The Billabong Pro Tahiti 2013 has come and gone. Boom. Of a possible 12 days, four was all it took. I really wasn’t expecting it to be over so quickly, but the surf conditions played along nicely, producing waves right at the beginning of the waiting period. I’ve had to learn the hard way; when the waves are good at Teahupoo use them because it will be a while until they are good again. Overall the contest was a huge success with insanely skilled surfers riding perfect waves. The waves could have been bigger but you can’t have it all.
For the last two weeks Teahupoo has been transformed from its usual quiet atmosphere to a far more hyped, glitz-and-glam scene. Now I’m not one to shy away from some festivity, so instead of hating on the hundreds of tourists and media flooding into the area for the contest I decided to embrace the whole experience and get amongst it. Instead of telling you things you can find in other articles, like who won which heat and who knocked who out (you can find those details here), I’m going to stick to a behind the scenes scenario as experienced from the Hava’e reef pass by an actual spectator (Me! Yeah!). These are my top 5 Billabong Pro Tahiti experiences.
1) THE FESTIVITIES.
The atmosphere in the channel is super festive. Kind of like a T20 cricket game. This is especially true if you’re on a boat; being on a boat gives you access to cooler boxes and cooler boxes provide cold beer. Unfortunately I went the more primitive route and paddled out on my bodyboard each day. I carried my backpack which held my camera, sunscreen, and water. A few people opted for this approach, particularly the locals. Boats are generally rented by sponsors for VIP’s or by non-backpacking tourists/ honeymooners. Each method has its pros and cons. Paddling out gives you access to the channel less than 5 m away from where surfers are getting barreled. It’s close quarters stuff. Having experienced it I can honestly say that the Billabong Pro Tahiti should be on any surfers bucket list of events to see live. It always was on my bucket list, and I’m stoked I get to tick it off.
2) PRO NERVES
Paddling in the channel means that each competitor has to paddle right past you to head for their heat. In the moments before their heat they sit right next to you. The contest at Teahupoo must be one of a handful of professional sporting events that allows you within touching distance of competitors in the seconds before they compete. One thing that was blatantly clear to me was how nervous some of the competitors were – particularly younger guys, or guys that really needed to do well in order to stay on tour. You could tell that the competitors were very aware that all eyes were on them and that in the next few moments they were going to have to be performing at the top of their game. Some listen to music, some meditate, some paddle out with a mate and have a casual chat about the conditions. Being exposed to these interactions one quickly gets a feel for which competitors are mates and which competitors, well, aren’t. Having stayed in Tahiti for two months now I’ve learned that the professional surfing community is surprisingly small. It’s a difficult world for up and comers to break into and the sport has as much underlying politics as any parliament. Like many things in life some people distance themselves from the politics and sucking up while others get fully involved. This applies not only to competitors but also event organizers, sponsors and even cameramen. Think about it, despite being a multi-million dollar industry how many people have a direct influence on the world of pro surfing? Maybe 1000? People know each other. Although some of the Pro’s I’ve surfed with seem to let the hype get to their heads, it’s reassuring to me that many stay grounded.
3) STAYING GROUNDED
One of the guys that seems to me to be the most grounded of all is 11 time world champion Kelly Slater. I’ve surfed with him before at J-Bay about 10 years ago and he carried the same aura back then. I mean it’s unbelievable the attention the guy has to deal with. He constantly has 10 cameras, sometimes 50, in his face. There were a few moments throughout the event which reinforce Kelly’s humble attitude in my eyes. This is one: Having just won his round 5 heat against current world champ Joel Parkinson, without even a second’s breathing room, Kelly was hurried to the media boat for a live interview. Some kids next to me were daring each other to go and ask Kelly for a photo. By the time the interview was winding down the kids were literally paddling over one another to get to the media boat. The second the interviewer (GT!) signed out the first kid to arrive was shouting Kelly’s name. My thoughts were “Cringe, this must be the most inappropriate moment ever”. To my surprise Kelly took the kids camera and asked the interviewer, who also seemed slightly surprised, to take a picture of them. Next thing Kelly, without being asked, took it to the next level by getting down into the water to get a group shot with the kid and his mates. Only once everyone was satisfied that they had their latest FB profile pic did Kelly paddle over to his own boat for a break. Just legendary stuff. Another thing, when you surf with Kelly he waits his turn. If he gets a wave the next one is yours. That’s more than I can say for many of the less-famous competitors who seem to hold divine rights to more waves than anyone else. Like many of the non-competing surfers out here I’m not one to be walked over in the water so it can make for a tenser-than-necessary atmosphere. Having guys like Kelly lead by example maintains my faith as a supporter of pro surfing. Having said these things I must say that I’m a full supporter of the mantra ‘Locals get all the waves they want, visitors pick up the scraps’. I just don’t think one visitor should get more waves than the next just because they get a free rash vest in the post once every six months.
