Being from Montreal Josi’s childhood dream was to one day visit the French tropical beaches of Tahiti. As a little kid I loved the soda pop called Tahiti Treat… Thus we chose Tahiti as our last stop of our around the world surfing/ honeymoon/ adventure. We knew the odds of Teahupoo breaking big when we were scheduled to be there were very slim and we decided well before hand that if it did we would do what ever it took to be there.
For those who don’t know, Teahupoo is a legendary big wave surfing spot in the South Pacific on the island of Tahiti. When it gets really big, it’s massive size and punishing thick lipped barrel are so fearsome that only a select few are crazy enough to risk their life’s in exchange for whatever it is that motivates them to ride it. Professional big wave surfers, dare devils and mad men follow the storm swells online and when the conditions are perfect they fly in from all over the world to brave it’s insane power.
As fate would have it, a massive swell started brewing off the coast just after we arrived in Tahiti. Everyone on the island was talking about the monster swell that was on it’s way and that pros are flying in to surf it. Josi and I watched it carefully online and when the the swell was about to peak we plotted our trip to Teahupoo. All of the boat companies who take surfers from the beach to the outer reef where it breaks had been fully booked for some time so we weren’t able to secure a water taxi to watch from up close. We had been told us to choose a water taxi carefully because on many occasions the less experienced fishermen who take people out to watch make the mistake of miscalculating the wave and quickly finding their way to the shallow reef below. We didn’t have a boat reserved, but we had faith that it would all work out so we went anyway.
Thanks to a tip from our good friend Skip, we chose to stay on the island of Moorea close to a great left breaking wave called Haapiti. Teahupoo is on the Tahiti which is the island next to us so we had to get up at 5am to start our journey. I awoke with a mix of excitement and fear, which made no sense to me seeing that I was only a spectator and not on the field of play. Having lived action sports my whole life, on seldom occasion I too have played on the edge where one wrong move would prove to be my demise. You can do everything exactly right, making no mistakes at all and still, if mother nature decides otherwise, even the most flawless performance can find you at it’s mercy. Not to mention that human error can strike even in the most perfect and compassionate of conditions.
With a quick cup of instant coffee we had our hosts Tama and Marie, from Moorea Surf Bed and Breakfast, drop us off at the ferry. Our crossing in itself was exciting as our big catamaran navigated the massive swells. The boat handled the swell with ease while we all watched in awe as the massive waves rolled by one after the other. Once we got off the ferry we were picked up by our rental car company and taken to their office. In no time we packed into our tinny French car and high tailed it down the coast in search of this legendary wave.
Along the way we came across countless fishermen who had set up road side stands where they proudly displayed their freshly caught tuna. I’m not sure how long they would last hanging there in the tropical sun while waiting for someone to buy them? Regardless, it made for a interesting sight and we drove on with out stopping to take a photo. Mixed in with the palm trees and bright turquoise lagoons were endless poorly painted graffitis and tags that littered every brick and cement wall in sight. It’s such a shame that main stream culture can ruin such a tropical paradise. To me the real Tahiti is better found on it’s outer islands where life is slowed down and less effected by main stream culture.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Teahupoo there was already a small crowd watching the waves breaking way out on the outer reef. You could see small boats crowded close to the wave bobbing up and down as the house sized swells rolled in. In the parking lot another surfer told that all of the boats were totally full and that they were only taking pro photographers out. I have my big camera on this trip so I was ready to pull the photographer card if needed. “International adventure photographer and blogger for the esteemed online publication Foxy and the Fox.” It sounds good, but I’m not too sure how it will fly?
Regardless we had come too far not to see what magic we could work so we drove to the marina to find us a boat. The parking lot was abuzz with cars and people of all shapes and sizes, anxious to get out to watch the surf. The most professional looking boat operation that was there was taking people out for an hour at at time, but they were fully booked all day. Josi and I decided to split up and ask around to see what we could find. In short order I found a small man with a little boat who was open to taking us out in an hour. OK, that sounds pretty good I thought. Over the next few minutes I watched as he packed people into his boat to the point of being well overfull.
I didn’t like the look of it, but I was stoked because I knew that we were going to get out. Luckily Josi did better than me and found a guy who was willing to take us out right away. $30 each for two hours. He looked like a bit of a drunk, but he didn’t smell of booze, his boat was big and clean and we were the only ones on it so we headed out. To our surprise he only took us as far as another smaller boat that was half full of surfers from Venezuela. Josi had second thoughts because of the size of the new boat. I was more worried that the captain and his first mate looked like pirates with missing teeth and all. They didn’t speak English and they barely spoke French, which made no sense, but by this time we were committed.
