Ryan McDonald

The right call: How Alex Gray and Bo Bridges landed on the cover of Surfer magazine

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The wave commands Alex Gray’s respect. Photo by Bo Bridges

The wave commands Alex Gray’s respect. Photo by Bo Bridges

by Ryan McDonald 

Bo Bridges and Alex Gray celebrate getting the November Surfer Magazine cover.

Bo Bridges and Alex Gray celebrate getting the November Surfer Magazine cover.

The journey began with a weather chart showing a “purple blob” in the South Pacific, indicating an intense storm. The swell was headed to Tahiti.

Longtime North Shore lifeguard Dave Wassel called Alex Gray, asking if he had seen the forecast. The prime attraction in Tahiti is a left-breaking wave called Teahupoo, a heaving slab that unloads deep-water swells on to a very shallow coral reef.

Teahupoo is one of the most critical waves in the world. It is also one of the most photographed. Professionals and underground chargers, alike, flock to the French Polynesia break to score waves and sponsor shots.

But Wassel had another Tahitian break in mind. He suggested pursuing a nearby wave that breaks right instead of left.

It would be an opportunity to surf epic waves with little competition. But Gray did not exactly have the best history with the wave.

“The first time, I surfed it was with Kelly Slater,” Gray said. “I got a concussion and took a plane ride home with my head bleeding against the headrest. The second, I surfed it with Shane Dorian and had one of the worst wipeouts of my life.”

Nonetheless, Gray trusts Wassel, and decided to go for it, despite the fact that Wassel had to back out of the trip.

Gray reached out to several photographers. But they were skeptical about passing up Teahupoo to shoot a wave so fickle it did not even have a proper name. (“The Right” is already claimed by a slab in Western Australia.)

Coincidentally, Bo Bridges was called off a shoot in Colorado due to sleet at exactly the same time. He phoned Gray and the duo set out for Tahiti within hours.

“I just love surfing more than anything,” said Bridges. “So whenever I get the opportunity to shoot  pros, I can’t turn it down.”

Bridges and Gray set out for the wave early on the first morning of the swell. The swell charts indicated that the second day of the three-day swell would be the biggest.

Gray and the crew loaded into a panga and snuck past Teahupoo, which was already crowded with surfers.

“We ducked our heads down as we were going by Chopes,” Gray said.

The conditions were mostly pristine, with occasional reminders of nature’s volatility.

“People think Tahiti, they presume it’s this pristine tropical paradise,” Bridges said. “But storms come in fast, so I’m looking for garbage bags, anything I can to protect the equipment.”

Gray surfed alone and occasionally found himself wishing for companions — if only to better his chances in case any wildlife showed up.

“I’m thinking, are there tiger sharks on this side of the reef?” Gray said.

On the second day, Gray rode a fuller-volume board for paddling into large, fast-moving waves. But when the right one came, he paddled out too far and found himself out of position.

Unlike Teahupoo, which has a predictable takeoff zone, the right’s takeoff zone is “the size of three football fields,” Gray said. Judging where to takeoff is further complicated by the shoreline’s uniform mass of jungle-covered mountains, which makes triangulation difficult.

Missing the wave left Gray crestfallen.

“As a surfer, to invite a photographer, knowing he’s spending money and time away from his family and miss the wave we came for…that’s what I was thinking,” Gray said.

Gray said he couldn’t sleep that night. On the third morning, the final day of the swell, Gray decided to take out a jet ski to better cover the takeoff zone.

The forecast predicted the third day would be the smallest. The forecast was wrong. Huge sets were still rolling through.

Yet the wave, while displaying flashes of brilliance, suffered from interminable waits between sets, sometimes lasting up to 90 minutes.

Waiting was made all the more difficult by the knowledge that a world-class wave was a few minutes away.

“Chopes was going off,” Gray said. “Do you gamble on a place with 90 minute lulls?”

But each time he and Bridges got ready to leave, another amazing wave would appear on the horizon.

“It seemed like every time Alex paddled over to the boat, a set would roll through and he would head back out,” Bridges said.

The crew intended to do a short session and be back in camp for lunch. Again, the best made plans went awry.

They arrived 6 a.m. and did not return ‘till 4 p.m. Gray had come unprepared for the long day and fueled his marathon session with granola bars.

The persistence paid off. Gray stepped off the jet ski and onto the cover of Surfer.

But even that perfect wave had its wrinkles. A boat with Hawaiian pro surfer Ian Walsh, loaded with photographers, dropped anchor directly in front of where Bridges was stationed.

Fortunately, Walsh and his crew grew impatient with the long lulls and left, not a moment too soon. The departing boat’s wake sent ripples up the face of the wave that made the cover.

The trip convinced Gray that there is still room for old-fashioned adventure in the search for a great ride.

“It was perfect, why would you leave?” Gray said, referring to those fighting for waves at Teahupoo that day. “Well, maybe to surf a perfect wave all by yourself, and get a Surfer magazine cover.”

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