Gotta see Video: Motu surf camping
“Yo, Bryce, wanna come? We’re spending a night on the motu,” says my best friend in Raiatea, Nari. Motu is the Tahitian word for islet inside or along the reef. Nari is a young man, three years older than me, who extended his friendship at a time when I had felt abandoned by my previous group of wave-faring comrades. Together with Nari and a couple of other surfers, we would take a boat to surf along the reef’s passes. My immediate response was “Yes!” hoping there wouldn’t be the rain and 25-knot winds like our last campout attempt. After school, I ran back to tell my parents the plan and to start packing for the next two days. First, I packed a hammock to sleep-in and a rain jacket, just in case this experience played out similar to the last. I also packed two extra pair of underwear, one pair of board shorts, one extra shirt, and a thin sheet in the form of a sleeping bag that would keep off the hundreds of mosquitos that would most certainly try to make a buffet out of me. Completing my packing was my surfboard, of course, my machete & sheath, and a 1.5-liter bottle of water. Nari had asked if I could bake a cake like I had before, to serve as breakfast before the morning surf. Hurriedly, my mother and I baked a 5 x 8-inch chocolate cake.
Around 17h30 (5:30pm) Nari showed up in his boat, the one we would use to go surfing as you can only reach the passes by boat. As I loaded my things into his boat, I handed Nari a thousand Polynesian francs or US$10 to help pay for gas. Filling up the tank at the gas station, we came across a few of the other kids who would be camping with us that night. They also needed to purchase gas before heading out. Our outboard full of gas, we headed south from Uturoa to the motu and our hope for surfing adventure.
At the start of our voyage, Nari steered the boat outside the reef to engage in a little bit of fishing along the way. I was handed the fishing pole so that he could steer the boat as close to the breaking waves as possible. After ten minutes, I yelled, “I caught something, I caught something!” As I reeled in the line, I sensed a bit of pride knowing I hadn’t let down Nari, an expert fisherman. Nari steered the boat away from the reef as I brought the jackfish, the size of my forearm, inside. “Hey, Bryce, do you think you could steer the boat so that this time I could cast the line?” asked Nari. With that I took the tiller and copied him as best I could, staying close to the waves like he had. Twenty minutes passed with no success (I had been reluctant to direct the boat as close to the reef as Nari had). As we approached the entrance to our destination, Nari reeled in his empty hook and I caught sight of our fellow campers out in the water already surfing. Once ready, Nari said, “Throw the anchor!” When the hook grabbed, we threw off our shirts, snatched up our boards and paddled out towards our friends. While greeting all the local surfers, I watched for the sweet spot, where I would set myself up.
That afternoon, we stayed out until we could no longer see. One by one, trickling away, the various boats hoisted their anchors and headed back home, or in our case right next door to our motu campsite. From the surf, we saw hoards of boats gathered along the white sand beach of the motu. Finding our group, we stationed the boat and tied the painter around a tree. Afterwards, I unpacked my things from the boat and searched for a spot to set-up camp for the next two days. Because of all the pretty distractions that had just finished their evening swims, it took me a while to find a spot. I settled in the middle of two trees behind the fireplace, attaching my hammock to a coconut-less coconut tree and a chestnut tree (didn’t need the possible headache). That night all the kids circled around the fire to talk, listen to music, drink, smoke, and to barbecue whatever food it was they had brought to share for the night. Nari was the main chef that night, cooking breadfruit, sausage, rice, and potato gratin. It was practically an all-you-could-eat buffet surrounded by friends!
The best surfer in our group, Heremanu, who I looked up to, was the only one besides me not to drink or smoke. I was glad that it was with someone like him that I could relate, and appreciated him more for it. As the moon rose higher in the sky, our fires burned lower. Nari knowing that I was the earliest bird in the group whispered, “Hey, Bryce, I know that you’re going to be the first to wake up. Can you wake me up early in the morning so we can be the first to go surf…. and gorge on your cake? Don’t tell anyone else about the cake. All right?”
My normal routine was to go to bed early and wake up early, so I hit the sack at 21h00 (9:00pm) for a good night’s sleep. As instructed by my dad, I positioned myself at a 20-degree angle in the hammock. I slept well through the night, and with the luck of no rain or falling coconuts, I arose with the early morning light. As I walked around, I heard the wrestling of giant ground crabs, tupas, running back to holes they had dug for themselves for shelter. That morning, despite the fact that they had gone to bed at 3:00 am, Nari and Heremanu woke up on their own. A few of the other kids had also woken up eager to go surfing as well. Being that my friends were all Polynesian, the three of us were obliged to share the cake and to bring them along surfing.
