“It’s for charity,” said one of my teammates as he handed me a cold Full Sail beer. From the grassy launch area at the Hood River Event Site I watched the start boat punch its throttle and take off across the choppy Columbia River as nearly 100 kiters began racing around the buoys. It was the start of the annual Kiteboard 4 Cancer relay race that raises money to help cancer survivors get back to living their lives after the tremendous battles they have overcome (learn more at http://athletes4cancer.org).
As the competitors rounded the first buoy I cheered my teammate on the Patagonia Windbreakers team while waiting for my chance to get a few laps in. I found myself standing next to two amazing people who were there to support the event and share stories of their battles against cancer. Cancer is that cursed word we hear so often, but until it touches you personally you barely comprehend it. I barely comprehend it. Their stories hit me hard and reiterated an idea I believe in but don’t always embrace. It’s the idea of Carpe Diem, of living every day to the fullest, as if it could be your last. I can already hear the thoughts of those of you reading this article. “Come on Reo, isn’t that more than a little cliché?”
Probably, but it’s a good philosophy nonetheless. With my reaffirmation of the Carpe Diem viewpoint, I revisited a few of my own personal goals, one of which was to ride a proper wave at Teahupo’o. I tried to accomplish this goal a few years ago to no avail. At the time I had only a small idea of what was needed for swell and wind direction to make the break work. I faced onshore wind and a wave that resembled an oversized, crumbly shore break. Despite being skunked, that trip was far from a wash. I learned what to look for in a forecast and we stumbled on another quality wave that was a lot of fun and provided a great session with great images. However, it just was not the Teahupo’o I was looking for and I had left Tahiti unsatisfied.
Undoubtedly the majority of you reading this have heard of Teahupo’o and have probably stared in awe at your computer screen looking at photos and watching jaw-dropping footage of this beast of a wave. I still remember the first time I saw video of it. Watching surfers ride a wave that I didn’t even think could exist made by stomach turn. If you’re like me and had that same butterfly feeling when you first saw the photos and video of this place, take that feeling and multiply it by 10 and that’s what you feel while watching it from the safety of the channel. Now take that new feeling and multiply it by 100 and that’s the beginning of what you feel when you jump in the water and make your way into the lineup. Riding this wave is something I never thought I would have been able to or would even want to experience when I first learned of Teahupo’o.
From my previous trip I knew that Teahupo’o breaks with swell coming anywhere from south to west, but is best on a southwest. The wind blows anywhere from south to east with south winds creating side-onshore conditions that turn more offshore as the wind shifts further east. Ideally you want southeastern wind which creates slightly side-off conditions. This allows your lines to go out of the barrel while still keeping the wave smooth enough to create a barrel. I thought Teahupo’o had enough water moving as to not be too affected by the wind, but this is not the case. In fact it is a very sensitive wave and very slight wind and wave angle changes drastically alter it and make it a very temperamental beast. All this means that it’s a difficult wave to score for kitesurfing.
I found myself rewinding back to the grassy launch area in Hood River, refreshingly inspired by a group of motivated people intent on getting on with living. I felt the need to do the same. Carpe Diem. Quick glimpses at a Tahitian forecast showed me that nearly the exact swell and wind conditions described above were scheduled to hit Tahiti in a few days time. The possibility of revisiting Tahiti to give Teahupo’o another go sent alarms off in my head, but I decided to sleep on the idea of going back. I told myself that if the forecast holds strong, I’ll work on the logistics to make the trip possible. The next morning I immediately reached for my phone. The forecast still looked strong. I had a place to stay lined up. And the airline tickets weren’t as ridiculously expensive as I had imagined. Everything seemed to be lining up and pushing me in the Southern Polynesian direction. It was time to roll the dice, push the go button, and see what happened.
Roughly 36 hours later I found myself driving an overloaded European rental car along the winding coastline towards Teahupo’o. I struggled to keep my eyes on the road as I rubbernecked towards the ocean at every chance, trying to check out the pumping swell and howling winds. Finding your way to Teahupo’o is surprisingly easy. It’s at the furthest southeast corner of the island. There is only one coastal road and you know you’ve reached the right place when you get to the end of the road where there is a small roundabout with a wooden surfboard sign with TEAHUPO’O written on it.
Teahupo’o has a large bay that is sheltered by an upwind point requiring you to walk across a footbridge and out to the point to launch. The wind was up and I could see a few good ones out in the lineup. I parked the car, grabbed my gear, and started quickly walking out to the point and into the wind line. Photographer Tim McKenna was already out on a boat waiting in the channel. Wasting no time, I set up, jumped in the water, and headed out the channel to catch what I could.
