This is a glimpse into the surfing that Rapa Nui offered Brant and I while we were fortunate to be there for 3 weeks. As I mentioned in the previous post, we didn’t even surf during the first week, but then things got interesting…
Brant and I’s unofficial surf ambassador for our time in Rapa Nui was a surfer named Rene. His wife Carolina and him own one of the best restaurants in Rapa Nui called Te Moana, which is located directly in front of the ‘town’ surf breaks of Hanga Roa. Brant and I became friends with Rene after being on the island for less than an hour. We were picked up at the airport by Pato, the groom, and whisked away to a lunch at Te Moana where we met with Dani, Pato’s, and several of their friends. With our big surfboard bags still on top of Pato’s jeep, Rene took notice and began chatting with Brant. “Whoa, you guys have big boards!” Rene said to Brant, and he told us that it’s not very often that “serious” surfers, especially non-Chileans, come to Rapa Nui to surf. In fact we never saw any other tourist surfers on the island the entire 3 weeks we were there. We later learned that one of Rene’s surfer friends was at the airport when our plane arrived had already alerted Rene that two gringo surfers with big boards had arrived on the island! That this kind of news spread to Rene so quickly is not entirely surprising considering how small an island Rapa Nui is and that the daily LAN flight arrival from Santiago is one of the most important events each day for the island’s impotant tourism industry. Rene told us to keep in touch with him about the surf and we exchanged WhatsApp contact info. Brant and I were stoked have connected with such a legit dude.
Rene has been surfing in Rapa Nui since he was a teenager and now, I guess aged somewhere in early 40s, he is at the top of the Rapa Nui surf hierarchy. Every local surfer on the island knows each other but in the water Rene seemed to have a gravitas that nobody else had. The Rapa Nui people have a deep connection with the ocean and much of the young population are in the ocean either surfing or boogie boarding a couple times per week, but it turns out that very few tackle bigger waves of consequence. Mostly the locals stick to the relatively mellow breaks in town rather than risk injury and broken surfboards in the heavy, barreling and dangerous waves that one finds on the south shore or Mataveri. But Rene, another local named Uti Araki, and a few other adrenaline junkies charge the big and juicy surf – these are the guys holding up the Rapa Nui banner high. Check out this video and this video for what I’m talking about. I should note that I did witness a few young rippers out in the water, launching airs and laying down sweet hacks and carves, so I’d expect that over the next decade there will be an increase in local surfers tackling the big stuff. One such grommet is Rene’s 14-year old son, who unfortunately had a broken arm during our visit so we didn’t get to see him surf, but he was already competing and set to surf in a contest in Chile a month after we’d leave. Rene and Uti are also hosts and friends to a small cadre of professional big wave surfers who make regular stops at Rapa Nui. Of course the Chilean contingent tops this list; Rene and Ramon Navarro are friends and check this out for an example what Ramon and his buddies are no stranger to taking a 5-hour flight from Santiago. Another regular to the island is Kohl Christenson, who at one point spent almost a year living ion Rapa Nui and returns every now and again to reignite his fling with waves like this. I also heard the Long brothers like to visit.
At this point a brief Rapa Nui surf geography lesson is in order.
There are basically 3 zones of surf. See below.
Zone 1 on the west side of the island is where most all the surfing happens. The Hanga Roa “town” breaks I mentioned are consistent and never really get too big, even with a massive swell, while at the same time always producing something fun even with meager swell. I believe the town waves can work on north and as well as south swells, but we only surfed them on energy from the south since April marks the emphatic beginning of the southern swell season and the definite closing of the North Pacific storm track. The northernmost town break of Tahai, right in front of where Pato and Dani were married, looks like a sweet righthander that only activates on a big, clean north swells; we never saw it break properly. All of these spots prefer easterly offshore winds, but accept southerly winds as well.
