Our First Session series looks at the legendary first surf at various famous spots across the globe. We've already covered Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak and Bali but let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.
Surfing’s history has long maintained that the first person to surf Teahupoo was local charger Thierry Vernaudon, who paddled out for the inaugural session in 1985. Bodyboarders Mike Stewart and Ben Severson showed up a short time later, putting the wave through its paces, but it remained largely off the radar until the Gotcha Tahiti Pro in 1998, when Chopes showed the world exactly what it was capable of.
This history alone is enough to do the wave justice. You can’t ask for a better pedigree than a solo charger at the world’s gnarliest slab, then domination by the best bodyboarder in history, and finally a coming out party in maxing swell at a QS event. But if you dig deeper, there appears to be evidence of Teahupoo being surfed long before the 1980s—possibly more than a century before.
When to go? Teahupoo
According to the memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti, printed in 1893, the first surfer at Teahupoo was actually a woman from Raiatea named Vehiatua—and the story of her session is one for the history books, as it were.
According to those memoirs, Vehiatua was visiting Tahiti while a surfing contest was held at Teahupoo to honour Horue, the ancestor of surf. Many wave riders gathered at Teahupoo, decorated in flowers and ti leaves, singing and cheering as they took turns riding waves. But Vehiatua and her companions remained on shore, watching.
They soon became the target of derision and cat-calling from the other competitors, who questioned why she was frightened to paddle out, but Vehiatua told her companions not to pay any attention to the others—that the conditions weren’t yet right, but that when the midday sun shone down upon them, the undercurrent and wind would be perfect.
When the conditions improved, Vehiatua paddled out and rode the largest wave, announcing herself to the crowd as she untied her hair and let it flow around her. The cheering was so loud that it attracted the attention of the king, Tehei Moe Roa, who was jealous of Vehiatua’s popularity. He declared that Tahiti must not know that anyone but him was applauded at Teahupoo, so he took Vehiatua’s name and ordered her to leave Teahupoo.
An alternative version of the story, told by Tahitian historian Peva Levy to Lauren L. Hill, provides a slightly different (and more tragic) ending to Vehiatua’s Teahupoo adventure. According to Levy, Vehiatua was the daughter of the chief of Raiatea, and had come to Tahiti specifically for the surf contest. The event was planned for the shorebreak in the river mouth at Hui, the village that would later be named Teahupoo.
But Vehiatua felt the waves were too small, and that to compete in them would be disgraceful. She didn’t show up on the first day, and everyone began to make fun of her, saying that she was afraid to compete against Tahiti’s best surfers. On the second day, her servants came to check the waves, but they were still too small, so Vehiatua refused to come—and once again the contest was called off.
On the third day, a large swell had filled in, and the people were eager to see Vehiatua surf. The chief of Hui in particular was interested to see who this girl, who had the nerve to surf, but only when the waves were large. When Vehiatua arrived at Teahupoo, she carried her board to the shorebreak, then continued past it to the end of the black sand beach. From there, she paddled far out to sea, toward a wave she named Pererure (“spinning top”).
After waiting for the perfect wave, she rode it flawlessly, then paddled out for more. Other surfers joined her in the lineup, but the waves were too big for them, and they were unable to catch any. Vehiatua was the winner of the contest, and the first person to ride a wave at the wave that would one day come to be called Teahupoo.
Sadly for Vehiatua, the local chief was jealous of her surfing abilities, and ended up killing her in hopes of inheriting her skill and bravery. Vehiatua’s was a tragic death, but one that fits well into the history of one of the most violent waves on the planet, whose name literally translates to “place of skulls.”
Cover shot uploaded to MSW's spot guide for Teahupoo by Werner Kruse.