Words Mimi LaMontagne
So, what’s a wipeout at 10 foot Teahupo’o feel like? I mean, we see it on the webcast, we see the excruciatingly hilarious photos (Superman that Teahupo’o, Bede), but we don’t see what happens underwater – and if you’re as much of a pussy as the Surfing Life team, you never will.
So rather than let Teahupo’o drag us over the reef and into the lagoon, we rang up a few of the guys who were absolutely pulverised during the 2014 Billabong Tahiti Pro.
Kai Otton had a pretty gnarly hold down yesterday in his Round Five heat against slab aficionado (he’s from SA), tour rookie, Donny Atkinson. He started the conversation – “Man, I’m exhausted today. I feel like I’ve just had a big night out.”
Kai, heading down, down, down. Photo: ASP
“I wasn’t prepared for how long I was held down yesterday, and it took a lot of my energy. I actually started off the day pretty shit, because I had a wipeout on the best wave of my heat – the whole day would have been different for me if I made that take-off. Then in that heat with Dion there weren’t very many rideable waves.
“Even though I got really worked, I didn’t touch the bottom at all yesterday – instead I got a two wave hold down. The boys say they saw me get a breath before the second wave, so I think I did – but it wasn’t very long at all. I didn’t touch the reef once, I was just rolling around, tomb-stoning. It’s hard because you can hold your breath for that long, and you can mentally prepare yourself for a two wave hold down, but trying to get to the surface and not making any ground really rattles you. You need to get to the surface before that next wave hits you.
“With the skis there you don’t panic quite as much. As long as your head doesn’t hit the bottom you know you’re OK, and you’ll never get a three-wave hold down. But if you get the air knocked out of you before you go under it’s scary – I know that happened to Owen and he was really winded.
“It’s tough with Teahupo’o sometimes because the big ones jump up really quickly. You’ve got a couple split seconds to weigh up if you’re going or not, and you’ve gotta be prepared for anything. You can tell when it’s an impossible wave to paddle in to, though – but sometimes it’s borderline, and if you’re in the perfect spot you feel compelled to go. I thought that, but I just wasn’t in the right spot at all yesterday.
Kai, NOT wiping out. And it look so damn good. Photo: ASP
“And my day went the way it did because I didn’t make those two crucial waves – I got held down twice for longer then I ever have before. Longer than anything at Sunset or some place like that. It’s the most I’ve ever had to hold my breath, and it roots you. I mean, I was relieved when I got the ski back out because it meant I’d have two minutes where I didn’t have move a muscle. Those wipeouts cost me my run, or at least a chance at it.
“Let’s put it this way. I’ve never surfed Teahupo’o like that before. A lot of the guys were inexperienced out there, but some just clued in quicker. It’s a beautiful thing, really – and I had a plan to not wipeout, but you can never tell what’s going to turn into a crazy wave. I was finding it harder to get deep in the sets rather than the big, thick ones, whereas backhand guys said it was easy – so I just picked waves that suited the way I surfed. But the two that I picked just didn’t let me come out of them – you kind of live and die by your strategy out there.
“This’ll go down in history though. And it sucks that I feel disappointed today. I had a lot of wipeouts and not too many crazy rides, on the best day of surfing ever. I needed a few more heats for a solid amount of confidence for the rest of the year, but I feel OK. It was good to get a 9th. I feel a bit flat today, because when I watched the replays of my wipeouts I just got so annoyed – if I made the first wave of my day it would have changed everything. I had to promise myself not to watch it again. Ha.”
But nonetheless, Kai got a good run under his belt, and he’s headed into his favourite part of the year. All we know is, he sure can take a beating.
As can Bede, the next man we called. The guy with the shot in the papers, superman-ing mid barrel. Even he had to admit, that was pretty damn funny.
Superman that Teahupo’o. Photo: ASP
How are you Bede? You got some smashings out there.
Ha, yeah, I did. I’m just relaxing. I think there’s some surf but I’m pretty tired. Ace, who I’m staying with, is gonna go check it now, but we’re not going out unless it’s perfect. Got too spoiled yesterday.
Yeah, you guys did. It was awesome – but it also looked very, very painful.
It was. I got a gnarly wipeout in the quarterfinals against Ace. The first wave I took I just free fell. I thought I had it, and thought I would make it, but then it just kept drawing out and the next thing I knew I was on top of the wave, but I tried anyways. I free fell all the way from the top, all the way to the bottom, and got the wind knocked out of me.
What’s it like, when you’re underwater? What actually happens?