And then also on the west side, right next to the start of the airport runway, is beautiful Mataveri, the crown jewel pointbreak of Rapa Nui. This fast lefthander breaks over boulders and can result in long barrels. There are actually two distinct wave zones to Mataveri, but nobody really surfs the outer section
as it closes out into a rock outcropping halfway from the top of the point, which is marked by a rock island. Rene told us that one time they tried tow surfing the outer Mataveri and ended up losing a jet ski to the rocks after trying to make a rescue; the guy that needed rescuing ended up being fine. The outside Mataveri section is about 800 meters long and the inside Mateveri section, where all the surfing we saw happens, is also about 800 meters long. See the above video links (if you haven’t already) for what this wave looks like when its working — it’s a sight to behold when it’s working and is a big reason why Brant and I were stoked to come surf Rapa Nui. I should also mention that Mataveri has the sketchiest spot exit of any wave I’ve ever surfed (the sketchiest entrance I reserve for Pichilemu, in a story I will describe in my next post). Getting in at Mataveri is easy: you just jump off a lava cliff into the bay, although of course Brant and I didn’t realize this on our first attempt at surfing Mataveri. When we naively tried to walk down to the boulders and paddle in from the shore where waves were breaking the locals kindly corrected us. Anyway, to get out of the water at Mataveri you have swim up to a sometimes submerged rock, get up on it, climb up about 6 feet of wet lava rock onto a ledge while leaving your board floating in the water, and then once you’ve ascended the ledge you must haul your board up by it’s leash. But your not done yet — after this you must scramble across more lava rock to finally climb up yet another rock ledge, this time climbing with your board under one arm hand. Only once you’ve made this secon climb are you truly safe from getting blasted by any set waves that might catch you offguard and wash over the entire zone. If one of these waves hit while your doing this crab scamper across lava rock, it would be a very painful ordeal since the porous rock is super sharp and at the end you’d probably end up cut and washed back into the sea where you started.
Mataveri is a fickle wave and needs a rather big swell to work. The more west the swell the better it will be. It prefers easterly winds and can also handle southerly winds as long as there is no west. The ideal Mataveri swell is big, but not too big unless you’re a madman (see below), comes from a westly angle and is accompanied by light E, ENE offshore winds.
Zone 2 for surf is the south side of the island. Rene calls the south side the “wild” side. It picks up significantly more swell energy than the west side and the coastline consists almost entirely of jagged, urchin-covered lava rocks meeting the sea, making merely entering or exiting the water tricky. We constantly checked the south side but never surfed it. The most obvious wave we found was Papa Tangaroa, a Pipeline-esque A-frame with a hallow right running into a super shallow closeout death section after about 50 yards and a left that is kamikaze only (ask Pete Mel, who Rene told us went left while filming Step Into Liquid and wound up getting completely hammered before being rescued by Laird). We saw Papa Tangaroa multiple times with perfect offshore winds, but even at 8′ foot faces it seemed too dangerous to surf, breaking in very shallow water. One afternoon we snorkeled the wave while a few boogie boarders were on it, and we saw from beneath how the 6-8’ waves streaked across the lava rock, urchin covered reef in 2 feet of water, which made us feel prudent in our decision not to surf what superficially looked like a very good wave. Brant ended up getting a bunch of urchin spines in his feet while getting out of the water from that snorkel session.
We saw many spots where it seemed like other waves were, but we never identified any other wave we wanted to surf. The south side needs westerly winds to be offshore, which we had for the first week of our stay, but the swell seemed to small to make the waves safe to surf; they all seemed too shallow and dangerous or just not that good. A large swell would mean all the waves would be too big to paddle and you’d need a jet ski. The south coast seems very tricky: needs moderate swell, west winds and big but not too big of swell. Of course, if you’re a tow surfer you want big swell, and when big swell with good conditions hits the south side, Rene and his buddies are on it with the jet skis. Rene’s favorite wave in Rapa Nui is a lefthander slab on the south coast called Pakaia that throws a huge barrels and then tapers off into deep water.
Winds are tricky to forecast in Rapa Nui, but fortunately it’s a small island and thus the wind should, in theory, be good somewhere. The trade winds in Rapa Nui are generally easterly. This is why it is so amazing that the Polynesians discovered the island in the first place: sailing east into the wind from where they came is significantly more arduous than would be sailing west downwind. However, the trade winds are anything but permanent and our experience was that the winds in Rapa Nui actually shift a lot. Brant and I experienced a week of westerly winds that shut down the west coast followed by two weeks of variable SW to SE winds that enabled us to surf the Hanga Roa breaks and Mataveri. In general I think the pattern of easterly trades is strongest in the southern winter, but overall the trade wind pattern seems rather variable in Rapa Nui. Further, winds are often affected by local phenomenon like passing squalls. Rene described that oftentimes he’d surf on one side of the island in the morning and then the winds would shift and he’d go surf the other side in the afternoon. He said that pattern of shifting winds can sometimes go on for weeks. From a seasonal perspective, I feel that one actually stands a chance of getting good surf pretty much anytime of the year in Rapa Nui. It is in an ideal location, as the South Pacific is very active year round, bigger north swells also work, and winds are probably offshore somewhere on the island on any given day. Further, the island is so small you can check all the spots on the island in about an hour!
