Tahiti. The name conjures up soothing and relaxing images -- sparkling, crystal clear ocean, tropical fish, swaying palms, misty mountains, golden sunsets.
Most of the honeymooners that descend upon the idyllic islands of French Polynesia don't realize that some of the world's most fearsome waves break along its outer reefs. In Tahiti, you can relax in the confines of your glass-bottom bungalow (if you can afford one) looking over a calm and inviting lagoon and never realize that surfers are putting their lives on the line just a five-minute boat ride away. As the saying goes in the "Endless Summer," "There are no waves in Tahiti," but there are incredible tubes on the edge of the horizon.
The waves breaking along Passe Havae near the southern tip of the main island, near a little town called Teahupo'o, are the star of the show. Teahupo'o barrels are generated from storms spinning off the coasts of New Zealand and Antarctica. They travel unimpeded on a northward journey before encountering a very sharp reef.
In 2011, a south swell hit during the Billabong Pro Tahiti waiting period so massive that competition was called off for the day. Tow teams hit the water, and Nathan Fletcher and Bruce Irons rode two of the heaviest waves ever attempted in the history of surfing. Kelly Slater went on to win that year en route to his 11th world title in much smaller but perfect 6- to 8-foot surf.
All of the top 34 surfers will be gunning for world No. 1 Gabriel Medina this year in Tahiti. Medina earned a fifth-place finish at Teahupo'o in 2012 and got second in similar reef surf in Fiji in 2012. His quarterfinal result at the last event in Jeffreys Bay will likely be a keeper for him in the year-end standings. He travels to paradise brimming with confidence. After Tahiti, the tour moves to Trestles in California, France and Portugal -- all places where Medina has either won or finished second in the past. Don't be surprised to see him crowned as the first Brazilian world champion before the final event of the year at Pipeline.
Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning, ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, also have momentum coming into the event. Their point-break expertise made 90 percent of the ASP surfers look like amateurs in epic surf at J-Bay. They are also two of the best backside tube riders in the world, having both made the final at Teahupo'o in 2012.
John John Florence is another surfer to watch. His focus has been on shooting a big budget surf film this year, but nothing will get his attention like warm water and wide-open, grinding barrels. Florence blew minds last year, scoring a perfect 10 for two incredible tubes on one wave. Few people would be surprised to see him earn his first win of 2014 in Tahiti.
Tahitian native Michel Bourez is also licking his chops at the prospect of surfing his favorite wave with only one other guy in the water. Bourez hasn't had much luck over the years at the Billabong Pro Tahiti, and his world title hopes suffered a big setback when he lost in Round 3 at J-Bay. A third win of the year at Teahupo'o would put him right back in the thick of the things, though.
It's too soon to know what the waves will be like at "The End of the Road" this time around, but let's hope that Tahiti lives up to its promise once again.