SPECTATORS - TEAHUPO`O
Tahiti`s Code Red swell
Words and photos by Ian Bolton
“Well, I just dropped Slater off back on the shore,” the boat driver tells me. “He said he wants nothing to do with today and that someone is going to die.” All I asked was if it was very big today at Teahupo`o. I was trying to haggle and barter a ride out to the reef.
About 72 hours earlier I woke up at my girlfriend’s place in downtown Vancouver, looked at the swell forecast for Tahiti, and impulsively booked a flight to the small French Polynesian Island as soon as possible. Most surfers worth there weight in salt have dreams of seeing a massive Teahupoo swell in person and watching the best tow in surfers in the world whip into the gnarliest wave on the planet. I had shared that dream for a very long time.
After a quick 20-hour flight journey, I landed in Papeete, Tahiti. It was late in the evening and I had no plans and no idea what to do. I rented a car and headed down the west coast of the small island. I spent the first nigh sleeping in the front seat of my tiny rental car. In the morning, I was lucky enough to meet someone who knew of a local family I could stay with for the next few nights. There’s really no organized accommodation to rent in the ultra tiny town of Teahupoo. They call it, “The end of the road” for a reason.
The actual reef break of Teahupoo is located about a kilometer out to sea, so getting there can be a challenge. Some people paddle it, some canoe, but when it’s big boating is really the only option.
The first day I was there, the ASP was running the Billabong Pro, and with a lucky hookup through a friend at Billabong, I was able to board one of their boats for the day to watch the contest. Sitting in the channel and seeing guys like Parko, Fanning, Slater and the rest of the crew paddle into those elevator drops that were heavy as hell and getting spit out of the barrels was absolutely unreal. But the swell was building fast and there was already talk about what was to come, with the biggest names in big wave surfing supposedly flying in for the following day’s swell.
I woke up that night to what I thought was thunder, but quickly realized it was the swell, and it had arrived. In the morning I knew that a big wave session was going to happen. I ripped down to the marina where the boats leave from to try to get myself out to the Teahupoo reef. My free pass with Billabong had expired and the contest was on hold because it was too big, so I was on my own to find a ride. After the first boat driver I approached told me Slater’s opinion on the conditions, he filled me in about why there are police everywhere.
“The French Navy has ordered a Double Code Red water warning, and are threatening to arrest any boat drivers that leave the harbor.” Photographers, reporters, and other pros were all pacing around the marina in frustration. Somebody said that Bruce Irons and Nathan Fletcher were already out there towing in. They were taking their chances with the French Navy. For the next two hours we all ran around frantically trying to get out there, but it wasn’t happening.
Finally, a group of us pooled enough cash to convince a local boat driver to say, “Fuck it. Let’s go. They can’t arrest all of us.” It was the most frustrating two hours of my life before I boarded the boats and we left the harbor. The deal we had worked out with the local fisherman was for him to run us out there to watch the action for only 30 minutes. After that he decided to grab another boatload of people and do the same thing, so I paid him again and stayed on the boat. I did that for the next two hours. It was the best money I had ever spent!
Watching that wave develop from a bump in the deep ocean into the most incredible, powerful, and insane wave known to surfers is impossible to put into words. Slater said afterwards, “It’s life or death out there. Letting go of that rope one time can change your life and not many people will experience that.”
I didn’t take many photos that day because the distraction of using my camera seemed like an injustice. I just needed to be there in the moment to feel and absorb what was happening. I later heard that several Tahiti veterans claimed it to be the biggest and heaviest Teahupoo ever surfed. I was extremely fortunate to see it with my own eyes. It was man against nature at its most dangerous state that day, and luckily man won.