Zone 3 is on the north side and we never saw any waves on this side since there was no north swell activity while we were there. Rene’s son, who is 14 and rips, told us that there are one or two spots that can get good, including the only beachbreaks on offer on the island. Maybe one could hope to get a piece of the action on the north side if visiting Rapa Nui during the Tapati festival in early February…
Originally Brant and I did not intend to stay in Rapa Nui for 3 weeks but Rene convinced us we needed to stick around after we got skunked without any waves the first week we were on the island. We had both purchased round trip tickets for a stay lasting just over 1 week. We decided to extend our trip only two days before we were supposed to leave. Our reason was simple: we got skunked the first week, and then, once it was time to go, the forecast showed a very large swell incoming along with more favorable winds. Rene explained it best, effectively saying, “You’re here now, it’s going to be good, and you don’t know when you’re ever going to come back… you should stay!” Now that’s some good logic for surfers to hear! Another bonus was that we didn’t have to pay anything to change our return tickets to a different date, which seems to be a perk of the Rapa Nui LAN Airlines travel office. So Brant and I both rearranged our lives a little, including both of us delaying job related activities, and we geared up for some good surf.
For the next 2 weeks we focused on surfing, with a little bit of sightseeing and nightlife thrown in as well. We surfed the Hanga Roa town waves twice a day pretty much everyday. But for a few days the elusive Mataveri came alive and we got a few sessions there. We never surfed the south side since the winds had switched to S, SE and so the south side was onshore. It was good times, as the photos demonstarte.
The big swell ended up being an absolute monster. The day before it hit Rapa Nui the World Surf League announced that the Punta Lobos Ceremonial big wave contest would be on. That’s when we really knew it would be big. The big day at saw 21+ second sets march in like freight trains from the top of outer Mataveri barreling all the way until running wide into the bay. It was very much bigger than it looked, as the below photos show. I was seriously considering paddling out and even suited up, before I saw Uti tow into a monster set wave that really revealed how big it was. Also, the locals implored me not to paddle out: it was too dangerous, with the rock climb exit being seemingly impossible to negotiate safely and the alternative a 2+ mile paddle around to the harbor. On the big day Brant and I ended up just surfing the waves in town, which were double overhead themselves.
Rene and Uti did tow surf at Mataveri on the big day, but only caught 3 waves. Two jet skis were out there, with one towing and the other running safety on the inside. After Uti towed into only 3 waves, the safety jet ski piloted by Rene’s friend suddenly bailed and without the safety ski, Rene decided to leave as well. Rene later told me that he was bummed his buddy had bailed on the tow session, Rene hadn’t received any warning and he didn’t understand why his friend just upped and left. There were waves out there that would’ve been unreal to tow surf, huge 25’+ freight trains with monster barrels. It was epic mindsurfing: I imagined getting a barrel all the from the top to the inside. Whoa.
I’m not sure when surfing first came to Rapa Nui, but I can tell you pretty definitively when tow in surfing first came to Rapa Nui. That happened around 2002 when the crew filing Step Into Liquid descended up Rapa Nui, led by the legendary Laird Hamilton. Rene told us they arrived in a chartered jumbo jet and brought their own jet skis to the island. Given the Rapa Nui’s location smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific storm track, it is no surprise that huge, powerful and perfect waves grace the lava rock reefs of the small island. These waves are what led Dave Kalama, Pete Mel, Ken ‘Skindog’ Collins, and Laird Hamilton to make Rapa Nui a destination for their film. While on the island they pioneered tow surfing the powerful waves of Rapa Nui’s south shore. You can check out the Rapa Nui segment of Step Into Liquid here. Rene and his buddies had been surfing most all of the waves around Rapa Nui before Laird’s arrival, but once Rene saw that those waves could be tamed when they were too big to paddle, he knew he had to get jet ski for himself. At that point there were no jet skis on Rapa Nui. For a local a jet ski is a huge expense, but Rene was inspired to determination. He talked to Laird about buying one of the skis that Laird had brought to Rapa Nui for the film, but Laird couldn’t sell any because the film production company owned the jet skis. Instead Laird offered to give one of the jet skis he had in Hawaii to Rene for free if Rene paid for the shipping, but Rene realized that it would be cheaper for him to just buy one himself in Chile and have it shipped from Valparaiso rather than pay the high shipping cost from Hawaii to Rapa Nui. I’m not sure how long it actually took Rene to procure his first ski, but when I saw Rene in action towing Uti into waves at Mataveri that day, it was clear he’d had years of experience. At one point he invited Brant and I to his home, where he proudly showed us his current ski, tow-in surfboards and other equipment. As far as I could ascertain, at this time there are only about 3 or 4 locals actively tow-in surfing in Rapa Nui and only 2 jet skis, one owned by Rene and the other by his friend.
OK, this post is long enough now. If you surf, I’ve given you some good information about surfing on this beautiful island. I recommend you go; you will not be disappointed. Respect the locals. Enjoy the culture. Don’t share this post to unworthy people.