A Gumby’s Impression Of Teahupo’o
A Gumby’s Impression Of Teahupo’o
A fortnight ago I had the good fortune to be dispatched to Tahiti to do some work with Tim and Stephanie McKenna. The McKennas live in Paea, an hour down the road from the capital, Papeete. Follow this road to the end and of course you’ll arrive at Teahupo’o, the cosy village nestled between towering mountains and the lagoon fronting the wave pronounced by Joe Turpel as a seven-syllable hiccup, but known more colloquially to us as Chopes.
Tim’s been shooting Teahupo’o, (Choh-poo, the locals emphasise the second syllable) since the days he’d need to corral a crew to go surf the place. He was there, famously, to document Laird Hamilton’s ‘Millennium Wave’ in August, 2000, and he’s been there for every big swell since. And though he, Steph, and talented young wingman Lilou Valero regularly roam the far reaches of French Polynesia for an impressive roster of travel and fashion clients, Teahupo’o remains the sun around which Tim’s creative life has revolved.
It’s hard to imagine a more humble devotee than this friendly fella of few words and supreme talent, so what a treat to help out on this Teahupo’o task – enhanced by his and Steph’s glorious hospitality and the company of Bettina and Anders, a young Danish couple doing maintenance work on the house in exchange for lodging, and who might be the sweetest humans in the world.
It was an intense, fun, tunnel-vision kinda week in Tim and Steph’s studio, running hands through treasure chests of terrabytes, wrangling pixels and prose in French and English. Every now and again, I’d step out on to the deck, look out over the yard, down the lane, past the Oahu-ish greenery, the scratching chooks, the cats and the Indo-esque pooches, across the road (where about one in seven people walking by would, delightfully, be brandishing a baguette) and out to the lagoon, brilliant blue and turquoise, fringed with white detonations, and I’d think, “Fuck me! I’m in Tahiti!”
A reef pass lay a kilometre or so diagonally south and out to sea: a raw, technical Sunset Beach style right and a murderous-looking left with an HT’s surgeon’s-table-style coral head blocking the exit. Neither option had me pulling any of Tim’s boards out from the rafters. A beachbreak more suited to my skillset and ticker awaited twenty minutes drive away, but I was there to work, and to borrow a car was to invite a wrong-side-of-the-road disaster. There’s something about travel that scrambles the already weak navigation signals in my brain: I’d step out in front of cars when crossing the road; on my first swim in the lagoon out front of the McKenna’s joint, I’d managed to kick the only coral head remotely nearby, drawing blood and sheepishness; early one morning I climbed a precipitous trail just behind the Mara’a Caves, making poor choices every time the route diverged. I believe it was for the benefit of every inhabitant of Tahiti that I not get behind the wheel.
As we worked through the week, clips of Robbo, EE and Kai Lenny at solid Cloudbreak started appearing on the Social Medias, which meant that Chopes would be copping the swell in due course. (I never knew this was the case, but it’s kinda obvious when you look at a map). On Saturday 14th October, every eye-rubbing shuffle to the balcony revealed a swell banging on the reef with increased insistency, like someone knocking on an unanswered door.
On Sunday morning we rise early, Tim makes some sandwiches, then herds myself, Anders and Bettina into the car and drives us to Teahupo’o. During the hour-long drive, Tim gives quiet commentary on landmarks and indicators of social fabric, but not too much of it goes in because I’ve turned into one of those carnival Laughing Clown game figures, mouth agape, rotating my head from left (look at that mountain/valley!) to right (look at that lagoon/reef pass!) and back again. When I marvel out loud at how lush the landscape, and how well certain plants might thrive here, Tim chuckles and tells of a recently erected wooden fence that took root and started sprouting branches and leaves.
We come to a roundabout and hang a right – had we continued left, we’d stay on the road that circles the island, but turning right takes us across the isthmus that separates the main island of Tahiti from its conjoined little island buddy, Tahiti Iti (Iti being small in Tahitian.)
As we close in on Teahupo’o the first signs of next year’s Olympics show themselves, with job site fencing enclosing a nearby marina where – if I recall correctly – the security, water safety and media mob will come and go. At a glance it appears to be a low-key endeavour, but given the way all existing foreshore dwellings feel hewn of bedrock and jungle, anything remotely immodest will jar until the elements bleach it with a salted Pacific patina
We pull into a carpark just shy of Teahupo’o’s marina – also off-limits and undergoing a solid makeover – and out across the lagoon there’s the iconic wave, easily located by the Sunday morning armada in the channel, and closer to land than I expect. We follow Tim to his pal Michael ‘Lascar’ Vautor’s nicely maintained craft, and steer away from the wharf deliberately slowly as to create a set of perfect three-inch wake barrels along the shoreline.
