Hands Free vs. Hold On: A Teahupo'o Takeaway

Weston Rogers

With its unique technical challenges backside tube riding is a difficult art to master. Navigating the unpredictability that's added into the equation by reduced vision and the need for added head space is a skill that separates the best surfers from the rest.

John John Florence (HAW)winning Heat 2 of Semis at Billabong Pro  Tahiti16 John John Florence has been refining his backhand barrel approach since he could walk, so he's always happy when it's time to put it on display. - WSL / Poullenot/Aquashot

Watching Championship Tour stars tackle average size Teahupo'o this year provided some valuable lessons. When Teahupo'o is huge, the classic pull in, stand tall, blow out routine needs no explanation. But things get much more complicated as barrels shrink. We witnessed several moments of brilliance this year as backsiders answered the challenge.

Kelly Slater winning the final of the Billabong Pro Tahiti for the fifth time in his career. The best backside tube riders commit to their approach well before dropping in. With rail engaged and line chosen, Slater is halfway home at this point. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

While grabbing the outside rail is the most common solution to solving the backside riddle, the ultimate form is the hands-free approach. Only a few surfers do it. Even fewer do it well.

John John Florence's journey to the Final of the Billabong Pro Tahiti was a tale of tube riding mastery; his reward a trip to the top of the ratings.

In fact, technical barrels garnered the highest scores this year, and while there were several bachhand standouts, Kelly Slater and John John Florence ended up in the final because they navigated these unpredictable tubes better than the rest at Teahupo'o. One huge part of their secret? Knowing when to let go.

Slater's backside tube riding clinic earned him a perfect total heat score of 20 in Round Five. It culminated in a silky smooth hands-free trip through the pit during his second perfect 10.

Their ability to position themselves properly, and control speed through the tube is uncanny. They drag, bend, and contort to slow down or accelerate. But any opportunity to go hands free is one they pounce on. The pinnacle came in Round Five, when Slater earned his second perfect score. Kelly's ability to swoop under the lip, and carry momentum over the foam ball, was the difference between a 10 and an incomplete ride.

Slater, during the Final at the Billabong Pro Tahiti. The art is ultimately an exercise in flexibility. Slater's unique brand of yoga poses come in handy in tight situations. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

Ross Williams equated Kelly's approach to "reading braille inside the barrel." Slater's cat-like feats looked impossibly natural. As for John John, his impressive brand of backhand tube riding helped him grab the yellow jersey for the first time in his career.