That magical little nugget at the end of the road.
This is an older story written for the great Transworld Surf (RIP) but it is wonderful. Amazing swells come around every so often. One just did with Keala owning the day. This ain’t that one but so delicious anyhow.
The first big South swell of the season roared into Teahupo’o, bringing with it crowds of epic proportions, both in the lineup and in the channel. While big wave surfing’s resurgence has led to startling accomplishments in the past few years, its notoriety has come with a price. Here, important people talk about “the end of the road.”
Professional lifeguard, big wave lunatic, and the most eloquent man in surfing
I know you’re not a big proponent of towing, but you whipped into a few at Teahupo’o the other day. Was that your first time?
It’s not my first time doing it, but, like you said, I like to paddle a little more. But, that wave is only paddeable until about three times overhead and as you can tell by Koa Rothman’s wave it was closer to eight times overhead, so it’s definitely a tow wave past ten feet.
As a lifeguard, what’s your opinion on the anarchy in the channel?
It is the most dangerous, chaotic scene the ocean has ever seen. It’s like the Titanic about to go down at any given moment. I was pinching my rear so hard I could have shit a diamond. Electronics and salt water do not mix. You’re not only surrounded by thirty other boats… basically, there are people out there who are very competent drivers and there are also people who, it was their first time being to Teahupo’o and they rented a boat and they were there on a holiday. The fact that your exit line can be blocked by someone who’s not paying attention was very relevant. Some people almost lost their life, just spectating. You know, you’re at the mercy of the ocean and if you’re not paying attention, or if somebody else isn’t, you can get yourself in trouble. From 12:45 to 1:45 was as nervous as I’ve ever been in the water, just because I’m no longer in control, you’re at the mercy of everybody else’s boat there.
Do you think that most of the people belonged there, or was there a large contingent who was unaware of the true danger of the situation?
There is a high level of competency. Guys are renting the boats, and they have local drivers, and those guys are the most legit fisherman, and they’ve definitely been there before. But basically there are two spots to shoot this wave, and with thirty boats in the lineup, if you’re all vying for those two spots, all of a sudden the risk level goes through the roof. And there were some very heated moments between drivers. There were some collisions between boats, there were people who were thrown out of boats because the driver, maybe, while he is very competent, he was totally fixated on his friend catching the wave of his life and forgot that there might be another wave coming on the horizon. He definitely did the right thing after, and made sure the boat didn’t go over the falls on the next wave. I think that a camera crew from LA who was there filming for a TV show definitely got the excitement of their life. They appeared like they had never swum in the ocean before and they got tossed out right into the middle of a ten foot left being met by a ten foot dry reef closeout. Literally, the cameramen were vomiting as they got back on the boat. They were so scared and torn up from the situation that they were puking, because of the adrenaline.
How shallow is it on the inside where they ended up?
It can be dry. But, because the wave that Raimana caught prior was… I don’t know, how big was that wave? A forty foot face or something? So all of a sudden there’s now there’s a lot of water on the reef, and it takes a bit of time for it to dissipate, so they got extremely lucky that the wave that came prior and turned what was dry reef into probably at that moment about fifteen feet deep, and as the water tried to exit the reef it created a rip current that pulled them off the dry reef and out into deeper water. Which is rare. They got very lucky.
With the attention that these huge swells are getting, do you think it is going to get worse before it gets better?
Yes, somebody is going to pass, and I think that will change everyone’s mind. There were a couple close calls, and you have all the photographic evidence you need of near death experiences. I think it’s going to come down to that very soon. People are getting a little caught up with, not only the beauty of Tahiti, but also the recognition that you can get with one picture. Everybody is searching out that fame and fortune and really pushing it, but I think someone is going to end up paying the ultimate price and that is going to kind of make people think, “Hey, uh, maybe this isn’t really worth it.”
The hardest charging mom on Earth gets her redemption
Can you run through your thoughts leading up to towing in to your bomb?
