How do you know you are about to embark on a great trip? What triggers your senses? It is different for everyone! Some get the sensation while packing their bags, others can get it later, under the neon lights of the airport, and someone might feel it when they step out of the office before heading on their trip. For me; it's the first breath of air when I step off the plane! (like your favorite dish coming out of the oven)
The warm humid air that greets us on the tarmac of Fa'a'? makes me want to toss my clothes aside and slip on my board shorts. The whole team has got only one thing on their mind, it's still early, only 6am, we will get a session in on the first day. We left from Montpellier with Raphaël SALLES, his daughter Camille, Thomas from Band Original, and we met up with Gilles CALVET, Rémi QUIQUE and Fred BERHO in Paris. On our way through Los Angeles we picked up Robinson HILARIO. The rest of the team, Marie SWITALA “Sweety”, Filippe FERREIRA, Micka FERNANDEZ and Mitu MONTEIRO were already there, they had arrived the day before.
Exiting the airport, we met up with Patrice CHANZY, Manutea MONNIER and Poenaiki RAIOHA accompanied by his grand parents and friends. Aude LIONET-CHANFOUR will meet us a few days later.
Arriving in a tropical paradise like Tahiti and being greeted with flowers and smiles seems so cliché, but when it's done sincerely by friends, it makes you forget the long journey. It was like rejoicing with old friends. The cliché was gone, I was genuinely happy to wear this necklace of flowers.
We headed to the port of Papeete to find our two catamarans ready. These catamarans will provide us with the best type of transportation and housing for this trip. The reefs are often far from the shore; the catamarans make them very accessible and we can move to new passes and lagoons to adjust to the temperaments of the wind and swells.
We met up with Jimi, Candice, Fabrice and Heiniti, they were our skippers and hostess from the charter company. Luckily two of our skippers were both experienced surfers and also kitesurfers. This knowledge of the spots and conditions allowed them to maneuverer easily around the reefs and waves. It was 6 am; and it was without the slightest remorse that we woke up the team that had arrived the day before.
We kept up this rhythm the whole trip, we rose with the sun and by 8 pm most of us were worn out by the sun, wind, salt and waves.
We quickly organize our first briefing of the trip and after consulting the weather charts we decide to head towards the lagoons of Tipaniers. Moorea will be our first mooring, because of the venturi effect that it creates on the easterly trade winds.
From the harbor we can clearly see Moorea, with its lush vegetation and mountains... I have shared many expedition with this same crew, most of them are well traveled and have visited some amazing places, but I was surprised to hear that most of them had never visited French Polynesia. The scenery is surreal, the mountain tops rise from the sea covered with tropical trees and plants, at the foot of the mountains the coconut trees line picture perfect white beaches. This is contrasted against the reefs that encircle and protect a perfectly blue translucent lagoon.
After five hours of sailing we arrive in Tipaniers. The freestylers’ eyes lit up when they see the spot, perfectly flat and blue like a swimming pool, but with the wind being a bit capricious the crew decides to head towards the wave spot of Haapiti. This time it was the surfers who's eyes lit up watching perfect waves peeling. We all jumped in the water and took turns surfing this perfect wave the rest of the day. We had only arrived in Tahiti less than 12 hrs ago.
With good winds forecasted we decided to stay in Tipaniers for a couple of days, we moored between the old Club Med and a couple of private islands. With solid trade winds blowing between 15 to 20 knots and practically having a wave spot to ourselves, perfect light for shooting, we made the most of this situation. The experience of the team lets them get ready real fast, launching a full crew from a catamaran is not an easy task but they manage without a hitch, the cameras are rolling... we even have time to go explore the private deserted islands that surround us. We imagine what it must have been like for the explores who first visited these island having never even seen a picture of a magical place like Tahiti before event setting foot on these islands
Micka is a machine; like a cat he always lands on his feet and keeps going massive with his repertoire of Air-Style tricks regardless of the conditions, he is irreplaceable. He is also the rider that kites the most, a few cookies, every few hours will suffice to keep him on the water all day.
