Tahitian Heartbeats

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The air was surprisingly fresh as we rode our bicycles, boards under arm weaving through the lush gardens that surrounded our surf shack. Dawn is always a magical time of the day for surfers and today was no different. The dark of the sky was awakening to dreamy pastel colours, the wind barely a breath, the burning tropical sun yet to crawl its way up the volcanic mountaintops.

In the distance we hear a loud scraping of metal against road and spot a rusted out car coming our way, the noise is atrocious but as we pass we lose it laughing at the site. A topless Polynesian guy with his big stomach only just fitting against the steering wheel, he rests his monstrously proportioned arm on the open window, but is actually holding the entire car door up, on one hinge with his grip, casually cruising along with fresh baguettes on the dash as though he’s rolling in a Bentley.

We already feel like a part of the family as we stash our bikes at the boat shed on the edge of a turquoise blue ocean. The iron roof held down by chunks of coral, a dirty concrete floor and a broken timber window propped up by an empty vodka bottle. We tiptoe inside to see if anyone is awake, we hear a “wooo” from the one small bedroom and are greeted by three smiling faces.

They are always so stoked to see us. It’s the classic big momma Polynesian woman always laughing and making jokes in French that we don’t understand but laugh anyway. Dad is the hard worker, baring a toothless grin, he does what he can to bring food to the table. Their teenage daughter is nursing her young baby, they are all sharing a 3m x 3m room, three single beds and a cot lining the walls.

They would never let us go without signalling and yelling in French, asking us to take fresh papaya and bananas from their garden. They are clearly so incredibly poor, we try to give money for the fruit but I’ve never seen anyone refuse so passionately.

We head down the sandy road indulging in freshly picked bananas and I’m nervously gazing out to the reef break. The swells big. Usually I’m happy for the welcome challenge but I’ve heard of this waves’ personality and it put me a little on edge.

It seems you’ve got to earn your everything here, the break sits about a kilometre out to sea and the currents on the paddle out can force you back to shore if you rest for even a minute. I fear if anything was to go wrong out there.

I’m happy to make it to the edge of the reef with burning arms where we can finally rest as a rewarding current decides to run out to sea, rather than back to the now distant land.

A monster wave grows out of nowhere and it’s much more solid than I’m comfortable with, the sheer thickness of it almost outweighs its height.  Fear kicks in as the rewarding current now feels like I’m being escalated to my grave and there’s no way back. We’re in water deep enough to be safe but the current is rapidly pulling us around the back of the lineup to the thickest part of the wave.

The next wave starts to appear and this time a big Polynesian guy is paddling for it, he’s super deep and committed, digging his arms hard into the face of the wave. He briskly swings his feet under him & grabs rail to pull into the most perfect round barrel I’ve ever laid eyes on. He is a giant of at least 6’5 and built solid, but appears to be an ant fading down the face of the wave.

We see two other local guys out and approach each with handshakes and are welcomed to their wave. The respect is absolutely mind-boggling here and every surf is a step back in time.

There’s no resting in the lineup here, every minute or so we each paddle back from the current that continually swings out to sea. I display a forced air of confidence as one of the local guys explains to me that the current gets so strong some days that no one will surf it, even though the wave itself is perfect.

With a grin he smoothly comments that the only way to get back into shore is to catch a wave over the reef. He then turns his board around and glides into a bomb. My idea of being a spectator to this surf is crushed by words I would have rather not heard. I can’t even fathom the thought of paddling into one of these giants. The current suddenly feels stronger through my heightened fear, my arms are beginning to cramp from fighting against it. I’ve never felt so intimidated by the ocean as I have in this moment and am nearly reduced to tears.

I paddle towards the land hoping to catch a smaller one in, but in no time I’m scratching back out to the horizon to get under another bomb. I try again as my arms burn through exhaustion, making it quite far in this time. Another wave starts to form but there’s no way I can make it back out and under it, I can feel the water is shallow beneath me.

It was hard to tell where it was going to break, with so much current moving up the face, I charge towards the big wall of water and duck dive as deep as possible. I clear the turbulent tube of water but am clipped just before surfacing and sucked in and under, I hit the reef hard with my knee and hands. The water above feels like concrete rain pushing me deeper and deeper.

I finally surface standing on dry reef and am faced with another bomb wave. I’m in the most critical barrel section where not only one wall comes parallel to shore but a second wall forms from the south to meet together to form a wedge.

I gaze up to the skies as the lip breaks high above me. I make a split-second decision to turn around and hang on for life as I ride the whitewash in. Like a bus hitting me from behind I just manage to cling on to my board. Within no time, all is quiet. I’ve made it into the peace of the tranquil blue lagoon, breathless but safe. Tropical fish casually swim at my feet, a surreal scene in absolute opposition to what I just faced.

I have a strange feeling of invigoration back on land as I go about my day, a feeling of taking on something much larger than I, the humble pride that comes from being a surfer. The land and ocean expanse all seem to speak a different energy after a surf out here. I think back to the unspoken meaning behind the local guys making sure everyone greets with respect before touching any of those waves.

Perhaps there’s a mutual feeling at the core of our being, the waves representing the challenges in life, crossing the line, facing our fears and being brave enough to come back and take it all on again.

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