Hollow World

For a split second, I imagined I was surfing with one of the tawny-skinned girls from Gauguin’s early paintings. Seventeen-year-old Hena, brown-eyed and flawless, bobbed in the warm seawater with a timeless Polynesian grace. Around her, young and old Tahitians entertained themselves on just about anything that floated. At their backs lay a black-sand beach, a palm-shrouded rivermouth and a dramatic blue-green valley peaking on either side with jagged, volcanic spires. This must have been what Captain Cook saw in 1776 when he dropped anchor in Matavai Bay and recorded the sight of Tahitians canoe-surfing the little beach inside of Point Venus. Yet this was 2003. Hena had memorized every Avril Lavigne lyric, could recite lines from her favorite movie, Blue Crush, and had just paddled out on a modern longboard. Still, it was the happy-go-lucky way she did it that caught my eye.

This is where Tahiti surfs, in the average, sloppy beachbreaks. Papara Beach, in particular, is where 80s WCT competitor Vetea “Poto” David brings his kids, where Tahitian flight attendants and hotel workers surf on their days off, and where Hira Teriinatoofa, the island’s only representative on the WQS, sharpens his beachbreak skills. The waves that draw foreign surfers and media attention, the ones that have come to define the surfer’s image of Tahiti, are often too labor intensive for a quick go out. Most of them are a 20-minute paddle from the beach, requiring a boat–an expensive luxury on an island with one of the highest costs of living in the world. So the average Tahitian surfer mostly settles for convenience.

“I was used to surfing shitty waves,” Poto said of his early preparation for the WCT. “People ask why I wasn’t surfing Teahupoo in the early 80s. I was a kid, I didn’t have a car to go searching for waves let alone money for gas.”

Considering the importance of the sandbanks off Papara Beach to the development of Tahiti’s young surfers, the lack of aggressive competition in the water that day was mysterious. Waves were shared, and the hierarchy didn’t discriminate between canoe, surfboard or bodyboard. It was light-hearted in a truly Polynesian way, and more than the warm water or the volcanic mountains in the background, it was the free atmosphere that distinguished it from a crowded, sloppy beachbreak anywhere else.

A few hundred yards away, 28-year-old Raimana Van Bastolear sat in his modest house, occasionally peering through the open door to the action down at the rivermouth. The three-foot conditions didn’t inspire him, though he hadn’t surfed in days. This was February and he said he’d rather wait the month or two before Teahupoo began breaking properly, but it seemed that a surf would do him some good. A beautiful day had unfolded, and he’d been shut-up inside. Because he’s trilingual and has developed contacts across the Pacific, his surfing career has evolved into a kind of ambassadorship of Tahitian surfing. There were arrangements to be made for visiting pros, equipment to be maintained, and he’d been hired to lay the groundwork for a reality TV show to be produced on the island. But his role as ambassador had him surrounded by papers and to-do lists. Their details, it seemed, had greased his slide into an ambivalent funk.

“We told them this was our day,” he said, recounting an altercation out at Teahupoo during the previous season. “We towed a few foreigners. And they f–ked us.”

An international pro, Otto Flores of Puerto Rico, made the cover of SURFER on a wave Raimana towed him into. This wasn’t unforeseen, but during that session, Raimana demanded to those present that a Tahitian surfer bag a cover shot. It was their wave, and their ski, after all. For Raimana, the demand seemed reasonable, if not overdue. But demands made in the water don’t travel well. A sense of betrayal lingered. Along with fellow Tahitian chargers Bgarn and Manoa Drollet, Raimana believed he helped introduce Teahupoo to the world. Now, the beast was a free-for-all.

“You have to be over there when it’s big to understand what’s going on. It’s no good talking about it,” Raimana said dismissively to me, a journalist from the same publication he felt had slighted him. Yet I knew it takes more than being here to fully understand the gripe. You’d have to be a Tahitian surfer with an eye on the prize.

“Things changed like that,” said Teriinatoofa snapping his fingers. “I think Teahupoo is bringing more of everything to Tahiti.” Without any serious heritage in the competitive realm, Tahiti became the site of the World Championship Tour’s most harrowing event with the 1998 Gotcha Pro. And socially indicative, a Tahitian wave replaced Pipeline’s 30-year reign on the plastered walls of surf culture. Yet the surfers at the source, the ones who helped mid-wife that wave into the world consciousness, are left wondering what this increase of “everything” means for them. They see the surfers who devote themselves to Pipeline garnering salaries, while the surfers who devote themselves to Teahupoo make a few extra bucks in May when the WCT creates a few off-stage jobs.

“It’s f–ked up now,” Poto admitted, “because people want to make a living out of it.” Like John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl, in which a young fisherman discovers “the pearl of the world,” but soon finds his simple life destroyed by the greed it inspires, the Tahitian surfers knew they’d discovered something of great value, but weren’t necessarily prepared for it’s consequences. What are those consequences? Localism, rifts over proprietorship, economic disputes, unwanted development and thwarted ambitions. Poto surmised the situation with an honest bluntness: “The good comes with the bad.”