Robinson is simply world class; his kitesurfing is powerful, fast and fluid. It is often hard to follow in every movement. He goes bigger and harder every trick until he stomps it perfectly. He does not go for the low passes, every move is fully committed with the kite just above the water.
Marie, is fully decked out in pink, but her commitment and fluid style sets her apart from the boys. She will cruise by you with a perfect smile and launch into a powerful kiteloop a few seconds later.
After two days of kiting the conditions start to change with a shift in the trade winds not being favorable for Moorea, it is time to move. The main buzz is that a swell is lining up to possibly hit Teahupoo. While waiting for this swell to move in we head back towards Haapiti, but with already a dozen surfers on the break, we decide to head over to Atia. There we alternate between SUP and surf sessions while dolphins cruise around our catamaran anchored in the pass.
The forecasted swell is confirmed and Teahupoo will be on tomorrow. We lift anchor, say goodbye to Moorea and start our 8 hr journey through the night towards Teahupoo. The team is clearly excited but while everyone puts in the for the night you can feel a bit of tension in the riders with thoughts of tomorrows surf.
I wake up to see the sun rising, I know we are close and high step it to the roof deck to see where we are. We are anchored at the entrance of the mythical Teahupoo pass. The tide is low and the waves are small (about 1.5 meters), but still pack a punch. Poe jumps in the water alone with the sun barely above the horizon on an empty stomach. I tell myself that this is his backyard, he must feel relaxed and comfortable (I later found out that this was only his fourth time out at Teahupoo).
Looking around, I recognize the mountains that I have so often seen in videos, this reef, these boats, and the ambiance. It almost feels like I have been here before, it is like visiting Central Park or seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. It is one of those monuments that I have seen on TV throughout my life and that I always dreamed of.
We quickly grab breakfast and Rémi, Manutea and Patrice jump in the water. IT' ON!!! The waves start to build with the incoming tide and swell. A few sets look terrifying and the idea of going in the water quickly evaporates! We are right in the action, the grooves in the reef allows the captain to position the boat between the two peaks of the reef, just behind us is the bowl that closes out on west swells and needs to be avoided. We must stay alert to make sure we remain in the channel, so that the boat does not drift towards the take-off zone.
My first surprise with this famous point break after its sheer power, is the atmosphere. You have locals, strangers, tourists, body-boarders, surfers and SUP's all on the peak and the vibe is amazing, people respect each other. I am amazed to only see one person paddling per wave. Patrick explains to me that in Tahiti every sport that is in contact with the ocean is respected, paddling is in the culture whether you are paddling sitting down, laying down or standing up.
A paddle is only an extension of your arm. The vision of the “waterman” is a recent concept for us, but for them it has always been part of their culture and heritage. Here it is the rider in the right spot and that starts to paddle first that gets the wave. No one will drop in on him or cut inside, no other surfer will even start to paddle for the same wave. I then imagine how great it would be if I could transfer this culture to other spots, and I quickly envisioned myself tied up to palm tree with my leash.
Anyhow... Our SUPers are getting perfect waves, locking into the barrel, getting blown out by the spit, with the full cheers of the spectators in the channel. Yes there are spectators at Teahupoo. When the swell comes in; the boats of photographers, tourists and surfers fill the channel. We observe many types of techniques and styles to approach the wave. Poe shows an incredible will power to get as deep as possible in the barrel. He is charging on every wave, his backside riding is magnificent and at only 17 years of age with a world Title already under his belt he will only get better. Rémi and Manutea show much more maturity on the water, by being on the right wave at the right time and showing a lot of patience with their wave choice. While Patrice is standing tall in the barrel with complete control. We can see his serenity and mastery of the barrel, he seems so calm that he must see the barrel like a GOPRO video in slow motion. On a small side note, while going through the pictures with Gilles CALVET, I like to focus on facial expressions of the riders while performing their tricks (and sometimes you find priceless gems that are hilarious). We realize that we have a perfect shot off Patrice standing tall like a soldier in the barrel with a big smile, his tongue sticking out looking straight at us. I am impressed.
