The most-feared wave in the world: going into the Teahupoo tube is any surfer’s dream
It is the walk of fame for surfers. The riskiest left wave, and an irresistible draw for the most daring and experienced of them. Few dare to go into Teahupoo, and even fewer manage to come out standing. Its power and speed make it the most difficult wave in the world.
“How were we going to surf that? It was nuts!” Dylan Longbottom, surfing legend, was there, in Tahiti, on 27 August 2011, during the World Surf League (WSL).
That day saw the highest waves recorded in Teahupoo, when they reached 10 m, double their normal size. The French Navy had assigned the code double red to the zone, and it was an arrestable offence to go in the water. The wave was furiously approaching.
Surfers may spend up to three hours in the water, waiting their turn to ride the wave. /Photo: Brian Bielmann
TOW-IN SURFING SURVIVES HERE
A decade ago, tow-in surfing went out of fashion. This method involves jet skis and even helicopters, which tow surfers to the entrance to the wave, giving them impetus that allows them to perform more spectacular manoeuvres. Because of the force of Teahupoo, this method continues to be a must.
For some participants in the contest, the prospect of danger did no more than increase their desire to ride the wave, although fear was also a factor. “It was terrifying. We could have died there,” said Longbottom.
Despite fear and disobeying official instructions, he and several other intrepid surfers went into the sea. “Surfing that wave and getting out of it was a priceless experience,” the surfer would later confirm, at the end of a day that would remain engraved on the history of surfing.
What happened was so epic that people are still talking about it. It even inspired a documentary, Code red.Pipeline (Hawaii) and Mavericks (California) are other famous waves, but none is comparable to Teahupoo, for its danger and shape. Its name means ‘wall of skulls’ and it comes from a former Tahitian king, who was feared for his love of skull collecting.
Teahupoo starts near the Havae channel, 70 km south-east of Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. There, 700 m into the sea, it breaks on a coral reef with a half-moon formation, which enjoys a close-up view of the surfers flying over it.
The islands of Tahiti are the exposed peaks of former volcanoes, which is why the ocean can reach a kilometre deep near the shore. /Photo: Brian Bielmann
TAHITI, THE CRADLE OF SURFING
In 1788 James Morrison, deserter from the famous HMS Bounty, wrote of his surprise on encountering the Tahitians: “they take a board (…) and then swim out beyond the breakers to wait for big waves to form, (…) and wait with their bellies on the board, they get onto the crest (…) and move along with the wave at extraordinary speed”.
The depth of the ocean abruptly changes from 45 m to 1.5 m, which provokes a virulent wave, with almost more tube than wall, and which lasts from 50 to 150 m.
In fact, the strange anatomy of this wave, since it is a tube from start to finish, allows no manoeuvres, and so surfing the tube is the only thing scored in the contest.
Teahupoo becomes an authentic spectacle. During the season, an army of boats, boards, jet skis and even improvised bars on the waves, flock around it.
It is a naval battle where the fight is to find and keep the best position. Surfers await their moment to enter the battle on their boards, to conquer the crest of the wave. Photographers try to get as close as possible with their cameras, to get the best shots. Tourists watch excitedly from a raft at the foot of the wave.
About 20,000 people go surfing in Polynesian waters each year. /Photo: Brian Bielmann
From that privileged position, they watch unlucky surfers who fail to keep their balance and fall, enduring the violence of the wave and the threat of the reef under the surface. When fortune is kind, they become ecstatic, watching the riders who manage to slide over the water until the end of the tube and come out standing, with the smile of someone who has achieved their dream and conquered the most extreme wave in the ocean.
Source: Passenger 6A