After a few successful waves my confidence level started to rise. I began to push myself deeper and deeper on bigger and bigger waves until I caught a set that swung west. I’d often heard of and seen footage of the west bowl and the way it causes the wave to bend in on itself at about a 45° angle. And now I was about to learn all about it firsthand the hard way. With my confidence level higher than it should have been, I set a deep line and kept the angle of my kite lines so they would stay away from the lip and out of the barrel, or so I thought. As I dropped into the wave, bottom turned, and set my line for the barrel, I noticed that the westerly bend was causing this wave to be very different from the previous ones. The clean sideshore winds quickly became more and more offshore as the wave began to break. The dreaded west bowl started to peak up while bending the wave almost directly at me. In my ignorance, I didn’t read the wave correctly.
I was too deep and the angle of my lines was wrong. It was too late to change anything and there was nothing I could do but hold on and hope I could pull through it. If I had been surfing, everything would have been fine, but as the wave’s thick lip started to throw over my head it caught my lines and the drag pulled me up and into the top of the wave. I could see the safety of the channel just yards in front of me. I was looking and pointing my board in that direction, but that was not the direction I was traveling.
As the lines pulled me closer to impending doom, I did my best to pull against them long enough to make it into the channel. But like playing tug-o-war with a semi truck, my efforts were futile. My body was pulled into the lip of the wave ripping my bar out of my hand as I began to go over the falls backwards. I hit the surface of the water with a waterfall of Teahupo’o on top of me. At this point it changed from a normal surfing wipeout to a kitesurfing wipeout gone bad. One of the common questions people ask me is, “Does the kite make wipeouts worse?” My honest answer is that it usually either makes things a lot easier, with the kite pulling you out the back and away from danger, or it makes it a lot worse. This was one of those times that it could have been made a lot worse.
With the bar having been ripped from my hands I lost all control of the kite and assumed it had crashed as I went over the falls. The force of the water pulled me in one direction and the kite pulled me in another. I tried to hold on as long as I could hoping that the brunt of the wave’s force would pass and I would be able to surface and relaunch the kite before the next wave. However, there was no such luck. The force of the water started to bend me backwards while the kite, still attached to my harness, kept pulling me in the other direction. I made a split-second decision to reach for the quick release, something I had only done once before in a similar situation.
Separated from the kite I was left to face my punishment for not taking the time to fully assess the wave and for being unprepared for the sneaky west bowl. After multiple tumbles underwater I surfaced to see my kite down in the water about to get hit by the next wave which would send it over the inside reef and into the lagoon. I was still attached to my board with a leash, so I quickly pulled it towards me and paddled towards the boat in the channel to figure out my next move. I knew the boat would not be able to get to my kite as the interior of the lagoon is shallow and filled with nearly exposed coral heads. If I wanted to get my kite back I would have to go get it myself.
I asked Tim, the photographer, what the best way to go into the lagoon to get my kite was. Tim has probably spent more time in that channel shooting photos than anyone else. He told me that I had just paddled away from the only way over the reef. I would have to go back towards the impact zone and get pushed over the lagoon’s barrier reef. This was not what I wanted to hear! But I was determined not to let this wave beat me, so I paddled towards the impact zone to take a few more waves on the head while hoping to avoid getting smashed and cut badly on the reef. As I paddled away Tim shouted, “Just make sure you stay to the left and don’t drift towards the right! It’ll be bad if you do!”
I made it over the reef all right and found my kite floating in the lagoon still intact despite taking the full force of a few of the heaviest waves in the world. I paddled over to my bar and put my harness loop back together with high hopes of hooking in, relaunching, and getting back out there. No such luck. Three of my lines were brutally snapped, leaving me to guess that the Tahitian reef cut them. I rolled up what was left of my lines, flipped my kite over, and started the paddle back to the beach.
The long paddle through the lagoon gave me plenty of time to reflect on my mistake and it left me determined to get back out there with my backup bar while the wind and waves were still up. As I reached the shoreline Tim and the rest of the crew in the boat were heading my way. I yelled and signaled for them to head back out. I grabbed my other control bar and rigged back up as quickly as I could. As I headed back out the channel for a second time, I now knew what a wave with a west bowl looked like and could recognize when to expect one. I had learned a valuable lesson and would make sure I used the new knowledge wisely for the rest of the session.
I had another hour and a half of wind and waves to myself before a rain squall pushed through and killed the wind for the remainder of the day. I somehow managed to make it back to the beach just as the wind completely died, barely avoiding another swim back to the beach. As I packed up my kite, I took a moment to appreciate my surroundings. Majestic mountains in the background with a rainbow from the approaching squall mixed with the simplistic calm of being safely back on the beach. It was a feeling I will never forget.
On the drive back to my digs I was completely exhausted. Slouched down in my seat I could barely keep my eyes open. I breathed out a sigh of relief and a sense of fulfillment washed over me. Carpe Diem, living everyday to the fullest as if it could be your last. The swell would be on the decline for the remainder of my stay and the wind slowly backed off, but I had completed what I came here to do. Anything more, whether kiting, surfing, hiking, or even simply sipping a cold Hinano beer, would be icing on the cake.