Before leaving, we all headed to the beach to examine the morning’s surf conditions.
At the last minute, Vaimiti, the fourth musketeer in our group, awoke to join the surf excursion. With surfboards, wax, and friends all loaded inside Nari’s boat, we took off. Heading to the pass we saw another boat arriving at the same time as us. Vaimiti anchored the boat in a stable position. Given the okay to go, I hopped in the water and paddled out looking for the day’s sweet spot. There was only enough light out in the sky to see my own hand, yet the others as well started to paddle out. As the first set started to roll in, I placed myself in the right spot to catch the wave. Once the wave started to lift and carry my board, I stopped paddling and popped up to my feet, surfing the dark, glassy figure of the wave. For two hours, we were a group of seven, surfing a 40-second left, reef-barreling wave in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Towards the end of our morning session, a group of 14 body-boarders showed up to crowd the occasional seven-wave sets. After three hours of great surfing, we returned back to the motu for some much needed lunch. This way, we could eat, regain energy, and wait out the crowded surf spot.
All the girlfriends clad in bikinis had come out to play volleyball and petanque (like bocce ball) on the white sand beach of the motu. I unfortunately was one of the few fellows left to keep his hands in his pants. For lunch, Nari and I reignited the fire to boil rice and to heat up a few cans of corned beef. While waiting for the food to cook, we joined in on the beach activities. After a few games of bocce ball, the scent of food led all the famished clan into a huddle. The music and the plates came out as we dug into the huge portion of mixed rice and corned beef hash. Not a grain was left in the bowl.
Our group of four musketeers, anxious to head back to surf, walked over to the beach to scout out the new afternoon conditions. Seeing as the waves had grown in height, the four of us headed to the boat with haste for another session. Approaching the pass, we watched six foot linear barrels being surfed. We quickly anchored the boat amongst five other boats and flew into the water. It was the best day of surfing I have ever had. The waves were perfect. In a single wave, one could maneuver three carves and shoot out of a hollow tube big enough to stand in. I had only ever dreamed of waves like these. It was truly a gift to be surfing these perfect waves with my awesome friends!
Conversely, wiping out on one of these perfect waves would land you cuts from the sharp coral reef just below the surf. Respectfully, GoPro photography was forbidden. The locals do not want their home waves to be overtaken by professional surfers from around the globe.
With the swell picking up, two of our party too frightened to continue, caught a boat ride back to the motu. That left 8 of us who continued to surf the waves of our lives, including the ‘early bird’ guy from the boat that had arrived before us that morning. I watched my friends as they surfed, shooting out from being fully covered in clear blue tubes and carving up and down those perfect lines with grace.
It was the happiest day of my life that I could remember. To be experiencing my Polynesian dream amongst good people was truly awesome. We continued to surf until rashes, jellyfish stings, sunburns, burning muscles, and reef cuts covered our whole bodies. After four hours of doing what we eat, sleep, talk and dream about, we returned back to the motu to find some more food . . . Hungry!
With all our energy left in the pass, making our way to the motu’s luxurious fresh water spigot came with great difficulty. We rinsed our things and ourselves then brought the boat back to the campsite to tie it off. De-energized, dehydrated, reef cut, and starved, we looked like a bunch of bedraggled kids who had just returned from being exiled in the desert. Immediately upon arriving back in camp, we scavenged potable water to drink and snacks to satisfy our needs. With our stomachs satiated, we hit the sack to nap and ready ourselves for the day’s evening surf; yes, morning, noon, AND night! After an hours worth of rest, us four musketeers were ready to go back to the pass, cut, burnt, and all. At around 16h (4:00pm) the boat departed full of newly waxed surfboards and brow beaten Tahitians. The local crowd, including our loyal ‘early bird’ friend, was still there. They were shredding what was now a 4-foot barreling line. Though the afternoon swell had died down, so had the wind. We caught wave after wave, landing ourselves more reef cuts, stings, and rashes. Nothing stopped us from our love for surfing. As the light dimmed so did the band of surfers who needed to get across the lagoon to their main island homes before dark. The few to prevail included us and the ‘early bird,’ who seemed to know everything about his home pass. We couldn’t get enough, the swell and conditions were too great to pass up. Though as the time passed, the sun and the light descended to hide behind the mountain. Too dark to read the waves any longer, we left the pass and headed back to camp, having added two more great hours of surf that day. Being as the conditions were too good to pass up, a few of us decided to stay for an extra night on the motu. Our only problem was the food rations.