Patrick explains to me that in Tahiti every sport that is in contact with the ocean is respected,
paddling is in the culture whether you are paddling sitting down, laying down or standing up.
The swell is forecasted to build tomorrow; we are sticking around but inside the serenity of the lagoon. After so many days at sea we are eager to set foot on land. We hear about a local dance show in town and decide to set out for the town. We pile up 14 of us in the pickup and head towards Vaira'o (yes 14 in the pick-up). I was expecting a touristy style show were the tourist pile in from the nearby Club Med. We arrive at an old gymnasium surrounded by locals, when we enter the building we find out it is more a high school graduation party then a tourist attraction. We are surprise, but not as much as the locals. We sit down and wait for the show to start. An imposing man presents himself on stage, looking like a tribal elder. He goes through a series of speeches and awards that none of us understand (nothing is in French).
Roughly forty, eighteen year olds, boy and girl dancers rush on stage and start with a Haka and other dances. I thought the Haka was only a Maori dance, but it is practiced all over Polynesia. The dances are dynamic, the show entertaining and we are the only tourist around. It is great to be able to experience the local culture in the community. This night reminds me of a scene in Antandroy when we spent the night on the beach with the dancers of a local tribe (we see a scene in the movie).
The chief thanks us for having come to their show and lets us take a picture with the troop of dancers. Poe quickly reminds us that tomorrow will be big and we need to get some rest. So we headed back to our floating homes.
The forecast was right on, the swell is hitting Teahupoo perfectly. The wave is powerful, hollow and violent, but even more magnificent.
The tension is high on the boat, I realize that event these incredible riders have some apprehension about taking big Teahupoo. It takes a certain type of courage to go out in these conditions. Everything is intense: how the thick lip of the wave projects out onto the shallow reef, the crowd, the photographers, the noise of the boats, the cheers of the spectators, the international stars in the water and the cameras are rolling to capture every moment.
Our 4 fantastic riders head into the water (Poe, Patrice, Rémi and Manutea) and a tube fest begins. In these conditions Patrice is the king, just a few quick strokes on the take-off and he drops into the barrel locking in his rail, positions his body and lets the lip fly above his head creating a barrel larger then my apartment. Poe is still charging and takes the wipeout of the day on one of the set waves of the day. He will lose his second paddle by getting it ripped out from his hand underwater. He disconnects his leach and is able to swim into the channel while his board goes into the judging tower of the Billabong Pro. To top it all off we have the privilege of watching Michel Bourez on his home break.
We leave Teahupoo with our minds filled with insane images and head towards Te ava iti, a pass not far away to the west. We were all hoping to come back with the wind blowing up the face. Everyone gets in the water at the right in Te ava iti, after Teahupoo it seems easy, but never under estimate the Tahitian waves. just about everyone ends up with a scrape from the reef and some lemon juice to rinse out the wounds. It looks like everyone will go home with a “Tahitian Tattoo”. Hopefully it will be enough to impress the girls back home.
Patrice heads off to Maui, he will be missed the rest of the trip, but Alexandre CAIZERGUES flies in to meet up with us, and we are ready to get back underway. With the forecast for wind and waves looking light we decided to head towards the east end of Tahiti, the most desolate and rugged part of Tahiti. The location is magical, we connect to a mooring in front of a river mouth and decide to go explore with our SUP's. We arrive in a winding mangrove full of exotic vegetation. We make our way all the way up the river to the base of the mountains, there we stubble upon a small piece of paradise, with a swing rope setup over a little pond. The boys quickly take to the swing and test out their handle pass skills, Mitu, Micka and Fillipe give it a good run, but Robinson puts everyone in their place with his superior handle passing skills. The game quickly moves towards splashing the girls, which seems like a natural instinct for all men in these circumstances. On our way back to the boat Mitu finds an eel wedge under a log and decides to bring it out, this quickly stirs everyone towards the exit but Marie decides to fall in right at the moment the eel is coming out. She hops back on the board in a blink of an eye with a screeching sound of MUMMMYYYY!!!
