The Teahupoo Swell
Photo by Phil Erikson/Red Bull...
Check out the Teahupoo Photo Gallery!
The Teahupoo break in Tahiti's got a daunting reputation. When
it's big, it shows no mercy. At Teahupoo, water pours off the reef
and drops down into a cylinder-like cavern. If you look at the reef
from the air you can see why the wave behaves the way it does.
There is a tiny keyhole that allows a small channel, with a
v-shaped bottom, to emerge. The other unique thing that separates
this wave from most others is that it breaks below sea level, so
you feel like you're in some sort of dungeon waiting to be let out.
The back of the wave is basically flat, so there is no way of
gauging just how big it is from behind. All you can see are massive
amounts of white water getting shooting backwards as the wave
explodes onto the shallow reef. Usually the first wave in a set
sends so much white water in so many different directions that the
second and third waves are 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 with the surfers trying to catch the ultimate ride.
Knowing all this about Teauhpoo, 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 took one quick phone call and a
look at the weather maps to convince Robert to take us under his
Our morning arrival in Tahiti did not disappoint. Sand covered
the roads and some homes had been washed away. The bungalows at the
Intercontinental resort on the Island of Bora Bora had totally been
destroyed by the massive swells. The morning boat trip out to the
break is 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 like a 747
hitting the water.
The longer I sat in the boat, the more dangerous it got. Sitting
like a vegetable, contemplating whether I was ready to tackle such
a feat, watching every bomb wave punish the reef, takes another
notch of confidence from your belt. Excitement slowly and
inevitably turns to melancholy. It was refreshing to see someone
like Robert, at the other end of the spectrum. He was lit up like a
matchstick, ready to surf some waves.
Before I could say, "Robert, you're 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 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 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 simply 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 to rig his windsurf equipment. Shit, I mean
why not! He had already got barreled, put on an aerial show, so why
not go windsurf? If I were to put the wind velocity into context, I
would say a mosquito would have had more chance to catch a
I knew the challenges of towing-in a windsurfer when the wind is
super light. You sometimes get back-winded at the bottom of the
wave and setting yourself 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 are just not right. Like an African boy testing his manhood by
trying to slap a full-grown lion in the wild. 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.
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 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 Jacques Cousteau would have
been proud of.
With his equipment totally trashed he made his way back to the
boat. I mentioned that he should be wearing his life vest. In the
meantime I was still in the boat, busy "mind fucking" myself. One
side of my brain was content with watching; the other was calling
me a pussy for not getting out there. While an entourage of painful
scenarios leapt in and out of my brain, I found that the simplest
way to execute a decision was to take the road less traveled. It
may not be the straightest of roads but it guarantees one hell of a
ride. With that experience behind you, the rest is bliss. Perfect
12 to 15 foot surf awaits, with jubes so hollow you could invite a
small Greek family along for the ride.