Smooth Operator

WSL competitor Matahi Drollet – best known for his Teahupoo prowess on a surfboard and, more recently, a foil – bagged the cover spot last issue with one of the most insane barrel shots we’ve ever seen. It highlighted his dexterous skillset when it comes to turning his hand to something new and then making it look both easy and supremely stylish. Interviewed over a popular text app, we got to hear more about his new found passion for the foil and that cover shot…

Photos: Ben Thouard (unless stated)

Matahi! Firstly, it looks like you’ve had one hell of a run of good conditions in Tahiti lately…

Yeah, we’ve had some really fun swells lately. Usually I travel to Hawaii around November to January, because it’s off-season here in Tahiti and there’s not that many waves on the side of the island on which I live. But this year I decided not to go anywhere because of the Covid-19 situation and decided to spend the holidays at home instead. I’m really stoked I did because I scored some really fun swells, and when you get to surf a swell in Tahiti, it’s actually way better than surfing the whole winter in Hawaii because I’ll get more waves in one day than I’ll get in two months in Hawaii. I’ve been fishing a lot, foiling a lot, surfing… so yes, I’m happy!

When did you first lay your hands on a foil, and what was it about foiling that you found so appealing?

The first time I laid my hands on a foil was about three years ago almost, around June 2018. I was driving my boat for the Starboard team, and my friend Zane Schweitzer was over from Maui doing a shoot for his sponsor and he brought his foil. He was foiling in front of my home spot and I’d never seen a foil before, and at the end of their trip I asked him if I could go and try to catch a wave. I took the paddle board, the surf was like five feet, and I tried to take a wave. It was a really interesting feeling… I was really scared of the foil because I could feel there was something really powerful under my feet. When they left, one of the riders actually stayed, I think it was Benoit Carpentier, and he let me borrow his foil. That week and a half I foiled the most I ever have in my life… all day every day. No-one in Tahiti was really foiling then, so I was out at Chopes on the West Bowl, riding a SUP board without the paddle, just laying down and trying to get on the easiest waves that I could get over there, and I was flying. My goal was just to take a wave, fly, and then try to go back out. I was super psyched on foiling then, and I’ve never stopped since.

You are riding Takuma foils – which foil has been working for you best over there?

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Yes, it’s been six months now that I’ve been riding Takuma foils. Before that I’d never tried them and I was super stoked and surprised at how good they worked, especially the new model they came out with, the Kujira. I’m on three different sizes for the moment, the 1210, the 980 and the 750. The best one for me is the 980 because I’m 70 kilos and the wing gives you so much lift, it’s the perfect size for me… Downwind, surfing on small or big waves, it doesn’t really matter, it’s my go-to foil. I also like the 1210 for flatwater pumping or going behind a boat on the wake that the boat makes, and the 750 is more to go get barrels at Chopes. It’s a really fast foil and I like it because it never comes out of the water at high speed. It’s really stable and maneuverable.

More and more WSL men and women are taking up foiling as a way of increasing their water hours. What are your main motivations for getting out amongst it on a foil?

Yes, it’s good to see more and more people that are starting to foil and many on the WCT too. You know, I think the reason why is that it’s just really good additional training for your surfing, because when you go surfing I would say it’s like 85% paddling and 15% surfing, whereas with foiling it’s more like 60% riding and pumping and connecting waves, and 40% paddling. As long as you’re not tired and you still have power in your legs you can just keep going until you’re exhausted. I would think I probably get like 20 waves per session when I’m surfing, where I’m thinking like about a hundred when I’m foiling, so that’s why even when it’s small conditions and windy and not really nice for surfing, it’s just so much fun with the foil.

You’re a pro at different standing and sitting stances on a foil… Is it just that we don’t get to see the wipeouts, or do you genuinely have the balance of a cat?

Ha! Yes, it’s funny because a lot of people ask me why I sit down and don’t get like gnarly wipeouts from it, but actually I never fall when I’m sitting down because, if you find the perfect balance and just play with your upper body balance, it makes foiling way easier, especially at high speed. I don’t know why but I first tried that when I was getting super tired of pumping, you know, I would pump all the way back to the line-up, I would turn around and get on the wave but be so tired that I would just sit down and breathe while I’m riding the wave! I actually found it really fun and way easier to do turns and things like that. At high speed it’s really efficient to be sitting down on your board. It’s way safer too, but yeah, it doesn’t really matter for me… I like to ride standing up, laying down, sitting down… So long as I’m having fun, that’s what is most important.

The Inertia called you a virtuoso at Teahupoo. We have to agree. How come you and that wave make such a good fit?

