Located at the end of the road on Tahiti Iti’s peninsula, the tiny vicinity of Teahupo’o has become famous ever since the world’s best surfers have gathered there during the month of August to test themselves against a Homeric wave. Let’s revisit the history of this extreme competition.
Synonymous the world over with earthly paradise, French Polynesia is an exceptional place in more than one respect: rich flora, emerald lagoons, the beauty of its beaches, and the warm welcome of the residents make it one of the most magical destinations in the South Pacific. However, for a surfer, Tahiti and her islands are above all an epicenter for tropical surf destinations thanks to perfect waves in an idyllic setting. To the southeast of the main island of Tahiti, is the Tahiti Iti peninsula. After an hour’s drive from Papeete, a small road leads to the peninsula from the foot of the mountains that plunge into the ocean up until it ends in front of Hava’e Pass. This is where the tiny little village of Teahupo’o is nestled, a peaceful haven with a few hundred inhabitants, yet whose name today has international acclaim. Teahupo’o owes its fame to the wave that breaks offshore onto the coral reef. This spectacular hollow wave uncoils onto the surface of the reef to form a colossal tube that can be surfed at various heights. Each year, Teahupo’o welcomes the international competition, Billabong Pro Tahiti, which offers one of the most spectacular stops on the professional surfing circuit. Once competition cameras are no longer aimed at Teahupo’o, the peninsula returns to a quiet life within its preserved, untamed, breathtaking décor. Tahitians like to go there for the weekend or on family vacations in order to reconnect with the traditions of Polynesian life.
Act of bravery
For those who are more courageous, it is an act of bravery to go up against the Teahupo’o wave. They are said to have “chops.” Tereva David is one of the local surfers who takes part in the competition every year. He is always proud to surf this wave in front of his family, and says, “The Teahupo’o wave is one of a kind! The feeling of being inside that huge tube with a view over the mountains and all my friends shouting from the lineup is indescribable. It is just pure joy. The first time I went, I was afraid of course. Still am. This wave controls you and you are at its mercy. You must adapt yourself to the wave…” The first competition on Teachupo’o wave in 1997 was called the Black Pearl Horue Pro. Andy Irons swept the first annual event. This late Hawaiian surfer wrote the most beautiful pages of his career at Teahupo’o, and he will be forever remembered for this event. At the beginning of the 1990s, Teahupo’o was still unknown; then excessive coverage started to appear within the international surfing media, revealing the name of Teahupo’o to the entire world. The following year, the ferryboat that serves as a platform for the organization and competition judges crashed onto the reef after a big storm. This launched the legendary reputation of Teahupo’o. That same year, Hawaiian surfer Conan Hayes thought he had won the finale and furiously stormed off the podium without collecting his runner up award… Since 1999, the competition has been called Billabong Pro Tahiti, and has established itself as the most prestigious stage of the pro circuit. Winning the Teahupo’o wave takes a lot of courage, since the wave requires total focus. The consequences in the case of a fall can be extreme. Jérémy Florès is the only French surfer competing on the pro circuit and he always speaks of this wave with utmost respect, “I can’t sleep for days before the big swells. I know that it requires total mental and physical engagement in order to surf it and be at the top.”
At the helm of the poti marara
Organizing a competition in Tahiti based on a wave that breaks more than a kilometer from the shore is indeed a challenge. After the wrecked ferry, the organization decided to build a tower on the reef just across from the wave, which allows judges to have a panoramic view over the spot. The technical staff in charge of satellite links remains on shore, and it is a true sign of technical competence to be able to retransmit the competition to the entire world from such an isolated area. During the two-week long competition, small local fishing boats, known as poti marara, and that are maneuvered standing up, are in demand by all the press in order to position the cameramen and photographers as close as possible to the action. The poti marara are easy to handle and very powerful. Their pilots are experts who can place themselves in the best possible positions for optimal camera angles. One of these renowned high sea fishermen of the Tahitian peninsula is Emile Faito. Organizers turn to him every year to pilot the press throughout the pass on his boat. Sheltered by deep waters, Havae Pass is in an ideal location, only 20-30 yards from the unfolding wave. Spectators come there from all over the island to watch the competition and support the Tahitian surfers. All types of watercraft can be positioned within the best site of the pass: boats, pirogues, stand up paddleboards, Jet Skis, surfboards, Morey boogie boards. Taxi shuttle boats depart from the marina and perform endless roundtrips to the spot. On weekends, the line is very long.
