Tahiti 2008 - the World Cup that never happened

Sunday, 06 April 2008 04:07 | Written by  Ian Gray
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[Editor: South African Ian Gray is following the World Series races around the world. Sadly, due to political unrest, the Tahiti race was cancelled - but he went anyway.  Here's his account of his stay in what has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.]

Tahiti style
Paradise Tahiti Style? (Pic: Ian Gray)

Before leaving Durban in February for the second half of the World Surfski series - Clint, Barry and Daryl would remind me at every chance of what an awesome experience they had in Tahiti at the World Cup in 2006. In fact Barry's words were, "the best 7 days of my life". So with this in mind, I knew that I was in for something good on arriving at the French Polynesian Island.

Julien Torregrossa Tapuna Reef, Tahiti
Julien toying with Tapuna reef in his carbon Fenn Elite ski (Pic: Ian Gray)

Much like stepping into a sauna, the atmosphere engulfs you as you exit the terminal building. I arrived in the afternoon - a balmy 35 degrees with humidity levels permanently at 100%.

With the cancellation of the World Cup surfski competition in Tahiti, I had 3 weeks to get familiar with the island, do some training for the King of the Harbour in New Zealand later in March and of course take a closer look at some of the world famous surf spots.

Julien, one of the local competitive paddlers on the island, kindly took me in and made me feel at home right away with a couple Hinano's (famous local beer). Julien is the agent for Fenn Kayaks in French Polynesia and thus has no shortage of surfski's at his home on the water's edge of Panaauia. At first glance, it looks like something out of a postcard. With closer inspection you realize that your eyes aren't playing tricks on you and that the water is in fact a crystal clear turquoise blue colour and the outer reefs 800m from the front doorstep are producing 4ft perfect barreling waves.  I had found paradise and I had 3 weeks to enjoy it!

Keen to investigate the off-shore sanctuary, Julien planned a casual 20km paddle along the coast. Now Tahitian folk are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people that you'll ever meet - that's until you're on the water in a surfski. For whatever reason, they become possessed and seemingly have little regard for the sweltering midday heat as they take to the ocean. 20km of flat water paddling on any day is a good effort. In midday tropical heat - you deserve a medal. This, I would later learn, would become the daily routine and that it would take some time for my body to adjust to the severe conditions and not feel like a dried up prune after every session.

Paddling Club, Tahiti
A view from the club launch jetty (Pic: Ian Gray)

With the majority of the paddling population in Tahiti having preference to Outrigger, it leaves the relative few that are in surfski's a crazed bunch who are truly passionate about the sport. This being said, with over 2000 registered paddlers in Tahiti, this is still a fair tally of surfskiers.

Paddling conditions in Tahiti are predominantly flat inside of the protective reefs that hug the island. Outside of the reefs, however, large Pacific swells wrap around the island. Couple this with a good tail-wind and you've got yourself a world class downwind course. I was fortunate enough to catch a 15 knot downwind one morning with my regular Tahitian training partners Julien, Gilles and Pierro when we crossed from Tahiti to Morea Island - a 30km sea crossing that would make for an ideal circuit for the World Cup event.

The most popular training area in Tahiti takes place at a club positioned at the harbor of Papeete (capital of Tahiti). Here, some 100 paddlers take to the water every day at lunchtime and complete a 10 km time trial circuit.

Tahiti - paddle training routes
Training routes - Tahiti

With the little energy that I had managed to save after a day's Tahitian style training; I would happily make use of on my surfboard. Tahiti is most famous for its unique and savage left-hand reef break that is Teahupoo. It is every bit as nasty looking in real life as it is on screen. A wave that heaves large chunks of ocean over a shallow reef was something that I would just look at and pay respect to those trying to surf it.

Tapuna, on the other hand, is a reef break not far from Papeete that produces world-class left-hand barrels, but has managed to keep under the radar because of Tehupoo's reputation. I was fortunate to catch it on two occasions at 4 - 6ft, with little wind and small crowds of no more than a handful of people at a time. The take-off is steep and fast and before you've had time to bottom turn the lip is crashing a couple feet ahead into ankle deep water. Your adrenaline quickly kicks in as you can see clearly the shape of the razor sharp reef beneath you. The barrel continues to unfold for about 100m at a pretty consistent rate. Textbook stuff.

Barrel City - Tahiti surfing
Barrel City!


Some more pics courtesy of Ian Gray