I was strangely calm…. I had spent about 2 hours sitting in the channel waiting for a turn and usually I expend a lot of energy psyching myself up, then I will see a big gnarly one and get all tripped out and then I have to psych myself up again. But this time I was pretty relaxed and up for it the whole time. When I surf big waves of consequence I really have to be feeling it and I was this swell. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be in the moment and that is a really good feeling.
Did you have any difficulty dealing with the consequences of your last session out there?
It was in the back of my mind for sure… Although when I had my injury I was paddle surfing and this swell I was towing. When I am towing I wear a Shane Dorian paddle vest under a tow vest so the extra buoyancy helps to keep me from getting pushed down into the reef. I was also wearing a helmet so I felt kind of like a gladiator with all that gear which is good when you are going up against waves like that.
What’s it like being one of a very few number of women who surf waves of this size? I’d imagine it’s a little testosterone heavy out there.
Testosterone is always flowing (not just in the guys, I’m sure I have some in me too during those times) and it can get pretty aggressive when everybody wants the bomb and there are only a few of them per set. But, honestly, the male big waves surfers for the most part are glowing examples of how all male surfers should be, they are always very encouraging and supportive to the women and that makes a big difference.
As a woman I felt like in the beginning I had to really show the guys that I’m gonna go, but now I feel like I have proven myself to them and they see me more like a peer instead of some little girl that’s in over her head.
Where do you find the drive to do stuff like this?
I’m not sure where it comes from. It’s something I have always had in me. I grew up in Kauai with a lot of strong male role models around me. Laird is my godfather, Andy and Bruce were like brothers to me growing up and my own father is still charging at 65! So I think that is where it started, and now I find a lot of inspiration from other female athletes that are performing at the highest level of some of the other male-dominated sports.
Waxing poetic about hairy situations and the channel clusterfuck
Let’s talk about Raimana’s wave. You can be seen bailing your board as he goes past, how did you end up in that situation?
That morning was 6-8 and I was super hyped for paddling. It was getting bigger, you could tell it was coming up, the energy in the water was there. And then, there started being some sets where you couldn’t really paddle in them, so guys went out there with the ropes and blah, blah, blah. And then, it was weird, within the blink of an eye there was this gigantic set. I was still out there, unfortunately, and made it over the first one, but the next… I was in a bad situation, because it was fifty/fifty, it was either going to be really bad, or I was going to make it. I kind of just prepared for the really bad. I wanted to take my leash off but, I was like, “This might cost me a paddle,” and I didn’t want to waste a paddle, so I just left my leash on, and took a good breath and went under. I was waiting for it to take me, but it never did and actually kind of took me the other way and pushed me out the back. Yeah, that was probably one of the hairiest situations I’ve ever been in.
Did you tow into any that day?
After that wave I went to the boat and, I hate to say it, but I was kind of rattled. And, I mean, I was like, “Fuck it, I’m fine,” but, it was such a scene. It was such a, I don’t want to say it was a joke, there was enough waves, and I wouldn’t have minded grabbing the rope, but you definitely wanted either Raimana towing you, or, it probably would have been nice having Laird tow you, or Manoa. It totally comes down to who’s driving you out there, on days like that. So I didn’t want to jump on the rope with some Johnny Hoo- Hah, and I was just kind of over it, after that wave and, what was going on, it just sucked. I mean, it didn’t suck, I don’t know. I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t think it was going to be that big. I didn’t even bring my tow board… I mean, I could have borrowed Pete Mel’s, I’m just making excuses. But it was kind of a joke out there. I didn’t mind watching, let’s put it that way.
With that level of crowd, do you think everyone belongs, or that there are some people in over their heads?
Probably more than half the people were in over their head out there. It’s just… towing in is so easy. You don’t even really need to know how to surf, I feel. You can get whipped in and let go of the rope and then, if you can stand up, you’re in the wave, and all of a sudden you’re in a really bad situation. Like “Oh no, I let go of the rope too early, and now I’m gonna get smoked.” Luckily no one got seriously hurt.
