Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia. Exotic words. Tahiti is the largest of all the islands in French Polynesia and is sometimes referred to as the "Island of Love," but at the southern end of that romantic little tropical paradise is a fringe of infamous reef known as Teahupoo. It remains one of the most feared -- and perfect waves -- on the planet, which is what draws the world's best surfers every August for the Billabong Pro Tahiti.
Going into this year's contest, the ASP World Tour surfers had plenty of reason to be excited about a forecast, which was showing a series of large swells and good conditions for the contest waiting period. The tour has struggled to score perfect surf all year, so expectations and anxiety were running high as Rounds 1 and 2 took to the water.
On Monday morning, Round 1 got underway in perfect eight-to-15-foot surf. The opening heat featured Kelly Slater, Glenn Hall and Sebastian Zietz. Ten minutes into the heat, Slater stroked into a beautiful 10 footer, let go of his rail and stood tall, scoring 9.4 and taking the lead, which he relinquished.
"I couldn't wait to start the heat and get going this morning because it was perfect," said Slater, "I'm so excited that I'm shaking. I need to calm myself down because I'm too excited."
With the surf expected to get bigger all day, which it did, by the time Heat 4 rolled around, three-time ASP World Champion Mick Fanning made short work of Brazilian Alejo Muniz and Australian wildcard Mitch Coleborn, easily winning his heat with two nine-point rides and the second-highest heat score of the day.
"The conditions are flawless and I was stoked to get some good ones," said Fanning. "It's so clean and perfect and that wave I got was a dream."
The following heat was possibly the best of the day, with former world champ Joel Parkinson, Nathan Hedge and last year's defending event winner Ace Buchan, all Australians, fearlessly charging and all scoring nine-point rides. Hedge scored the first high-scoring wave, but the lead went back-and-forth between all three of them with Buchan and Parkinson ending up in a tie and Hedge moving on.
Overall ASP points leader Gabriel Medina has never surfed Teahupoo this big before, but took to it right away.
"It's my first time and it's pretty scary," said Medina, "but I just tried to not think about it. I'm stoked to make it through my heat and feel like I'm living the dream."
2001 world champion CJ Hobgood, surfing in Heat 8, is one of the most feared competitors at Teahupoo, but suffered a horrendous wipeout after paddling for a bomb of a wave and pulling back at the last minute, then being sucked over the falls.
"I decided not to wear the life vest that some competitors wore, and as I was going over, I thought about that, but it looked much worse than it was, I got lucky."
Hobgood was unable to find his rhythm after that, and 2013 rookie of the year Nat Young took the win.
Taking out the last heat of Round 1 with the highest score of the day, Australian Kai Otton, one of the best competitors at Teahupoo, dropped the hammer on Hawaiian John John Florence and South African Jordy Smith, who never got the waves he needed.
As the day ended, two heats of Round 2 were run before the contest wrapped. Parkinson eliminated Tahitian Wildcard Taumata Puhetini, who suffered a wipeout injury to his neck and was unable to finish the heat. He was treated in the emergency tent and then transferred to a hospital for observation, but is expected to make a full recovery, according to event organizers.
In the final heat of the day, super-amped Hedge went up against Adriano De Souza. Being a former ASP surfer who had some of his brightest career moments here at Teahupoo, paddled for a beast of wave, made an impossibly late drop, then weaved his way through the barrel for the event's first perfect 10-point ride.
While the swell dropped slightly, the action continued on Tuesday morning in very contestable six-to-eight-foot surf. Contest officials had hoped to finish the last 10 heats of Round 2, which they almost did, but with a declining swell and deteriorating conditions, they got all but the final heat completed.
Heat 4 saw Brett Simpson upset Smith, for his first heat win of the year. Struggling to find his way this year and losing many heats that could have gone either way, Simpson said, "It's been a tough year, I've surfed against a lot of good guys and I'm just stoked to get this win. This is a testing wave. On the one hand you think let me go home, this wave's going to kill me, but on the other hand you get the waves of your life."
Recovering from his beating the day before, Hobgood was given a free pass to Round 3 as Travis Logie was forced to pull out of the contest with a foot injury sustained in Round 1.
"I've been on tour for 13 years and I've never had a walkthrough. Hopefully the swell increases tomorrow and I get another chance," said Hobgood. With bigger surf on the way, the contest looks to finish before the end of the waiting period, but Mother Ocean will make the final decision as to when conditions will allow the remaining two days to be run. Forecasts indicate that things could get even bigger and heavier than it's been, but weather and wind are always the determining factor, so for now everybody's licking their wounds and waiting to see what the Pacific brings next.