Kevin Cody

Body Glove Mavericks Invitational: The view from the boat

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Grant "Twiggy" Baker getting barreled. Photo by Mark Kawakami

Grant “Twiggy” Baker getting barreled. Photo by Mark Kawakami

“There are two contests you need to win to be remembered as a big wave rider — the Eddie Aikau in Hawaii and Mavericks. I’m honored to have won one of them,” declared South African big wave rider Grant “Twiggy” Baker at the awards ceremony of the 2014 Body Glove Mavericks Invitational.

As he spoke, his two taunt  arms held up a three-foot tall, 70 pound bronze sculpture that was this year’s winner’s trophy.

Grant “Twiggy” Baker hoists the Body Glove Mavericks Invitational Trophy trophy with help from fellow finalists Greg Long and Anthony Tashnick, contest director Jeff Clark and 2013 winner Peter Mel. The trophy depicts Body Glove co-founders Bill and Bob Meistrell. It was sculpted by Hermosa Beach surfer Chris Barella. Photo by Mike Balzer

Grant “Twiggy” Baker hoists the Body Glove Mavericks Invitational Trophy trophy with help from fellow finalists Greg Long and Anthony Tashnick, contest director Jeff Clark and 2013 winner Peter Mel. The trophy depicts Body Glove co-founders Bill and Bob Meistrell. It was sculpted by Hermosa Beach surfer Chris Barella. Photo by Mike Balzer

The trophy for the January 24 contest was presented by Body Glove president Robbie Meistrell and  sculpted by former Hermosa Beach pro surfer Chris Barella. It depicted Body Glove co-founders Bob and uncle Bill Meistrell as young Los Angeles County Lifeguards. The chiseled twins are poised in the sand with lifeguard rescue cans in their right hands and their left hands planted cockily on their hips. The twins are credited with inventing the modern wetsuit, which makes surfing winter waves like Mavericks possible.

“It’s only fitting the the sculpture is going to another true waterman,” Meistrell said.

South African Grant “Twiggy” Baker on the bomb that earned him a perfect 10 in the finals. Photo by Brent Broza (BrozaPhoto.com)

South African Grant “Twiggy” Baker on the bomb that earned him a perfect 10 in the finals. Photo by Brent Broza (BrozaPhoto.com)

The sculpture was to have been presented to his father Bob last September,  on the 60th anniversary of Dive N’ Surf, Body Glove’s parent company. But his father died on Father’s Day, at 84,  while readying his 72-foot boat Disappearance to lead the annual Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race from Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach.

The trophy presentation represented a historic coming together of the proud, famously insular Northern California surf community with the equally proud and nearly as insular South Bay surfing community.

2013 Mavericks Invitational winner Peter Mel celebrates escaping an exploading lip.

2013 Mavericks Invitational winner Peter Mel celebrates escaping an exploading lip. Photo by Mark Kawakami (BodyGlove.com)

The stuff of legends

Mavericks has a reputation as  a contest for  Northern California surfers. Three of this year’s six finalists were from Santa Cruz. Of the 24 invitees, 10 were from Northern California, including eight from tiny Santa Cruz.

The contest director is Jeff Clark. He began surfing Mavericks in 1975, when he was 17, alone. He surfed it alone for the next 15 years, not because he kept the spot a secret, but because no one else would join him. Mavericks breaks on a shallow, rock reef half a mile off  Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay.  But only when the faces are 30-foot-plus. It’s named after a local surfer’s dog.

Jeff Clark drives Grant "Twiggy" Baker on a victory lap among the spectator boats. Photo by Mark Kawakami (BodyGlove.com)

Jeff Clark drives Grant “Twiggy” Baker on a victory lap among the spectator boats. Photo by Mark Kawakami (BodyGlove.com)

“‘Jeff tried to get people to go out with  him. There was an inside spot people rode called Mushroom Rock. But no one believed him when he said the outside reef was ridable,” recalled Ed Grant, a member of the Maverick’s board of directors, who has photographed the contest for the past 10 years. “You can’t really see it from shore. ‘Good luck. If you don’t come back by dark, we’ll call the Coast Guard,’ his friends would tell him.’”

Grant “Twiggy” Baker gets shacked. Photo by Bo Bridges (BoBridges.com)

Grant “Twiggy” Baker gets shacked. Photo by Bo Bridges (BoBridges.com)

Grant, whose daughter Alisha Auringer lives in Manhattan Beach, shot this year’s contest from aboard the 50–foot wood fishing boat Denise, chartered by Body Glove. The former floating brothel was built in Louisiana in the early 1900s and named after its former madame.

