In the hyperbolic world of big-wave surfing, where words like monstrous, gigantic, and gargantuan are often tossed around to describe the surf, Grant Baker is decidedly small in stature. His 10'6" Jaws gun towers over him like a nuclear missile. He'll tell you with a deprecating laugh that his legs are the reason he earned the moniker "Twiggy" all those years ago, but it's a name that is now synonymous with waves of consequence.
When I last saw Twiggy, he had just been crowned the 2014 Big Wave World Champ. Since then, he ebbed out of the limelight, married long-time partner Kate Lovemore, and became a father to his daughter, Billi. Then, at The Eddie Aikau Invitational, he grabbed the world's attention again, free-falling from a Waimea lip on a wave nobody else wanted any part of during one of the biggest weeks of swell to rock Hawaii in years. Twiggy never went away; he was just regrouping, planning his next strike.
I recently met up with Twiggy at home, where we sat in his garage and discussed his life's pursuit. Fins are stacked according to size in precise rows against a wall. Wetsuits hang on a line from thickest to thinnest. SUPs, kiteboards and surfboards are meticulously arranged. There's even wax sorted into separate boxes according to water temperature.
It's the garage of a surfer who approaches swells with a kind of militaristic precision. Twiggy has spent his whole life figuring out how to best approach waves of consequence, and he's still as engaged in the pursuit as ever.
How do you see life and death in the context of chasing waves that can quite easily kill you?
My father passed away when I was 17, and that will obviously give you a different perspective on life. I think that shaped the way I perceive life and death. I don't think that death is something to be afraid of. But at the same time, I love my life and I definitely don't have a death wish. I couldn't think of anything worse than leaving Kate and Billi alone, and I know they'd be devastated. But at the same time, you can't be scared of dying, because it's going to happen at some point. It happens to everyone. That's like being scared of breathing. I think that's what makes me able to surf big waves and become really calm in those moments.
Which moments are those?
Like at Belharra a couple of years ago. I came over the top of the wave — You know, the one where Jamie Mitchell was taking off — and the wall of water in front of me was so big. It was a 70-footer, just a huge, massive peak of water, and I panicked. All the training and preparation went out the window. For some unknown reason, I tried to get my leash off but couldn't, so I was flapping around trying to remove it for no reason. Then I let my leash go and I went to inflate my vest properly before the wave hit me, which is also not a great idea. But instead of pulling the inflation tab, I pulled the deflate tab. Panic, just complete panic. Most of the air that was in the vest got sucked out, and as that happened, the wave hit me. I don't even remember taking a deep breath, or even looking at the foam. I was messing around with my fucking vest and my leash [laughs]. That wave pushed me super-deep — so deep that I did three equalizations. But as the wave hit me, I just went calm. That happens in big and small waves, when you really get pumped: Your body goes into shock. I think you see it when a rugby player gets a really heavy tackle and they just go limp, how they're not writhing around on the floor. It's an automatic survival tactic for your mind and body. That helped me remain calm and cope with the beating.
More recently at Jaws, I came over the top and saw this wave that was almost as big as Belharra, but with a full-on lip that was going to land on my head. But this time, I just slipped off my board quietly, breathed in three big breaths, took the lip to the head, let it drive me down to the bottom, pulled my inflation tab, and came back up. At least I'm learning [laughs].
You're turning 43 soon. Do you feel like it's time to slow down at all?
No, not at all. I'm in full training mode for the upcoming season and it feels like 2014 all over again. I'm so ready to take it all on again. But I am looking forward to getting a bit older and concentrating on exploring more. The coastline of Africa is so vast and there are so many new waves and places to surf, it's just endless. We've found some really good spots over the last ten years and have started to slowly figure them out. There are ten waves like Skeleton Bay just sitting out there, waiting. Then there are the islands. Those offshore reefs along southwest Madagascar pick up so much swell, and we haven't even scratched the surface. I still think that's where our Cloudbreak is. But Africa's tough. It's the toughest place to travel in, for sure.
What was the toughest time you've had looking for waves off the grid in Africa?
Greg Long, myself, and a few other guys did a trip to northeast Madagascar a couple of years ago. That was a rough one. We were camping out in the jungle and chartered a local boat. Everyone on that trip got deathly ill. I thought at one stage our videographer, Jason Hearn, was going to die. Then one of the local deckhands crushed his leg when the captain punched through a wave. He landed square on the side railing with all his weight on his femur and completely shattered the bone. His knee was sticking out at a right angle to his hip. We had to strap him onto a SUP and carry him three miles on our shoulders along the beach, then swim him across a rivermouth in the middle of the night to get him to the nearest village. Luckily, we found someone there with a car who could take him to the hospital, which was four hours away. They operated and he ended up okay, but it's moments like that when you realize how vulnerable you really are. A lot of it had to do with me being 'the general' and pushing it, pushing on. But in the end, what we found was gold.
Are there any parallels between surfing big waves and that kind of hardcore surf exploration?
Well, you need to be prepared and totally committed to either if you want to reach that end goal, whether it's finding a new break or taking off on a proper big wave. If you're not completely committed, you're just going to end up in trouble.
You got your start in big waves surfing Dungeons, but some of your greatest performances have been abroad, especially at Mavericks. What is your relationship like with that wave?
Mavericks is my favorite wave in the world. Winning the event there in 2014 vindicated the ten years I spent dedicating a large portion of my life to surfing that place. I would go every year and live like a gypsy for five months during the season. Just drop my life, my family and friends, my home, and any personal comforts and go and surf Mavericks for the love of the wave. But then at the end of last year, I was banned from surfing the event and from defending my title.
I backed a fellow surfer and previous champion who had been banned over politics. When I won, I felt like something was missing without him in the event, like I hadn't won anything, really. I suggested in a private email to some of the other competitors that he should be in the event. The email was forwarded on to the organizers who didn't like what I had to say, so I was banned. I guess that lit a fire in my belly going into The Eddie. I was determined to prove them wrong by letting my surfing do the talking.
So The Eddie wipeout was all part of the plan to prove a point?
[Laughs] My plan at The Eddie was to sit a little further inside on a smaller board and try ride the double-ups on the bowl. Not many guys where doing that, and I reckoned if I could pull it off, it could win me The Eddie. What I didn’t realize was, there’s a reason why the best surfers in the world weren’t looking at those waves. A set came through toward the end of the heat, and I knew I was going, no matter what. I got a little chip shot and was perfectly positioned just behind the peak, but the Bay is a tough wave to surf at the apex of the peak because of the amount of lift and reverb you get in the lip. I thought I had enough speed to carry me over the ledge and onto the face, but as I got to my feet, the wave hit some backwash and ledged further under me than I thought it would, and it just flicked me into the air. I had a split-second to decide to try and stick it or eject, and from there, my instincts took over, and I did the dive. Paddling back out, I was kicking myself for not at least trying to stick it, but after watching the replay, I think I made the right choice. If I had gotten stuck in that lip and had fallen awkwardly, it could have been really bad, possibly career-ending.
Where does the future of big wave surfing lie?
The future lies in waves like Jaws and Mavericks, those perfect big waves, which are so rare. Dungeons can get perfect one or two days a year because of that perfect barrel. We're still pushing the limits out there. There's still a lot of work to be done at Dungeons before we're surfing that wave properly. On those 20- to 25-foot days, you can get a roll-in out the back and then get into the wave before it starts to double-up and barrel all the way into the channel. It's all just about improving on what we've done.