Pieces Of Head: Blood And Bravado In The South Pacific.

You think Teahupo‘o is heavy now? Take a look at the mountains behind the sleepy little village. Do you see that pyramid- shaped mountain? It’s about 1,000 feet high and rises nearly vertical from the floor of the thick jungle. Hundreds of years ago, there was a foot race straight up that mountain that was used to solve land disputes, girl problems, and rip-offs. The race was simple–whoever won the grueling two-man contest got to chop the other guy’s head off. Problem solved. It’s very difficult to continue arguing with no cranium. As a result of this blood sport, the little village was named “Teahupo‘o” which in the Tahitian language means “pieces of head”. Some say it means, “burning heads” or “chop the head,” but whatever the literal translation–the loser lost his melon. Taj Burrow, who placed second in the annual Billabong Pro, is fortunate Kelly Slater didn’t lop his noggin off after defeating him in the final. If the event was held hundreds of years ago, he just may have had to.

Nowadays, the infamous reef at Teahupo‘o does most of the skull freeing. World Champ Andy Irons left some of his head on the reef attempting a switch tube on a four-footer. Legendary filmmaker Jack McCoy would have lost his head and its contents during a trip over the falls if not for the helmet he was wearing. Tamayo Perry got into the act on his very first wave of a monthlong stay, head-butting the live reef. Luke Egan donated some of his face to the reef while being “rescued” by a jet ski. Aussie madman Kieren Perrow had some donations to the lose-part-of-your-head foundation. Are you beginning to see the connection? Some things haven’t changed in hundreds of years at the world’s heaviest wave.

The folks at Billabong must have shit when they heard that their 30-thousand-dollar scaffolding was destroyed by a massive swell that peaked late at night on April 16–two weeks before the contest was to begin. You see, there’s a lagoon behind the surf break where the water is usually calm and ideal for a viewing and judging area. However, a twelve-foot swell, with a couple fifteen-footers thrown in, turns the lagoon into a churning and boiling cauldron of water. The scaffolding had no chance as it appeared to be tied off with like five ropes whereas last year at least 50 two-inch-thick ropes tied the structure to the reef–whoops. The residents of Teahupo‘o were stoked–giant pieces of wood, nice marine-treated stuff floated up and down the shoreline for miles. Ideal for a remodel or home-improvement job.

After the mid-month swell, things calmed down a bit–four-to-six feet, not much wind, not too many surfers, and plenty of fun. Then people started talking about a monster swell, the likes of which had never been seen at Teahupo‘o. Automated swell models showed not red or purple (usually the telltale signs of a massive swell), but brown and black, indicating waves beyond twenty feet. But everyone has heard that song and dance before–yeah, yeah, yeah, twenty feet, I’ll believe it when I see it type of thing. Believe it. It happened.

April 29, 2003. The Shit Hits The fan.

At first light the waves were six feet and perfect for the tenth day in a row. By noon, consistent eight-foot waves marched through, and the first of many terrible wipeouts occurred. Billabong wildcard Rebecca Woods was the lone girl to give it a go in the rapidly increasing conditions. Out of nowhere, the first ten-footer of the day came through, catching everyone off guard, and Rebecca tried to duck-dive the thing. She was sucked over the falls and held underwater for what seemed like an eternity. Everybody in the lineup and channel was freaking out–searching for her and fearing the worst. The word in the lineup was, “Don’t le her–there’s hardly any chicks here!” Woods finally popped up to the relief of all and paddled to the channel and safety of a boat, shaken up but unscathed.

By two o’clock, paddling into one of these beasts was becoming impossible, and those who were prepared, and those who weren’t, started to ride the waves of their lives.

People used to remember 23-year-old Malik Joyeux as the guy who got a two-page spread getting stuffed by Shane Beschen on a ten-foot bomb. Now he will be remembered as the man who rode the biggest wave ever at Teahupo‘o. Here’s what he had to say about this experience.

TransWorld SURF: How many times have you done tow-ins?

Malik: That day was my third time.

What?

Yeah, my third time .

Was that the biggest and meanest you’ve ever seen Teahupo‘o?

Yeah, that was definitely the biggest we’ve seen it, or surfed it.

Were you planning on that big of a day?