Well thank you! Yes, for sure there’s definitely a strong connection between Teahupoo and I, I can feel it every time I go and surf there. I’ve been surfing there for so long now, I think I first went there when I was eight years old and really started to push myself there when I was 12 or 13 years old. I was so stoked to be surfing that wave, because I was so scared of it when I was a kid but I would see my brothers having so much fun there and getting some crazy barrels… they really inspired me to get out there. Now I have this really good connection with the wave and I also live right in front of it too. It really is something special because it gives me pretty much everything I have in my life now, you know, and I feel really comfortable out there whether it’s two or three feet or 20 foot. And I just hope that the connection continues like this and I can keep doing what I love.

Who to date has been your biggest inspiration? And who pushes you to charge harder?!

Pretty much my whole life I’ve been really inspired by my brothers Manoa and Marama. They are both really great surfers, and I grew up watching them and I always wanted to be like them, so they really inspired me to do what I’m doing now. I have to thank them for showing me the way, but I also get really inspired by Michel Bourez, as he was the first Tahitian that was on the Championship Tour. So those are surfers that really inspired me, but my dad too, and also all the people that push me to charge or even just the people in the line-up… You know, if there’s a solid swell and someone gets a big wave, that guy will just push me to get an even bigger wave! It doesn’t matter who it is, if it’s a girl or if it’s a boy, when someone gets a big wave, I just want to get a bigger wave than them, especially at my home spot. So they’re pushing me too and don’t realize it!

“At high speed it’s really efficient to be sitting down on your board.”

Do you have any horror stories from riding the foil in bigger Tahitian swells?

No, I’ve never had any horror stories on the foil. Riding foils can be a dangerous sport, especially in big waves, so I’m always very careful, even more so than surfing, because it’s like having sharp knives under your feet. If you fucked up you could… well I don’t even want to imagine what it’s like to get hit by those things in the water on a big swell! So I’m lucky I haven’t got any really bad stories about foiling. We’ll get sharks that try to charge us, but nothing really crazy…

You were our cover star on the last issue, with Ben Thouard catching that rear angle of you charging out of the West Bowl at Teahupoo. That was some shot. Can you tell us what was happening there from your perspective?

Yes, thank you so much for putting me on the cover last issue, and I’m super stoked on that shot! Actually that full sequence that Ben got, I remember going down the face of the wave, and I was trying to find Ben, because I knew he was in the water but I couldn’t find him because he was already behind me when I was dropping in. Because I couldn’t see him I just focused on my ride, I was going so fast and it came from so deep that I just pulled into the barrel and I was just hoping for someone to get the shot! 

The first shot I saw was from Thomas (Bevilacqua) from the boat and I was super stoked because the wave was perfect, like four or five feet and just the dreamiest shot I could ever have wished for, on the foil at Chopes! Then at the end of the day, Ben showed me one of the shots he got and I was just so baffled. I was like, “I was looking for you. I couldn’t find you!” but he was so deep that he got that unique view, I’ve never even had a shot like this of me surfing. It was such a unique shot. Actually, I thought about it afterward… I think you can only get a perfect shot like that foiling, because when you’re foiling there’s no wake behind you, there’s no splashes from your board because the foil doesn’t create any turbulence, so the view that you get from far inside the tube is perfect precisely because there’s no imperfections. Everything came out great with that shot, and I’m super stoked on the cover.

Generally speaking, how is the foil scene out there right now? Is it accepted alongside regular surfing?

Honestly, in Tahiti, the foil scene is pretty mellow. We have a lot of really good foiling waves on the north side of the city and even on the south side. So yes, it’s pretty good, as long as the foilers don’t go too close to surfers, you know. For my part, I like to go foiling when there’s no surfers, or if I do foil where there are surfers I just take a wave and try to go as far as I can. But for now I think it’s okay, but there’s definitely surf spots where you don’t want to go foil because it’s just too heavy and it’s not everybody who can foil safely on breaking waves… Don’t forget, foiling can be a dangerous sport, so if I had to give any advice to others I’d say just go foil where there are no surfers, no swimmers, and not on really hollow waves. Just go downwind outside the lagoon on the open ocean, or try to find a mellow wave when there’s no-one up or out, and there will be no problems.

Finally, any trips lined up on which the foil will be joining you?

Oh, yeah, for sure when I’m traveling again I’m definitely going to take my foil everywhere I go! Because you never know, right? Spots that some people might think aren’t even rideable could be the best foil wave ever! I’m planning to go to Hawaii, Mexico, Fiji… I’m definitely taking a foil, and if I can go somewhere and make people try foiling too, and make them like it, then yeah, that’s even better! 

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