Last week, amidst the many crazy photos of XXL surf from all around the world, one image in particular stood out: Peter Mel, barely visible atop a 60-foot-plus face at Maverick’s, paddling for his life toward the shoulder.
When you see it, you can't help but wonder: What was he doing out there?
It turns out that Mel, along with his 18-year-old son, John, loaded up their 10'6" guns and headed out that day with every intention of paddling into the largest waves ever ridden in California. While John decided against giving it a go once he saw the massive surf up close, Mel went for it, and though he didn't catch anything, he did get cleaned up by a 50-foot wave.
We called Mel to find out how it feels charging big surf with his son, and to hear more about his attempt at paddling Mav's on the biggest day in over 10 years.
What's it like, as a father, when your son first expresses interest in surfing big waves? Do you support it or try to discourage it?
From an early age John expressed interest in big waves. One of the things I said to him straight out of the gates was, "That's great, and we have Maverick's right up the road, but that doesn't mean we should be going there and doing that first thing."
We go to Hawaii together every year, and that's where I got some of my training from a young age: Sunset, baby Waimea, Pipeline…that's where I instilled in myself that I actually liked big waves, which is important. It's like I said to John: "Surfing's great and all, and there's a lot of pressure these days to be able to do it all, but I'm telling you right now, you don't have to [surf big waves]" If you're scared the whole time, then it's no fun [laughs]. So we talked about all of that when he was around 12.
By spending time every winter in Hawaii, especially around guys like Reef [McIntosh], he really pushed his limits that way. And then around here [Santa Cruz], he'll paddle out at The Lane on big days, because it's a big open peak and it has enough water in it to be a true big wave when it gets over eight feet. It's an amazing training ground.
The thing I've noticed about John is, and you can't really teach this, he knows how to find the wave. He has an innate ability to pick it out. That's an ability that was given to me, and something I really enjoy doing, so it's cool to see him have that too. An example being, last Thursday, even though I didn't actually catch a wave, the ability for me to be able to sit out in that lineup and figure out how to be in the spot for one of those big ones was just as enjoyable as catching a wave. And John has that as well. That's half the battle right there.
Knowing John has taken things step at a time, does that help you feel more comfortable when you're out at Mav's together?
Yes, because he's done all of the right things. A lot of guys now, they have the ability to get an inflation vest, they have friends with skis, and they can literally put themselves out anywhere just by going to the spot on the best day. And it takes away from a lot of the work to get there. I didn't want that for John. I didn't want him to go straight to the top of Everest. Though, he did get to Maverick's pretty quick [laughs].
Going back to last Thursday, what was it like heading out there together on the biggest day of the last decade?
Once we got out to the lineup, John made the decision on his own that it wasn't something he wanted to partake in. Which was great. He didn't want to force it. And that's important in big waves. If you're not feeling confident, it's good to leave it and come back another day. So he didn't surf that day, he was just on the ski. But he had surfed on Monday and Tuesday before that, and on Monday he had a really good go. We were trading off running water safety for each other and he ended up riding way more waves than I did.
On that Thursday, we got out there and I put the blinders on. There was one tow team out: Jason Stark and Ion Banner, and they were getting some waves. There was nobody else out in the lineup. I sat there with John and watched two really big sets come in, and then I thought to myself, "If I want to catch one of these waves, this is the time."
I had called Frank [Quirarte] and offered him money to look out for me, because I always make sure I have my water safety sorted. John was out there on a ski as well, but he didn't have the experience to be able to go into a heavy situation and grab me.
So I grabbed my Channel Islands 10'6" and jumped in. I told the tow guys not to worry about me, because I was just gonna sit way outside and try to find something. Ben Andrews ended up paddling out, and we sat outside together for about 30 minutes, literally 100 yards outside of the main bowl. When a set would come, it would move us 50 yards off the bowl, because the water was moving so fast. It was crazy. An hour in I made a move for a wave and it didn't let me in, and Ben was on my outside, and I turned around and there was the biggest wave I've ever had to face. Worst case scenario. It was easily 50 or 60 feet on the face, and it caught us both. It crushed us. It was pretty radical.
How did you react?
Luckily the wave didn't go top to bottom because it was in such deep water, so it was just this huge avalanche. I was able to hyperventilate with my breath to take in as much oxygen as I could, then I went under and it annihilated me. I pulled my vest right away because I didn't want it to take me super deep. I was down for awhile, got pushed in about 150 yards, but luckily it was just the one wave and I was OK. Frank came in to check on me, but I was fine. I was able to deflate, paddle over to the channel and head back out for more.
That wasn't the end of your session?
No. There's a shot of me paddling over another set that almost caught me, and that was about 20 minutes after that. That set was bigger. That wave broke in a whole 'nother realm. Even on tow swells, I haven't seen a wave break where this one did. Luckily that wave broke far enough out that I was able to scratch to the side and around it, and the next wave after that one is the one from that photo, where I look like a little toothpick. That was easily a 70-foot wave on the face.
So, by far the biggest Maverick's you've been in the ocean for?
Yeah. It was a natural phenomenon. It was awesome to be out there. That's what it came down to. I would have loved to have grabbed one, but just moving around in that lineup was enough.
Back to John. While I'm sure you're nervous when he's out at Mav's, I can only imagine how he felt watching all of that.
He was so filled with adrenaline that I think it was enjoyable for him. It's a place that means so much to both of us, and we might not see that for another decade. Who knows. We might not see that again ever. It was a crazy week at Mav's. John got a crash course. From success to failure to awe, he got to see and feel a lot of different things.
Are your emotions fried right now?
Oh yeah. There's a big wave hangover and you have to manage it. There's a crash afterward and it can be hard to handle. Not just for us, but for my wife, who has to deal with us after [laughs]. That's the whole other side of big-wave surfing.