In a matter of minutes we’re in the channel, alongside a flotilla ranging from bathtub size inflatables to a split level party boat – its jungle-gym scaffolding clambered over by a dozen lithe 22-year olds with a combined BMI less than my own, and whose bikinis, if all collected and sewn together patchwork-style might make a small doily. Boats and jetskis outnumber the fifteen tightly bunched surfers in the lineup, and there’s maybe eight snappers, bobbing with their housings halfway between the boats and the takeoff spot. Any wave that’s ridden will have twenty ‘real’ cameras and twenty devices pointed at it. It’s hectic and mellow all at once.
For all the good vibes, it’s highly likely that in the coming years, a tourist fatality will occur in this spot. Financial opportunities escalate as visitor demand grows, and the increased supply of craft into the channel will raise the odds of tragedy. All it’ll take will be for two or three little incidents – harmless in isolation, (a drone retrieval taking longer than expected, a swimmer clambering aboard when they shouldn’t, a miscalculated move by a distracted taxi boat driver) – to happen at the same time, and the cascading outcome will be horrific. Regulation will no doubt follow, perhaps harsher than if something was figured out sooner.
Today ain’t that day, though, and despite all those lenses trained on the lineup, Tim takes his camera out of the case with a wry smile and lays it on his lap anyway, because sooner or later, the pack out the back will do that meerkat alert thing, a set will hit and excitement will unfold.
The lengthy lulls are no less captivating though. First of all there’s the empty three-footers, creeping deep on the reef from the south. To get in the spot for these sectiony sidewinders exposes the surfer to a sooner-or-later thrashing from the sets, and given the ferocity of such beatings, the risk/reward ratio isn’t worth it. This allows the boat-bound spectator to mindsurf at will. I must have marvelled at a hundred barrels, each one turquoise and cyan and deep blue, with a shining lateral sunlight reflection, each one unique – a hypnotic reminder of the break’s original name, 'Pererure', translation: Spinning Top – and each one exhaling a final waft of vapour like a French starlet blowing smoke rings.
Then there’s the inbetweeners, the four-to-six-footers that the nimble and skilled opportunists pluck out of the pack, and find the barrel on more often than not.
And then every forty minutes or so, a solid set looms a little more out of the west and out of nowhere, dense and granite-like, and one or two of the crew who’ve been sitting at the top of the queue spin and knife in.
On this day, as I suspect as on most, Matahi Drollett gets all the bombs. He doesn’t hassle, or paddle to the inside, but his positioning is outrageously perfect every single time an eight-footer turns up. It’s a masterclass in patience.
And Matahi knows how to be patient. Back in August 2021 – Friday the 13th of all days – an immense swell hit smack bang in the middle of the COVID-cancelled Billabong Pro window. Matahi was out the back when Kauli Vaast scored the bomb of the morning right off the bat. Kauli got swatted, but Matahi saw the wave from behind, heard the hoots of disbelief from the channel, and resolved not to take a lesser wave that day. Matahi and tow partner, big brother Manoa, parked themselves out the back for nine (not a typo) hours to get what they were after. The sun was headed for the horizon by the time our hero snagged the largest wave ever successfully ridden at Teahupo’o. Compared to that day, this sometimes solid Sunday morning is a lark in the park for Matahi and his peers.
I have a little swim out there for an hour or so, pasty, feeble and the oldest in the water by twenty years. I’m careful not to get in the way of the photographers, and only once do I have to pump the flippers to avoid a wider one, which spits its guts out on me, (at which point I raise both arms in stoke and immediately feel a bit self-conscious), but it’s a privilege to feel the energy of the Spinning Top up close, and it might be the best surf I’ve never had.
When the onshore ruffles up we bail back to the village, where a groundswell of a different sort is forming: a peaceful march protesting some of the excesses of the Olympics infrastructure requirements. More public scrutiny hopefully means more care not to fuck up on the IOC’s part, so all power to the marchers, who’ve cause to be wary. The Games will come and go in a flash, but the cabling required to ensure an Olympic judge can punch out a poo in a ridgy-didge flushing toilet out on the reef – then go punch in a 6.33 score in aluminium-wrapped air-conditioned comfort – means a heftier footprint on a delicate reef than the old wooden tower, where the most worrisome cables laid were excreted by caught-short judges, and snapped up by indiscriminate parrotfish anyway.
By the time we drive back to Paea around midday – with Anders and Bettina asleep in the back seat like a couple of adorable toddlers – the drama of the morning gives way to the sight of Tahitian families doing Sunday as the Lord intended: seated half-submerged in the roadside lagoon: eating, drinking, laughing, being together, listening to music, no-doubt urinating at ease whenever the urge took them. “Families will pretty much spend the whole day together in the water,” Tim reckons with a big smile, and I realise Matahi and Manoa’s nine-hour wait for a wave wasn’t that out of the ordinary in this extraordinary and beautiful place.
// GRA MURDOCH