I'm still hard at work on my memoir, and making lots of revisions, but I figured I'd post another little snippet this week. Today I'll take a look back at some time I spent surfing and writing on small, sparsely populated island in the middle of the Pacific:
From the sea, Huahine was an emerald jewel rising abruptly from brilliant blue turquoise. I arrived on the island by ferry, past a break in the barrier reef three-quarters of a mile off shore, where surfers caught giant barrels peeling perfectly over shallow coral. The boat glided into a sheltered lagoon past sailboats at anchor and another small group of surfers paddling across the clear flat water. Ahead of us lush foliage covered the island’s rounded peaks, said to resemble a woman lying on her back. Thus the island’s name, which means “woman” in Tahitian.
After a week at Club Med on Bora Bora, the rest of my family was headed home. I was on my own. There are a lot of things about being an itinerant writer that are difficult. I’m always scraping by financially. I’ve got no security. My future is entirely uncertain. But one of the great things is that if I’m given the opportunity to go to a place like Tahiti, I can just stay there if I want to. As long as I can afford a hostel bed and dried pasta, with maybe a baguette or two. I don’t have to schedule my one week off from some unfulfilling job and rush back home when it’s over. In fact, staying in a place like this is exactly what I need, to experience the most I can from life. These experiences are where art comes from. I’d also heard from a friend back home what great surf could be found on this remote island in the middle of the Pacific. That first sight of perfectly peeling barrels was encouraging indeed.
The ferry docked at Fare, the largest town on the island, which wasn’t saying much. A few houses, some cheap hotels and a market stretched along the quiet waterfront. Where Bora Bora drew the upscale tourist hotels, Huahine seemed like the quiet Tahiti of old. In fact, there was only one upscale resort on the whole island, and it was hidden away by itself on the other side.
Coming down the gangplank, I shouldered my duffel and my surfboard bag and walked a few doors past the wharf to Chez Guynette, one of two hostels in the town. It was a white house with red trim and a small patio, just across the street from the water. I spoke with Guynette herself, who led me to a large room in back filled with bunks. Half of the bunks were empty, but surfboards were scattered around the room. Obviously this was surfer central. I chose a bed, dropped off my bag and headed out with my board. It was late afternoon by this point so I chose a smaller break, closer to shore, and paddled out on my own. Two-foot waves peeled over a shallow reef with warm water and moist, balmy air. Billowing white clouds rose above the island peeks. This was paradise indeed.
It wasn’t until the following morning that I decided to try the main break. This was the one I’d seen from the ferry the previous day. I took my board and walked a mile around the bay until I came to the closest point I could get to the reef. From here it was so far away I could barely even see the white water. It was impossible to tell how big the surf was, or if anybody else was even out. I stretched my arms and legs and waded on into the tranquil lagoon to start the long paddle.
I’d been told by now that the lagoon was the crater of an underwater volcano. One person I’d spoken with claimed that the center was nearly 2000 feet deep. As I paddled along I noticed that the water went from a turquoise-blue color in the shallows, to a darker blue in the depths, and finally almost black as the seafloor dropped off below me. The paddle was so far that I would go for ten minute stretches and then stop to sit up on my board and rest my weary arms. During the second of these breaks I twisted my body back and forth, rotating my arms one way and then the other. After twenty minutes of paddling I was only half way there, one small speck, alone in the middle of this giant lagoon. I took some deep breaths and then looked beneath me. There, way down deep and directly below, I made out the familiar shape of a large shark, its tail casually pulsing back and forth. It didn’t seem to be paying me any heed, but still it made me nervous. Without knowing its depth I couldn’t properly gauge its size, but this appeared to be a fairly big shark indeed. I quickly looked back up and scanned the surface. I could paddle to shore or continue out to the reef. I had a decision to make. Twenty minutes either way. If the shark was going to get me, there was nothing I could do about it. I opted to keep on toward the surf, but that was the last of my rest breaks.
When I finally made it to the reef, nearly exhausted, I found that there were five other local Tahitians already out. As I approached the pack, they nodded to me and came over one at a time to shake my hand; a local tradition. I’d worried about localism and how the natives might treat visitors. Surfers the world over can be brutal to outsiders. These guys seemed nice enough. I paddled into deeper water to watch the lineup for a while and figure out how it worked.
For the first few minutes, no sizable waves came through. I rested my tired arms and waited. Then I heard the locals start to hoot. I looked outside and saw what looked like a one-foot wave coming in. No big deal. It was headed straight for me. It was so small that I wouldn’t even have bothered to paddle for it, but the local boys spurred me on, hooting and hollering. As the wave approached it started to grow and when it reached me it was two-feet high. Ok, a little better, I thought. Rideable at least. As I paddled in it was four feet. By the time I hopped to my feet, the wave had grown beneath me and I was standing inside a perfect head-high barrel looking out. I was so shocked I stood up straight and the lip of the wave hit the top of my head, knocking me right off of my board.
I was beginning to learn this break, the hard way. What I quickly realized was that the outside of this reef dropped off straight into 200+ feet of water. Any wave that was coming from the open sea hit this impediment and immediately jacked up into a perfect tube. Over the next few days the surf increased in size to the point that my heart was in throat the whole time I was in the water. It was terrifying to sit there, waiting for a huge set that might rear up at any moment and toss me backwards across the jagged reef. Being caught inside here meant almost certain pain, yet the waves themselves were glorious. The reef had a bend in it and as the waves broke they wrapped around it like an elbow. You’d be inside a tube looking out at a wall of water straight in front of you, certain it would mean certain death, but then instead of closing out, the wave would wrap around this elbow and the tube would simply jack up over you, even bigger than before. Put your foot on the gas pedal and you’d go shooting out the wide open end. Once you’d popped out, you could drag your fingers in the wave to slot yourself back inside and then come shooting out all over again. A terrifying wave on the one hand, but the most perfect surf I’ve ever had.