To speak with Raimana Van Bastolaer is to fall under a sort of spell. He is a big and dark-skinned Tahitian man who exudes old-soul calm and wisdom. His accent is a mix of South Pacific French with notes of Hawaii and California, where he’s spent a great deal of time. His tone and cadence is charming. But it can rev up and turn authoritative—a colonel barking orders at his soldiers. A former pro, an ace Teahupo’o surfer, a jetski driver of the highest caliber, Raimana’s latest venture is to handle all things water related at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch. His is the voice you hear when you’re flying down the line on one of those machine-perfect waves.
I had the good fortune to experience this firsthand. As the wave loomed, there was Raimana behind me on the ski yelling, “Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” As I sped across the wall, he was like an angel on my shoulder, shouting not only words of encouragement, but full-on details: “Go high!” “Pull in!” “Now line up the barrel!” I’ve never known such surf coaching in real time.
Raimana is sometimes referred to as the “waterman’s waterman.” Not only has he been riding monster waves at Teahupo’o for most of his life, but he’s been towing some of the world’s best surfers into them. He possesses an extraordinary calm in big, dangerous surf.
Raimana is also one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors. He has shared his native Tahiti with thousands of traveling wave riders. WSL commentator Strider Wasilewski knows all about this. He and Raimana have been close friends for many years. “Very few people open their home and heart to surfers traveling through where they live the way Raimana does,” said Strider over email. “He’ll help people out without even knowing them. A guy’s boat burned down—Raimana found out and gave him money to get home, and didn’t even ask for it back. Raimana is connected to people everywhere, a pure connection of aloha and good mana. No matter the color, no matter the finance, billionaires to bums—Raimana is connected!”
I had every intention of writing this piece as a profile. But as I spoke with Raimana (who was between sessions at Surf Ranch), I realized that it’s important to get his voice in here. So this is our conversation, only very lightly edited. I tried not to mess with his dialect. And lastly, Raimana is a man of big gratitude. He wanted to thank Jeff Bizzack, Mark Walker, John Moore, Dirk Ziff, Kelly Slater, and his family.
You occupy a very unique place in the surf world.
Yes, now I have a second one. First, Teahupo’o. Now, Surf Ranch.
Describe for me what you do exactly.
Well, here at the Surf Ranch, mostly I keep them confident. I calm them down first, because everybody’s so excited and so scared and so all over the place. So my job is I have to calm them first, and give them confidence, and tell them they can do it, and just giving them hope, telling them, “You can do this.”
And how did you get to Lemoore—you started in Tahiti?
I started as a boogie boarder, and in 1992 Team Gotcha came to Tahiti, they did a surf trip, like Rob Machado, Brock Little, Martin Potter, Kahea Hart, and I was boogieboarding, they were surfing, and they were doing a photo shoot with Hank Fotos, and next thing you know Kahea told me, “Go get my board in the boat.” So I went back to the boat, grabbed the board, went back out, and when everybody was done coming up to the lineup, they were all screaming, “Go! Go!” and I was by myself outside waiting for the set. I turned the board, paddled into the wave, stood up, got barreled, didn’t know how to cutback, so I kicked out, and two months after that I had a two-page spread in Surfing magazine. Right there, I was like, “That’s about it, I’m switching.” And then, couple days later, I was talking to Rob, and he had all those boards, all those stickers, and he explained to me what each of those companies do for Rob, and then salary, and then product, and I thought, “I think I’m in the wrong sport.” And I switched to surfing.
Were you on the ‘QS, or did you more just do Tahiti and Hawaii?
I was halfway Hawaii and Tahiti. But right after Laird Hamilton got his wave at Teahupo’o in 2000, from there I didn’t go to Hawaii, I was focusing on Teahupo’o. Because Teahupo’o made Laird; that wave put him above everybody else. I was like, “Man, free surfing—you don’t have to go to the contest. I think this is where I should go.” So me and Manoa (Drollet), we focused on Teahupo’o.
Are you still technically a professional surfer?
No, no. I’m mostly someone who’s helping professional surfers, guiding some of the kids in Tahiti, giving them advice, working here at the Surf Ranch. My job is to make sure people love surfing.
You still surfing a lot?
A little bit, not too much since my baby was born. It’s been three years and six months, and I kind of push back and focus more on my son. But starting this year I can get back in the water more. But when it’s big at Teahupo’o, I leave Surf Ranch for Teahupo’o.
What’s a typical day like for you in Tahiti?
Wake up in the morning early, like 5:00 o’clock, check my email because it’s three hours ahead in California, so send emails and make phone calls. And when it’s like 7:00 o’clock in Tahiti, I take my stepson to school, come back, spend my morning with my son, and get him busy, and clean the house, and then lunch, take a nap, and then we get busy, and we go to the rivermouth and take him in the water, and then pick up my stepson at school, and then get them in the water, and then surf again. You know, I want them to get hooked to the water, instead of having my kids hang on the iPad. I try to get them in the water. And then it comes to dinner, and we have dinner, and then sleep.
What do you love most about your job?
I’m free. I have the trust from the owners. But mostly giving surfers hope. Here at the Surf Ranch, I’ve seen non-surfers become surfers after two days. They get hooked. I have a guy here who never surfed in the ocean, and after a couple times here at the Surf Ranch, he gets his first wave in the ocean on a surf trip to Tavarua. I like giving surfers hope.
Photo credit: Tim McKenna