No, no. I knew it was going to pick up, but I never expected it to be that big.

Who pulled you into that wave?

Raimana.

What was it like waiting out there? Did you know it was going to be a really big one?

We had just gotten there, and a set came in right away. When Raimana pulled me in I could tell by looking at the bump that it was bigger than the one I caught before–it was a big bump. The wave kept rising and rising, I couldn’t tell how big it was.

How did it feel to see footage of the wave afterwards?

It feels … I don’t know. It was weird. I’ve dreamed of getting a wave like that since I was eight. We used to draw big waves with little guys riding them. So it kind of looked like my drawings.

Can you describe that afternoon?

It was scary not even being on a wave. Seeing your friends getting towed in, very close to death is always heavy and very intense. Then, when it is your turn, you try to relax so that you don’t fail.

So you ride the biggest wave ever at Teahupo‘o and then you smash your face at Small Pass ?

Yeah, two days after my heat, after I lost, I was really pissed and went surfing at Tevae Iti and ate it doing a backside turn. I don’t know, it happens …

A Frothing Crowd

There are some people who you can tell really want it: Andy, Dorian, Mick Lowe, Tamayo, Bruce, Conan, Jamie Sterling, Kieren Perrow, Healy, The Hobgoods, etc. They crave ten-foot Teahupo‘o and are eager to jump off the boat, into the melee. Cory Lopez wants it. Lopez was the first WCT surfer to show up to the end of the road, weeks before any of his “co-workers”. The decision paid off huge as Lopez got yanked into one of the thickest waves ever seen at Teahupo‘o–without a tow board. He also snagged countless numbers of his now patented trademark west-bowl tubes. He doesn’t sit with the pack up the point, he parks it at his favorite spot–the west-bowl .

TransWorld SURF: What kind of board were you riding on that monster wave?

Cory: I rode a 6’10″. I think a smaller board would have been better; a bigger board has too much rail up front.

How come you didn’t use a tow board?

I had never ridden one before so I didn’t feel comfortable. I just wanted to do it with something I was comfortable on.

Tell us about that wave.

I owe that wave to Raimana. He asked me ” Lopey, you wanna go catch a wave?”

Did he ask you if you wanted to catch a big one or a medium one?

No. I didn’t worry about it. I was just like “Yeah, I’ll go catch a wave!” I was watching the waves before mine and guys were getting just huge waves and I was like “Whoa!” I was a bit nervous. We’re sitting out the back and the next thing I knew he was pulling me in. The wave didn’t seem that big, because it’s so deep and you’re just on a swell. You can’t really tell if it’s a huge wave, it’s kind of how the jet ski guy sets you up. Raimana set me up pretty deep on that wave. Once the wave hit the reef I just held on for dear life, digging my toes into the board. The wave almost threw me off a couple times.

Rolling the windows up a couple times? (Spinning his arms to recover)

Yeah, there was so much water sucking up. Once you get into the bowl you quit going down the line and start angling straight because there’s so much water going up the face. Like going straight, but sideways at the same time- a weird little effect. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I was lucky it didn’t knock me off earlier and that I made it as far as I did.

What happened at the end of it?

I don’t really know. It spit and I couldn’t see anything. It spit so hard, then spit again, and next thing I knew I was skipping on my back. Somehow, my body caught and all of the sudden I was out the back. There was no way I thought I was going to penetrate. I thought I was going over the falls for sure. I was so stoked I penetrated.

How did it feel to see the footage afterwards?

The first time I saw it I was like “Whoa!” You think it’s a solid one when you’re on it, but then you see the footage and you realize what happened. I’ve seen it so many times now it doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore.

What do you have to say about that monster swell?

I think that whole week was the best I’ve ever seen it down there, and I’ve been going there for seven years. The tow in day just capped it off, put an exclamation point on it. That was a really huge swell. In Hawaii I’ve seen swells that big, but not breaking so heavy like that. It was pretty radical being in a boat that close and then riding one. Watching Malik’s wave, Joel Fitzgerald, Nicolai Leetham, Poto, Raimana–everybody was getting the biggest waves. Jamie Sterling, the one he got whipped into too fast and wiped out, that was so heavy! I was like “Oh my god!” I couldn’t believe he was all right. Then he went back out and did it again, but made the wave this time. It was sick to watch those guys just charging. I have to thank Raimana for hooking me up with that wave. All the boys were so cool that day. It was a sick day!

