Words by Andy
Latitude: 16 degrees, 44.16′S
Longitude: 151 degrees, 29.3′W
Coming from a pitiful summer of waves on the West Coast of Canada straight into the sharp reef passes of Tahiti gave me visions of being scraped across the sharp coral on my first wave of the trip. Hugh’s stories on the way to the boat from the airport about being dragged through the inside section at Teahupoo earlier that day didn’t ease my mind in the slightest. Surfing in French Polynesia is almost exclusively done on the edges of deep passes cut thought the reefs by the strong currents that flush in and out of the calm lagoons. The swells charge out of the depths and are abruptly forced up and out by the extreme change in bottom contour as they plunge onto and along the shallow shelves. This creates powerful waves no matter what the size; even at waist high a barrel is likely. When the swell is larger though the tubes get large and very heavy.
So, as I was saying, I was expecting a thrashing on the first session and was pleased when I came out unscathed by the coral. That is not to say that the waves were not heavy. Hugh and I managed to grab some great waves but not any of the really huge sets that were rolling through the pass that morning. We had the sailboat moored near the Capital city of Papeete while waiting for Ryan to arrive from Canada the next day and although we had great waves a short dingy ride away, the lineup was packed due to the close proximity to the city. These twenty or so guys in the water definitely knew the place inside and out and knew where to be to get slotted off the takeoff and spat back into the channel. They were super friendly as each new face paddled out to join the group they would shake your hand, say hi…and then proceed to take the best waves, all the while having a big friendly smile on their face. The lineup was also a very diverse one with surfers, boogie boarders and standup paddle boarders all sharing waves. There was even a Kayaker who got the barrel of the day to the delight of all who witnessed it. This wasn’t a little surf kayak that we were used to seeing back home either…this was a full size ocean kayak. Needless to say there was plenty of waves to go around and we got our fill. Nancy on the other hand sat in the dingy with her mini-mal and enjoyed the show from the safety of the channel.
Ryan arrived that evening and we all spent the next day provisioning the boat to leave the city and find some empty lineups. Hugh had a great time down on the southern tip of Tahiti in the sleepy little town of Teahupoo the week prior and it sounded like a great place. The town is known as being home to one of the heaviest waves on the planet. Hugh had come out in one piece from the famed wave, so Ryan and I figured we wanted the chance to check the wave off of our wish list. There was also amazing snorkeling to be had to keep Nancy stoked.
We set sail that next morning down the coast with the sun blazing overhead. It was a relatively short sail; only six hours, so Nancy and I figured there was no need to waste any of our sea sickness patches and just chance it. As it turned out the wind was coming from Teahupoo so we were beating upwind making the ride a little bit bumpy. Regardless, the sailing was extremely fun as we had the main and head sails up and were moving at a respectable pace. About four hours into the journey we discovered that Nancy didn’t need the meds on a short crossing but I sure did as I lost my lunch over the rail. Shortly thereafter we entered the ‘big pass’ just west of the town and were able to sail the final hour in the protected waters of the lagoon behind the reef.
We managed to score a great spot on the local dock amongst the fisherman equipped with running water and an amazing glimpse of the reef passes through the binoculars and of course a great view of the surrounding skyline that we had all seen so many times in surf videos.
It would be rather difficult to score a lot of waves anywhere in French Polynesia without a boat or extreme stamina. The reef is generally about half a kilometer away from shore and that is if you were directly on shore from the pass. Usually we would have to cruise down the coast a bit so a simple paddle from shore is not really an option. Luckily we were equipped and spent the next few days getting plenty of waves with no one else around. The famed pass was not the gnarly beast that is seen in videos so there were not a lot of surfers in town. Ryan and I did both go out for a session at the main break and each got a couple freight trains to say we’d surfed it. The wave itself is strange to surf as it wraps its way along the reef. The main barrel section seems to be coming straight at you, as if it were trying to scare you off of the ride. If you can hold on though, the wall holds up until the end, where you really do have to pull off before being closed out onto the sharp reef.
We had an amazing time in the town and even though they waves were not life threatening that is not to say that there was a shortage of waves; there was not a session that we didn’t have a few head high sets rolling through. We had plenty of fun surf and great snorkeling inside of the reef before heading the boat north towards Moorea.
We pulled off the dock following breakfast following our morning surf and headed to a spot that the boys had scored some epic waves at before there short trip home and were hopeful about what we would find. We had a great sail up there with the wind at our back the whole time. This short crossing we were not chancing a repeat of the last sail and took the medications and had no problems. We arrived just before dark to find very little swell and some nasty side shore wind, but our hope was not lost as there was a swell forecasted for the next day. We also found a fellow sailor that the crew had met a while back on their journey. The sailor was Liz Clarke, a California surfer who was charging her way around the globe on a mainly solo mission, although on this instance she had a few friends on board who were filming her for an upcoming women’s surf movie. They were all tired from a long crossing from the Tuamotus and after a few stories were exchanged everyone turned in for dinner and straight to bed.
We woke in the morning to find that the swell had definitely arrived with double overhead sets grinding there way around the reef. It didn’t look that way from shore and Ryan and I soon discovered that we were very under gunned following our twenty minute paddle from the boat. It also didn’t look like there was a horrendous current pulling into the pit and out to sea as well as a side shore wind that made the surf virtually unrideable. We decided that it was in our best interest to head back to the boat and make our way to the next anchorage.
It turned out that getting through the pass was not as straight forward as when we had first entered. The three meter ground swell was grinding down both sides of the pass causing bone chilling double to triple overhead barrels to break to close to the boat for comfort. The resulting build up of water behind the reef was creating some horrendous currents that were winding their was back through the pass to the open ocean. To make matters worse, the swell had scraped a large amount of a coral-like seaweed off of the reef, which resulted in large rafts of the debris covering the surface. As we were in the middle of the pass making our way to the most dangerous section Hugh realized that the water intake for cooling the engine was blocked causing it to overheat. We were forced to cut the engine in the middle of the pass with heaving swells charging past and sail our way back into the protected waters of the lagoon. After a short dive to clean the water intake, we were back at it and successfully navigated the passage. The boys knew that the other side of the island would be out of the wind giving us time to relax and spend a day snorkeling in the crystal clear water before our first real passage. An overnight crossing lay ahead to the island of Raiatea, a place where the surf looked to be epic and locals were known to be fierce. The boys were especially excited since this was to be the next leg of unexplored coast by the crew.