Marée Haute

By Michael H. Kew

Photos: Kew.

Wallis first pierced my brain in August 2002, when I bought a copy of Surfing magazine’s “Explorations” from Hansen’s Surf Shop in Encinitas, California. Today, branded (paid-for) media content is common, but in 2002 “Explorations” was, per its press release:

the first cover-to-cover advertiser-driven publication in the industry…a special collector’s edition of Surfing magazine that documents the oceanic journey of the Indies Trader, a 72-foot vessel employed by international boardriding apparel company and industry leader, Quiksilver.

“Explorations” featured a two-page route map of the Crossing’s first glorious sailings. In March 1999, the boat left Cairns, steamed up the Coral Sea, swung east to French Polynesia. Then, Indonesia-bound for summer, it motored west along a different South Pacific route, pinged with an unplanned two-week stop at Wallis before continuing to Fiji for the 2000 Quiksilver Pro.

I’d first heard the word Matautu in the mid-1990s while watching “Forgotten Island of Santosha,” the part where the crew was stalled in a place called Matautu, presumably the seafront village on the southwest coast of Upolu, Samoa. In May 2003, at New Caledonia’s La Tontouta International Airport, I saw Mata Utu written on the blue Aircalin arrivals/departures screen. Curious, and recalling “Santosha,” I approached the French woman at the counter.

“Samoa?”

“Is capital city in Wallis,” she said. “You know Wallis?”

A decade later, via email, I made contact with the island. His name was Pascal, a Lille expat who managed Evasion Bleue, a small dive company. His was the only tourist-geared business in Wallis & Futuna. Google-Earthing Wallis’s uneven oval barrier of coral, it was clear that, if I wanted to surf there, I needed a boat.

Hi Michael

No problem for transporting you by boat to the reef. We have 2 boats, one for scuba diving and an other one for taxi boat. I have well understood that you are a surfer and not a kiter. But some of these guys are surfer and kiter. They do stand up paddle too. Usually they are surfing in the Honikulu path or Avatolu path. Never in Fugauvea or Fatumanini. It’s too far and you find the biggest waves on Honikulu or Avatolu. I’m not sure about the season for surfing and the guys surfing in Wallis doesn’t want to give any informations. Do there is a competition between surfers?

Christophe, Daniel, Pascal.

Three years later: a dark Sunday morning amid robust rain. Christophe, in blue jeans, a white Aspen (Colorado) ball cap, and a white T-shirt that says “New York” on the front, drives me to Pascal’s. Centre do Loisirs (Leisure Center) is on the ruddy beach sand of Halalo, in Wallis’s south, where 14 skiffs are low-tide dry-docked. West-facing and tucked behind a 600-meter-long petroleum tank groin, the small palmy harbor offers refuge from the strong trades.

In his late-50s, tan and fit and wearing a black Aqua Lung springsuit, Pascal seems happy to see us. He has agreed to a brief tour of the southern lagoon, including a stop at Honikulu Pass, where there was a hollow, flawed left, the wave the Crossing crew scored.

Pascal remembers our emails and shakes his head, smiling.

“I am sorry, Michel, but today is very, very bad day to try for surfing. Tide is really low and wind is really bad.”

He gestures toward his white speedboat fitted with a blue bimini.

“But we go, eh?”

Once past the groin, eyes to the gale, Pascal turns left and throttles south, at full-speed across deep gray chop toward two islets. Above the noise, he and Christophe and Daniel yell back and forth in French, pointing at the low black mounts of Nukutapu and Nukuaeta, probably remarking how silly it was to be out on the lagoon in this weather—especially Christophe, with his aversion to saltwater.

Two kilometers from the groin, we zip aside l'îlot St-Christophe (“My place, eh!” Christophe yells to me, grinning, squinting), locally called Nukutapu, the site of a topside Christian altar. A sandy cay separates Nukutapu from much larger Nukuaeta, a pleasant spot for a picnic on a drier, brighter day, free of black squalls and blinding rain, this scenery 10 shades of gray, alien from all photos I’d seen of Wallis as a bluey-green Eden, a bigger, flatter kin of Bora Bora. And as for surf potential, Wallis would best Bora Bora, which has just one pass; Wallis has four.

As we idle in the deep channel off Ile Fenua Fo’ou, just a sliver of forest, a handful of ragged, bowly windblown lefts lurch over the shallow east elbow of Honikulu, a tricky slot for mariners due to its narrows and strong currents. For surfing too it looks dicey—the exposed reef, the dark chop, the waves sloppy and severe.

“No, Michel?” Pascal asks, eyebrows raised, knowing my answer.

“How do you say ‘high tide’ in French?”