The thing is they’re not super long, the wipeouts, but they’re just so violent. The ocean treats you like a rag doll. Not too many people hit the reef actually – the tide was a little high most of the day, so I didn’t hit. But you just get thrown around so violently. When it first gets a hold of you it’s insane. The inside bit is so intense, if you fall towards the end of the barrel all the energy converges at once and you get smashed and washed onto the dry bits. It’s the worst if you fall in the barrel and then get sucked back over.
Like that one photo of you, superman-ing?
Ha. Yeah. But for some reason that wasn’t very bad. A lot of people took heavy beatings like that, though. Owen did, in his heat against Kelly. He was pretty rattled. He said he swallowed water. The ocean wouldn’t let him up to get a breath, and he was under for so long. It’s pretty lucky that no one got seriously injured.
Glassy perfection of the best day of surfing. Photo: ASP
What’s going through your mind when you realise you’re not gunna make it?
You’re so freaked out about getting slammed into the reef and cut to shreds, but after the first five seconds, after the impact is over, if you haven’t already hit reef you’re not going to. But then the idea that there’s another wave coming after yours is scary. You’ve gotta really relax for five to ten seconds, but then you’ve gotta fight to get a breath before the next wave hits. It’s definitely a heavy situation.
How do you balance between wanting to win your heat by taking the biggest sets, but wanting to stay alive/not get killed?
It’s so hard! Everyone in the channel is so close to you, and they’re all yelling and telling you go to. You don’t want to disappoint them, so you kind of don’t think about the consequences at the time. You just have to go.
Do you have any time to think?
Not really. You don’t have time to think, you kind of get this feeling and it just happens so quickly, you’re still trying to make it till the last second and hope for a miracle that you don’t get smashed. Then you’ve just gotta deal with it. The water security guys make you feel really safe though, and if something goes wrong they’ll be right there to pick you up. They’re the best in the world.
And what about surfing your heat against Ace – was it weird staying together?
Honestly, it was amazing to surf against Ace. It was like a dream heat. The waves were so amazing, and because we’re staying together it was kind of like, let’s just surf and enjoy the conditions. It didn’t even feel like a heat – it was surreal, I felt like we were just trading nines. I’ll never forget that day.
And, neither will Mick Fanning. The cool, calm and collected man of surf – when he came up from his wipeout, he was visibly rattled – and we’ve never seen Mick this rattled.
Mick Fanning, in a position we rarely see. Photo: ASP
“Even though I knew the beatings that Teahupo’o can give out, I was really excited actually to have the waves we did. It was just so special. I wasn’t nervous – I just wanted to get the wave of my life. We dream of days like yesterday, so it didn’t seem like there was a need to worry about what might happen. Just try to seize the opportunity.
“When it’s massive, the wave dictates when you can and can’t go. But if you have the opportunity to get the wave of your life, are you really going to pass it up? It’s a fine balance. With that big wipeout of mine, I didn’t think it was too bad until I looked back at it – I still think that others were in worse positions. I think I was just so angry at myself for missing the wave that I wanted earlier, that I wanted to take this one. As I paddled in I saw the west bowl bending too much, but I was already so far down the face that where wasn’t really any way to go back. I just tried to get a good dive in and penetrate through, but the wave had different ideas. Haha.
The opposite reaction, of the opposite result. Photo: Ted Grambeau
“It’s like you’re wrestling for 30 seconds. First, you try to penetrate through the bottom of the wave and not get sucked over. Trying to control your body with the speed and ferocity of the wave, so that you don’t get slammed into the reef, is so hard. Once you tumble over the falls you, if you haven’t hit the reef, you get pushed really deep to the bottom. Then you start thinking when, and how hard, you’re going to hit the bottom (and what part of the reef is going to stop your fall – hopefully a flat piece, haha). Once you hit the bottom you try to hang on until the ferocity passes, and when you feel that you push off and swim up. This is the part that takes the most energy out of you, especially because you have about two feet of foam that just leaves you stuck. Then, if you’re lucky enough to get a breath, you see what’s going to happen next.
“But as I said earlier, you have an opportunity when you paddle into a wave like this, to get the wave of your life. You’ve gotta just worry about the pain later. The wipeout didn’t rattle me mentally; it was more that as I landed it jarred my neck and I had a stinger go down my left arm from an old injury. I didn’t have any strength or feeling in it for about a minute. But even with that, I still really wanted more.
After this, we couldn’t help ourselves, and we had to ask Mick about his year – is he still chasing a 2014 World Title? “I was honestly really excited with Gabe winning, and even though this is my third bad result this year I’m not ever going to give up. I want to win more events to finish the year. That’s my goal. No one is giving up until the end of the pipe.”
And that, is the way the cookie crumbles.
What do you think – would you go at 12ft Teahupo’o?