The remaining group of ten walked over to the showers to rinse our salty dry skin.
Dinner was breadfruit and rice mixed with the fish I had caught with Nari on the way over. Again, the alcohol and weed came out for the ones who wanted it. With my good friend Heremanu being one of the kids to have taken off, I was the only ‘good’ boy left. Towards 20h00 (8:00pm), dinner was ready. Being hungry surfers, we ate like champions, going back for seconds and thirds. I kept to my same schedule, going to bed right after dinner. Even after the nine hours of surf, the others stayed up late till one in the morning, talking and being teenagers.
That morning, lucky to have slept well through a second clear, starry night without rain and deadly coconut droppings, I was awoken by Vaimiti. He had the bright idea to wake everybody up an hour early for no apparent reason. So being awake, we pre-packed our things into the boat, ate breakfast, and waited for the sun to come up. We couldn’t help but walk over to the lookout spot a few times, anxious to see what the day’s conditions might be. After thirty minutes of waiting, a speck of light glimmered over the horizon, giving us a peek at what our waves were going to be. Our guesstimate was 4-foot. And with that, we motored off.
Again the six of us guided the boat through the exit of the motu coral reef and out to the breakwater. Ten minutes later we dropped anchor and jumped into the rolling waves. I was the first to start out and swam away from the boat to relieve myself of a full two days holding tank. Swimming as fast as I could away from my fish food, I saw two more boats arriving to profit from the perfect waves. In one boat was a group of three older guys who could hold their own, and in the other, our good friend ‘early bird’ who came with nothing but his surfboard, machete, and spear gun.
With the tardiness of the others, I had gone ahead and caught the first wave of the day. As the surfers came together, we exchanged friendly greetings, bantering about our hopes for the day’s conditions. Later in the morning, more and more people appeared including a group of ten to sum up 20 and counting. I had never seen so many people in a given Raiatea surf spot. It was as if all the known island surfers had gotten wind of the day before, and all decided to come to the pass.
Becoming more and more crowded, it felt as if the sets were an eternity away; more and more people started to snake one another. Eventually, I made my way to the top of the line where the three older dudes tended to remain stationed. I watched as one of the three started to loose his energy, no longer able to easily catch the waves he paddled for. A set of waves rolled in and being first in line, I began to paddle for the first wave of the set, thinking normally people like to wait for the bigger waves behind. While paddling for the wave, I saw the fatigued older man cutting to the inside to try and catch the same wave. I continued paddling thinking that the man would be overtaken by the wave, like all the other times, but this time he seemed exceptionally ferocious and determined to catch it. Paddling head to head, I felt the wave lift me up and I popped up on my board. I saw the man giving all his might to catch the wave. He stood to his feet finding balance and pointed the nose of his board to the left down the line. But I had already caught it! I looked back at him with an expression like “What are you doing…I was on it first!” but he kept going. With the wave starting to close, I left the line disappointed, while the water pushed the man further down the reef. As he left the wave, he looked enraged by the fact that I had not relinquished the wave to him. On top of it, because that wave had been the first of the set, he had to deal with the next few crashing waves. I paddled back out with all eyes on me as I heard the enraged Tahitian spitting insults as loud as he could.
I didn’t know what I had done wrong. Normally, in California, that should have been my wave. I had started paddling for the wave before him, and I had caught the wave before him. Yet I could still hear him bellowing things like “bastard…stupid kid…idiot, etc.” The other older men, with whom I had previously surfed, turned their backs on me with a sense of contempt. Others started to say, “Kid, you need to get out of here. That guy’s gonna come over and start wailing on you…you really need to leave!” A few others came over offering me support and comfort saying, “Don’t worry, you did nothing wrong. Just wait a few and then go apologize.” So I did. After a few minutes, I started my approach, cautiously paddling closer to him, knowing any second he could just start raging on me. My friends; including, Nari, Vaimiti, Antoine, and a friend’s dad, John, came along to cover my back should things go sour. As I got closer to the guy, adrenaline surged over me. Within six feet, I stopped to sit up on my board and began apologizing.
