to be the first to catch the first wave of the set. There is almost as much anticipation between the boatmen trying to get the ideal spot for a photo as there is with the surfers trying to catch the ultimate ride.
All in all, it’s a freak show that any surfing enthusiast would enjoy watching.
With this sort of knowledge about Teahupoo it was clear that we had to get into contact with one of Tahiti’s favorite sons, Robert Teriitehau. He’s basically like a god down there and is fully respected by the Tahitian surfing fraternity. It only took a quick phone call and a look at the weather maps to convince Robert to put us under his wing and give us a taste at what we have all been longing for.
The morning arrival into Tahiti did not disappoint. Sand covered the roads and some homes had been washed away.
It was not exactly refreshing that on this day four years ago two planes flew into and destroyed the Twin Towers. It was definitely shaping up to be a 9 / 11 swell.
The morning boat trip out to the break is as about as nerve racking as catching a set wave for the first time. I watched nervously as huge waves pounded the reef. The echoing screams from the impact of the waves sounded more like a 747 hitting the water. I swear I could hear my name being called, not in a good way but in an evil way, like a pedophile would lure a young child with a lollypop.
Sitting too long on the boat can result in a downward spiraling effect. The body turns into a vegetated like state as you sit there contemplating on whether or not you are ready to tackle such a feat.
For every bomb wave that you watch punish the reef, seems to take another notch of confidence from your belt.
Excitement slowly and inevitably turns to melancholy.
With this prognosis starting to invade my body it was refreshing to see Robert at the other end of the spectrum. He was lit up like a matchstick and you could see that he was ready to surf some waves.
Before I could say “Robert you are a crazy bastard” he was already on the back of Poto’s jet ski itching for a set. He was quickly wiped into a bomb and pulled in, but was too deep and he ate shit.
I realized right then that he had forgot to put on his life vest which in my eyes is about as important as having your penis attached to your body!
You can basically double the length of time you are underwater without a jacket and on a morning like this one, you would have to be a crazy motherfucker to catch any wave without one.
After getting plucked out of the soup bowl he made his way back to the safety of the boat. I thought he was in need of some sort of medical attention but he simple changed boards and started a montage of double and triple aerial surfing rotations assisted by Poto’s jet ski.
Everyone in the channel was screaming for more, but Robert was more intent on rigging his windsurf equipment. Shit, I mean, “Why not!”
Robert’s action (Photos: Phil Erickson)
He had already got barreled, put on an aerial show, so why not go windsurf. If I was to put the wind velocity into context I would say a mosquito would have had more chance at catching a wave. At any rate, after seeing such an armada of water sports at Teahupoo within a 15-minute period I was looking forward to witnessing this one.
From experience I new the troubles of tow-ins on a windsurfer when the wind is super light. You sometimes get back winded at the bottom of the wave and setting your self up in the right spot can also be a task in itself.
It’s not at all like regular tow-in surfing. The sail is a real hindrance and the only love you get is the small updraft of wind that you get once you’re on the wave.
I had done windsurf tow-ins at Cloud Break in Fiji with disastrous results. The sail sometimes inhibits you from going down the line, and the battens back wind, pushing the board inward towards the breaking tube. I could only cross my fingers for Robert as the impending set wave reared its ugly head.
You know those pictures that stay locked in your head because they’re just not right. Like an African boy testing his manhood by slapping a fully-grown lion in the face. Well, imagine a crazy Tahitian on a windsurfer getting towed by a 400-pound jet ski on a huge swell with no wind in the middle of the ocean. It just didn’t fit. I mean how often to you see something like that!
As Robert approached the bottom I could see that he was in trouble. Everyone else was hooting but as a fellow windsurfer I could see the technical problems that were arising. The battens in the sail slowly inverted and he had trouble getting the nose of the board to point towards the channel.
I cringed as my friend got completely barreled by this huge green wall of water straight from the depths of hell and a ‘hold down’ that even Jacque Cousteau would have been proud of.
With his equipment totally trashed he made his way back to the boat. I mentioned to him that he should be wearing his life vest.
He replied casually, “If you think I should, Jas”.
I guess he didn’t care, but we were all glad that he finally decided to put one on.
Well done Robert! You definitely have some balls…
In the mean time I was still in the boat busy ‘mind fucking’ myself. A common problem that emerges, if you wait too long:
One side of my brain was content in watching, and the other was calling me a pussy for not getting out there.
Robert obviously does not have this inherited gene so he would probably not know what I’m talking about.
In some instances this gene could save your life but for the most it’s just there to really piss you off!
An entourage of painful scenarios leaps in and out of your brain. I found that the simplest way to execute a decision is to take the road less traveled. It may not be the straightest of roads but it guarantees one hell of a ride. Once you have that mind fucking experience behind you, the rest is bliss. Perfect 12 to 15 foot surf awaits you, with tubes so hollow you could invite a small Greek family along for the ride.
Dropping the surfboard into the water for the first time and leaving the safety of the boat is a little nerve racking. Your muscles are stiff and you know that before too long your going to be experiencing one hell of a ride.
I took a few smaller waves to familiarize myself with the conditions and then decided to wait for a set wave. The same symptoms apply when you’re sitting in the water waiting for a set as it does sitting on the boat. If too much time passes you start ‘mind bending’ yourself all over again.