The difference between watching surfers at Teahupoo vs Jaws or Pipeline, is that at Teahupoo the spectators are also the participants, each playing their own game of roulette. There were about 12 boats sitting abstractly close to the breaking wave, each packed with jubilant spectators. There was also a number of support crew for the surfers on high powered jet skis, along with several spectators sitting on surfboards. At one point there was even a helicopter filming the action.
Time all but stopped when we saw the first guy get toed into the massive wave. The jet ski powered up when the wave was only a bump and like a wake boarder the surfer popped up behind and was pulled into the wave. He looked Hawaiian with long curly hair and a friendly face and he pulled hard away from the jet ski, down the face of the wave rocketing toward us. The growing wave rose from the depths of the sea quickly becoming a mountain of water. In contrast, the surfer started a mountain of a man and quickly became a speck of sand holding on for a greater glory. Like those who have full mastery of their trade, he made it look so easy as he surfed his way down the vertical wall of the wave. After making the drop he seemed to find a place of inner peace and as the massive barrel threw over him he waved to the crowd as if to say this was just another day. As the wave roared by, he disappeared into the barrel and the crowd awaited in anticipation to see if he would make it out. As the final breath of the wave was squished out of the hollow wave, so to was the surfer, still with his hand in the air. The crowd was in awe as they cheered and his dark Polynesian face beamed with happiness. The second he was off the wave his trusty partner on the jet ski was there to pick him up and in no time he was being toed back to catch another.
The viewing boats dance back and forth rallying for the best position to watch the surfers before the wave closes out on the reef. On more than one occasion, the massive sets would shift to the right and like a school of small fish fleeing from it’s prey, the boats would find themselves racing up and away from the oncoming waves. When the big sets come in, the boats make a run for it and in that moment everything is pure chaos. On one occasion our boat was one of three deepest in the pocket when the biggest set of the day rolled in. The inner workings of the barrel was so big that you could build a house inside of it. I whistled to let our captain know something was coming, as he seemed more interested in the surfer than his crew. The moment he saw what I saw he put on the gas and we climbed up the steep face of the hugest wave I have ever seen. I was busy holding on with one hand while still taking photos of the boats below with the other. By the time we crested the peak, the bottom boat had long fell out of sight and must have been 30 feet below us. This boat and another were always the two deepest as they were full of professional photographers who were capturing both stills and videos. Their captains were either the best boat drivers in the world, or they were getting paid so much that they were willing to risk everything to get the shot. Perhaps it was both? I was positive that the last boat wasn’t going to make it up the wave because in my eyes we barely made it. At the last second they came vertical through the top of the lip just in the nick of time. I didn’t take the video as I was only shooting stills, but in the video below you can see footage of the boat in question.
There were about 8 teams of surfers, surfer and jet ski driver, and each was as amazing to watch as the other. As one fearless surfer dropped in we could tell that he was too far back to make the section. Thanks to the help of a life jacket he finally surfaced with enough time to take a deep breath as yet another even bigger wave came down on top him. This time he didn’t come up as quickly and his partner on the jet ski raced back and forth looking for him in the white wash. At one point the jet ski driver turned to the crowd to see if any of us had spotted him. We had a much better vantage because with each wave that rolled in, we were raised up so that we could look down over a much larger area. When he finally popped up he was about 70 meters away from where he started. Within seconds the jet ski was there and the driver strong armed the surfer onto the back of the ski, jetting off seconds before another huge wave took them both. The guys on the jet skis don’t get the cover shots or the fame, but they are indeed equally as fearless and brave as the ones ridding the waves. With out them there is no way that half of these guys would still be alive.
When we made it back to the wharf both Josi and I were in awe of what we had just witnessed and our hearts were still racing. We sat on the beach eating a small picnic and watching from distance as the surf continued to roll in on the outer reef. I could have watched for days but we needed to catch the ferry back to Moorea so we drove off with huge smiles on our face and a memory that will last a lifetime.
If you are ever in Tahiti and the buoy readings hit the 20+ foot mark with a good swell period be sure to check out Teahupoo. I promise it’s something that you will never forget.
Here is a video that was shot by one of the photographers on the same day as we were there.