The Bruce

Between his social-life and his surfing endeavors–Bruce Irons has seen some heavy shit. Nothing however, could compare to what he witnessed April twenty-ninth. It’s rare day that Bruce bows out after one wave, but that is just a testimony to how crazy it got.

TransWorld Surf: That was your first time towing in?

Bruce: Yep, first time towing in.

Have you been hanging out with Laird or something? It looks like you guys have the same style.

Ha, ha, ha. No. The wave just sucks up so hard you gotta squat, I don’t know, you have to get the stance goin’. Actually, I did watch Laird’s video the night before.

That’s probably a good idea.

Yeah, I was psyching.

You made most of your waves, right?

Yeah, all except one where I didn’t come out of the barrel, I got a little pounded.

A little pounded? Those waves were huge!

Yeah, the thing ate me up in the barrel so fast, but the life vest brings you right up, so it was pretty minor.

What was it like seeing all that shit go down? Did it get you fired up?

Fuck yeah! That first day was so gnarly. You needed to have your own equipment anmine and guys were getting just huge waves and I was like “Whoa!” I was a bit nervous. We’re sitting out the back and the next thing I knew he was pulling me in. The wave didn’t seem that big, because it’s so deep and you’re just on a swell. You can’t really tell if it’s a huge wave, it’s kind of how the jet ski guy sets you up. Raimana set me up pretty deep on that wave. Once the wave hit the reef I just held on for dear life, digging my toes into the board. The wave almost threw me off a couple times.

Rolling the windows up a couple times? (Spinning his arms to recover)

Yeah, there was so much water sucking up. Once you get into the bowl you quit going down the line and start angling straight because there’s so much water going up the face. Like going straight, but sideways at the same time- a weird little effect. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I was lucky it didn’t knock me off earlier and that I made it as far as I did.

What happened at the end of it?

I don’t really know. It spit and I couldn’t see anything. It spit so hard, then spit again, and next thing I knew I was skipping on my back. Somehow, my body caught and all of the sudden I was out the back. There was no way I thought I was going to penetrate. I thought I was going over the falls for sure. I was so stoked I penetrated.

How did it feel to see the footage afterwards?

The first time I saw it I was like “Whoa!” You think it’s a solid one when you’re on it, but then you see the footage and you realize what happened. I’ve seen it so many times now it doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore.

What do you have to say about that monster swell?

I think that whole week was the best I’ve ever seen it down there, and I’ve been going there for seven years. The tow in day just capped it off, put an exclamation point on it. That was a really huge swell. In Hawaii I’ve seen swells that big, but not breaking so heavy like that. It was pretty radical being in a boat that close and then riding one. Watching Malik’s wave, Joel Fitzgerald, Nicolai Leetham, Poto, Raimana–everybody was getting the biggest waves. Jamie Sterling, the one he got whipped into too fast and wiped out, that was so heavy! I was like “Oh my god!” I couldn’t believe he was all right. Then he went back out and did it again, but made the wave this time. It was sick to watch those guys just charging. I have to thank Raimana for hooking me up with that wave. All the boys were so cool that day. It was a sick day!

The Bruce

Between his social-life and his surfing endeavors–Bruce Irons has seen some heavy shit. Nothing however, could compare to what he witnessed April twenty-ninth. It’s rare day that Bruce bows out after one wave, but that is just a testimony to how crazy it got.

TransWorld Surf: That was your first time towing in?

Bruce: Yep, first time towing in.

Have you been hanging out with Laird or something? It looks like you guys have the same style.

Ha, ha, ha. No. The wave just sucks up so hard you gotta squat, I don’t know, you have to get the stance goin’. Actually, I did watch Laird’s video the night before.

That’s probably a good idea.

Yeah, I was psyching.

You made most of your waves, right?

Yeah, all except one where I didn’t come out of the barrel, I got a little pounded.

A little pounded? Those waves were huge!

Yeah, the thing ate me up in the barrel so fast, but the life vest brings you right up, so it was pretty minor.

What was it like seeing all that shit go down? Did it get you fired up?