Clark drove a PWC  during this year’s contest, rescuing competitors tossed by 80-foot walls of exploding white water  into Maverick’s rocky “boneyard,”  infamous for snagging surfers’ leashes, then pounding its ensnared game.

Shawn Dollar of Santa Cruz gets deep and steep on what would have won Best Wave honors if he hadn’t fallen at the bottom and suffered one of the worst wipeouts of the day. Photo by Mike Balzer.

Shawn Dollar of Santa Cruz gets deep and steep on what would have won Best Wave honors if he hadn’t fallen at the bottom and suffered one of the worst wipeouts of the day. Photo by Mike Balzer.

All of the competitors wore inflatable vests, and all of them deployed them, with exception of Mark Healey, an old school, big wave rider who suffered the longest hold down of the day. When he surfaced, he waived off the the rescue ski, but then had second thoughts and hitched a ride back out to the line-up.

“It was as heavy as 20-foot Mavs gets,” said Body Glove team rider Alex Gray, of Palos Verdes. Gray was a finalist in the 2012 Billabong Ride of the Year contest for a giant tube ride at Teahupoo, Tahiti.

“Due to the long period and west swell direction, every wave was ‘slabbing’ [barreling hard] on the bowl. Most waves were impossible to get under to paddle into. The contestants did an incredible job. There were some inspiring performances,” he said.

Maverick’s explosive power is evident by this 80-foot tall plume of white water. Photo by Brent Broza (BrozaPhoto.com)

Maverick’s explosive power is evident by this 80-foot tall plume of white water. Photo by Brent Broza (BrozaPhoto.com)

The benchmark for the Maverick’s Invitational is the 2010 contest. Faces were a consistent 50-foot.

This year’s faces were an inconsistent 50-foot, and more often in the 30- to 40-foot range. But Maverick’s committee president Rocky Raynor said this year’s waves were the “heaviest” of any year since the contest began in 1999.

“In 2010, the waves were bigger, but clean. This year the waves were choppy from the south wind and thicker,” Raynor said.

The safety patrol races in for a rescue. Photo by Mark Kawakami (BodyGlove.com)

The safety patrol races in for a rescue. Photo by Mark Kawakami (BodyGlove.com)

When Baker was asked on Universal Sports by three-time Maverick’s winner “Flea” Virostko  his opinion of this year’s waves, Baker answered, “The waves  looked unmakable, but it was the finals, so we had to put our heads down and go. Every wave I just hoped I didn’t hit a bump on the way down and get catapulted.”

The waves hit the reef with such speed that in the time it took for  the competitors to stop paddling and get to their feet, they were rocketed up the 30 to 50 feet from the trough to the lip, where the challenge then was to drive their boards back down the face, or get pitched.

Hawaiian Shane Dorian survived this drop  to earn second place. Photo by Brent Broza. (BrozaPhoto.com)

Hawaiian Shane Dorian survived this drop to earn second place. Photo by Brent Broza. (BrozaPhoto.com)

The take-offs were so steep that on one wave Hawaiian Shane Dorian went into a three point stance, like a lineman, with his left hand on the nose and his right arm hooked into the wave.

There were no snaps, no floaters, no (deliberate) aerials, or other trick maneuvers that judges look for in other contests. Baker was awarded a perfect 10 in the finals simply for surviving the drop, getting covered up on the inside and doing a bunny hop when he hit a ledge known as the “Nugget.”

Body Glove team surfer Alex Grey, of Palos Verdes, flies out the back while Hawaiian Kai Lenny take it on the head and an unidentified stand-up paddler races to the shoulder. Photo by Bo Bridges (BoBridges.com)

Body Glove team surfer Alex Grey, of Palos Verdes, flies out the back while Hawaiian Kai Lenny take it on the head and an unidentified stand-up paddler races to the shoulder. Photo by Bo Bridges (BoBridges.com)

Baker, who pioneered South Africa’s aptly named Dungeons slab, took off deeper and seemingly twice as often as the other five finalists. He also won last month’s Punta Galea Challenge in Spain, the first stop on the Big Wave World Tour.

In addition to his 10 point wave, the judges awarded Baker a 9.3, for total of 29.3. (The top scoring wave is counted double to encourage risk taking.)

Hawaiian Shane Dorian racked up 25.53 points, by virtue of staying on his feet during seemingly impossible-to-make vertical drops. Dorian arrived at the contest that morning at 5 a.m., after spending the previous day surfing larger swells at Jaws, off of Maui.

Ryan Augenstein of Santa Cruz was third (16.33 points), followed by fellow Santa Cruz surfer Tyler Fox, (12.0), 0008 Mavericks champion  Greg Long of San Clemente (12.0) and 2005  Mavericks champion Anthony Tashnick (0.0), also of Santa Cruz.

