For Torrey Meister, every time his plane touches down on the Hawaiian tarmac, he can breathe deeply again. He’s back to the Big Island, where he’s home and comfortable. After seeing Meister’s passport for 2016, full of stamps from Spain, South Africa, Brazil, and Mainland Mexico, you wouldn’t be wrong for assuming that the Hawaiian is comfortable on any continent, and on any variety of wave he encounters. He’s long been endorsed by other surfers as one of the most talented all-arounders in the game, from 3-foot beachbreaks to 30-foot bombs. This year, Meister scored Portugal’s The Cave and Pe’ahi’s Jaws as good as they get, sneaking in missions while scrapping for points on the ‘QS, and keeping a steady flow of freesurf clips, taking his versatile reputation to another level. We talked with Torrey about his El Niño winter, how a frightening injury in 2014 motivated him to chase the biggest waves he could find, and why he feels that travel is so important within a surfing career.

Title Photo: Chachi, Video Photo: Kirk Aeder, Above Photo: Russo

Filmers: Nick Green, Kyle Watai, Dan Norkunas, Ali Gollestani, Jensen Young Sik, Jon Spenser, John Oda

You’ve pinned red tacks all over the map this year. Can you pick your favorite?

All of Europe was awesome, but Portugal especially. Ericeira is probably the most underrated place I’ve ever been to for waves. There’s a three-mile stretch of breaks that are all completely different. You have righthand pointbreaks, you have beachbreaks, you have lefts, you have crazy, gnarly slabs. It reminds me of the North Shore, actually, how you have all these different waves so close to each other. If it gets small, you can always go to Nazaré, or even Peniche. The place is wave-country.

Tell me about surfing The Cave.

That wave is one of the scariest I’ve ever surfed. It’s a butterfly wave - the butterflies get going the minute you look at it [Laughs]. When you watch it from the cliff, you see this perfect-looking barrel rifle across, and you’re already on your way to the shore. Then, on low tide, the reef suddenly pops out of the water, and it stops you cold. It’s a dangerous wave where selection is a top concern. When you pick one, you have to put your head down, send it, and hope for the best, because it could definitely put you out for a long time.

But in that sense, the danger makes The Cave appealing, too. The scariest waves are always the most fun for me. You don’t get your blood going on the ‘QS most of the time [Laughs]. When you go to a wave that gets your heart pumping, it’s a good thing. Even more so if it’s a steppy, gnarly right. Scary, but worth the reward.

Photo Above & Photos Below: Matthews

You’re coming back from some serious injuries - a ruptured spleen and a serious hip surgery. How have they changed your mindset in the lineup?

Last winter was my first time facing all of that again, and both the injury and the surgery played non-stop in the back of my mind. I remember my first session back at Pipe, and immediately thinking back to that moment when I fell. The ruptured spleen happened on a wave that wasn’t even that big. I’ve wiped out harmlessly on waves like that all the time. The idea that an unassuming set could do that much damage put a lot of fear into me. During those first sessions back at the start of the winter, I sensed that I was surfing very timidly. But then I got to a point where I got frustrated with myself, for becoming someone who surfed timidly at Pipe. That doesn’t work for me. That’s going to get me even more hurt [Laughs].

The way I looked at it, I could either keep on feeling anxious, or I needed to go at it even harder. That was my mindset last year. Dude: you ruptured your spleen. You’ve paid your dues for at least a year. Just go out and send it [Laughs]. In that sense, the injury and the surgery pushed me to another level of courage. Life is short, and you never know when it’ll end. That situation could’ve happened anywhere. If an injury can happen on a wave like that, then if it’s my time, I’d rather it happen on a 30-foot wave at Jaws than a four-foot wave at Backdoor. This year, I wanted to catch the craziest wave of my life.

You also punched in some time in Mainland Mexico?

I went to Salina Cruz between a few ‘QS events. It’s regularfoot heaven there – heck, that place is surf heaven. All you do is surf and eat and sleep. It’s a great place to recharge, when you need to get your surf stoke going.

Photo Above & Photos Below: Chachi

How did your freesurfing provide balance for you on the ‘QS this year?

I appreciate both aspects of the game - I think you need both to achieve optimal balance. Go all out on competition, and it can skew your attitude on your surf trips. If you do poorly at multiple events, it can drastically change your sentiments about where you are, even though it has more to do with losing [Laughs]. If all you did was win heats, you’d probably think a contest site was the best place ever. That feeling can change all the time.

Plus, on the ‘QS, you have to bail from place to place so quickly, you might not be able to appreciate a location as much, whereas when you’re going on a freesurf trip, you’re there to explore. Two totally different ways of surfing, but it’s possible to find that middle ground. Sometimes when it gets rough on the ‘QS, the best prescription is a freesurf trip with good friends.

That pairing, that ability to throw on a singlet or to go off the grid, is so unique to surfing.

It’s a gift that we get to actually do both. It’s not just competition, or just freesurfing. It’s not like suiting up for a football game only on Sundays. We can switch it up. That’s when I’ve found some of my greatest appreciation for surfing. Our ability as surfers to travel is the most incredible opportunity ever. That recognition is when it really sinks in.

Photo Above: Frieden

You’ve gained a lot of attention for your work at Jaws this year. What was it like watching El Niño, and the big-wave season, from the inside-out?

El Niño was the most amazing winter that I’ve ever seen. I lost track of how many Jaws swells there were - maybe eight or nine? If you think about it, we probably would have needed 10 or 20 years to see the same climb in big-wave progression that we saw last winter. It’s one of the reasons why Jaws was the highlight of my winter, and of my entire year. Trying to get barreled, trying to figure out Jaws, trying to not die [Laughs]. That wave lit a whole new spark in me for big-wave surfing. Every time there was a swell at Jaws last year, I was there. I’d drop everything and go.

2016 seems like the Exhibit-A showcase of a quality you’ve long been praised for: versatility.

Versatility is a trait I’ve always appreciated. Shane Dorian has inspired me my whole life in this way. Growing up and watching him surf, he’s the guy who’s always been able to do anything. At Jaws, a lot of guys, including me, like to sit a little wider, but Shane has his own peak where he Jedi-minds into the craziest waves ever [Laughs]. To me, he’s the best at everything in everything. He’s someone I’ve always wanted to model myself after.

Photo Above: Heff

Through all the traveling this year, what have you discovered about yourself?

I’ve learned how to take setbacks on the ‘QS more light-heartedly. You can surf at a high level and still easily lose a heat. There are so many talented guys today, with so many different elements involved in competition. As a human being, what I’ve learned is to let things go. When you hold onto things, it just breeds unhappiness. At the end of the day, you have the best job in the world as a surfer. But if you dwell on how an event didn’t go your way, you forget how great your life is, and how lucky you have it. I’ve always tried to think in that way, but this year, I’ve really been reminded of that as I’ve traveled: letting the professional losses roll and moving on to the next event. In this world, circumstances can change like that. You can win an event, and boom, you’re back on Tour. That’s how fast it is. My attitude is what controls everything.

Also, chasing big waves has turned into a big interest for me. Not getting hung up on just contests contests contests. I feel a lot more passionate about chasing down a big swell now, whether that’s at Jaws or somewhere else around the world.

Jaws has its hooks in you pretty good, huh?

[Laughs] I should probably move there at this point. I’ve been to Maui more this year than anywhere else. A lot of people think I’m from there. Whatever. The Big Island and Maui - they’re close enough to each other, right?

Photo Above: Matthews