The photographers out there are getting in some gnarly situations…
Oh my god, you should interview Bielmann about that, because our boat driver, Timetea… I’ve never been on his boat before, normally I’m on Raimana’s boat. The first day we pull up and he just goes straight in front of everyone, like, we didn’t even watch to see a set. Then, all of a sudden, here comes a set, and I’m like, “Holy shit, am I jumping off right now?” I was, like, get me off this boat now, so I kind of just jumped off the boat and got on my board and floated and felt way safer. The boat drivers are crazy. That one boat, five of the guys flew out, whatshisname lost his RED camera, hopefully he had it insured. There was carnage. I don’t want to say the media drives the boats where they want to be… but, there’s a lot of jockeying going on with the boats, similar to what’s going on with the skis in the lineup. It’s scary; scary on the rope, and scary in the boat.
What do you think is going to happen in the future? Is the crowd going to hit critical mass, or will it kind of back off and go back to something resembling normalcy?
I hate to say it, but I think something bad is going to happen. And once something bad happens, people might change. But it sucks that it will take for that to happen for everyone to realize what’s really going on out there.
Photographer legend tells it like it is
Timetea knows that break better than anyone and can sit inside, and be safe. The problem is all the other boats. It’s terrifying, the channel is really out of control and for sure someone will get really hurt. I’m not sure I want to be there to see that or be that guy… We had more than a few close calls and the spray was blowing out of the tube harder than I have ever seen. It hit me so hard once it almost lifted me off my seat and over the side. I sent my cameras in to be cleaned and had $1200 worth of salt water damage from the spit. Once we went over a big one and Billy Kemper went catapulting into the air and then, going over the next wave, we actually rammed the boat in front of us and if we had not we would have been sucked over the falls. It was more chaotic in the channel than during Code Red….I have been going to Tahiti since the beginning, about 20 years ago and in one sense it’s exciting to see the limits being pushed so much, on the other hand it’s sad, because the world has discovered Teahupo’o and it will never ever be the way it was…the end of the innocence.
Fraternal injuries and another potential XXL for the Rothman clan
The last time I saw you, you’d just gotten out of surgery on your collar bone and a torn pec.
Yeah, I tore my pec and broke my collar bone snowboarding.
How’d that hold up to the beating you took?
It held up good. My doctor and my therapist, they were really against me going, and I was like, “I don’t know, this is one of the biggest swells I’ve ever seen on the maps, I should go.” I just went, and it held up good. I was a little bit sore, after, but it worked because there’s a plate and some screws in there.
You had Laird whipping you in, and it looked like you were jockeying with five or six other guys for your wave. Do you think you would have got in without Laird towing you?
No, there’s no way. If I didn’t have someone who knew what he was doing, and was experienced and really good waterman on the ski and stuff, there’s no way I would have got that wave.
Did you have any idea when you let go that it was going to grow that much?
No, I didn’t even realize when I was in it how big it was until somebody showed me the photo afterward in the channel. I came out and everybody was like, super psyched. The whole channel was screaming and I was like, “Was it really that big?” And Wassel looks at me and says, “Do you even know what just happened?” Some photographer said, “Come look at this.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t think the wave was that big.”
You can’t see in the video, but what happened when you were out of sight? Did you dig a rail or did it catch you?
I got so pounded. After I went over those steps, I was riding and I thought I was perfect, and then it threw another section and I was like, “Oh shit, I’m kinda deep.” And I was trying to come around this foam ball a little bit and started getting forced up the wall and I kinda just started sliding on my back. And then the foam ball blasts me back up the barrel and I was at the top and then just free fell. I felt like I was falling for thirty seconds.
Your brother had gotten his faced mashed up pretty bad a few hours earlier, right?
