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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Nervous anticipation in Tahiti

By Peter Wilson

In 2005 CJ Hobgood stroked into this wave, which still stands as one of the biggest paddle-in waves at Teahupoo. That could all change this weekend.

News of a massive swell heading toward Tahiti has been circulating through the surfing world for over a week now. Local Tahitian surfers, big wave chargers and chart watchers have all been describing the predicted swell as the biggest they've ever seen. Smack in the middle of the Billabong Pro Tahiti waiting period -- the fifth stop on the ASP World Tour -- the swell is due to peak on Saturday with surf heights in the 30-foot range.

The Billabong Pro has been in lay-day mode for the past three days, and the hype amongst the competitors has been subdued but bubbling away just under the surface. Gabe Kling was one of the first of the top 34 surfers to turn up in Tahiti this year. He came 10 days out from the start of the contest to practice and was on the ground when the first tentative forecasts were coming through.

"I'm actually not trying to get too psyched right now -- I won't be able to sleep if I do," said Kling. "I was thinking about it when I first heard the forecast last week and I tossed and turned all night."

While Kling is trying to play it down, world No. 1 Joel Parkinson is rubbing his hands together, visibly excited about the prospects of getting serious surf for his heats.

"Whether I'm surfing a heat or sitting in the channel watching guys tow-in, it's going to be awesome," said Parkinson. "The hype is starting to get here. It's less than 24 hours out now and everyone is starting to get pretty pumped up. Bring it on. To see Teahupoo in all its glory is going to be amazing."

Parkinson has been keeping it mellow over the past few days out at Teahupoo, surfing 4-foot barrels with his coach Luke Egan and Mark Occhilupo, even going switch-foot a few times just for a laugh. He did admit to keeping an eye on the forecasts, though.

"All these swell forecasts can change so much and so quickly as the days go on," he explained. "Especially when they're trying to predict what's happening a week away. ... But when you get to the 24-hour period, you know it's coming."

Owen Wright has a reputation for being a great tube rider, but this swell is going to push him well beyond his limits.

For Owen Wright, who is in only his second year on tour, the situation is a little different.

"I haven't surfed waves this big since I was about 17, maybe since I surfed really big Pipeline. I'm sure I can surf what's coming, but I have to admit, I'm a little bit nervous," Wright admitted. "I came over here when I was 16 and paddled out on a massive swell, maybe an 8-to-12-foot day, and I got a few 8-footers, but nothing like it's going to be in the next few days. I don't really know what to expect."

And while Kling hasn't been losing too much sleep the past few nights, and Parko has been having fun, the swell has been creeping into conversations with other surfers.

"I think I'm pretty lucky staying with the Hobgoods [twins C.J. and Damien Hobgood] and Kieren [Perrow] because they've been here when it's big and they are telling us what to expect," said Kling. "I know that Brett [Simpson], Pat [Gudauskas] and I have never really seen the side of Teahupoo that we're about to see in the next few days. It's been good to hear what to expect, but it's funny too because it's like sitting around the campfire and someone's telling ghost stories. After listening to all the stories, it's a little hard not to be thinking about dropping in to the biggest wave of your life."

Kling adds, "When you have C.J. or Damien telling you it's going to be scary, then you know it is going to be scary! It's intimidating, but it's also the chance to get the barrel of your life."

"Where I come from, there aren't too many reef breaks," joked Simpson, who hails from Huntington Beach, Calif. "[The Hobgoods] have taken me under their wing, teaching me the ropes. It's been fun. You come here and think about stuff like, 'What are you going to do when you're caught inside?' I'm not sure how I'm going to go, but I'm excited just waiting to see it all."

The excitement for what's coming in the next few days is palpable. Billabong plans to run the contest Thursday and Friday in the predicted 8- to 12-foot swell (double-to-triple overhead-plus, with larger sets, according to Surfline), and then call a lay-day on Saturday to let the tow-in surfers have Teahupoo all to themselves. The final day of the contest could be Sunday as the swell drops back down a little. Whichever way you look at it, the next four days are going to be very special in the folklore of Teahupoo.