Manoa Drollet: The Tahitian Matador
“It’s over like that," he always says, clicking his fingers. But when you’re in the Teahupoo channel watching him, time seems to sit relax, as if it is also cherishing the moment. Time slowed on the final day of the VZ trials, the warm up event for the Billabong Pro. That Sunday, with the channel packed, the sun bouncing off the crystal clear water, the wind slightly off shore, and the swell 10 foot, the wave affectionately known as ‘Chopes’ was arguably at its competitive finest. Any bigger and they would have to tow it, any smaller and it wouldn’t be perfect.
Drollet dreams of days like this over and over: A chance to show the world how competitive he can be in his own backyard. But on this particular day Drollet isn’t himself. He is pissed off. “Usually they have a rule where the highest Tahitian qualifier gets an automatic entry. So after I won through to the quarters, since I was the only Tahitian left, I thought I was in." Turns out that rule no longer existed. Now with the wave perfect, he also had the perfect motivation. The question wasn’t whether he could win; it was whether anyone ever really stood a chance. First up he tells Aussie big wave specialist Koby Abberton in the quarter finals he’s waited for this chance against him for a long time. He says he didn’t mean anything by it, but it rattles Koby who is still grinning in anticipation when Manoa opens up with a perfect ten. Koby swears, Manoa shrugs. Heat over.
Hawaiian charger Danny Fuller is next up. Waves still pumping. A set comes through. A casual late drop, another long barrel, the crowd cheers in unison as he gets spat out into the adoring channel. It’s another perfect 10. Two heats, two opening 10’s. Amazing. Fuller is smiling when he paddles out a loser. “He’s the best fucking dude out here hands down," he declares. The result means Manoa qualifies for the main event, but the job isn’t over yet. Remember, he has a point to prove. “This is what it’s all about. Big waves for the final. Bring it on" he declares.
In the final, it is his Australian opponent Anthony Walsh that starts with arguably the best wave of the contest. It’s a perfect 10, and it puts Manoa on the ropes for the majority of the heat. With less than 30 second’s left, needing a 9.05, Manoa clings onto a set and drops nicely into his last barrel of the day. He disappears out of the crowds’ sight. Time has slowed down once again, until we see a single hand rise in acknowledgment from behind the wave. If Manoa claim’s it, the judges reward it. Game over. The channel goes mad but their hero remains cool. Win or lose, he does it with ultimate nonchalance.
From the outside looking in, Manoa has everything except a care in the world. He is leading us through the back streets of Papeete, the small capital of Tahiti. After a few wrong turns we find his favourite sushi haunt. It’s packed, but the waiter recognises Manoa and finds us a table. The chef sends him a specially made Japanese delight. It tastes amazing. Manoa gives the proud chef a smile and a wave and gets back to the conversation. He is used to this treatment, but doesn’t make a big deal of it. “This restaurant kind of sponsors me," he says shyly. “I eat here for free maybe once or twice a month", We walk down the main street to a signing session in a nearby park. We go by countless surf stores and by the looks of the long lines awaiting the Billabong team, it is easy to see the sport is a big deal in Tahiti. The Billabong Pro is the countries’ biggest sporting event. Andy Irons is there, so too the other big name Billabong acts: Taj Burrow, Joel Parkinson, and Shaun Cansdell. The promotional poster, which everyone signs for 90 minutes or so, is a picture of Manoa kneeling in a perfect tube.
Manoa doesn’t complain once. Not on the way there, not on the way back. A different fella would feel the weight of the world, or at least an island on his shoulders. I ask him how his hand is. “It’s ok" he shrugs. Eyes from dozens of girl fall on him as we head back to our car but he pretends not to notice. Later I ask him about the fame. “It’s fine. I kind of like it. I mean sometimes I would rather just be normal". While the competition is in town, he knows there will be a lot of eyes on him. “It’s the chance for Tahitian surfers to get their name out into the world. It’s the chance to compete against the best guys in the world. What more could you ask for?" He half notices a stunning girl trying to flirt with him, but quickly looks away. “Since I have a daughter I find it harder to look," he laughs.
Many pros openly admit Manoa is the best surfer at Teahupoo. But because he is a wildcard, he will always surf against the highest seeds. It is both a challenge and a curse. Good friend Kelly Slater is first up in round one, and the 8-time world champ beats him easily in unusually small conditions. By now I am quite familiar with Drollet, but I interview him after the heat and he is visibly and surprisingly angry. I realise that despite his tranquil exterior, he is just like any other surfer: he doesn’t like losing. The real problem is this; in order to show the world how good he really is, he knows he needs big waves to perform. After dedicating much of his adult life waiting for the next big swell, he knows this time he will have to wait at least another year. The swell simply won’t arrive in time for his next heat. Surfing’s biggest stage, his own backyard, has let him down again.
A few days later, with Chopes at its frustrating smallest, Drollet bows out to Taj Burrow in round two. In those conditions, at best, he stood only a fighting chance. During the final, after organisers had agreed to hold back the competition window for an extra two days to catch a decent swell, I find Manoa sitting on a jet ski sipping a coke and watching perfect waves roll in all afternoon. In these conditions, he probably would have won. He knows it, and deep down the top surfers know it too. I ask him if he is ok. “Yeah" he shrugs like always. “I’m cool".
They are the truest words ever spoken by a man with little to say.