Tube Trials Eight Tahitian Dads
Afloat again, Swell and I rush to meet an Aussie filmer to finish up the footage needed for the Dear & Yonder surf film. After a jam-packed ten days spent tracking down waves together, I settle back into life on the sea: My lagoon swimming pool shimmers each morning; I enjoy open-air showers on the aft deck, the chilly air in my refrigerator, and sleeping under the stars without mosquitoes buzzing. The new wind generator boosts the amount of power to the batteries, so now I’m able to use the lights, fridge, stereo, and computer without hauling out the portable gasoline generator every evening. Plus, I have the freedom to sail again.
I decide to see parts of Tahiti I haven’t yet explored. It’s time to face the wave phenomenon at Teahupo’o. Professional surfers fly in from around the world to challenge themselves and hopefully ride through one of its enormous round tubes.
Tahiti Map Photo Gallery
There is a swell on the way and after building my skills surfing reef passes, I’m ready to give it a shot. I’ve seen the photos, and part of me wants nothing to do with its menacing thick lip, ledgy takeoff, and shallow reef, but another part of me that slightly insane part knows I can’t sail away without at least making an attempt.
I spot two masts in a small fishing marina, as I steer Swell into the calm waters of the Teahupo’o lagoon between the green and red markers. A man in a single outrigger canoe with a surfboard across the front guides me around the coral heads of the shallow entrance. I hop to the bow to tie on dock lines and throw out bumpers, then back to the wheel to spin Swell 180 degrees into the premier Teahupo’o parking spot.
Fishermen gathered near an ice house stare from across the marina. A crowd of young Tahitian girls gather at the end of the dock watching curiously. I wave and smile. They wave and smile. The fishermen raise their beers. The girls go back to playing. It’s Saturday afternoon in the quiet little town at the end of the road. The opposite side of the marina hosts a colorful lineup of local fishing boats. I introduce myself to the girls, then hop on my bike and pedal over to make sure it’s okay to park Swell here at the dock.
“‘Iaorana!” I offer, skidding to a halt with my bare feet as brakes. The salty-looking Tahitian fishermen of ranging ages are sitting on crates, car hoods, a cooler, and a rustywheeled dolly. “O vau Liz.” (I’m Liz.)
For a moment they’re silent and I feel a wave of shyness coming over me.
“Eha to oe huru?” (How’s it going?) a large, jolly one asks.
“Maita‘iI reply. “E oe?” (Good, and you?)
Clearly amused by my effort to speak Tahitian, the white-haired veteran sitting on the cooler pulls out an icy Hinano for me and scoots over to offer a seat. I sip the icy refreshment and answer their questions. Where did I come from? How long will I be here? Need any ice? Or fish? Alone!? Then be careful on the street at night and lock up your boat, they warn. Come let them know if I have any problems. ‘Aitape‘ape‘a (don’t worry), the dock is free. I soon have eight new Tahitian dads watching out for me. I stay for a while and listen to the rugged group joke and tell fishing yarns.
“Mauruuru! AnanahU” (Thank you! See you tomorrow!) I call to them when I pedal off to check out the rest of the neighborhood.
The thundering sound on the outer reefs makes it impossible to sleep that night. I toss and turn with visions of the punishing lip and jagged coral below. At dawn, after a bit of nervous puttering, I reluctantly pull out my 6’4″ and load into the dinghy. I wave goodbye to my Tahitian dads as I head off across the lagoon, talking myself through a strategy.
I idle the dinghy in the channel, scoping out the sets and the dynamic of the crowd. The cloud cover gives the surf a gray, angry look, as wave faces suck up and heave into cavernous water cylinders. The sets look manageable, though. It’s only a couple feet overhead at most. I spot a few familiar faces that I’ve seen at other breaks, so I tie up to the buoy in the channel and paddle for the lineup.
I sit wide for a while to get comfortable and observe. And then, “This one, Liz, go!” one of the guys calls.
I paddle hard and get under it, grab my rail, and lock into backside three-wheel drive, bracing myself for disaster but to my surprise, I make the drop and launch out the end.