Fuck yeah! That first day was so gnarly. You needed to have your own equipment and shit you were confident on because if you fucked up, you could definitely die. I got one wave and was over it, just sitting on the boat in the channel was gnarly. I sure didn’t think it was going to get that big; that was the heaviest shit I’ve ever seen in my life. I can’t believe the reef didn’t crack in half!

Von Zipper/Air Tahiti Nui Trials

The trials are always exciting. You’ve got some of the worlds best surfers vying for two elusive spots in the ‘CT event- and some total hacks getting pounded and rescued by the Tahitian Water Patrol. I got to know these Water Patrol guys quite well. In fact, Poto saved my ass in the dwindling minutes of heat eight in the first round. Here’s what happened: After kicking out of the first wave of a set, I looked to the horizon and saw nothing but a big, black, eight-foot wave with fellow competitor, Kevin Johnson, taking off. With no reason to paddle anywhere (I knew the thing was going to blast me), I just sat there and awaited my sentence. Kevin made the drop and pulled into the wave, which was gathering steam as it hit the reef, and got annihilated right in front of me. I bailed my board and was immediately tangled up with Kevin, getting worked over by this bitch of a wave–and slightly panicking.

My panic level increased dramatically when I attempted to break the surface but was held down by my leash, which had wrapped around Kevin. Luckily my leash came off easily, (it pays to practice) and I made it to the top, only to be greeted by another set wave. By now I was hyperventilating and losing strength. After swimming under two more waves, the ocean showed mercy on me and I made it under the last wave, completely exhausted and waving my arms for the Water Patrol. Too tired to successfully grab onto the rescue sled, a Tahitian angel, Water Patrolman Steve, grabbed my jersey and yanked me onto the oversized boogieboard sled.

With Poto commanding the ski, I felt like I was out of harms way and I told him he was my hero for the first of many times. Not so fast buddy. Dry-docked on the reef and overloaded, a wall of whitewash took us out and knocked Steve off the ski. I personally had a death grip on the thing and wasn’t going anywhere. Poto laughed crazily as we righted the ski, left Steve on the reef, and punched it to the lagoon. “You’ve still got a minute left!” yelled Poto over the roar of the ski. Meanwhile, I thought to myself, “I’m done, this guy is f–king crazy!”

We made it back out but my 7’2″ Bushman was nowhere to be found. When it was finally retrieved, it looked like someone had taken a shotgun to it, with green reef chunks protruding from the rails and holes everywhere. Tough luck, but somebody had to get last, and someone had to give the Water Patrol practice–why not me?

Alain Riou had no need for the rescue sled. The French/Tahitian kid ripped at every opportunity and finished in front of some heavy hitters including second place finisher Conan Hayes, Poto (third), Tamayo Perry, Healy, Fuller, Manoa Drollet, Bruce Irons, Reef McIntosh, Chris Ward, Glen Hall, Ian Walsh, Tory Barron, Dustin Barca, Ace Buchan, Hira Terinatoofa (third place) and plenty of other balls out, fearless Teahupo‘o specialists.

While the surfed remained contestable, it wasn’t the death barrels everyone has come to expect for the event. Instead, it turned into a contest to see who could find a barrel in the dwindling, two-to-three foot conditions. Conan made it to the main event again. He surfs excellent at Teahupo‘o. Hira Terinatoofa, one of the best up-and-coming Tahitians, secured a spot, and some cash, in the main event. Poto, who was on the pro tour for years, easily qualified for the third year in a row.

Billabong Pro 2003

Kelly Slater is back. While many eyes were on Andy, Cory, The Cooly kids, and others who haven’t won six world titles–Slater was quietly stomping his competitors. In round four of the main event, Kelly found himself surfing against last years second place finisher, Luke Egan. Towards the end of the heat, with Luke closely trailing Kelly, Egan decided to board the rescue ski instead of paddling through a set–big mistake. The ski was unable to move in the soup and quickly became dry-docked. All three riders jumped ship onto the dry reef. Luke jumped face-first just before a wall of whitewash smashed into the ski, rendering it useless. With time running out, Luke managed to make it back to the takeoff zone, but it was too late–the merciless Slater sat on him with priority. Next year he may want to think about paddling back out instead of boarding the ski.

Andy vs. Cory: The battle of the Te