8 reasons why Teahupoo is the most dangerous wave in the world

Teahupoo Wipeout
A surfer goes headfirst into the water at Teahupoo. Photo: Bielmann

Teahupoo is the most dangerous break in the world. The waves there have a unique combination of size, power and speed made more dangerous because they break over a sharp coral reef lying only meters below the surface. To those scary variables we can add sharks, capsizing boats and a capacity to literally pull your pants down.

With the world’s best surfers heading to Tahiti for the upcoming Billabong Pro, we look at just why Teahupoo isn’t scary — it’s terrifying.

It can rip your face off

Keala Kennelly is the undisputed queen of Teahupoo, having surfed and survived the biggest swells at the break. Just last month she caught what has been called the heaviest wave ridden by a woman. However, back in 2011 she came close to losing her life at the wave after a wipeout had her face collide with the coral reef. She was taken to the hospital to have the coral dug out of her face before receiving 30 stitches. She posted the photo above on Facebook afterward, saying, “Sorry if you were eating dinner … I look much better now, I promise.”

It’s faster than a motorcycle

Robbie Maddison Pipe Dream Surf Big Wave Tahiti Dirt bike Motocross Stunt
For a moment, it seemed as though Robbie Maddison might outrun the whitewash. Unfortunately for him, that wasn’t the case. Photo: Courtesy of DC Shoes

Teahupoo breaks fast. How fast? Well, when Robbie Maddison recently tried to outrun the wave on a motorcycle, he found that the wave was much, much faster. If a modified KTM 250 SX two-stroke engine that drove a paddle steamer-like back tire can’t outrun it, what chance does a fiberglass surfboard have?

It can rip your boardshorts off

Hawaiian surfer Bruce Irons is another veteran and standout at the Tahitian wave. However, in 2013 during the Code Red swell, the wave literally left him with his pants down. After falling in a massive tube, Irons was rag-dolled over the reef and all the way into the lagoon, losing his skin and his boardshorts in the process.

Luckily for him, his tow partner, Koby Abberton, came to the rescue on his Jet Ski. He picked the pants-less Irons up and then did a few victory laps to the cheers of the packed channel.

It sends you over the falls

“I had one hand surrounded by water and the other surrounded by air,” Niccolo Porcella told SURFER about a recent wipeout at Teahupoo. “At this point, I realized I was getting sucked over the falls.” In surfing terms, that’s when you are caught in the lip of the wave and are thrown toward the flat water out in front. It is the worst place to be in a wave.

“The beating that followed was the most violent thing I have ever felt in my life,” Porcella said. “It instantly tore apart my wetsuit and life vest. I hit the reef five times, got held under for a bit, popped up and fought for a breath before the next wave landed on top of me. That second wave sent me straight into the reef on my back. Then there were two or three more before I finally washed into the lagoon.”

It’s not even safe in the channel

In one of the first-ever surfing competitions held at Teahupoo, the contest boat carrying all the marshals and judges capsized after a wave rolled the boat into the lagoon. In another incident, a photographer famously bailed from the boat, leaving his girlfriend to hang on and just make it over the wave. And in 2013, a Brazilian photographer suffered three broken vertebrae after the boat she was in was forced airborne by a wave.

“I was terrified for the Code Red swell,” three-time world champion surfer Mick Fanning told GrindTV, “and I was sitting in a boat the whole day.” The Instagram post above by Ray Collins shows you just how close you can be to the action while still high and dry.

It has sharks

Just what you need when surfing waves the size of condominiums. Photo by Shutterstock
Just what you need when surfing waves the size of condominiums. Photo: Shutterstock

If all of the above isn’t enough to scare you off the wave, tiger sharks might. In 2010, Grant and Didier Parker went out to the break to catch the coral-killing starfish, but instead netted a 1.29-ton tiger shark. With Mick Fanning’s attack in the last event at Jeffreys Bay still fresh in people’s minds, here’s hoping it’s the starfish, not the sharks, that make an appearance at the Billabong Pro.

It is very, very deep, then very, very shallow

Fifty yards beyond the Teahupoo reef, the depth of the ocean drops to more than 300 feet. This is one of the main reasons for the force and power of the wave. Big South Pacific swells march for thousands of miles unimpeded by any shallow water before exploding on the crescent-shaped reef. As seen by the video above, when the waves break, even at heights of up to 50 feet, there is still less than two meters of water over the reef. It is this transition from super deep to super shallow that makes the wave the scariest one on the planet.

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