Peter Mel stood on the North Shore of Oahu for the first time at age 14. He paddled his 7-foot-6-inch board into the Sunset Beach lineup, caught a wave at West Peak, made it, and kicked out. It was the initial big-wave experience in a career that has become one of the most respected in surfing. He's been chasing that feeling ever since.
For the past three years, Mel and a coterie of big wave surfers have traveled the west coasts of North and South America competing on the Big Wave World Tour. And on Sunday night, Mel's hard-charging peers recognized him as the 2011-12 Big Wave World Tour champion.
"It's an honor," Mel said, "our group are all really close friends … we share something that's hard to explain in words." The celebration of the big wave season was held on a yacht in Newport Harbor, Calif., short on partying but thick with intimacy among the brotherhood.
BWWT founder Gary Linden was not surprised.
"He knew what Chile was going to be like, he knew Pico Alto. It was classic Peter Mel, waiting for the right waves and taking off late," he said of the champ's performances. Mel reached the semifinals at the Quiksilver Ceremonial at Punta de Lobos, Chile, in clean 40-foot waves, beneath blue skies. At the second contest, the Billabong Pico Alto Invitational in Peru, Mel carved three sweeping turns on a huge right-hander late in the final heat to nab his first BWWT victory.
Mel's ride to the top, however, was easier than previous BWWT champs. Because of the size of the waves and quality of conditions required to call a big-wave contest (which can run start to finish in seven hours), two of the four events scheduled for 2011-12 never happened.
"We require a 30-foot face, that's on the low [end] of our scale. We'd like to get 40- to 50-foot faces," Linden explained. After scoring in South America, the waiting periods for BWWT stops in Mexico and Oregon came and went, but the waves never showed. With two strong results in hand, Mel was crowned champ.
As the fourth season commences -- the waiting period for the opening event in Chile is already under way, running until May 31 -- Mel hopes for more opportunities to compete. "I'm looking forward to having a better season," Mel said after a disappointing year of waves. "And now I'm more accustomed and relaxed, maybe I'll go back to back, who knows?"
The BWWT's schedule for this year is set, but Linden is working to add new contests, ideally in South Africa, Australia, and at Jaws -- the monster break off the northern coast of Maui.
"Our goal is to have three in each hemisphere," Linden said.