I didn’t see any other waves that day except for mine, and the other two I towed into, because Makua hit his face on the reef. The day started out paddle, I caught two paddle waves and then Peter Mel came up to me on the ski and said,. “Hey, your brother just hit his face on the reef, they took him to the hospital.” Oh, fuck, I gotta go. He asked if I was sure I wanted to go, because there wasn’t anything I could do, but I said, “Get me over there, I’ve gotta check on him make sure everything okay.” So I left and went to the hospital and he’d been there, but it was bad enough they had to do surgery and they couldn’t do it there. So he got sent to the main hospital in Papeete. Makua’s there, pretty much by himself. He caught a taxi to the surgery, actually. But I’m like, “Makua, I’ll go with you.” But he said, “No, go surf, catch some waves, that’s what we came here for.” I asked if he was sure, and he said “Yeah, go get some waves, get one for me.” So I went out, waited like twenty minutes and Laird asked if I wanted to go. I said “Yeah” and he whipped me into the bomb. Pretty much right after that, like twenty minutes later, I got a ride back in and I stole Russo’s car and I drove to Papeete to check on Makua. By then Nathan Fletcher had already picked him up and took him to a hotel. Then we took him to the airport and sent him on a plane to Cali.
Teahupo’o’s tow in pioneer calls ’em as he sees ’em
Tell me about towing Koa in on that big one, how did that all happen? How did you end up with Koa on your ski?
It seems whenever the surf is big, you kind of go, “Ok, what is in store for me?” and if I don’t get to ride, if I’m not able to get one of the bigger waves during the day then maybe I could be the fortunate person to give one. And as much as I would have liked to have rode the wave that Koa had, for me I think it was equally as satisfying, if not more satisfying, to just be able to turn him on to that ride and see the reaction and expression from him. People don’t realize because we’re in such a taking world that giving is such a greater feeling. I always tell people, “Are you happier for what you did or are you happier for what you give?” and I know you always look at peoples’ face and look at the reaction when you give them a gift. In a way, I just got to be the fortunate bearer of that gift, of that ride to Koa, and that’s a great feeling.
So, have you known Koa for a while, or are you just recent acquaintances?
I have known Makua and Koa since before they were born. So, I watched those guys, Koa less because of my lack of spending time on the North Shore, but last summer I surfed with Koa in Tahiti and I have spent some time with him and he was definitely deserving of that ride. It’s interesting, sometimes you watch people get great waves and some people you’re not so happy that they got such a good ride and that’s your opinion. But then, some people, it seems like the people that maybe need it or deserve it, they end up getting the good ones and that was nice to see.
When you were circling out the back, could you tell it was a really big wave before you whipped him in?
Oh yeah. You know right away. I mean, I have been there enough times and at the end of the day when you have spent as much time as we have in the ocean, you know which ones. I mean, could I say that I knew that one was going to be exactly what it was? Probably not, but could I tell that that was a substantial wave of that swell, yeah. I knew that was going to be, as everybody describes it, one of the bombs of the swell.
Was there any moment where you were like, “Oh shit, that’s a huge one,” or did you have confidence in his ability to ride that big of a wave?
I wouldn’t have towed him if I didn’t have the confidence in his surfing, period. But, you tow him in then he disappears and after the wave finished there was some moments where I was worried because Makua had gotten hurt earlier. So, all the sudden, Koa disappears and I couldn’t see him for a while. His board popped up right in the channel, so I told Arsene, “Grab the board,” because he was on a ski right next to me and I went to get him. When I finally saw him, that wave blew him, after the wave was finished, all the way into the lagoon across the reef. That doesn’t happen very often, I think I’ve had that happen to me maybe one time at Teahupo’o in all the times I’ve been there. That just doesn’t happen, to get blown all the way across the reef into the lagoon in one shot, there’s got to be some energy.
Obviously, a lot has changed as far as the big wave scene and Teahupo’o growing up, it’s more in the spotlight, but what hasn’t changed out there? What’s timeless as far as surfing those big waves out there?
