By now -- after nearly two decades in both the surf and mainstream media limelight -- even the most casual surf fan knows about the wave at Teahupo'o. These days there's even a decent chance they can take a stab at pronouncing its name correctly.
Over the past 20 years, the pro tour event at Teahupo'o has certainly had its landmark moments -- from Conan Hayes' two 10s in 1998 (one of his 10s should have been a 12) and Cory Lopez's late drops in 1999, to 2011's Code Red swell. More recently, there was the Slater vs. Florence Semifinal duel in 2014.
Yet, unlike many of the other waves that currently make up the Championship Tour, until the mid- to late-1980s Teahupo'o was still a semi-secret spot, known only to a small group of locals and tight-lipped adventurers. By the early 1990s, however, bodyboarders like Mike Stewart and Ben Severson and a small cadre of Hawaiian pros had been visiting the place for years, returning to Oahu's North Shore with mythical tales (and photos) of waves as thick as their 20-foot high faces.
With the advent of tow-surfing in the late ‘90s, so too grew the fascination with Teahupo'o. Laird Hamilton's Y2K Millennial Wave (legend says the big fella wept quietly in the channel afterward) set in motion a tidal wave of media coverage matching the volume and ferocity of the surf spot itself. The wave at the end of the road has captured the hearts and minds of surfers from across the globe, tapping into the collective primal fears of our Id and the dreamlike fantasies of our Ego. Danger and beauty inexorably intertwined.
So what makes Teahupo'o so special? Simply stated, it's a combination of location, geology and bathymetry. Here's a brief overview of the three main elements that make Teahupo'o tick:
Teahupo'o is located along the Southeastern tip of Tahiti and is wide open to a varying degree of winter swells arriving from the South Pacific, accepting swells from 160˚ SSE degrees to 240˚ SW. While the island of Tahiti, and the rest of the Society Islands chain, is situated in the middle of the south central Pacific 1200 miles south of the Equator, there are a number of factors that can lead to swell disruption, or shadowing. These come mainly in the form of New Zealand's North and South islands and the Cook Island chain, not to mention numerous islets, atolls and reef passes dotted in between. Tempests brewing off Antarctica's icy shelf create powerful low pressure storms with deep fetch (essentially, wind blowing across water), sending lines of long period swells marching north towards Fiji, then French Polynesia, then beyond to coastlines in the Northern Hemisphere. The most consistent time of year is April - October, but it's not uncommon for an occasional rogue swell to arrive in the southern hemisphere's late summer months of February - March.
2. Swell Window
The ideal swell window for Teahupo'o is 180˚ S to 220˚ SW degrees, but the wave will still get good on swells coming from both more southerly and westerly directions. Swells in the 160˚ - 190˚ range tend to open up the wave face, while more westerly swells in the 200˚ - 230˚ will create more lined-up, bowly conditions. Teahupo'o prefers a longer period swell, as shorter period local wind swell out of the SSE will focus higher up on the reef. Mid-period to longer period swells in the 14 - 18 second range are ideal, as they'll focus more energy on the bowl section of the reef without closing out the end section. The best wind direction for Teahupo'o blows out of the N, E and ESE, with SE trade winds still creating clean conditions. Winds out of the W or NW are very poor for Teahupo'o.
3. What Lies Beneath
Like most big wave locations, the key to the wave dynamics at Teahupo'o is its unique bathymetry -- literally, the shape of the sea bottom. As Surfline's Sean Collins liked to say, "Geology is the foundation of every surf spot." The deep reef pass at Passe Havae was carved by eons of fresh water pouring down streams from the 4000-foot peaks of the Tahiti Iti (an extinct volcano) mountain range into the lagoon at the end of the road. Rising up out of deep water at a steepness ratio of nearly 1:1 (most barreling reef waves like Pipeline have a 1:10 ratio, slabs are typically in the 1:4 range) Teahupo'o's reef causes the wave to lurch up violently before folding under its own weight. Just 50 yards outside the reef at Teahupo'o the ocean floor falls away to over 350 feet, so you can imagine the speed and intensity of a wave breaking in 5 feet of water when a large South Pacific swell slams into the crescent shaped reef head-on. South of Teahupo'o, the ocean floor drops to more than 1000 feet just one-third of a mile offshore, then drops further to a depth of over 5000 feet just three miles offshore. The wave is an anomaly wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a salt-water delivery device.