Top Dead Center

Look all the way to the edge of the reef at Teahupo‘o…and you’ll find Matahi Drollet sitting quietly by himself.

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Matahi Drollet is sitting out at the end of his dock, just past his family’s home, in the predawn darkness of the tropics, feet dangling in the water. The 24-year-old has already been awake for hours, monitoring the forecast. 

A solid swell is coming, he knows that for certain. But charts and buoy readings offer no sure bet. Drollet, well, he can feel it. The wood pilings of the dock creak, and he rises and falls along with it. The ropes that keep his family’s flotilla of boats and jet skis tighten and twist, taut with new energy. Out at Teahupo‘o, way off in the distance, he can hear the sound of waves breaking. 

Drollet is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, with freshly minted broad shoulders and a lithe muscularity. There’s a calmness about him, a coiled stillness that never abates, even as, presently, his house begins to rumble to life with chaotic energy. 

Most of Tahiti’s best surfers, along with many of the planet’s most talented chargers, are making a beeline for the Drollets’ backyard. Four-wheel-drive trucks pulling extended trailers arrive and clog the driveway. Jet skis laden with surfboards and tattooed twenty-somethings navigate the inky lagoon and ease onto the dock. In a scene that has played out whenever a serious swell event has hit Tahiti over the last ten years, the Drollet home is transformed into the de facto Teahupo‘o headquarters, clubhouse, jet ski maintenance center, safe harbor, and doss house.  

Matahi’s unwavering confidence under Teahupoo’s hood. Photograph by Domenic Mosqueira.

While the Drollet family holds a unique place near the top of the Teahupo‘o hierarchy, similar sequences are being repeated in houses and homestays throughout the small village on the southwestern coast of the big island of Tahiti. Most of the accommodation available for tourists comes through family pensions, run by local Tahitians who have opened up their homes to traveling surfers flying in from all parts of the globe to surf the wave. It’s not uncommon for a bricklayer from Bondi to be at the table sharing the morning’s meal with a WCT veteran or highly paid freesurfer. 

And it’s Drollet, the youngest of his clan, who has become ringmaster and mentor of the spot and the happenings on shore. He fields questions about the swell, allocates beds and couches, digs around for a spare spark plug, and directs the utes and skis. 

“We are all learning from Matahi now,” says Michel Bourez, Tahiti’s top competitive surfer, “even guys like me, who are ten years older.”

Just as the sun’s rays make their first spikes over the famed mountains that front the wave, Drollet leads his crew 500 yards out to anchor in the gap in the reef. Once in the lineup, however, everyone is very much on their own. Drollet paddles to “his” spot on the reef, a boil just a little bit deeper than where the rest of the pack sits. 

“I’m always scared before a big session,” he says, “because when I’m out there the goal is to get the biggest and best wave.” 

Despite whatevers fears he may have, for the better part of the last decade, he’s been successful in achieving that goal. 

Drollet was born in 1997, coincidentally the year the first professional surfing event was held at Teahupo‘o. The contest, however, was a disaster. Terrible waves and weather, a bankrupt promoter, and the competition boat washing up on the reef seemed to signal that Teahupo‘o might linger in anonymity a little while longer. The Tahitian government, though, persuaded the ASP to give it one more chance the following year. 

In 1998, the Gotcha Pro ran for three days in heavy but flawless conditions. The resulting imagery and video traveled quickly through  the surf world. Suddenly, Teahupo‘o had a reputation as one of the most frightening, but most perfect, waves on the planet. Even today, there are very few spots that can match its combination of the two.

For that, give thanks to a rare set of geological workings. At the location in town where the paved road ends at the ocean, a small bridge crosses above a stream. There, freshwater has cascaded down the mountains for millenia, eroding the reef and cutting a channel—called Passe Havea—through it for 500 yards out from shore. That itself, however, is not uncommon, as reef passes are the basis for almost all of the South Pacific’s surfable waves. What is unique about Teahupo‘o is that fewer than 3 miles in front of where the wave breaks, the ocean is still a mile deep. At even half a mile in front of the takeoff zone, the depth remains 1,000 yards. It’s only within the last 50 yards that the ocean floor dramatically rises. Unlike most waves that stand up and break after being slowed by shallower waters, swells at Teahupo‘o arrive so quickly that they simply surge over the reef. Even more extraordinary is the angle of the 150-yard-deep channel, which causes the wave to refract and gives it its remarkable shape.

In 2000, Laird Hamilton would famously test that bathymetry at what was then a shocking, unbelievable level. The Hawaiian towed into a wave, now known as the Millennium Wave, of such a scope, color, and size that it became not only an epochal moment in Teahupo‘o history and surfing history, but even its own pop-cultural marker. From that point on, Teahupo‘o became entrenched as a heavy-water proving ground as well as a fixture on the WCT schedule. 

Drollet’s father, Bjarn, was one of the first to recognize that the wave and its pristine environment would bring visitors. After moving his wife and four children from the capital, Pape‘ete, to the surfing hub of Papara in the early 1990s—years before the spot grew an international profile—he started a boat business driving surfers and photographers to the surrounding reefbreaks. Over the course of the wave’s well-documented history, a sizable percentage of its iconic images have been shot from Bjarn’s boat. 

By the time Drollet was born, his eldest brother, Manoa, was 20 years old and beginning to make a name for himself as one of the best young surfers in Tahiti. Mentored by Vetea “Poto” David, the country’s first professional surfer, and Raimana Van Bastolaer, an original Teahupo‘o pioneer and its most experienced guide, Manoa saw his own status rise as Teahupo‘o’s place became cemented in surf lore. He won the trials of the Billabong Pro Teahupo‘o twice, in 2005 and 2007, then finished runner-up in the main event in 2008, while bagging more than his fair share of bombs every time the South Pacific went purple on the forecast. 