Well the one thing that hasn’t changed and ultimately never will, maybe the moments are further in between, but the one thing that’s never going to change is that the ocean will have the last word. The waves are going to have the last say and no matter how good we get, how good we can do, what we can do, how courageous and how our equipment is, the waves dictate it. And what I think I really love about Teahupo’o is the line is so defined from paddling to towing. It’s just clean, there is no gray area. And, yeah, okay, you want to dabble with inches and try to say where’s that line and how far can we go. That’s cool, but inches, when you’re talking about feet, are nothing and I think I like that and I think that, like I said, the one thing that doesn’t change ultimately is just the beauty. Maybe it doesn’t happen often enough and we don’t see it go where we want it to go enough, but at the end, when it’s doing its thing, it seems to put everything right in line and put everything into perspective.
How freaking awesome is Raimana?
The bottom line is that he is a gentleman, but don’t be deceived by his polite, jolly hosting, because he’s a warrior and he’s dead serious. I think he’s deceptive in that you might underestimate his drive, his passion, and his warrior-ness because he is gracious and concerned about everybody else’s needs and making sure that everybody is taken care of. He is still out there to catch the biggest wave and ultimately there has to be a certain pecking order in the lineup and you need people like Raimana in order to create organization in the lineup. Otherwise it goes to chaos and that’s where it starts to get a lot more dangerous because it’s already an extremely dangerous activity without the distraction of other humans.
Raimana van Bastolaer
The friendliest man in surfing talks about maritime law and the consequences of hospitality
What everyone has been talking about is the situation in the channel, and the danger presented by having so many people there?
With the boats and everything, the skis, it’s too much. Some of the boats shouldn’t be there, but there’s no regulation. We don’t have the law or the police to regulate that. It’s the same boats that, on the weekend, go fishing, or go into the lagoon. Then they come into the lineup, but the thing is, there’s so much current and so much ocean moving, that the boats, next thing you know, get in the wrong place, and then they can get caught. On top of that, on some of the boats, the photographers are pushing the captain, and say, “Don’t go, don’t go. Stay, wait.” And, at the last minute they go late and land hard. As far as the skis, there are too many skis, but for me, I have my waves. When I’m holding the rope, nobody bothers me.
Since the boat drivers are so talented, it seems that the problem stems from the sheer amount of people who want to be out there. Have you discussed amongst yourselves possibly restricting it somehow?
No, we’d like to do this, but, first of all, there’s no regulation unless the maritime law comes and puts something together, and have police to regulate it. It was three days in a row, that swell, so some of the boat captains, they don’t want to go outside because it’s super rough, and they can make easy money by staying close to shore, instead of going out and getting beat by the ocean and then come back with no fish. They can take people out to look at it, and next thing you know, they’re in the wrong position, because of the current. But, regulate that? I cannot go tell a captain what to do. I can go and warn him, tell him, “Hey, be careful, I don’t see you too many times here,” but sometimes, there are people who have been there for so many years, the local people who live right there, but doesn’t come to the lineup a lot. Who am I to go tell him what to do? I can warn him, but I cannot tell him, “Hey, go move your boat out of here, get out of here,” because he lives right there. He is going to look at me and say, “I live for so many years, don’t tell me,” and this and that, because he has family to feed too.
What do you think about how everyone in the lineup is behaving?
I wasn’t happy about it, because, say, the guys, it’s their turn and then they go, and then don’t want it. So they kick out and come back, and they don’t want to wait, so they go right in front of you, and everybody gets pissed. If they didn’t go, they shouldn’t go on the next one, they should wait, it’s all about priority. I’m not, for myself, worried. But the foreigners, they battle each other, because they want to get a wave. So they battle each other, and the thing is, they go to the school for tow ins in Hawaii and they take all these classes, so they should know better. That’s why Laird was so mad, afterward. He’d been waiting for so long for a good one, and that’s why, when it was time for Koa to go, he just went. He waited for so long, and seeing everything that was going on in front of his eyes, he was super mad. Not everybody is so bad, but one team was not showing respect, so me and Laird told them, “Hey, you guys better don’t do this again, because you are doing the wrong things.” But, the next thing you know, they want to get their photograph so bad they tried to come back again and go again on anything, small, big or whatever. As long as we haven’t had an accident yet, we don’t really talk bad things. Once, I think, we have an accident, then things are going to be shaky.