A boat with a view

The Coast Guard required spectator boats to follow a sea-sickening, counterclockwise circle to prevent pile-ups and fights for photo positions. Traffic resembled the 405 at rush hour. Shortly after the contest began, Denise was culled from the herd and boarded boarded by the Coast Guard, after being ratted out by a commercial spectator boat, which, itself, was  listing dangerously to starboard because that’s the side its photographers needed to shoot from.

The party boat skipper had radioed the Coast Guard that Denise’s skipper didn’t have a license to carry paying passengers, which he didn’t. But he did have a charter license, which was all he needed. By way of apologizing to the skipper, the Coast Guard told him Denise could take up a fixed position next to the competitors’ boat, Mr. Morgan. For the rest of the day, the spectator boats had to shoot through him. Before disembarking, the Coast Guard cautioned Denise’s  skipper to keep an eye on his bilge pump, which had been running non stop since leaving the harbor.

“All boats leak,” a deckhand reassured Denise’s passengers.

Shooting Mavericks

When the contest ended at about 3 p.m., the parking lot quickly emptied, except for a single ponga. The ponga was carrying Hawaiian big wave surfer Kai Lenny, winner of the 2012 Stand Up Paddle World Championships in Oahu and the 2013 Battle of the Paddle Championships in Dana Point. He wasn’t at Mavericks for the contest. He was following the swell, accompanied by Johnny Decesare and his crew from Poor Boyz Productions in Hermosa Beach. Decesare is making a film of Lenny, to be called “Best SUP.” It’s schedule for release in September.

They flew in to San Francisco at 2 a.m. that morning from Hawaii, after catching the swell at Jaws the day before. The swell had closed Oahu’s North Shore.

Lenny, Decesare and their crew slept for two hours, then headed out in a friend’s ponga to the contest.

“I was bummed most of the day because I had wanted to shoot from the cliff, but security wouldn’t let me through. Then I got seasick,” Decesare said.

After all the other boats left, Lenny paddled out alone on his SUP.

Decesare shot with a Red Epic from the ponga and a second cameraman shot with from a PWC with  a Sony FS 700 in a water housing.

“The sun was setting below the clouds. The wind died and it glassed off,” Decesare said.

“There was no one in the lineup and no landmarks to help Kai get a bearing. He caught about six waves in 30 minutes. He  was pushing the boundaries. He wanted to get a last good one and he got a good one. But the lip landed at his feet and took him for a long hold down, maybe 20 seconds.”

Big wave riders often  count to 10 during a hold down for reassurance that what may seem an eternity probably isn’t. Unless they reach 10 before reaching the surface, in which case it may be an eternity.

“Kai popped up smiling, without having pulled his vest. But he lost his paddle, so he was prone paddling out of the impact zone toward the boat when a huge one broke in front of him.”

The wave snapped his 9-foot-4 board, not with its tomahawking lip, but with its exploding tower of white water.

“We watched the sun go down, and the crew couldn’t have been happier. It was a magical moment, maybe the most magical in  my 20 years of shooting. It was like the parting of the seas,” Decesare said.

Mavericks is almost as challenging for photographers as it is for surfers because of its distance from land and boat rock, which long lenses exaggerate. Water shots are out of the question because the reef is too shallow and the wave too thick to swim out the back of.

Body Glove photographer Mike Balzer shot from the cliff with a 600mm lens,  while fellow Body Glove photographers and videographers Mark Kawakami, Scott Smith, Greg Browning and John DeTemple shot from the competitors’ boat Mr. Morgan.

South Bay freelance photographers Brent Broza and Bo Bridges were aboard Denise.

Two Mavericks

Body Glove’s involvement in Mavericks began when the contest’s sponsorship director Lars Sequist approached Body Glove’s marketing director Scott Daley last August at the Outdoor Retailers show in Salt Lake City.

A month of on-and-off negotiations followed.

Body Glove has a long history of supporting what Robbie Meistrell calls “crazy surfers.” Body Glove was the owner and Meistrell the president of the Bud Light Surf Tour, which ran from 1986 to 1994. The tour offered California surfers prize money without the expenses of overseas travel.

Kelly Slater (a Mavericks alternate this year), Shane Dorian (this year’s runner-up),  Gerry Lopez, Peter Townend,  Rell Sunn, and Bruce Irons have all received Body Glove sponsorship.

Current team riders include South Bayans Gray, Matt Pagan and Holly Beck and Hawaiians Cheyne Magnusson, Jamie O’Brien and Garrett McNamara, who set a world by riding a 100-foot wave in January 2013 in Nazaré, Portugal.

