Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
When you surf a new break for the first time in the South Pacific, size matters. On my first visit to the island of Moorea, for example, I learned that when discussing wave heights, Tahitians measure from the back and in meters.
A quiet French Polynesian paradise, Moorea is about 28 miles west from the larger island of Tahiti. And at around 6:30 a.m. on my first morning there, Petero Tehuritaua, owner of Haapiti Surf Lodge and a regular surfing guide on the island, phoned me at my hotel as planned with the day’s outlook, telling me winds were light and the waves were about 1 to 1.5 meters in height.
Doing a quick conversion in my head, I figured that meant I could count on around 3- to 5-foot wave faces that day, which are conditions I’ve surfed in often in my hometown of Honolulu.
“Have you surfed in waves that big before?” Tehuritaua asked over the phone.
“Oh sure,” I told him. “I’ve been in stuff that size a lot in Waikiki.”
Later that morning, however, when I arrived at Tehuritaua’s home on Moorea, which sits reasonably high up on a lush, steep volcanic slope overlooking the Pacific and the Haapiti break we planned to surf that day, I realized that my understanding of just how big the swell was going to be was off by quite a bit. Even from high up on the hill, I could see large waves crashing along the distant barrier reef, some surfed by what looked like surprisingly nimble, albeit tiny and upright, ants.
“That’s not 3 to 5 feet,” I said to the other American visitor prepping to go out surfing with Tehuritaua and me that morning. “I thought it was supposed to be 1 to 1.5 meters?”
“Yeah, but that’s from the back,” he said. “They measure from the back down here, so basically you double it.”
Gulp. After again doing some quick mental math, I realized I was readying myself to try my hand at a South Pacific surf forecast featuring more like 7- to 9-, maybe even 10-foot wave faces. But what the heck, right? I’d already paid for the morning session, so I figured I might as well head out in the boat and at least take a look.
The Haapiti district of Moorea sits on the island’s southwestern coast and features a warm, azure lagoon protected by a barrier reef about 1 mile offshore. Surfers there catch left-breaking waves near a reef pass or an opening in the barrier of coral, which allows for safe rides into a deeper channel.
Like any surf break, though, the size of the incoming swell dictates who should be out there trying to ride waves. But Tehuritaua told me in an interview after our session that’s it’s not a place he ever takes inexperienced surfers.
“Not everybody can do what you did today,” he said. “If you’re a real beginner and you go there, you get bombed, finish on the reef. You get stressed. You’re scared. It’s not a good place for beginners.”
As we headed out on Tehuritaua’s boat toward Haapiti’s most popular spot for waves, I looked back toward the lagoon and Moorea’s mountains, and the vista seemed just about perfect. Jagged Polynesian slopes, painted a vibrant shade of green and tucked under graying puffs of clouds, towered over the surprisingly calm and startling blue waters of the Pacific.
Once I was actually in the warm water and on my board, the waves certainly seemed big, but they also appeared manageable, and I decided to at least paddle out with the American kid to the lineup, where we shared greetings in both English and French with half a dozen other surfers. Tehuritaua had given us some advice about where exactly to be along the reef, but waiting a while and watching is always a good idea at any new break.
All sorts of waves eventually rolled through — including some impressively large ones, ridden expertly by the local guys in the lineup. A couple waves passed by that I considered riding, but I ultimately chickened out on them, as they rose too steeply before me and scared the dickens out of me.
After wimping out at the last minute on several Haapiti waves, I finally committed to one rising hump on the horizon and paddled with purpose into a rapidly steepening ramp. Fighting the urge to call it off again at the last millisecond, I went ahead and dropped down the face, moving faster on a surfboard than I ever had before. I looked back at an imposing wall of water way over my head in height.
Somehow, I managed to not topple over and accomplished a ride on my first Tahitian wave. I beamed with by far the largest smile I’d sported in a long time. It was the only wave I caught that day, but it was plenty — and one of the largest I’ve ever been on. I still get all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.
Surfers headed to Moorea and looking for a local guide to help them catch a similar dreamy wave should consider giving Tehuritaua a call. Travelers can stay at his Haapiti Surf Lodge, which runs about $90 to $130 per night and features comfortable but simple accommodations right in front of Moorea’s most famous break. But he also works with all of the island’s hotels and resorts, which include luxury Sofitel, Intercontinental and Hilton properties.
My outing cost around $170 and included a surfboard rental; pickup and drop-off at my hotel; and the cost of the boat ride out to the surf break. Plus, we also did a little snorkeling in the lagoon afterward, during which I excitedly spotted a couple of sea turtles and even a shy reef shark.
Meanwhile, folks looking for a good place to eat after time on the water in the Haapiti district should head to Painapo Beach, which is a little beachfront outfit specializing in traditional Tahitian dishes. The restaurant is a great place to learn more about Tahitian culture and food while enjoying some delicious eats and a gorgeous beach view. Note: Diners should be sure to bring cash.