Posted: Thursday September 9, 2010 2:21PM ; Updated: Thursday September 9, 2010 3:48PM
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The Wave (cont.)

By Susan Casey

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Surfers are willing to risk their lives for the chance to ride the biggest waves.
EPA

Then there were the not-so-small days. In particular there was Aug. 17, 2000. The caption on the Surfer magazine cover that featured a photo of Hamilton riding Teahupoo that day was "Oh My God...." Three months before that, a surfer had died in far smaller conditions, his face torn off by the jagged coral, and that must have been on everyone's mind when Hamilton, towed by Doerner, took off on a wave so massive and so vicious that spectators watching from boats feared they were witnessing a man's last ride. As the wave rose around him, Hamilton couldn't see it; his body was turned away from the barrel. But he could feel it, and his mind, he said later, screamed at him to abort. At the same time, hesitation would have been fatal. As the lip slammed down on the reef, the tube convulsed, and Hamilton disappeared from sight. For a heartbeat or three no one knew if the wave had killed him. Then he emerged, gliding along with his arms in the air. If he had fallen, the wave cognoscenti agreed, the only thing left of him would have been a red stain on the reef.

Teahupoo that day had been written into history as the heaviest wave ever ridden. This storm, seven years later -- an out-of-season Southern Hemisphere low that had brewed in Antarctica before winding toward the South Pacific, fueling itself with tropical moisture along the way -- was shaping up to be the hardest hit in years. It was fierce enough, slow-moving enough and visible enough on the weather maps to give surfers two days' notice to get to Tahiti. Hamilton had been eating a breakfast of ahi and eggs in Maui when he'd gotten the call from his friend Raimana Van Bastolaer, a Tahitian surfer. Thirty-four hours later he landed in Papeete.

Hamilton was accompanied by two photographers from California, Sonny Miller and Jeff Hornbaker. Also in the crowd was Sean Collins, the founder of Surfline.com, which provided surfers with weather maps, wave models, news, stories, photo galleries, videos, webcams, travel information and glossaries, all but waxing the riders' boards for them. "Everybody's here," said Collins, a 54-year-old Californian, before quickly revising that. "Well, some guys didn't want to come. One said, 'I've got a kid on the way. I don't need to split my head on the reef right now.'"

Hamilton, Miller, Hornbaker and I would be staying at Van Bastolaer's house, about 40 miles from Teahupoo. For a little island, Tahiti had more than its share of renowned big-wave riders, and Van Bastolaer was one of the best. Small and agile, he began his career at Teahupoo as a bodyboarder, braving the waves with only a pair of fins. This activity is confined to smaller days, of course, but it allowed Van Bastolaer to learn the nuances of the wave's motion; by the time he was tow-surfing Teahupoo on the biggest days, he knew its every last trick. On this swell, he and Hamilton would be tow partners.

By 5:30 that morning Van Bastolaer and Hamilton had already left the house, even though this was only a prep day; the swell was still miles offshore. Teahupoo is on the southern end of Tahiti, literally at the end of the road. At 8 a.m. Miller, Hornbaker and I turned into the last house at Mile 0, a white, two-story place known as Mommy and Poppy's. It was a private home that morphed into a big-wave staging ground when conditions warranted. Hard at the water's edge, it was ideally situated to get out to Teahupoo's break, about a mile offshore.

The yard already buzzed with action. There were men and Jet Skis and surfboards everywhere, with roosters scuttling among them. Mommy, a pocket-sized Asian woman in her 60s, emerged from the kitchen in a red apron and baseball cap and placed a skillet of eggs and sausage on a long outdoor table. Several guys in their early 20s, gathered around a laptop that was playing a surf movie, reached for the food without breaking their gaze. Across the yard Hamilton was puttying a fin onto a surfboard. It was an improbable display of vigor from someone running on two hours of sleep. Big-wave riders stress the impossibility of getting a good night's rest before a large swell. Hamilton referred to this tossing and turning as "doing the mahi-mahi flop. Full pan-fried mahi. Up every hour, looking at the alarm clock."

Behind Hamilton, four Jet Skis sat on trailers at the top of a launch ramp. Van Bastolaer leaned over one of them, suctioning fuel with a length of rubber hose. At first glance you wouldn't think Van Bastolaer was an elite athlete. While the 6'3", 215-pound Hamilton and many other big-wave riders had hard lines and sharply defined edges, Van Bastolaer had rounded corners. In the big-wave pantheon there were plenty of poker faces and end zone stares, but Raimana's brown eyes radiated a deep joy.