Like surfing Mavericks, Mavericks sponsorship brings equal amounts of prestige and risk. Quiksilver and Billabong are among the prominent surf companies who sponsored the contest once and dropped it.

“The contest is at the mercy of the seas,” photographer Grant explained.

Two years ago the contest wasn’t held because the waves never reached 30-feet. Last year it was almost canceled because the waves were an inconsistent 30-feet.

Logistics for the offshore event add to the risks.

Before even knowing if the contest would take place, or if Universal Sports would televise it, Body Glove had to fill a Pillar Point warehouse with enough shirts and other merchandise, along with pop-up tents and promotional material, for  the 220 volunteers and the hoped for thousands of attendees at the outdoor Mavericks Festival. The cliff and beach in front of Mavericks were closed to spectators after the 2010 contests, when the cliff crumbled and waves swept beach spectators out to sea.

This year, spectators not fortunate enough to get on a boat, watched the contest online, or on two jumbo screens in the festival area,

Competitors are given only 48 hours notice. After getting the call from Clark on Wednesday,  Robbie Meistrell drove his van six hours,  from Redondo Beach to Half Moon Bay. The swell that had closed the North Shore of Hawaii was expected to hit Mavericks on Friday, Clark told him.

On the road,  Meistrell got another call from Clark. The contest was off.  Strong southeast winds were forecast that would make the waves too bumpy to safely surf. Another call came in, and the contest was back on. Then it was called off again. Then it was on.

That  Thursday, two generations of Meistrell — brothers Robbie, Billy and Ronnie and  Ronnie’s wife Shelly, nephews Tracey and Daley and niece Jenna went to work at the festival site. Body Glove is the last of the major surf companies from surfing’s “Golden Age,” in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, to remain family owned.

Except for a few bar drunks, the Southern California company’s title sponsorship of Northern California’s most prestigious surfing event, elicited no hostility, despite Body Glove’s long running dispute with Santa Cruz-based O’Neil Wetsuits over who invented the modern wetsuit.

“The South Bay community was received with open arms. All the big wave riders were stoked that Body Glove brought the event back to its potential,” Gray said after the contest.

“Three years ago, we formed Half Moon Bay Surf Group to manage the contest,” said Raynor,  “because of problems we had with corporate people trying to take over the contest. We wanted to bring it back to the community. Beer sales and parking benefit the Girls and Boys clubs.

“We wanted to protect the bluff, respect the venue and respect the surfers. Body Glove understood that.”

“I’d call them up and Robbie or Scott would get on the phone and ask, ‘What’s the issue? What do you need?’ Other sponsors haven’t understood it’s important to get inventory up here early. You can’t wait until the  48 hour notice. We signed with Body Glove on October 1 and within three weeks, they were bringing stuff up to their warehouse.

Raynor said he hopes to sign a multi year sponsorship agreement with Body Glove.

“What we like about them is we don’t have to worry about them. They are a true partner.”

Meistrell said he was equally pleased with the partnership.

The online viewership for the Body Glove Mavericks Invitational was 1.3 million, the largest for any surf contest, ever, he noted. By contrast, the Billabong Pipe Masters, in December, had one million unique viewers over 10 days.

Totally involved

Hoping to return to Mavericks with Body Glove next year are two of its team riders, Alex Gray and Cheyne Magnusson; and Dive N’ Surf store manager Tracey Meistrell. Gray observed this year’s contest from aboard Mr. Morgan and paddled out for quick sessions between heats. He had previously surfed Mavericks half a dozen times. After the contest Gray said he hopes to be wearing a Mavericks Invitational jersey the next time he paddles out there. Earning an invitation will depend in part on his performances this winter  in the next two Big Wave World Tour stops —  at Todos Santos, in Baja Mexico and Nelscott Reef in Oregon. Both are sponsored by Dive N’ Surf. The waiting period for the two contests ends March 31.

Magnusson observed this year’s contest from aboard Denise. On the way out to the contest from Pillar Point Harbor, Magnusson said he had no interest in surfing Mavericks, despite his years of big wave experience in Hawaii, where he grew up. Too cold, he said. But on the way back to Pillar Point Harbor, it was clear from his animated comments that he was rethinking his earlier decision.

Tracey Meistrell, who was also aboard Denise, is Bob Meistrell’s grandson and a regular on big wave days at the Redondo Breakwall and El Segundo’s Hammerland. When asked his thoughts about surfing Mavericks during a book signing at Pages in Manhattan Beach last week for The Bill and Bob Meistrell Story, he grinned. B