I new I needed a wave soon.
With a good size set approaching I was up and before I could compose myself I was on the wave, setting myself up for a barrel. As the wave hit the reef it just barreled over me and I thought I was too deep but it just opened up and I had a real taste of perfect big Teahupoo.
No drug in the world offers you all the human emotions in one single ride. If your asking yourself if it’s worth paying a visit to the hospital then your already asking yourself the wrong question!
Fear and commitment go hand in hand. One feeds off the other. There is no better feeling than putting yourself right in harms way, and coming out unscathed.
After you get a taste of Uncle Sam’s medicine you just want more. Seeing people getting double barreled out there elevates your spirit and pushes you to find the bigger, better ride.
With daylight slowly turning to dust it was time to call it a day. We all celebrated that evening, each of us with our own tall story, and then without a fuss dismissed ourselves to the solitude of our rooms to reflect on what had just taken place and hoped that tomorrow would bring similar conditions.
It seemed our prayers had been answered with wind filling in the lagoon at around 9 am. We could see that it was still big and decided to rig up at the harbor and then jetty the equipment out by boat. The wind still seemed light but it was a dam’ site stronger than Robert’s windsurf attempt yesterday. Robert was still getting towed-in on the windsurfer while I opted to hang right in the impact zone and squeeze into a few late drops.
Hanging so close to the impact zone reminded me of a day last year where myself and Robby Naish had Jaws all to ourselves. We would hang just a hairs breath out from the reef and pick off the big sets. The only problem is that if a freak set rolled through you would get totally mowed, but in the end it’s all worth it.
The difficulty at Teahupoo was picking the right wave. Some bend inward as they hit reef and dissipate as others bend away and grow in size. The monster sets seemed to have disappeared leaving some nice solid walls to work with.
Every so often, I would see Robert fly past on the windsurfer, hanging onto the towrope, trying to catch another wave.
In my eyes it was really shaping up to be one of those memorable days. I cannot express into words how wonderful it is to finally bottom turn without any chop or hindrance from other sailors. To see someone on a perfectly formed glassy wave is something you’re more likely to see in a surfing magazine than a windsurf one.
Timing is critical at Teahupoo.
One second the wave is flat and wide and the next it’s folded over on itself, forming a barrel that surpasses any other. I found that you had to be in the perfect position if you wanted to make the drop.
The slightest position along the reef can be fatal, but if you are in the right spot and your timing is right, you can blast some huge aerials.
The aerials you see at Hookipa and other spots around the world are simply not executed the same at a place like Teahupoo. You have to anticipate where and when the lip is going to throw.
Keeping your speed is equally as important. You don’t want to get stuck mid face and you really need your speed if you decide to kick out.
(Tahiti by Tim McKenna)
I managed to pick out a great spot in the reef where I would sit in the water to wait for the sets. My other friend was on a jet ski further out and would indicate to me which wave was the biggest out of the set by raising his hand and indicating the number on his finders as the jetski rolled over the first wave. It sounds kind of dumb but it actually worked really well. That, and the fact that he towed my arse back out to the line up each time I finished my ride. I guess you could say I had my very own personal limousine service on the water.
As the wave would approach, I would quickly deep water start and with a few hard pumps I could squeeze into a few solid ones. More often than not I would miss the wave but on the bigger sets my position was perfect. The wind was so light that the only way to get into these waves was to basically sit right in the impact zone.
My confidence was growing as I reeled off about a dozen waves, but disaster struck as I dropped in too late on a solid set and got totally worked.
If you’re going to wipe out at Teahupoo then there’s one basic rule to follow. Stay away from the breaking lip, and if you can, stay in the barrel for as long as possible.
Well that all went sideways as I jumped off my gear and landed on my back, only to have the lip hit me directly in the chest. It’s hard to explain the feeling you get as you drop into a nasty bowl and the wind decides to take an early vacation.
A second can feel like an eternity as you contemplate your impending demise. You instantly see your fate as it flashes in front of your eyes. The wave thickens up as it hits the shallow reef. It gives you a little grin then just pounds you into the reef. The air basically gets ripped out of your lungs and you have to relax and know that you’re going to get pinned for a while. I generally count to 10 or so and then try to make my move.
If you try too soon, you could find yourself stuck in a pocket of air and water for longer than you wish to.
It’s definitely hard not to panic especially when you know that the next wave is going to be knocking on your door step as soon as you see the sunlight.
There might be some love at your home break but when it comes to Teahupoo, it’s a true beating that you will never forget. The odds of hitting the bottom are about as good as letting a blind man pick out his favorite porno movie, but the sight of a jetski coming your way can be more inviting than a hot date.
With all of the equipment trashed it was time to take up Robert’s invitation for some truly authentic home cooked Tahitian food. There’s just nothing better than wind, waves and a feast to cap off a magical trip. Seeing this wave in magazines and in videos just does not do the place justice. You have to be there to feel the energy and power of what nature can dish out and yet at the same time witness the comradeship and courage between the water men as they put there lives to the test.Surfing or sailing big Teahupoo is definitely not for the faint hearted. I guess once you’ve had a taste, you just want to come back for more.
Thanks to the photographers: Tim Mc Kenna & Phil Erickson
(Tahiti by Tim McKenna)