4) WATER PATROL
Of the things I was most impressed with I would have to say that the Tahitian water patrol team comes out tops. It is a massive job dealing with a couple of hundred spectators 5 m away from the heaviest barreling wave in the world. Throw in the fact that some people are on boats, some people are paddling, some are swimming and others are just being jackasses – clearly born with zero common sense. And believe me, you really do get those spectators who have spent maybe 5 days near the sea their entire lives but somehow know better. The water patrol guys are really good about letting people know when they are getting in the way or when they need to move etc. The first day I paddled out I was overly keen and so at 7 am I was the first paddler for the day. Me, and 20-odd boats. As it was my first time I had absolutely no idea what was going on but I knew I wanted to be in the channel. As soon as I got within 100 m of the boats a Tahitian water patrol jet ski came out to meet me. My camera was a definite benefit at this point as his first question was “You want to take photo’s?”, “Yeah! Sick”, “Hop on I’ll take you to the spot”. And there I was, the first paddler for the day on the first day of the contest taking photo’s at Teahupoo having just been dropped off by jet ski. So sick. By 10 am the water was full up with people. The water patrol guys work hard all day transporting VIP’s, surfers and cameramen up and down, dealing with crowd control and just generally having to be switched on. Maximum respect to those guys.
5) RIDING THE BARREL
Teahupoo is not a wave that people go to for turns and cutbacks. It’s about barrels/ tubes/ pits. If there is one thing the pros know how to do it’s ride the barrel at Teahupoo. Believe me, depending on where you are taking off the drop at Teahupoo can be next level precarious. These guys manage to effortlessly drop down the most ridiculously vertical faces pulling off last minute bottom turns into wide open tubes. I must say it’s not something I fully appreciated until I surfed Teahupoo myself and then actually sat in the channel watching these guys doing their thing. There were number of 10-point rides (out of a possible 10) at the contest this year. It’s a reflection of two things; the quality of the waves and the quality of the riding. It’s really impressive to see just how deep you can get in a Teahupoo pit. The modestly sized surf meant that guys weren’t challenged by size but by their own decisions to get as deep as possible in the barrel. In addition to my pics in this post the photo’s at this link are pretty sweet and will give you a good idea of what it was all about.
I had a great time at the event, met a few awesome people and enjoyed a few beers in the evenings. Seeing Joel (current world champ) versus Kelly (11 time world champ) was a personal highlight. I got to see two South Africans compete, Travis Logie and Jordy Smith. It was super sick seeing Travis almost get through his round two heat to make it through, he needed an extra 0.3 points on his final wave in the dying moments. Exciting stuff! The day after the final I had one of my most memorable sessions yet; perfect 2 m Teahupoo, an exploding orange sunset in the west, a full moon rising in the east, just 3 guys out sharing spitting, glassy, blue barrels in red light. The three of us, perfect strangers before the session, made the 20 minute paddle back to shore well after dark. I can’t even remember how many perfect waves I was lucky enough to score that evening but it’s definitely a story I’ll be telling around the retirement village 70 years from now, if I make it that far haha. For now, Teahupoo is back to its quiet vibes and the waves have gone. I’m hoping for one more effort on a big (I use that word relatively) swell before I leave in a couple of weeks. Wow, life is short.
Here’s a video!
A 25 second behind the scenes look at the Billabong Pro Tahiti 2013 held at Teahupoo, in the form of a 5×5 (five clips each five seconds long, no effects, no added audio).
[ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: My good friend Andrew Knight had to point out that Travis Logie did NOT make it through round 2. You can see how close it was here. Originally I thought Travis had made it to round 3 and to be honest life was better under that illusion].