Before It Was ‘Chopes

A romp through Teahupoo contest history

The pros have been terrified of this situation since 1997.
The pros have been terrified of this situation since 1997.

The 1997 Black Pearl Horue Pro, a four-star WQS event, was the first surf contest held at Teahupoo. It came so far out of left field the surf media didn’t even know what to call the break. Surfing hit on “Waterworld,” in what I think was a non-ironic tribute to an that insanely expensive nuclear bomb of a Kevin Costner movie of the same title. Waves for the first two days of Black Pearl Pro were mid-size, and good enough to blow the minds of anyone who hadn’t yet experienced the Tahitian wonder-slab—meaning 98 percent of those in attendance. A few questions were raised about what it meant to introduce the whirling klaxon of pro surfing to this surpassingly quiet and serene corner of the tropics, and some believed it was an omen when the Aremiti—a three-story, $3-million-dollar luxury catamaran; staging area to all Black Pearl contestants, judges and media—ran aground on the Teahupoo reef just before the end of the event. Aussie surf writer DC Green recalled hearing the sound of “coral heads disemboweling the boat inch by screaming inch,” as all 150 people aboard were forced to jump ship and find their way to back to shore. But the show went on. Not for a moment, in fact, did anybody involved think that this first-time event wasn’t going to become a pro tour cornerstone.

Abandon ship! The Aremiti runs aground.
Abandon ship! The Aremiti runs aground.

Andy Irons, 18, won the event and hoisted up his $8,000 check with a big purple-and-black shiner covering his right eye, which looked like another bit of neat fist-work from brother Bruce, but was in fact sustained by his own kneecap during a Teahupoo warm-up session. Irons hadn’t yet qualified for the WCT. God he was young. Here’s a bit from a post-award interview he did with Surfing.

Are you coming down yet?

I’m trying to! Fuck, I’m tripping! I don’t even know what to think right now. I’ve never won anything before! This is craaaaaazzzy!

How much cash did you win?

I don’t even know. Like eight grand, I think? Oh my God…

What’s a kid like you going to do with eight grand?

Put it in the bank? I gotta start saving. I don’t know. Buy a car? Buy myself something nice.

*   *   *

Conan Hayes. 1998 Gotcha Pro Tahiti.
Conan Hayes. 1998 Gotcha Pro Tahiti.

Gotcha picked up the still-QS-rated contest for 1998, perhaps as atonement for Gotcha Pro at Sandy Beach, which was the worst ASP contest of the 1980s not held in a wavepool. The name of the break was still up in the air. “End of the Road” was the locals’ preference, but some writers went with “Hava’e” or “Kumbaya.” No boats were gutted this time, but the reef-built judging tower was reduced to bamboo twigs as the swell filled mid-way on finals day. And make no mistake, the Gotcha Pro brought the fear of God to anybody who advanced past the Round 4. “The waves tripled and than quadrupled in size,” SURFER reported. “Everybody scrambled whenever a set stacked on the horizon. People panicked, boats collided, and surfers narrowly missed getting run over. Twelve-foot double-ups as wide as they were tall broke in chest-deep water. Even the daredevils were shaking in their baggies. Most of the biggest sets went untouched.”

Hawaii’s Conan Hayes got a pair of 10s in the final, and a 7 (it was best-three waves back then), but one of his 10s was so much better than anything ridden in the event that the number was meaningless. Koby Abberton meanwhile got two 9s and a 9.1, and won the event. People who were there still recall Hayes’ loss as the single most wrongful call in ASP history, made worse by the fact that Abberton, having necked a half-dozen Hinanos between the final horn and the presentation, galloped onstage, took the check, and bellowed out to the still-stunned gallery “Whoooooose the man?” Silence. ‘Whooooose the man?” Still no reply, so Koby helped out. “Me! I’m the man!”

Never mind, though. The waves were incredible, shocking, and the legend grew. Gotcha did the right thing and bumped the contest up to the WCT for 1999.

Teahupoo brought the gnarly, again. Right out of the gates, in fact. Cory Lopez’ infamous late-drop-to-barrel-to-vaporization—the defining Teahupoo image right until Laird strong-armed his Millennium Wave—came in Round 1. As did Richie Lovett’s barrel-to-hospital effort; he glided out of a long tube, blissed out for a extra beat, missed the pullout, and head-butted the reef. Nine points for the ride. Fifteen stitches for the noggin. “It was the first contest I’ve ever been in where people were yelling ‘Don’t go! Don’t go!’,” Tim Curran later said. “I remember Poto screaming ‘Don’t go on that wave, you’ll die!'”

Mark Occhilupo, 33, three years into his astonishing WCT comeback, managed to win the event without catching a single memorable wave. Plenty of competitors were just too scared to charge. Others were game enough, but unable to pick off three good scores. Occy picked off 6s and 7s at will, and at the final horn he was sitting on his board, in the channel, face-up in a rain squall, on his way to a world title that had the most jaded rheumy-eyed bastards in surfing tearing up with joy.

Live ASP feeds were years away. In 1999 I think we were still using hand cranks to fire up an internet connection. Patience, in other words, was the first quality needed to be a hardcore ASP follower. But this time around, we were rewarded. Gotcha put together a really nice VHS presentation of the 1999 event. Here, a few highlights: