Hype Beasts

The recent swell at Teahupoo was a spectacle, but were the tow-ins worth celebrating?

Unless you have been living in an Internet black hole for the past couple days, you’ve no doubt been subjected to any number of grandiose claims regarding the recent exploits in Tahiti. With superlatives being thrown about like midgets at a dwarf toss (Biggest since Code Red! Heaviest wave ever ridden! The day to end all days!), this much-hyped swell has quickly become a real-time global spectacle. Whether or not that spectacle is worth celebrating, however, is something to consider.

The past five years have seen two divergent paths in the big-wave scene. While the focus in the US and Hawaii has been on pushing the limits of what is accessible through paddle power alone, the heavy water movement in Australia centers more around tow-assisted performances at mutant waves like Shipstern’s Bluff and The Right. Tahiti’s Teahupoo—a perfect reef pass with the heft and hairball drop of other less-approachable slabs—has established itself as a sort of middle ground, where the upper limits of paddleability and what is arguably the planet’s best tow-venue overlap in a highly publicized gray area. Nathan Fletcher’s wave at Teahupoo during the 2011 “Code Red” event shattered our preconceived notions—not about what was surfable (as he didn’t actually paddle into or make the wave), but rather what was survivable. Gracing the covers of a host of magazines, Fletcher’s wave redefined the upper limits of big wave “performance,” in the process garnering him an XXL Ride of the Year and setting a precedent for this week’s lunacy.

Indeed, lunacy is the only word that can accurately describe the scene this week at Teahupoo. With more than a dozen tow teams jockeying for position and upwards of thirty spectator boats clogging a closed-out channel, the lineup was an incredibly dangerous place to be—and this danger was compounded exponentially by a swell that arguably should have gone unridden. While big wave surfing used to be the exclusive purview of highly trained, self-sufficient watermen, tow-ropes, PFDs, and personal water safety teams have now made it possible for any semi-competent surfer to approach waves that would otherwise remain unrideable. But it seems to me that if you can’t get yourself into—and more importantly out of—a wave without assistance, then perhaps the wave shouldn’t be ridden at all. Hiring emergency personnel to watch you play Russian Roulette isn’t heroic—it’s conscious recklessness.

This isn’t meant to take anything away from the athletes who towed Teahupoo over the past two days. Men like Mark Healey, Shane Dorian, and Kohl Christensen are some of the most accomplished big-wave paddle surfers on the planet, and over the past year have publically emphasized the importance of physical, mental, and situational preparation when approaching big waves. But the waves ridden in Tahiti this week transcend preparation, which makes one wonder if all this talk about safety is little more than self-comforting rhetoric.

Most people would agree that a large majority of the skill involved in big-wave surfing is taken out of the equation when a tow rope becomes involved. With the media clamoring for ever-increasing levels of drama and bravado, we have created a situation where people are knowingly risking their lives by artificially breaking down natural barriers to entry—barriers that are probably in place for a reason. Whereas paddling into big wave waves has always straddled that thin line between accomplishment and addiction, towing into a 20-foot slab seems to be little more than a glorified drug fix—easy to acquire if you have the means, and likely to take more than a few past the end of the road.