Gabriel Medina. Photo: WSL / Cestari
Gabriel Medina. Photo: WSL / Cestari

The Doherty Report: The French Tahitian Axis

Tahiti's cultural fusion, Dan Bilzerian, channel talk, and more from Day Two of the 2017 Billabong Pro Tahiti

Friday night in town was anything but quiet.

Just down the road, under a street light out front of the local magasin, a huge 20-on-20 scrap was going down. Two groups of refrigerator-sized Tahitians were in the middle of the road swinging fists the size of Christmas hams. One guy had already been ironed out cold and was sleeping in the middle of the road. Another guy dropped. There were agricultural toe-to-toes as far as the streetlight illuminated. Two guys crashed into a hibiscus bush. Two guys on monkey bikes flew past to join in. There was loud shouting in French, none of which we could make out. It soon ran out of gas but was by far the most engrossing thing that happened in the last few days.

One of our guys had walked past the group just before it erupted. They were drinking rum on the side of the road and had asked him for a light. They gave him two swigs of the bottle for his trouble, handed back his lighter, and offered him some advice. "You should probably go now." He did, forewarned.

As you go about life here at the End of the Road, the gentleness of manner strikes you. The quiet inquiry about how your day is going. The pillowy handshake from a giant paw. But you know that if things ever got real, if there was some provocation, some cultural sleight, some disrespectful trigger or simply bad timing with a bunch of guys on the side of the road drinking rum, there'd be an enthusiastic response. It's the unique cultural fusion, the French refinement and volatility, married with Polynesian serenity and fire all mixed in various contradictory combinations. There is nowhere else on earth like Tahiti. It's a hard place to find trouble, but if you do, it will be big. Promise.

The wave here swings on a similar axis, and this year, we are getting the warm handshake rather than the punch in the head. Yesterday morning looked listless, and after all the talk about mowing through this event in three days, we started with a restart. It was flat. Seabass sat down for breakfast just as the first wave of the day was ridden, featuring Frederico Morais gangly fired out of an inside cannon. "Let the awkward kick-outs commence!" It actually got pretty good. I didn't notice Seabass had even disappeared until he was on the screen in front of me.

The best day of the waiting period would be a long one. Twenty heats in all, 10 hours, so long that, by the end of it, Strider – who'd been in the water for all of it – looked like he'd been stung by a swarm of wasps. Round Two came and went on a lazy ocean, and with the gravitas of Round Three still to come, I stayed up the road at Papa Teva's compound on the lagoon. The former home of an ulua (trevally) pen, the fish hungry as piranhas, has been transformed into a homestay / orchid farm, the bottom having dropped out of the ulua market and Teva having followed the money. The contest flushes funds into town, a once-a-year bonanza much like a seasonal fish run might have once done millennia ago. Papa is a gracious host — the whole town is collectively gracious — and no one has had the heart to explain to Teva in pidgin Franco / Tahitian that the contest will be over today after only three days, and everyone will go home, and his annual windfall might come in a little skinny this year.

Walking down to the point with the sun slicing through some high cloud, it got tropically hot in a heartbeat. On both sides of the road, manicured lawns were being attended to, lawns growing like weeds, modest houses and churches with small-scale botanical gardens crowning them like haloes. The rapacious real estate culture of California and Australia would lose their lunches at this place. But fuck, it seemed like hard work. Maybe Teva's next enterprise will be a Jim's mowing franchise. As suggested yesterday, the energy of this event is so diffuse that, if you weren't looking carefully, you'd be forgiven for thinking nothing actually happened. Amongst the lawnmowers and the dogs and the chickens, apparently Dan Bilzerian was doing hot laps of the town on a ski, the King of Instagram with his abs oiled and a set of hydraulic tits hanging onto him from behind. The WSL judges, famous poker fetishists, invited him to come over for a game…but before he did, they'd have to gamble on the future of this year's surfing tour.

Owen Wright's girlfriend, Kita, was sitting on the point with their young son, Vali, as Owen surfed the first heat of Round Three. He cruised through it in third gear, his little family doing their thing amongst the lava stones on the beach, half a mile but a million from his heat. Owen might well win this event today, his only roadblock a weakening swell that will play into his opponents’ hands.

But for now, the best swell of the event filled in, although it came drip-fed, one wave per heat. Connor O'Leary got the wave in his heat with Jeremy Flores, and when Bede Durbidge drained a 9.73 two heats later against Gabe Medina, it appeared two of the apex predators of this event had been skinned and trophied. We jumped in the boat to head out to the channel with a few minutes left and passed Charlie Medina paddling in. If he was paddling in, that only meant one thing, right? We tried to gauge by his facial expression, but were none the wiser. As he paddled past the channel marker, it appeared to be the worst day of his life, but I remember him looking like that the day Gabe won the World Title, too. We only found out later that Gabe had grabbed a seven in the dying seconds and won.

The pulse in swell – the best we'll see it – coincided with John Florence paddling out. Who'd believe it? He looked a little lost at first, before doing what he does. The parabolic swoop from behind the peak up into the West Peak takes some doing, more doing than it looks. The two nines the judges gave him wouldn't have won a hand against the Bilzerian Shark, but were plenty enough to take Johnny into Finals Day and a date with the other contest he's yet to win.

Several Hinanos and no toilet later, I was swimming in the channel and struck up a conversation with an Aussie guy named Leigh. Hailing from the south coast, he was in Tahiti in the channel to watch his mate, Parko. Leigh was pretty hard to miss as he had a full-face tatt and ice blue eyes, but had a solid read on Parko's heat which wasn't going well for him. Again, a single nine decided the heat – it didn't belong to Parko – and Leigh riffed about the dusk freesurf while I nodded and pissed. Nines would decide Mick Fanning's fate, as well…except that he got one, a 9.83, and he lost.

There was plenty going on in the channel. Bilzerian wasn't to be seen, but Miss Tahiti 2009 was doing hot laps as snowboarder Travis Rice, who'd I'd last seen in the haze of a tequila binge at G-Land in 2009 shortly before he'd stolen a ski at 3:00 AM with Mark Healey and had somehow got it over the reef at low tide in the dark and were headed to the back ledge to do some spearfishing. They ended up at dawn in the jungle with their spearguns looking for wild boar.

By comparison, yesterday afternoon was somewhat tame, but it did give a perfect glimpse into the micro-economy of the charter boats. We were again with Timotei, the Tahitian guy credited with being the first to ever surf Teahupoo. As you can guess, he parks his boat pretty much wherever he wants, but he's also able to throw a few favors out to other friends, spread the love, bringing them to the front of the line, their passengers paying 30 Francs a head getting a perfect view of Mick losing and Jordy winning. The drivers' skills in nudging and idling the boats within a cigarette paper of each other was something to watch. At times, the boats felt like schooling fish, each instinctively knowing what the other was doing, maybe just a nod or a splayed hand to direct traffic, but that was it.

Finals Day today. Bad winds coming. Swell on the wane. It'll be busy out there today…in the channel, if not the ocean.