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At 7 a.m. Saturday the reports from the lineup were mixed. Big sets in the 20-foot-plus range, some bigger ones and all on the verge of unsurfable. Tow-in crews who'd flown in from all over the world were sitting in the lineup watching the waves hit the reef and timing the sets. Meanwhile, photographers and video crew were stuck on land arguing with government officials who had declared a "code red alert" and shut down the channel leading to Teahupoo.
Around 7:30 a.m. the driver of the boat I had booked for the day decided to run the gauntlet. "If you pay my fines I'm prepared to go," was how he put it. Ten minutes later we were in the lineup with the tow-in crews and witnessed Ryan Hipwood take the first wave of the day. It was a tentative one as the tide was low and there was so much water draining off the reef that nobody really knew if they could ride the waves or not.
Once the session started it ran all day with the swell building toward the predicted peak around lunchtime. It was put on hold for a short time after local legend and big-wave surfer Ramana Van Bastolaer took a heavy wipeout and was washed into the lagoon. His support driver rolled the ski trying to pick him up. Ramana lost skin off his back and legs and convinced everyone to take a short break while the tide filled in and he went back to shore to have his wounds doused with fresh lime juice, an agonizing remedy for coral cuts.
Australians Laurie Towner and Dylan Longbottom were unaware of the voluntary halt and blasted through the lineup and innocently towed two waves before other crews joined them. What followed was one of the most amazing days of surfing I've ever seen.
But I have to admit, there was another short break when our boat broke down right in the impact zone; a cable broke and we only had reverse drive, not the gear you need when you're trying to out run 15- to 20-foot walls of water. Luckily we were thrown a rope and towed out of the impact zone and back to the marina, almost in disgrace for busting the government Red Alert. Fortunately the interlude lasted only 20 minutes because by this stage of the day there were over 30 boats jostling for position in the lineup in total disregard of the government warning, and so we were back in position in no time.
The swell, true to forecast, continued to build through the day and by my reckoning the biggest waves of the day, with some pushing 30 feet happened during a two-hour period between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. During this time Nathan Fletcher caught possibly the gnarliest wave ever ridden at Teahupoo, a monster with a lip almost as thick as the wave was high. Bruce Irons scored three absolute bombs, with the third blasting his trunks right off. Koby Abberton scored a massive barrel and Dean "Dingo" Morrison broke his foot on his first wave. Maya Gabeira was towing in with fellow Brazilian Carlos Burle and got nailed on the inside. She got stuck in a washing machine the size of a basketball court and went through the rinse cycle three times before she could be plucked to safety. She seemed to be semi-conscious as she was dragged to the calm of the channel and safety crew worked to make sure she was OK. She had swallowed some water and been knocked around. She was taken out of action for the rest of the day, but did stay in the lineup driving a jet ski.
Most of the top 34 still around Teahupoo ventured into the channel to check out the action. Fred Patacchia towed into a couple, Julian Wilson had a go on one, and Cory Lopez towed in late in the day on a normal board. He was rewarded for his efforts with one of the deepest barrels of the day.
"I was so deep I had a right-hander coming back at me," he joked later. "I was going so fast on my board I couldn't make it go any faster. I'm still not sure how I got out because I certainly couldn't see the exit."
Mick Fanning and Taylor Knox sat on a boat in the lineup for more than two hours until Mick declared, "I've seen enough. I can't take this anymore, those guys are totally out of their minds, they're crazy and I can't watch anymore."
Taylor Knox was more zen about the whole spectacle. "This is the most magnificent show on earth right here, Bruce, Nathan, Koby and Dean [Bowen]. It's just been nuts. Bruce got so spat out of the barrel it blew his shorts right off and they have never been found again. I was here in 2002 when the contest swell was pretty big, but I've never seen waves like this at Teahupoo. These are the biggest waves I've ever seen here and they are absolutely amazing."
The tow-in sessions lasted until the sun went down. There were longer lulls between sets and the size dropped from the midday peak, but there weren't many paddle-in waves coming through. I'm not sure if the code red alert has been lifted, but I can tell you, I was very glad that there were boat drivers who were ready to take photographers and videographers out into the lineup to record the best day of waves in over 12 years. Just imagine if all those waves were ridden and there was no one there to record it.