That wasn’t so bad!
Soon my fears have diffused and I paddle confidently across the lineup during a lull to greet the others with the customary local handshake.
“Liz,” calls another guy I know. “You have a pa‘a ihu caca nez.” He signals to me with a grin, putting a finger to his nose to demonstrate where my booger is.
I quickly wipe it away and burst into embarrassed laughter. None of the other guys I’d greeted had bothered to tell me. I learned then, and again, that Teahupo’o always keeps you humble.
Trust the King
Sunrise in the Teahupo’o marina two weeks later finds me in a downward dog pose, staring at the grass growing out from the cracks in the rotting wooden planks of the dock. I’ve made progress in the lineup, especially thanks to a local waterman who has helped me catch waves during my recent sessions. After yoga, I make a cup of tea and scan the reef. The swell is the biggest yet, and I can see Raimana’s boat tied to the buoy near the wave with half a dozen smaller boats trailing behind like baby ducks.
I load up and head over, but I’m deterred by a funky morning bump and the thickest crowd I’ve seen yet, so I attach my dinghy to the row of boats and lay back under my pareo, thinking about my most memorable big-wave sessions in other places: the heavy wipeouts and long hold-downs, scratching for the horizon when a set appears, duck-diving through the face of the first wave with open eyes wondering what’s behind it. And patiently searching for the right wave, because there’s nothing like the sensation of skittering down a water mountain. I both love and fear big waves, but Teahupo’o is on a scale of its own.
The crowd has thinned and the conditions are glassing off. The sets look frightening, but Raimana’s presence makes me feel safer. A handful of guys paddle back to their boats, so I decide to go out and try to catch at least one wave. The sun breaks through the clouds as I make it to the lineup with the five remaining surfers. I luck into a small wave to warm up, and turn to see Raimana dropping into a beauty on his stand-up paddleboard. He pulls into the gaping tube and flies out near me in the channel.
When we arrive back at the lineup, he calls me over and directs me to sit just deeper than him. “You ready? Relax, take deep breaths, it’s okay.”
I feel surprisingly calm already. Soon a set rises out of the deep blue. The line of water stacks on itself and someone paddles for it. When the second wave approaches Raimana calls out, “Heeeeeeeeeeep! Hold off, guys! This is you, Liz. Paddle, go, paddle hard! Toward the reef!” I dig my arms into the water, totally committed. I get in easily. Drop. Roar. And in another instant, I go launching out the now-familiar exit ramp.
“Good,” he says as I paddle back out with an uncontainable smile. “Now come here again. Sit here. I’m gonna push you this time. A bigger one.”
What have I gotten myself into?
“Let’s move out and a little deeper. Yes a little more a little more Okay, here.”
I can’t imagine how we are going to catch a wave sitting here, but I’m certainly not going to argue.
“Don’t worry, babe, you’ll get in early,” he coos.
This is a rare moment with Raimana’s attention, the small crowd, and the beautiful conditions. I have to embrace my chance.
I’m poised, every cell in my body tingling with anticipation. Finally, it comes The sight of it takes my breath away. A beast of a set sucks the water off the reef and stands up before us.
“Okay, now, this one! Hey boys, hey, it’s Liz. Okay, girl, turn around, paddle past me to the inside. The inside! Now go, go, go!”
There’s no backing out, and no time for fear. I have to make this drop or the wipeout will be horrendous I put my trust in Raimana, put my head down, and paddle like hell.
He follows closely behind me, and when the mass of water starts to pitch, I feel his hand press firmly against the flat of my foot. With a strong shove he launches me into the wave. I could never have caught it on my 6’4″ without his push. I rise to my feet and go cascading down the slope of water, gripping my rail for dear life. I barely make the drop, then accelerate across the enormous blue wall. One false move could mean the worst wipeout of my life. The wave releases me and I skitter into the safety zone, giddy and grateful to have escaped without punishment. I wasn’t quite in the tube, but the size, the rush, the vision, and encouragement I’m hooked!