The Water Patrol family
For safety at Teahupo’o, there are no cutting corners. From the handlebars of their Jet Skis, the Tahitian Water Patrol scrutinizes the safety of everyone during the competition, starting with the professional surfers. The team is comprised of former surfing champions and master swimmer-lifeguards. They are all certified watermen as well as excellent Jet Ski pilots. Every morning before leaving for the sea, they get together in a circle to pray and reaffirm their solidarity before confronting all the dangers on the ocean. They are like a family and they represent a true institution in Tahiti. The Water Patrol is extremely respected throughout the island. Their job is especially dangerous on a wave such as Teahupo’o, and each has a specific role to uphold. The three teams that manage the impact zone (the place where the wave breaks) must rescue surfers after a fall or when they break a board—which happens frequently. It is a risky exercise, for they must navigate in front of the wave as it crashes onto the reef. They must quickly intervene before upcoming waves project the surfer in difficulty onto the barrier reef. They have fewer than 10 seconds to arrive at the surfer’s side, and 5 seconds to rescue and evacuate. These are interventions that are extremely high risk every time.
In 2007, Floridian surfer Cory Lopez was credited with paddling the biggest tube, which reinforces even more the myth of the Teahupo’o wave. The video went viral! During the 2011 competition, a giant swell hit French Polynesia. Tahitian authorities declared a “Code Red,” which forbids any watercrafts on the ocean, including surfboards. However, Californian Nathan Fletcher defied the regulation and took an historical wave via tow-in (surfboard towed with a Jet Ski). To top it off, he broke the record for the biggest tube and the biggest wave. Nathan Fletcher swept the 2011 Billabong XXL Global Big Awards due to this feat. Again, the images were shown around the world. Tahitian surfers are not to be outdone. Many of them have inscribed their names into the Hall of Fame of this exceptional wave: Malik Joyeux, Raimana Van Bastoler, Vetea David, Manoa Drollet, Hira Terinafoota and others have each contributed their individual styles to the legend of Teahupo’o and have always done so with a lot of courage. Australian world champion Mick Fanning confirms that, “On such a wave, the local surfers who come out of the trials are really death-defying. They can beat the best of the top 44!” Years pass and each one is different. Each time, the competition brings its share of exploits while always revealing new talent. For the 2014 edition, Michel Bourez will be the only Tahitian on the Pro circuit and will strive to do well for his fans. He knows the wave very well and asserts himself as one of the best on this spot.
Rewriting the legend every year…
Over the years, the Billabong Pro Tahiti has become one of the places on the pro circuit that surfers anticipate with respect and affection. Professional surfer Fred Patachia shares, “For me coming from Hawaii, I find a lot of the familiar Aloha vibe with Tahitians. Teahupo’o is one of the most beautiful waves in the world where you can have your most spectacular photo as well as the best wave of your life.” The competition takes place in August, since this is the month that giant swells come up from the Antarctic Ocean to slam the coast of the peninsula. It was during August 2000 that Laird Hamilton, the surfer from Hawaii, took the “wave of the Millennium,” a mutant wave that forever changed the image of surfing. To say the least, the greatest moments in modern surfing have taken place at Teahupo’o. In 2005, Kelly Slater took the event with two 10-point waves for a total of 20 points, the highest score for the first time in the history of competitive surfing. By the end of the finals, he paddled to his boat, requested a can of cold beer, then went back to take a last wave, allowing himself the luxury of a mouthful of beer in the tube. This image was immortalized in all the magazines.