Just before night fall, I head out spear fishing with Poe, Alex and Mitu and for the third time on the trip we come back with nothing.
We spend the night in the same location, in the morning Micka and Robinson head out for a little light wind freestyle session and in the afternoon we all kite together for the group photos. “kite lower”, “get closer together”, ”further”, ”closer”...contrary to general beliefs group shots are pretty tricky to manage.
After a few runs we are so close together that Robinson was touching my kite with his hand. Alex hooks up his new foil and slaloms in between the coral heads, it looks beautiful and very fluid.
We wake up at dawn and lift anchor to head towards the extreme east end of the island. This will be the most beautiful scenery of the trip. Tall mountains are covered with dense vegetation that fall directly into the blue ocean; long vertical waterfalls cover enormous cliffs that fall on narrow beaches with a few coconut trees and a few rare large red trees. Everyone is sitting on the deck, watching without saying a word, just taking in the scenery. We find a small island on the reef and drop anchor. We are greeted by Michel who watches over this little island with two small wooden huts and two boat ramps, one on the lagoon and the other on the ocean for whale watching. This is as to close to paradise as we are going to get. Micka, Alex, Mitu and Marie rig up for quick session.
We decide not to sleep here; the forecast is calling for strong south-east winds the next few days, which means that we have a chance at a kite session at Teahupoo. As we are leaving, we spot a few whales and head towards them; this is the first time during the trip we are able to get close to them. Everyone is just taken back by how amazing this trip is, until Michel (Island Guard) calls us to tell us that we forgot a board on the island an hour after we left. Luckily for us he decides to hop in his speed boat and bring it to us. It seems like a normal gesture for him and a testament to how genuinely kind and hospitable the Tahitians are.
Back in Teahupoo
After three hours of sailing we are back in Teahupoo, it is practically dark and we head for the harbor, to stock up on food, drinks and Wifi / Facebook / Instagram / boyfriends for the girls.
When we wake up the wind is howling and we head to the break. It is even bigger then during our SUP session but the water is choppy and the closeout sets are harder to spot, this makes the spot unpredictable and dangerous. Raphael, Mitu, Filippe and Manutea rig on the black sand beach and head to the peak.
From the boat we can only see the kites until the wave jacks up and the rider then becomes visible. We watch the kites perform a little ballet on the outside until one riders decides to commit to a swell and heads into the break. The weather is very stormy and the conditions are tough on the water, we are getting sprayed by every wave on the boat, this is apocalyptic weather, making this session even more memorable.
The riders are taking turns taking waves on the shoulder to get a feel for the conditions. After two to three waves, Mitu decides to commit to a set wave. He sets himself up deep inside and waits for the wave to form, he them crouches into the pocket and waits for the terrifying lip to pitch over his head. The barrel fully covers Mitu and slams into the near dry reef, he extends his right arm up as the spit explodes around him, he comes out onto the shoulder with a smile from ear to ear. Mitu will keep pulling into barrels all day like it has never been done on a kite at Teahupoo. At one point he event passes a bodyboarder that took off ahead of him.
Filippe had been waiting a long time for his Teahupoo session, he was super amped, but showed some apprehension about dropping into the set waves. He waits a while and test a few smaller waves before committing to a few bombs, where he will get fully covered. He cannot hide his joy screaming “MAURUUUUUU” (Thank you) after an incredible barrel; we will later celebrate with some Hinanos and the usual large amount of chips.
Manutea, showed what a true waterman he is by showing his pure Tahitian style, whether he is riding a SUP, Surfboard or a Kite. He knows the spot perfectly and caught the best waves of the day and his super fluid backside riding was just amazing.
Raphael; in spite of his wife's and daughter's strict ban on riding Teahupoo, spent the day hunting barrels and committing to powerful waves. He went on some of the bigger set waves and nearly had a massive wipeout, but was able to duck just under the lip of a set wave in the bowl.
