When we walked off of the plane and into the airport, a group of ukulele-playing musicians welcomed us to the island with their cheerful song. It was almost enough to make us forget that it was 5 a.m. local time and we'd just spent eight hours on a plane.
My wife Kacy and I traveled to Tahiti for our honeymoon. We chose Tahiti because of its world-renowned surf, its beautiful beaches, and its reputation as an earthly paradise. I say "we chose Tahiti" but I really mean to say "I chose Tahiti." The surf was the driving factor.
With this in mind, I was anxious to get in the water and onto the surfboard I had brought from Philadelphia. From the moment we arrived on the island of Moorea (a 10-minute plane ride from the big island of Tahiti), I asked anybody who spoke even a smidgen of English where I could go to surf. I was directed to speak with Pierre, the excitable concierge at the Intercontinental Moorea Resort. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Pierre spoke manically of a surf spot called Haapiti and a friend of his, Petero, who could take me there. Pierre checked the surf report, which indicated that the waves were forecast to be an intimidating 10 feet the next morning. After squaring things away with Petero to pick me up the next day, Pierre went on to show me pictures of him and the late, great pro surfer Andy Irons. He explained at about 300 words a minute that Haapiti was popular among pro surfers who visited while they were on tour and wanted to get away from Teahupoo (a famed big-wave surfing spot where waves can reach heights of 60 feet).
Pierre's ravings about 10-foot waves and gnarly reefs did nothing to ease my uncertainty about the surf trip, so Kacy and I went to the pool to enjoy some tropical juice and relax. After a walk around the grounds of the hotel, which includes a "dolphin center" where guests can interact with the sea mammals, Pierre's frenzied description was moving to the back of my mind. A hearty dinner and a swim around the lagoon pushed it all the way to the back.
The next morning, Petero picked Kacy and me up in a truck, threw my surfboard in the back, and drove us along the sole main road to Haapiti. Petero's house was atop a hill, and from there we could spy the waves through the binoculars he'd given us. Through the lens, I was greeted with a sight that I had only seen in professional videos. About a mile offshore, two local Tahitians were carving up and down pristine 9-foot waves. This was a far cry from fighting with six other guys to catch a 3-foot wave (if you're lucky) down the Jersey Shore.
On the 10-minute boat ride out to the break, we cut through unbelievably blue water out beyond the shallow reef to where the waves rolled steadily in. The picturesque scene belied the danger and power of these waves. In the boat, we were joined by two guys from California, a Tahitian guy, and a Hawaiian girl. As we approached the break, Petero counseled patience and told me which spots to avoid. In simple English he told me to avoid drifting too far beyond the break because the big surf had created a vicious riptide pulling hard out to the Pacific.
I threw my board into the water and, as I was talking to Petero, the rip pulled it 20 feet from the boat in a matter of seconds. I jumped out of the boat and chased down my rapidly escaping board. After sitting up on the board and observing the scene, I paddled over toward the break, resolving to stick close to the two cats from California, incorrectly assuming they knew how to handle this type of surf. After less than five minutes in the water, I watched as one of them paddled back to the boat and called it a day. The remaining Californian summed up my feelings succinctly when he yelled to me, "This is heavy . . . ."
I found myself fighting furiously against the rip current to stay in front of the break. All the while, 8- to 10-foot waves (which looked like 40- to 60-footers, from my perspective) were breaking directly behind me. As I paddled over the crest of the first 8-foot wave in order to position myself on the other side, I felt the wave start to drag me in the direction that it was going to crash. I paddled furiously to the other side in order to avoid becoming a casualty of my first wave in Tahiti.
Fifteen minutes into this affair, I was exhausted. I sat up on my board, looked around, and saw that the boat had disappeared (to take my wife snorkeling in the reef, and the defeated Californian back to shore). The Tahitian and the Hawaiian were ripping up the waves with an enviable ease, and I hadn't even caught one yet. Then I realized that I had drifted well beyond the break, and was being pulled out to sea at an alarming rate.
I paddled for as long as I could before I tired out, and then sat on my board for a moment to rest before I began paddling again. Each time I rested, though, I was swept farther out. and now the shore was too far away to reach under my own power. My arms were beginning to feel like jelly and my back began to ache from constant paddling. Realizing how desperate my situation was, I yelled to the remaining Californian what I believed might be my last words: "If you see the boat, tell them to come back and get me!"
With no boat in sight, it was a funky situation. Alternating paddling and resting was getting me nowhere. My plight, however, had not escaped the attention of my fellow surfers, and I heard the Hawaiian yell, "Just keep paddling!" I adopted the Hawaiian's words as those of a guardian angel and began to paddle with renewed vigor. I took a Dory-like approach to the situation ("Just keep swimming, just keep swimming . . . ") and paddled until I couldn't feel my arms anymore and my back and neck screamed with each motion.
After close to an hour in the water, I saw the boat approaching in the distance. Petero to the rescue, baby.
On the boat ride to the reef where Kacy was lazily snorkeling, I was filled with disappointment that I didn't catch a single wave during my first surf session in Tahiti. I had looked forward to this trip for months. That disappointment was quickly pushed aside, though, by gratitude that I was not a victim of the Pacific Ocean on my honeymoon. If not for Petero and the boat, I might have ridden that current to Chile.
Truly, Tahiti is not for the faint of heart.
Bryan Gallagher writes from Haddonfield.
To comment, e-mail TravelTalk@phillynews.com.