welcome to the carnival
No circus is complete without its clowns, its dare devils, its high wire trapeze artists; those that risk it all with no net, and of course the beautiful ladies riding bareback. But what makes a circus? What makes all the fun of the fair is the crowd. Those that go ‘ooohhh’ and ‘ahhhh’ at the spectacle. The WSL surf event in Tahiti at Teahupoo is just the same, it’s a carnival. Because of the way that the fresh water of the local river flows into the sea and around the edge of the coral reef at Teahupoo it has created a very pitted coral formation, a formation with huge crevasses. Those aquatic valleys within the coral reef make it possible for the audience to sit in deep water and get so close to the action. The waves can be 10 foot plus and you can be close enough to here those out in the water competing talk to each other. Although in front of you is the most magical of waves, possibly the most powerful wave pound for pound in the world, and on that wave the worlds best competitor’s going head to head to prove who is the world champion, at least fifty percent of the attraction at Teahupoo is the setting and those watching. The pro surfers have their entourage with them; their coaches, managers and sponsors and because of the unique setting of Teahupoo, which is also called the End of the Road, a lot of pro surfers bring their girlfriends and families because it is like being at the circus and they are all there out on the water being part of the parade.
The crowd gets continually topped up every half hour by the taxi boats ferrying tourist out to see the competition, these boats are full of an assortment of old and young from afar and wide and the only unifying thing is the awe at the waves and the iPhone or GoPro all pointed in the same direction. One thing you get to realise about Tahiti is that the locals are really water people. They live on or very near the water, it’s their food, it’s their playground and their sports field and any time Tahiti or a Tahitian features on the world stage they are nationally focused. So, while Teahupoo is in the world spotlight amongst the surfers and their clip ons, amongst the world media and the taxi boats, there is every type of local watercraft you can imagine; from blow up lilos to sixty-foot yachts, from paddleboards to tinnies, all full in of yelling Tahitians and their dogs in some cases. The road out to Teahupoo is world renowned and an experience in itself; the casual approach of the pedestrians, those carrying baguettes weaving in and out of dogs and kids and potholes on bikes, not only do you have the people to deal with you have amazing scenery that is a constant distraction. There is a clarity of light and a colour of the water in Tahiti that makes it so unique. Everything seems to have a sharpness and a vibrance, whether looking down from the mountain tops or simply driving along the road, it’s mesmerising. Teahupoo is really about economies of scale, when you are out on the water everything is distorted I have already mentioned the clarity of the light and the vibrance of the colours but simply the volume of what your eyes can take in, the wave itself is a magical thing of beauty but its pure volume of displaced water can be both breathtaking and terrifying. Yet if you simply turn around and look inland, there by contrast to the blue of the water are the massive green mountains that make up the interior and these are separated by deep majestic valleys and often even on the hottest of day the mountain tops are covered in whisps of cloud to make the whole vision surreal. Teahupoo, which in Tahitian means something like “the place of broken skulls” is reference to a much-feared ancient king who collected his enemies’ heads. It’s a spiritual place yet it does not have a feeling of fearfulness – sure the waves are big and scary, and people have been hurt but it’s seen as one of the most powerful waves in the world yet there has only ever been one death here. I spoke with Denis Grosmaire, our boat driver and the bother of Tikanui Smith, possibly Tahiti most prestigious big wave surfer, and asked did he fear for his brothers safety here when it’s big and he replied quickly, “no never – it can be hard but she won’t kill.” It maybe once again those massive transitions of water which rather than hold you down simply blows you through to the lagoon, or maybe the amazing ability of the local surf patrol.
Tahiti gained fame in 1789 when the Bounty arrived after it had been at sea for months – it is hardly surprising the crew never wanted to leave and eventually mutinied. The Tahiti people are friendly to a fault, accepting, slow to anger, happy to share and being such a small place, everyone know everyone and, in most cases are related to someone. As the boats jostle for position in the channel at Teahupoo watching the event, the boats continually bang and collide, in any other country there would be ‘boat rage’ like car rage but on the water, here in Tahiti apologies are made with a hand wave or a smile and they bring that friendship everywhere. Wherever you drive people are waving to you and calling out often to the confusion of the tourist as its like being greeted by a long-lost friend. People share food and drinks and you get invited home to meet family and friends; they have a real feeling that they are blessed to live in Tahiti and they want to share.
The magestic backdrop to the Teahupoo stop on the World Surfing Tour
ABOVE: 2018 Teahupoo Champion, Gabriel Mendina, enjoying a free surf during a contest layday.