Alex wanted to test his water camera skills, equipped with a GOPRO on his head he headed towards the peak. We saw Raphael coming towards him with his right hand vertical on his head (which is not what you want to see when you are swimming on the outside of the reef) “Hammer Head and Big!!!” Raphael towed Alex close to the boat and then Alex did the rest with a M-Phelps type performance. A bit of a fright!
The barrel fully covers Mitu and slams into the near dry reef
We will spend the next day on the wave on Vaira'o, a very nice long left, easier then the other waves we have surfed so far on the trip. It is fun to watch Poe and Rémi charging the wave, they are able to get vertical and commit to the lip. They are also able to set their rail and carve up the wave. Filippe is ripping on his Mitu 5'6” and is getting vertical on every hit. We can really see his brazialian style of fluid dynamic surfing; he wins as many contest surfing as he does kitesurfing. Camille (SALLES) and Aude (LIONET-CHANFOUR) are at the peak in their bright shorties and are impressing the boys. Surprisingly very few girls surf in Tahiti, maybe it is due to the lack of beginner spots with very few beach breaks. Luckily for us, Aude is charging and showing what the girls can do, on these beautiful waves.
This is when I realize how much diversity is on our team, regardless of what sport they are doing, each have their own style, culture, nationality and it all blends perfectly on a three week boat trip in the South Pacific. Brazil, Cabo Verde, Polynesia, Canaries, Dominican Republic...they all live on the equator but thousands of miles apart.
We head back to Papeete for the night before heading back to Moorea, where good winds are forecasted, destination Tipaniers and Haapiti. We find oursleves on land and use the opportunity to walk around and leave our small cabins. We find ourselves on a large square with multiple food trucks. Each has their specialty: local fish, sushi, carpaccio, rice chicken or less local: crepes, raclette, cheese, burgers and pizzas. I am tempted by the raclette (a Mountain deep dish of potatoes, bacon and cheese), but tell myself that I am in Tahiti. We have a great dinner worthy of a kings banquet. Then we head towards Morrison for a few drinks and take turns tearing up the dance floor.
Moorea Part 2
The next day we headed towards Moorea, where we went straight to Haapiti and surfed until night fall. I have always wondered if it was realistic to go on surf trips where you can launch straight from the boat to the peak. It is real, it is as nice as you can imagine. Then come three days of rain with no wind and wave.
Everyone finds his rhythm, foil sessions for Alex and Raphael and some long distance, few attempts at some freestyle, cruising on the SUP in the lagoon...Bad news Mitu gives foiling a go and hurts his ankle, his kiting days for the trip are over.
We go back spear fishing with Poe and are determined to bring something back. We spear four parrot fish and when the sharks star circling around us it is time to go back to the boat. We gut and skin them and straight onto the barbecue.
In the morning we see two whales breaching on the outside of the pass. We decide to go have a closer look. We catch up to them and follow them as they are gracefully playing; they are easily the size of the boat.
It is always a pleasure to see these animals especially when you know they are on the endangered list.
We head back towards Tipaniers for a last freestyle session, we are lucky the wind is good and not a cloud in the sky, we bring out the kites. It is warm, the colors of the lagoon are absolutely amazing, what a perfect setting for a final session. Alex and Raphael are racing on the foils, Marie and Micka are freestyling a few meters from the boat and Poe is learning some unhooked riding.
The wind suddenly dies and a rain squall drenches us. We did not even see it coming; this squall will mark the last session of the trip. It reminds me of watching the rain drops on the planes windows when we land in CDG, soon I will be back to France and it will be time to put the sandals back in the closet.
We spend a last wonderful evening on the boat under the stars and at dawn on the next day, Friday the 8th of August we head back towards Papeete. The last glimpse of the mountains and Moorea at sunrise entice me that I will someday return and then the dolphins come play under the boat convince me.
Its not only shines from its scenery, but Tahiti's atmosphere is mystical, calm and powerful,
that demands respect of its ancient culture and welcoming locals.
All these traits just reinforce the love I have for this place.