The final seconds tick away, the crowd is roaring, the reporters come rushing onto the field…and then inevitably, the classic Gatorade shower dumps across the unsuspecting back of the head coach.
We all cringe and shiver at the sight of ice cold water pouring over the unfortunate coachÕs head. The impact is pretty heavy. His neck buckles slightly as the weight of the water pushes his head downwards and his shoulders tense up as if to conserve heat from the surprise of the cool shock.
But then itÕs over and everyone is laughing, and the coach doesnÕt really care because heÕs just won the big football game. ItÕs all good. HeÕs just a bit wet.
BOOM! Five thousand miles southwest smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies the small, peaceful island of Tahiti. Something similar to the Gatorade shower is happening here too but on a much, much, much bigger scale.
Just off the coast of the small island, lies a unique reef bank that generates the worldÕs heaviest wave. The wave here is called TeahupoÕo (pronounced CHEW-YO-POO), which loosely translates to Ôhead with no hairÕ or Ôplace of skulls.Õ
This is one of the worldÕs most dangerous waves and people ride it. Surfers from around the world, as I am myself, are drawn to its power and terror because itÕs fast and ferocious nature.
When I watch these brave surfers slide down the ever-growing face of the wave, he slowly becomes smaller and smaller and so insignificant that you think for sure that if he falls he will never be found again.
By now, the wave begins to break over the top of the surfer looking like a succession of freight trains plowing into the water just ahead. The shallow coral reef, at places only 20 inches below sea level, generates a ridiculously hollow barrel that races over the reef bank.
The steep nature of the reef causes the wave to quickly fold in on itself where the lip of the wave is often as thick as it is tall. The wave starts to collapse on itself and from inside its pipeline, a strong whoosh jets out laterally. Most surfers that ride TeahupoÕo get sprayed by this phenomenon, or fall into the maelstrom.
So why do they do it? Big wave surfers are some of the most daring athletes in the world. Next to base jumpers and free climbers they often endure the toughest punishments nature can dish out, but surfers find there is something very purifying about riding sixty to eighty foot face waves.
Big wave riding has a significant spiritual element. ÒYouÕre not doing this for your own glory, surfer John Milius said. ÒYouÕre doing this because youÕre caught up in this great act of nature.Ó
Laird Hamilton, arguably the king of big wave riding, might have summed it up best when he said: ÒWe lay it all down, including what others call sanity, for just a few moments on waves larger than life. We do this because we know there is still something greater than all of us. Something that inspires us spiritually.Ó
Ironically, the most trying times for these surfers are the waiting periods. You canÕt just go down to a beach and expect to catch a wave of thirty feet. The conditions have to be just right and they have to be monitored. After riding a perfect fifty-foot wave successfully, it tends to soften some hard corners in peoples lives.
Many feel humbled and quiet after the wave has since passed and theyÕve just had the most intense eight-second adrenaline rush/ride of their lives.
Not uncommon, individual sport is a way to get to know oneself physically and mentally but for surfers of this caliber, itÕs finding out how bold you are when four hundred metric tons of water is falling behind you…or on top of you.
A big wave surfer canÕt just laugh it off like the head football coach whoÕs bummed his windbreaker is wet. These riders seem to come so close to imminent death, yet they also appear to be living life to the fullest.