In the future, what would you like visitors to keep in mind?
The main thing is respect. When it’s big, it gets shaky, because everybody wants to get their photos, everybody wants to get this, everybody wants to get that. Everybody is all jacked up because Hawaii season is finished, and South Pacific season is just starting and everybody is ready and wants to get their wave. As long as they’re giving respect to, to us, or to the other foreigners, no problem. But you never know, sometimes, maybe, I don’t respect the foreigners, because there’s a big one coming, and I want to go on it. But I usually don’t drop in on people, unless you’re so far behind you’re not going to make it. Like Garrett, three or four years ago. I looked inside of me and go, “No way, he’s so far behind,” and I went for it, and, by chance, he didn’t make it. But, I got bummed, because he hit the reef.
Hollywood hubris nearly costs lives
I actually think that I and Alex Gray were joking about it, before we went on this trip, about the time Pete Frieden ditched his chick and how the boat almost flipped over. And we were laughing about it. It didn’t really occur to me at the time, but then, you know, karma, or whatever you want to call it, it ended up happening to us. We’d kinda waited and took our time to get out to Teahupo’o that morning. I was there on the Code Red day, and was filming off a jet ski and swimming in the channel. I remember, thinking, that, “What if I was on a boat?” Because I saw all the boats go over those types of waves and I thought it was pretty crazy. But, that day it was a more of a controlled environment, because the contest was there and they had water safety and water patrol regulating all the boats.
So, we got out there and were in an amazing position. Our boat driver was phenomenal. He’s been in some situations you can only dream of, if you’re a filmer, or a photographer. We were really far in, there were no boats in our way, and every clip prior to that wave of Raimana’s, we were in the best position possible. And you can’t really ask for more than that.
I remember going to the back of the boat, because I felt more comfortable shooting from there, when all of a sudden Raimana’s wave came in. I was so focused on documenting his wave I didn’t realize the situation we were in, suddenly, the whole entire ocean pretty much just went black in front of us. Raimana made the wave and the next thing I know everyone is yelling and screaming, terrified, and I hear the engine starting to gun it. I tried to grab on to the first thing I saw, I think it was the cooler. I put my camera underneath me like a football, and was thinking, “Here we go, we’re gonna flip. We’re done. There’s no way we’re coming out of this alive or in a good position.”
After that it was pure chaos. As soon as I regained awareness of where I was, and what was going on, I looked back and saw that a Hollywood producer who was with us, and a guy from Ventura who was friends with the producer, were in the channel. They didn’t have any experience in the water, let alone in big surf, and definitely were not in physical shape. I remember going, “Oh my god, they’re gonna die. There’s no way.”
They probably took two or three more waves on top of the head, and all my attention went to them. I knew my camera was fried, Elliot’s RED camera was broken, and Pat, Alex Gray and I were still on the boat, along with our two drivers. I yelled to Pat and Alex to throw me my swim fins, so I could go in after them. These guys had no chance of survival if someone didn’t go in and save them. I mean these guys are, literally, completely out of shape. But, by that time, they had already been rescued by Shane Dorian’s ski, and one other Tahitian driver who had gone in after them.
We had no say in their decision to come. I remember a specific discussion beforehand. They’d brought me on because Shane recommended me for this project, and between Pat and I we have a lot of experience in big waves, in Tahiti especially. We had a conversation about, “What if?” What to bring, and what situations could potentially happen, and when I saw what the swell was doing I like, “Hey you guys know, no joking around, I’m scared shitless by this. I was there that day, I know what could happen, I don’t think we’ll be in that position, but you never know.”
Afterward, one of the guys, Brookes, he was really shaken up by the entire incident, and he asked me, “How do you deal with this? How do you deal with being in these situations?” And I just lied to his face. I told him, “You know what, your spirit is strong and your body is weak, you should just walk away from this knowing that you’re stronger than you think.” I just tried to make light of the whole entire situation to him. But, in the back of my mind, I wanted to tell him, “You are so fucking lucky, you have no clue how lucky you are.”