Despite recent emphasis being placed on paddling into waves both wide and tall, certain combinations of the two necessitate entry by gas and rope. At Teahupo‘o, consider Drollet the de facto barometer of when it’s time to strap in. Photograph by Domenic Masqueira.

 “He was the best surfer, with the best style,” says Bourez. “From 2 foot to 20, Manoa was untouchable.”

In 2009, the Drollet family moved from Papara to their current house, right in front of Teahupo‘o, which set their youngest on the path he’s now fully exploring. Growing up, Drollet attended boarding school during the week, then would come to Teahupo‘o on the weekend. 

“When I was 14,” he explains, “Dad was getting hired by good surfers, and I would come on the trips, but he wouldn’t let me surf. Still, I watched closely on how they and Manoa approached the waves. And Raimana was a big help. He’s like an uncle. I would stay at his place during the holidays, and I learned how to drive the ski with him.”  

“Eventually, his family let Matahi drive a little dinghy boat, and he would often surf alone or with a few mates,” says photographer Ben Thouard. “He would spend every day out there no matter the conditions.”

In 2014, aged just 16, Drollet found himself on the outside looking in as the biggest swell since the famous Code Red session three years prior unloaded at Teahupo‘o. There was a full Hollywood production underway in the lineup, with surfers like Laurie Towner, Dylan Longbottom, and Bruce Irons employed as stunt doubles filming scenes for the remake of Point Break. With so much going on and at stake, there had been some pressure put on locals not to surf. 

The Drollets, who knew this to be a swell of rare size and perfection, were not involved in the shoot. Drollet assumed he would miss out. 

“Manoa just said to me, ‘No, that’s not the way we do things here. I’ll drive and you’ll surf,’” recalls Drollet.

The brothers surfed for seven hours, Drollet scoring some of the best waves of his life, including a huge one late in the day that would later earn him an XXL award, making him the youngest-ever winner.

While the waves that win oversize checks and get pasted on the front pages of mainstream news outlets certainly build a global reputation, it’s day-to-day commitment that leads one to total mastery at any given spot. For Drollet, it’s the latter that provides the key to his place at the top of Teaupo‘o’s pecking order. 

 “What makes Matahi different is his capacity to learn quickly and to stay quiet,” says Bourez. “A lot of kids like to talk, but he likes to listen. That wave proved that.” 

It’s true that Drollet’s voice isn’t the loudest in the Teahupo‘o lineup. His calm assurance comes from a deeper confidence—total understanding of what he’s doing. And because he listens so well, his words carry serious weight. He knows who he is, where he’s come from, and where he’s heading. 

“The knowledge he’s already amassed at that wave is incredible,” says Thouard.

It’s with that knowledge that, today, Drollet is leading the charge for and with the next generation of Tahitians. 

A deep knowledge of the shallow reef allows Matahi to choose wisely. Photograph by Domenic Mosqueira.

“There’s so much room for progression at Chopes,” says Drollet, “especially paddling bigger waves. The guys I grew up with—surfers like Matehau Tetopata and Lorenzo Avvenenti—are pushing the limits every session. We’re all doing it together.”

On any given swell, no matter the number or status of name-brand surfers in the lineup, it’s locals such as Kauli Vaast, Kevin Bourez, Mateia Hiquily, Tikanui Smith, Eimeo Czermak, and Vahine Fierro who are sitting the deepest and taking off the latest, pushing the limit with just inches of fast-moving water over sharp coral.

“Every one of those kids will spin and drop in on any wave that comes their way,” says Bourez. “It’s just a case of who happens to be in the right spot at the right time. It’s a super-positive lineup, but each one of them wants the best wave, and they want it bad. They all have the scars to prove it.” 

Invariably, though, it’s Drollet who finds himself in the best spot on the biggest waves that come through. And it’s not by accident. Drollet’s earned it the hard way: one late drop after another, swell after swell, year after year.  

“In Tahitian, Matahi means ‘the one and only,’ and he truly is,” says Drollet’s sister Cindy, who now runs the family’s boat business. “We like to say that Matahi is the best version of our family and has taken only the best part in each of us. He’s the youngest, but we all look up to him.”

It’s out on the edge of the reef where these qualities are most apparent. Drollet sits over “his” patch of coral as the sun rises high enough to show just how massive the sets are, the full brunt of the swell he felt an hour or so before while sitting on his dock in the dark. It’s at the very upper limit of what’s considered paddleable. 

Comfort in the funhouse. The price to walk through, though, ain’t cheap.

A few waves have been ridden, but Drollet is waiting for one of the rare west-swell growers that his reputation has been built upon. He remains coiled, but sits calmly and patiently. Eventually, just what he’s after pops up on the horizon and comes lumping out of the depths toward the shelf ledge. At first glance and at full speed, it looks too straight: a 25-foot wall of water compressing parallel with the shallow reef. Yet Drollet sees, or maybe even feels, a slight of kink in the wave and swings late. 

The drop is so steep that he can’t afford to look down the line at where he needs to go. He digs the nose of his 6’3″ out just as it threatens to catch and, with a millisecond to spare, sets his rail toward the channel. He’s then blinded, shrouded in spit, and at various times either riding behind, in, or on the foamball. He finally emerges back into full Tahitian technicolor in a shower of rainbow-colored spray before veering toward the safety and whistles of the channel. 

It’s just one of many, many examples of the combination of rare knowledge and technical mastery that’s pushed Drollet front and center at one of surfing’s most challenging testing grounds. At only 24, he’s ridden waves that have already been stitched into surfing folklore. But Drollet knows that it’s not the waves he’s ridden that really matter. It’s the ones that are yet to come.