Old guys ruling
You won’t find them wearing the shirt or sporting the bumper sticker, but over the past month, Peter Mel and Twiggy Baker have embodied the saying: old guys rule.
A tedious expression, no doubt, mostly favoured by veterans unable to pass the baton with dignity, yet here were two middle-aged surfers with a still-firm grip on the present.
Across four waves, two apiece, all ridden at Mavericks, Mel (51) and Twig (47) raised the big wave bar, yet it may not have been in spite of their age but because of it.
Mel’s tow wave from 12th January (see above) is arguably one of the largest waves ridden at Mav’s while his paddle in barrel is certainly one of the greatest rides ever seen. A modern lament about surfing is that, amongst the firehose of online content, great waves are no longer remembered and mythologised as they once were.
Mel’s barrel will surely test that theory. For sheer courage and recourse to experience - which Mel has nearly three decades of at Mavericks - it’s without peer. It’s simply not possible to paddle out there and luck into a wave of that magnitude.
“I’ve been surfing out there for 29 years,” said Mel, “and I’ve seen many waves like that over the years.”
“We’ve always wondered if it was possible to take off in there,” continued Mel, referring to his position fifty metres inside the pack and on the other side of the ledge, “and I’ve personally envisioned a line through it but the opportunity so rarely presents itself.”
Like a mountaineer planning the route to an unclimbed summit, visualisation of the path is paramount. Yet for Mel and other Mavs surfers the path is rarely illuminated. It only presents itself after years of water time, and even then momentarily.
In his autobiography, Rafael Nadal wrote, “I cannot bear the thought of squandering an opportunity that might never come again.” Rafa was 24 when he wrote that. Mel is 51, he’s spent 29 of those years in preparation for that opportunity, and January 12th was the payoff, done with his son looking on from the channel and longtime filmer Curt Myers holding the record button.
It was a scenario mythmakers might assemble in their mind, yet here it was played out in real life.
While catching up with Twiggy Baker after his two incredible rides he flashes on being a young kid in Durban and watching the older surfers.
“When I was in the Boys age group at club contests,” says Twig, “I used to look at the Seniors and think ‘what are those old bastards doing taking all the waves?’”
“Fuck those guys!”
Twig laughs at the cheek because he’s now one of those guys, albeit in his own specialised field.
Accepted wisdom says that big wave surfers don’t hit their stride till their thirties. Prior to that there’s a discord between physical maturity and emotional development. The body is strong but the mind is feeble - it’s capricious and unsteady when big surf warrants calmness and composure.
It was composure that got Twiggy down the face of his December 12 wave after first taking a highly unorthodox diagonal line across the top. It was a wave that, like Peter Mel’s, Twig had previously studied and sought to pursue.
“That wave was an accumulation of years and years of effort by many different surfers,” said Twig afterwards. “We have talked about catching a wave like that on the outer bowl for many years.”
Incredibly, less than a month later a similar looking wave presented itself to the South African. ”Both waves were a similar size,” explains Twig, “but yesterday's one had a lot more energy in it.”
Appearances were deceiving. The increased power meant the wave jacked faster and offered no escape route across the roof. “Instead of chipping me in and backing off,” said Twig, “it went fully top to bottom, which we haven’t really experienced before.”
“I was basically left in the lip on a 65ft double up!”
The premise that older surfers are wiser would usually exclude taking air drops on XXL waves, or even trying to stick them once airborne, yet that’s what Twig did. “I was thinking I had better stick the landing or I’m probably dead so I held on as long as possible to at least give it my best shot.”
The resultant wipeout had surfers of all ages wincing, wondering how anyone could survive unscathed. Yet if it appeared impulsive, understand that Twig backed himself mentally and physically, even though he’s one of the oldest surfers in the lineup. “I’m serious about my health. I eat properly and I’m on a solid strength and mobility program.”
Even so, the next day he described feeling like he’d been in a boxing match, plus he got whiplash and a mild concussion. When asked about how many more years he can see himself doing it, Twig mused, “At that level, being the furthest out, holding the inside, and really wanting the biggest and heaviest waves on the biggest days….I’ve got probably three to five more years, barring any major injuries.”
But that’s Twig being a hard task master. The physical preparation he’s doing now in his forties is so he can surf big waves into his fifties and beyond. Maybe not bag XXL awards but still keep doing what he loves.
“Even out there on the biggest day of the last ten years there were ‘safe’ waves that are pretty easy to catch and make to the channel and I can see myself still surfing well into my sixties.”
POSTSCRIPT: Twig followed up our conversation with the following: "I’m a little rattled mentally and probably need some time to think it all through but the Pacific is waiting for no man and Jaws is going to be 70ft on the weekend!"