The waves at Teahupoo are measured more by thickness than height, a sign of the cyclonic energy building within. They are some of the heaviest waves on the planet.
They approach the small Tahitian community at up to 60 mph, depending on the severity of storms hundreds or thousands of miles away. The same storms propel swells to Southern California, where a mostly sandy, gradual shoreline typically grooms and slows them considerably before they break.
But at Teahupoo, the waves build suddenly and massively. About 400 yards from shore, a large coral reef rises to about six feet beneath the surface at low tide, and 100 yards beyond the reef, the ocean depth drops precipitously to nearly 2,000 feet.
A wave responds dramatically to such abrupt changes in depth; its energy is shoved suddenly into a much shorter water column.
On a sunny morning last August, the waves became heavy even by Teahupoo's standards. One wave in particular stood out, bringing with it what seemed the weight of the ocean itself.
As it pushed against the reef, its face rose to about 25 feet. It formed a heroic arch, drawing water from the reef with such force that the coral seemed to be tearing free of its roots. Water loaded at the top as a "lip" more than 10 feet thick.
Still moving, top-heavy beyond belief, an unfathomable amount of seawater began to collapse violently.
Seawater weighs 64 pounds per cubic foot. There would be serious consequences for anyone caught in the middle. This was more than Mother Nature's version of a ton of bricks; it was the Queen Mary falling out of the sky.
Three months earlier, a similar crusher came out of the blue. A surfer was caught inside and paddled furiously to make it up the face, but he got thrown over the falls and slammed onto the reef. He suffered puncture wounds to his skull, a broken neck and spine, and a gash from the cleft of his chin to his sternum. He died three days later.
But on Aug. 17, when all the waves were that big and with virtually everyone scared out of the water, one surfer still wanted to be in the middle, having spent most of his life preparing for such an opportunity.
The massive wave would break perfectly and resoundingly to its left, like the others, but it would be much faster and form a barrel much more hollow.
The experience of a lifetime awaited. The challenge was to get into the wave fast enough to negotiate the near-sheer drop, perhaps make a split-second entrance into the barrel, and stay on the only course that would afford a safe exit. There would be no room for error.
He launched onto the back of the wave with the help of a partner aboard a jet-powered ski. He let go of the rope at about 30 mph, zipped down the face, ducked under the lip and fought for what seemed an eternity to hold his line, against an upward pull threatening to yank him out of this world.
New Frontiers in Surfing
The surfer risking his life was Laird Hamilton, one of the lords of the new and extreme sport of tow surfing.
With high-speed personal watercraft for transportation, tow surfing's elite few have eliminated the need to paddle and can handpick the waves they want to ride. The drivers either pull the surfers directly onto the rising swells or attack them head-on, carving 180-degree turns atop their cresting peaks and "whipping" them shoreward at 30 mph to 40 mph, enabling them to glide into position as the waves begin to break.
With customized boards fitted with foot straps, they're not only dropping into ocean rollers that had previously been deemed too big, too fast and too powerful to ride--they're carving them up, performing turns and cutbacks, and tucking into tubes hollow enough to drive a bus through.
Purists cringe at the sight of tow surfers, labeling them cheats, pointing to their lack of etiquette, and to the noise and pollution they bring.
But tow surfers counter that they've discovered a wild new frontier.
"Life's too short not to be creative and try new things," said Hamilton, 37, who has been riding water since birth. He was born in a bathysphere as part of an experiment to determine the effects of gravity on newborns.
His parents, both surfers, moved from San Francisco to Hawaii before Laird turned 1. When he was 2, his father, Bill Hamilton, taught him to surf on the front half of his board.
When he was 8, his father took him to Waimea Falls on Kauai to show him the famous place where men and much older boys leaped to prove their manhood. Hamilton stood at the edge and jumped 60 feet into the pool below, to the astonishment of his father, who brought the boy merely to watch.
It was then that Bill Hamilton knew he had a son who was "hell-bent on living life to the extreme."
Extreme certainly described the conditions off Teahupoo during the mid-August swell. Hamilton had wiped out twice, hitting the reef hard enough once to cause bloody imprints on his legs and badly bruising an ankle. He wasn't aware of it at the time, however--there was too much adrenaline ripping through his veins.