Throughout the years, the Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour's Billabong Pro Tahiti has provided some of the most exciting moments of a given season. But with the excitement comes equal parts danger as the Top 34 surfers in the world battle each other and Mother Nature at one of the world's heaviest waves, Teahupo'o.
Science Class: How Does Teahupo'o Happen?
TEAHUPO'O BEST CONDITIONS
Swell Height: 4' - 12'
Swell Direction: South - Southwest
Wind Direction: East
Tide: Mid-Tide, but works on all tides
Water Temp: 80F
Bottom: Coral Reef
From the lineup, the island of Tahiti violently juts up from the sea in sheer cliffs, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Teahupo'o is a spot where the entire Pacific Ocean seemingly stacks up to eat itself whole: It's French Polynesia's razor-thin line between glory and disaster. That striking geography is mimicked in the design of the offshore ocean floor -- steep, jagged and extreme.
Energy from powerful maelstroms that blow over the waters off Antarctica (strongest from March to November) travels thousands of miles to arrive in the form of south and southwest swells. What's unique about the spot is that, because the ocean stays deep close to shore -- less than a half-mile out, the water is still about 1,000 feet deep -- not only do those swells maintain all their power, but that energy actually gets funneled toward the break, increasing the speed of the wave.
Tahiti, and many tropical islands, are ringed by non-descript reefs where swell pushes energy into unceremonious closeouts. But breaks in the reef, known as reef passes, and other inconsistencies, create magical peeling waves. And Teahupo'o is a one-in-a-million reef pass: As a wave approaches, it doesn't stand up vertically so much as water draws backward off the reef and into the oncoming swell. The effect allows all that energy to fold unimpeded over the reef below.
Despite this awe-inspiring spectacle of hydrodynamics, there is one drawback for surfers hoping to get the tube of their lives: It's difficult to anticipate waves before they arrive, forcing a split-second decision on whether to commit on a wave or let it go.
Local waterman and Teahupo'o charger Raimana Van Bastolaer knows how difficult it is to position yourself in the lineup with so little time to react.
"It's about being in the right place at the right moment," he said. "You can be 3 or 5 feet away and it's not the right spot. There's boats with the camera guys behind the west bowl [to line up with]. If it's west you shouldn't be too far, if it's south you should be a little deeper."
Making the Barrel: Or, How to Surf Teahupo'o as Sanely as Possible
Teahupo'o is a wave that all but the most experienced surfers should avoid. You're either fully committed, or you're sitting safely in the channel. And there are enough obstacles to navigate without the waves: During the Billabong Pro, fans and media from all over the world are jockeying for the best view from anything that floats.
In short: This wave is all about the barrel. Your board, mind and body must be finely tuned for just that.
"You don't want too long of a board," said 2001 champ and storied charger Cory Lopez. "The drops are late and the wave has a lot of water moving. You don't want to poke that nose on a longer board. When it's big, I like to ride a 6'8" with a little extra thickness for paddling."
Paddle strength is a huge factor in the lineup at Teahupo'o and plays a big role in successful drops.
"To catch a big one you have to turn really early and start paddling as hard as you can," Lopez continued. "You have to put yourself under the lip to have a chance at making the drop. At that point if all goes well, you slide or free-fall straight into the barrel."
As Van Bastolaer put it, "The drop is not the hardest part. It's weakness of paddling and not being under the ledge. If you're too far up and still paddling you're going to get thrown over. You just have to commit mentally and be under the lip and ready to go for it."
Contending: Secret to Success at the Tahitian Slab
It would stand to reason that pure bravado would be the key to this bone-crusher, but more often than not it's experience. Like Fiji and Pipeline, the Billabong Pro Tahiti is one of those events that's consistently dominated by veterans.
"I've met some gnarly surfers that go for Pipeline and when they came here they were like, 'Whoa, whoa whoa, what's going on here?!' They were tripping," said Van Bastolaer. "It's about experience and commitment, especially when everybody is hooting at you from the channel. It's all about throwing yourself over the ledge."
The athletes who make the Final tend to be those who have surfed it for 10 to 15 years: Surfers like Taj Burrow (AUS), Kelly Slater (USA), C.J. Hobgood (USA), Mick Fanning (AUS), Damien Hobgood (USA), and the late Andy Irons. At Teahupo'o, knowledge is strength.
Still, a handful of younger surfers on the CT, including Gabriel Medina (BRA), Adriano de Souza (BRA), Josh Kerr (AUS), Owen Wright (AUS), and Julian Wilson (AUS) have developed serious tube-riding skills with three to five years of experience at the event in Tahiti.
Heavy History: How a Remote Wave Became a Media Darling
For most of surfing's history Teahupo'o, and "slab" waves like it, were thought to be unrideable. It was bodyboarders like Mike Stewart and Ben Severson who pioneered the perilous drops. But in the 90s, a few surfers started to understand how the wave worked. The first surf contest was run there in 1997 as part of the Qualifying Series (QS), before Gotcha picked it up a season later.
In 1999, Gotcha upped the ante and made the event a Championship Tour-level contest. But the rest of the world would hear about Teahupo'o in 2000 when Laird Hamilton towed into the squarest wave ridden there up to that point.
Through the next decade, Teahupo'o became the standard by which all heavy water is measured. In 2011, the break went Code Red -- the heaviest it had ever been seen, for the Billabong Pro Tahiti. On a live webcast, the world watched both monumental freesurfs and heats that changed history. But with every moment of success there are equal moments of danger with more than a few heavy wipeouts.
As a Teahupo'o local, Van Bastolaer has seen his share of spills there. "At the end of the wave at Teahupo'o there's a right that connects on the tow days," he said. "I think [WSL Commentator] Strider [Wasilewski] had one of the worst wipeouts there. He came out of this big tow-in wave, he made it, but ended up with the right coming at him and he couldn't get on top. He went straight into the right and ate it."
It's too early to tell what kind of swell is in store for the waiting period this year, but Teahupo'o already delivered for a WSL Strike Mission at the end of July, giving elite Tour competitors a healthy dose of anticipation.