As Hamilton fine-tuned his board, a younger surfer announced that he planned to wear a thin wet suit under his flotation vest, to add another layer between his skin and the reef. Hearing this, Hamilton looked up from his work. The force that this wave unloaded made the idea of adding an extra millimeter of neoprene for safety seem absurd, like hoping an umbrella might cushion the ­impact of a falling anvil. The flotation vests were another story; all the riders wore them now, and some men wore two. Undoubtedly they had saved many lives. But this practice had begun at Jaws, the giant wave off Maui, in 60-foot depths where a fallen surfer might never make it back to daylight. The reef at Teahupoo, on the other hand, lay only three feet below the surface. "I'm not as worried about flotation here," Hamilton said. "Jaws is all about the hold-down. Teahupoo is all about the bounce."

*****

Sometime that night, the waves arrived. By the time Hamilton and Van Bastolaer left the house at 4 a.m., surf boomed against the breakwalls, and when they drove up to Mommy and Poppy's they saw water washing through the yard. In the marina where Miller, Hornbaker and I arrived at dawn to meet our boat, heavy surges made it hard to load the camera gear. The morning was clear and sunny, with a riffling breeze and a restless batch of clouds, but today the ocean was completely different. Where the swell hit the barrier reef, a few miles out on the horizon, a thick band of white spray pulsed and flared like a ghostly runaway fire.

We were sharing our boat with three French photographers. Shooters were key to any big swell; as with the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if you ripped down the face of a 100-foot wave and there was nobody there to take a picture, did you really do it?

Pushing off from the concrete pier, our boat captain took a last sip of his coffee and steered us toward Teahupoo. I heard it before I saw it, the curtain of liquid glass that shattered on the reef, the lip of its 40-foot barrel hitting the earth like a small apocalypse. Its violence aside, Teahupoo was a looker: waters the color of jewels -- rich lapis, deep emerald, pale aquamarine -- and a heavy white crest that glittered in the sun. But the wave had the personality of a buzz saw. As it reared up, it drained the water from the reef, turning the impact zone -- a lagoon that was mercilessly shallow to begin with -- into a barely covered expanse of sharp coral, spiky sea urchins and volcanic rock. This happened in seconds, in an area maybe 300 feet long. "Yeah, it's different," Miller said, noticing my stunned look. "Kind of like a shotgun unloading."

It was bizarre, really, how close you could get to the wave. Because Teahupoo is created by a swell hitting a protruding knuckle on the barrier reef, there is -- theoretically -- a safe channel right next to it where the water is deeper. Our boat and a handful of others sat right on the shoulder, so near to the edge that when a surfer kicked out of a ride, he had to watch where he landed. Hamilton had once torn his knee apart there trying to avoid ramming into someone's outboard motor when he exited a wave. Even in this so-called safe zone, however, the most experienced boat captains stayed on their toes. They knew the channel wasn't a permanent fixture. It could suddenly vanish if the swell shifted slightly in direction or an especially huge set came shrieking in. Over the years several boats had been hit by the wave, flipped and ­destroyed. And once, Van Bastolaer had been deep in Teahupoo's barrel and seen a large black object whiz by only inches above his head; it was a Jet Ski that had been sucked over the falls when its driver ventured too close to the edge.

Right in front of us a Brazilian surfer dropped onto a wave. He wobbled in the barrel for a few seconds before being pitched into the air backward; the effect was of a bowling pin blown off a balance beam by a firehose. We saw his board catapult into the sky, and a flash of leg that looked like it was bent in the wrong direction. As the wave hit with grenade percussion, the surfer disappeared into the maw. His partner darted by for the rescue. Steering into the whitewater, he looked frantically for the surfer's head to pop up, but there was no sign. The driver circled, still searching, but the next wave was already bearing down. He was out of time. He was also out of luck: When he hit the throttle to rocket away, his engine quit. "He's cavitating!" someone yelled from a boat. Jet Skis were notorious for stalling in the roiling foam, their motors grasping for traction only to end up sputtering on air. And now, instead of a rescue vehicle, the driver was out there with a 1,000-pound problem. Lacking other options, he dived into the whitewater.

Several fresh rescue teams rushed to the edge of the impact zone. One of them corralled the abandoned Jet Ski, while another managed to get the driver onto its rescue sled. As a third wave reared up, the surfer's head was spotted at the far side of the lagoon. He'd traveled more than 500 yards underwater, shot like a cannonball across the reef. Someone plucked him from the water, sparing him further beating. Ten minutes later we saw him sprawled on the rescue sled, grinning and waving as if he were in a ticker-tape parade. Blood dripped from his elbows. He flashed us a shaka, the Hawaiian hand sign for "things couldn't be better."

 
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