He turned around and started with, “I know who you are, Bryce. My friends told me about you. They told me you were a disrespectful American who snaked and cut in line whenever you were surfing.” Then he cussed some more before continuing. “Bryce, you need to start being more respectful with us elders.” A bit more cussing, he approached until he was approximately a foot away then said: “But it’s not just you, it’s all of you arrogant little boys who don’t give a rats ass about how you surf and disrespect those of us who are older.” Then he started to say crazy things like how he and his people had formed the passes and how the elders should have priority out in the water. He continued to go on for a while about respect and how things needed to change. Since half of what he was saying was in Tahitian and the other half in French, I was having a hard time understanding. But after about ten minutes of him lecturing and humiliating me for what I didn’t realize was a disrespectful action, he calmed down. I repeated that I was sorry once more and that was the end of that.
I thanked my friends for having my back, then paddled back into the sweet spot with the other 20 surfers who had been gossiping about what had passed. An hour later, we caught our last waves for the morning before pulling anchor. Cautiously guiding the boat through the motu coral heads, we made our way back to the fresh water spigot to rinse. Following our now familiar routine of tying up the boat, we rummaged to find whatever food was left over to eat for lunch.
Now we were only three, as the other two surfers with us were picked up to return home. Since breadfruit takes a while to cook, we stoked up the fire, setting a timer for an hour nap. Awoken just in time to pull out the cooked breadfruit, we heated the beans on the dying fire while the charred breadfruit cooled enough to remove the skin. The other surfers left behind three baguettes. Once Nari and Vaimiti had skinned the warm breadfruit, we jumbled the baked beans and breadfruit together into the bread to make a breadfruit/bean sandwich of sorts…a tasty and filling last meal on the motu.
Since the music had gone home with the others, we chatted about how incredible our last couple of days had been, and how we were going to miss each other when I left on Kandu to continue my family’s world voyage.
Enjoying our last bites, we prepared our departure from the motu. Once I was done stuffing away my single person hammock and personal junk, I offered to help Nari and Vaimiti put away the 14-person tent. Together with a bit of punching, kicking and shoving, we got the tent into its small bag, the size of a small car wheel. We then tossed our things into the boat praying they would stay dry, grabbed the remaining trash bags, and pushed off the motu for the last time. Knowing it was going to be the last time I would experience anything like this again soon, I felt a sadness pass over me as I said goodbye to the motu. Yet our day wasn’t over as we still had one last afternoon surf session to relish. Hastily anchoring the boat next to Heremanu’s family boat, in my excitement, I jumped out first to greet Heremanu and his dad, who is the best surfer I’ve ever had the pleasure to surf with.
That afternoon’s current was entering the pass, pushing us away from the line-up and making it hard to paddle out. I examined the waves finding that they were 7-foot tall and made a little messy by the 10 knots of on-shore wind. The nine surfers caught huge outsides and enjoyed being out in the water, laughing with and at each other – sharing only smiles. After an hour, Vaimiti broke his board, so he and I paddled to the boat to catch a break. We grabbed some fins and snorkels to head back out to watch the action under water. Vaimiti and I pretended to spear huge parrotfish that were gorging on the sharp coral reef. When we reached the sweet spot, we watched through the clear water the surfers catch drop-in barrels and carve up the waves above. The sight under water was as mesmerizing as it was on top of the wave.
We swam around the surf point for half an hour before getting bored and returning to the boat. I pulled my board back out. As I paddled over, Nari shouted, “Just a few more minutes!” I decided to make the best of it – to catch the biggest outside in the set. I positioned myself alongside Heremanu’s dad and watched as the other surfers caught the smaller waves. Then, the time for waiting was over as a big set rolled in. Though the first few waves in the set were good size, we continued to stall on the outside in hopes of a bigger wave.
The moment came when the momma wave peaked. Both of us started to paddle. I looked at the surfing legend before me, (Heremanu’s dad) and asked permission to take his rightful wave. He looked over and responded, “Yeah, it’s yours.” With that I was off, digging deep with each stroke to catch the sizeable six-foot wave rising behind me. “Go, go, go, go, go, Bryce. It’s all yours!” yelled Nari, Vaimiti, and Heremanu. Once I felt the lift, I popped to me feet and readied myself for a tuck n’ barrel. As the lip of the wave fell over me, baby blue water and a slim hole at the end was all I saw as I rode Fa’aroa’s glassy tube. I rode inside for a magical three slow seconds before I shot out of the tube and paddled back to the boat. My friends caught their last waves and also paddled back to brag about each other’s waves. Before picking up anchor, we quietly sat and watched the beautiful curling waves for a good ten minutes, then the three of us motored back to our homes to recount our weekend’s stories. I hope never to forget those three days spent camping in French Polynesia, off the island of Raiatea, on the motu with all my Polynesian friends! Bryce Rigney