Day 12 of 12
  • WEATHER: Sunny
    WIND: None
  • SCHEDULE: Mick Fanning Wins!
    UPDATED: 1.47am, 27th August , 2012 (Tahiti time)

Laurie Towner was a stand out on the Code Red day back on August 27th, 2011 // Hilton

Into the Eyes of Monsters

19 July 2012 Posted in Lifestyle

On August 27, 2011, the Billabong Pro, Tahiti – the fifth event on surfing's ASP World Tour - was placed on hold due to a massive swell bearing down on the famed big-wave spot, Teahupo’o. With forecasters calling for unprecedented conditions, the greatest big wave surfers in the world descended on the island despite a “Code Red” advisory warning issued by the French Government that was designed to keep everyone, and their watercraft, ashore.

Tahitian surf is nearly always challenging. The coral reefs that attribute to the regions famed oceanic hues are razor-sharp, making every ride a risk. Because of this, the destination remains the domain of surfing’s elite.

But on this particular day, even the best were surprised by what confronted them. World title aspirant, Joel Parkinson, had tracked the storm for a week and exclaimed the size of the low-pressure system that generated the swell was “as big as Australia”. At first light on the 27th, Parkinson paddled out to discover some of the biggest, angriest waves he had ever laid eyes on.

He and other ASP world title contenders like Owen Wright, Mick Fanning and Josh Kerr faced a conundrum; should they charge into the melee and risk serious injury, or death, for the sake of one thrilling ride, or should they leave it to the big-wave free-surfing elite, whose careers hinged on pushing the odds in extreme conditions?

With wave heights predicted to peak before nightfall and the Billabong Pro certain to recommence the following day, every contender, including the great 10-time champ Kelly Slater (who would go on to win the competition 48 hours later) chose to leave the day to the big-wave devotees.

Two Australians, Dylan Longbottom and Laurie Towner, were among those who jetted in for the swell.

Longbottom said seeing the waves hit the Teahupo’o reef was “like watching bombs going off”.

Towner whose career bent is the stuff of big-wave legend, doubted whether they would be able to ride anything at all. But after a little observation, the pair figured they would take a chance.

Longbottom picked a wave and piloted the pair’s ski perfectly. Towner let go of the rope at the opportune moment, rode all the way to the channel and emerged over the back of the wave unscathed. So began a day that is now forged into history. Within hours the channel at Teahupo’o was filled with boats and jet-skis and craft that had defied the Code Red and avoided the Coast Guard. And dozens of surfers and curious spectators risked their lives to paddle out on flimsy surfboards and watch.

Strangely, death and permanent injury were avoided, though all who witnessed the day unfold in real-time prepared themselves for a live fatality with each and every approaching wave.

Nathan Fletcher scored the Ride of the Year at the 2011/12 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards for this death wave //Hilton

Most rides from the day were entered into surfing’s annual “Oscars”, the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards. A single, particularly nasty worm-hole ridden by gladiator, Nathan Fletcher, earned the Californian wins in three categories; Ride of the Year, Tube of the Year and Performance of the Year. Such acclaim is unprecedented. Photographers who recorded Fletcher’s ride speculate they may never again see anything like it.

Towner wonders if, at the ripe old age of 25, he’s experienced all that is possible at Teahupo’o.

“I don’t know if there is ever going to be a bigger swell than that in Tahiti. It was pretty much the best feeling in the world,” he reflects.

Bruce Irons doesn't do things by halves // Hilton

Dean Bowen (AUS) is a mad man!

Media Manager for the Billabong Pro, JJ, explains the dichotomy professional surfing suffers: “Just because you have the best planning, the best surfers and the best locations doesn’t mean you’re going to have the best event. Surfing relies on the weather - which is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. You might spend a lot of money and for what? It just so happened, that last year’s Billabong Pro was one of the greatest ever and right in the middle of it, thanks to a gigantic storm, we witnessed one of the greatest days in surfing history. We woke up in beautiful Tahiti, not quite knowing what to expect and found ourselves staring into the eyes of monsters.”

This story was prepared for Air Tahiti Nui's inflight magazine, "Reva Tahiti", especially for the month of August, Billabong Pro time!

Kelly Slater showed he is still the man to beat at any location with his victory // Kirstin/ASP

Owen Wright (AUS) was runner up to Kelly Slater in the 2011 Final // Kirstin/ASP