TIGER LILLY - SURF'S UP!
20 August 2014 | Teahupoo, Tahiti Iti
Tom & Lilly
Our nomadic lifestyle aboard a cruising sailboat provides many and varied opportunities to experience the sights and sounds of the Blue Planet; some of which we diligently plan, but others come along quite serendipitously - and these little surprises often prove to be the most rewarding.
TIGER LILLY continues her sail across the South Pacific's vast central region called Oceana; this past week we finished a 500 mile passage from the Hao Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, to the Society Islands of French Polynesia. We made our Tahitian landfall at Pointe Fareara on the southern tip of Tahiti Iti - that is Little Tahiti - and then sailed outside the reef along the south shore. Tahiti Iti's southern coast is a dramatic panorama of lush tropical foliage, with every shade of green imaginable covering high peaked volcanic mountains cleaved by deep mysterious valleys - it brings to mind scenes from the movie "King Kong". The surf breaking on the fringing reef encircles the island like a lovely diamond necklace; only a narrow strip of beach and shoreline is inhabitable between the high emerald mountain cliffs and the azure lagoon behind the reef. To the eyes of a sailor coming in from the sea it is Paradise - this is what we came to see. The valleys bring the cool mountain streams down to the coast, and wherever the fresh water spills across the reef, the coral cannot grow - this is where the passes between the sea and the lagoon form. As we made our approach to Passe Havae we knew something unusual was happening on the reef. We passed canopy-covered excursion boats chock full of people, open fishing vessels with stacks of surfboards were jockeying right into the periphery of the surf, and camera-rigged jet skis darted between the huge breakers. Several surfers were seaward of the reef, sitting astride their boards, waiting to take their turn, poised to mount their wave. As we entered Passe Havae, huge breaking waves on each side of the pass seemed to tower over TIGER LILLY'S mast head. The pass had a deep surge and plenty of current, which ratcheted up the pucker factor; it was "eyes in the boat" and keep her down the center all the way in. As with most challenging endeavors, anticipating the unknown hazards of the pass was actually more difficult than actually running it. Once past the breakers, on our starboard hand we passed a tall multi-level guyed platform set up on the inner reef with a wrap-around banner boldly proclaiming "BILLABONG". It looked like a duck blind on steroids - what's up with that?
It seems we got lucky and just happened to arrive at the Village of Teahupoo for the Annual Billabong Pro World Surfing Championship. The World's top 36 professional surfers have come to Tahiti to ride some of the Pacific's largest and arguably most dangerous waves. Generated by strong weather systems in the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean, these powerful 6 meter tall waves travel unimpeded for over 2000 miles as they march in from the deep ocean, sweep down on Tahiti's south shore, and break on the coral fringing reef. It is absolutely amazing just how much raw energy is expended in such a short period of time as the Giants of Teahupoo come ashore. Tahiti's extensive coral reefs absorb the awesome power of the sea, and provide a safe haven on an otherwise dangerous coast; our cozy and tranquil anchorage just inside the reef at Maeretau Harbour is protected by the same coral which would tear the bottom right out of a ship. With binoculars, we can view the surfing action out on the reef from TIGER LILLY'S cockpit. Each morning we see a helicopter with a dangling gyro-stabilized camera lift off from the village soccer field and fly out to the reef; and yesterday afternoon a Lear Jet made a low and slow pass over the surfers tuning up on the reef. Perhaps this was Kelly Slater's way of letting his mates know that the Champ has arrived? Something big is about to happen here, and the anticipation of a major sporting event is building daily. It turns out that the imposing BILLABONG tower on the pass is an observation platform for the match officials and the ESPN camera crews.
A fringing coral reef exposed to a large sea is one of the most dynamic and powerful environments in nature. Off Pointe Faremahora, the waves come in from the deep ocean and climb the onshore gradient in less than a half-mile. As they approach the reef their height, potential energy, and internal rotation all increase dramatically. As the Giants of Teahupoo mount the reef diagonally, they obliquely rip across the face of the coral at incredible speed, finally rolling over and collapsing upon their own enormous weight as the wave's base is tripped-up by their predecessor's back-wash. This massive release of kinetic energy creates a thunderous crashing tumult of sound and vibration which we can see, hear, and actually feel over a mile away. First, we see the wave collapse in an explosion of white foam as it crosses the reef; then we sense a powerful vibration - sometimes it feels like the rumbling of distant thunder; and finally the sound of tens of thousands of tons of seawater crashing and pounding on the reef assaults our ears from across the lagoon. When the surf is up at Teahupoo, those of us who live on or around the waterfront develop an awareness of these monstrous waves which is never far from the forefront of our consciousness. The Giants of Teahupoo have a unique beauty and grander about them; they appear to be alive - albeit for only seconds. In the early morning, we can watch the tropical sunlight shine right through the huge curling waves breaking to the east of our anchorage; the color of the early light transitions down the wave from a brilliant white sparkling froth toppling at the crest, into an opaque shimmering aquamarine of the smooth concave mid-body, and finally into the deep cobalt blue of the wave's deceptively quiescent base. We watch as a very brave surfer comes over the top of his wave, stands and becomes one with his board, and then advances rapidly across the face of a nearly vertical wall of water. He slides in and out of the curling wave top; the Tahitian surfers call it the barrel. The man and his surfboard are seemingly sucked back into the blue abyss - hopefully to reappear and finish his short ride. Our binoculars bring us into the presence of these highly skilled and courageous athletes; it is a powerful and fearsome experience. Teahupoo's waves have a reputation of being the most dangerous encountered on the global professional surfing circuit; the razor sharp coral awaiting each man is quite unforgiving, and falls often have very severe consequences. Our hearts are with them as these passionate young men seemingly fly down and across the face of a very steep precipice; their sport is one of speed, style, and ultimately - survival.
At days end, we lay back in our bunk under an open hatch and watch the brilliantly starlit night sky of the Tropical South Pacific above. Someone in the village is playing a jaunty tune on a ukulele. The delicate fragrance of frangipani spills off the mountain and is carried to us on the cool evening breeze. The pricks of light from the thousands and thousands of distant stars are just like points on the millennia as we time-travel through history. We think back to those who have gone before us, the great Polynesian Navigators and the early explorers like Captain Cook; who watched this same celestial display, and also wondered of the distant source. As did they, we drift off to sleep listening to a crashing, crushing, pounding, cacophony out on the reef as the Giants of Teahupoo are ripped asunder, and we are reminded - How Great Thou Art.
To see some video of this incredible surfing event check out the ASP website at:
To see our pictures of Tahiti Iti and the Teahupoo Billabong Pro World Surfing Championship go to our site on Sailblogs at: http://www.sailblogs.com/member/tigerlilly/
and navigate thusly - click on PHOTO GALLERY, By Sea, Oceana, French Polynesia, Tahiti. See you there!