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Radical Surf

Peter Mel: Mavericks Big Wave Tournament Champion, 2012


Imagine being out in the Pacific Ocean. The air is cool, foggy, hovering around fifty degrees—the water roughly the same. Now, picture a thirty-foot wall of water rolling your direction. Thrilling? Terrifying? Yes, and yes. This is the life of a Big Wave surfer, Peter Mel, who is my next guest on

Perched on the cliffs of that same Pacific Ocean, although conditions were a delightful sixty-eight degrees under a cloudless sky, I met up with Peter and his lovely wife Tara, as they looked on at their thirteen-year-old, John, competing in the Schlarpfest Fundraiser surf tournament.

Peter has not only succeeded in winning one of the world’s biggest surf contest, but has also appeared in documentaries, such as “Step Into Liquid” and “Riding Giants”, and most recently “Chasing Mavericks”, where he surfed waves for Hollywood actor Gerard Butler. To say that he’s our town’s celebrity is accurate. And yet the gentleness, ease, and humility in which he speaks of his success, as well as the rough ride along the way, had me feeling that I’d met with a friend about our mutual journeys as we consider our mortality, shifting priorities, and life in the mid-forties.
This wasn’t my first encounter with Peter. In fact, both he and his father, John, met with me five years ago to offer research for my first novel Out of Breath. From that point, I began a sweet relationship with the staff at the Mel’s surf shop, Freeline Design and Surf, and my curiosity and intrigue with the surf world ensued.


In my research, I learned that a number of the professional (and amateur) surfers were dealing with the fear and thrill of facing a thirty-foot wall of water by numbing those fears via drugs and alcohol. In the news in Santa Cruz, and the surrounding areas, it was common place to hear who in the surf world was being sentenced for using and/or dealing, who’d come clean, and who was setting up the next program to assist those gripped by addiction. As a therapist and an author who infused this drama into my novel, I wanted to examine this undercurrent in the surf culture, feeling a tie and love for my hometown, saddened to know that our community was gripped with addiction.

In my time with Peter, recently, we discussed the birth of his surf career, his disappointments as well as achievements, and his own battle with addiction. The longer we spoke, the more intrigued I became with the man who is not only radical in his relationship with the ocean, but a deep devotion to his children and wife. (Okay, ladies…deep sigh…). Thus, I asked the bigger question: “What is the biggest priority in life?”
Read on to learn more about Peter Mel, the man who won Mavericks, but who also has won the gift of life and family.

Peter, thank you for joining me and for being willing to share your story on I have so many questions, but I’d love to hear how you got started in the surf world:

My first time out, my dad took me just around the corner from here (he points to Pleasure Point), pushed me out on my board, and said, “Go to it!” I crashed, coughed, and hated it! [Imagine if we let our first failures dictate us!] It wasn’t until I was around eleven that my mom took me out to Capitola, and I got out there and was hooked.

In the past, you were a short board competitor, and now compete in Big Wave World Tour (In this competition, Peter uses a big wave gun, which looks like an oversized shortboard). You’ve faced walls of water up to thirty/forty feet high. What is the most frightening moment you had?

Seven years ago, I was in Tahiti in a very isolated spot for a surf competition. The closest hospital was nearly two hours away. I was tow surfed (readers: picture a jet ski leading a surfer into the wave while he holds onto ropes with his feet are strapped into the board because the wave is moving TOO fast to paddle into it!) The waves were 20-25 feet high, contained a lot of mass, and there was a shallow reef. I was slammed to the bottom by one of these waves and really hurt my right arm. My first reaction was, “My arm is crushed—my career is over.” I was terrified. It turned out I dislocated my elbow. That trip, there was a lot of stuff going on…it was my wake up call…that I wasn’t immortal, I had a wife and a family, and I got clean right after that.

As someone who has a healthy respect of the ocean and its power, I can’t imagine not letting my fear take over. Could you share how you prepare for a contest?

I use my fear to hyperfocus. I’m a freak about preparation: having safety people around, knowing the personality of the swell, getting information on what the tide is doing. I watch the surf forecast, as opposed to just showing up, which is something I did when I was a kid. I might check four or five different weather sites to get the local conditions, knowing how that will affect the surf. I’m trying to teach all of these things to my son, John, so that he can be the best for his competitions as well.

You mention John: what role do you play in your son’s surfing career?

I taught him, and I’ve coached him, but he’s thirteen, and I’m his dad, so…[we exchange knowing smiles and chuckles]. He’s at the point now where he travels alone to competitions. But, I try to teach him what I’ve learned and prepare him for the conditions that exist.

Speaking of parenting, what are the biggest challenges in life for you right now?

Keeping all of the different balls in the air: competing, my marriage, hands on parenting. My mindset is more relaxed now than in the past because I’ve dealt with my addiction and can focus more clearly on giving to my family. Finding the balance is always tricky when I go away.

I think a lot of people see the surf world and all your travels as glamorous, which, from talking to you, sound pretty amazing! But, what feels like your top priority right now.

My family. Investing in my marriage to Tara. Giving John my attention and support. Looking to the future of my dad’s surf shop, and how I might have a role in that. I’m still competing, like tomorrow I leave for Chile to compete. As I’ve gotten older, things have changed, and I’m looking at how I give to my family, and the healing that needs to take place.


Peter, thank you for sharing from your heart, as well as a look inside your world of Big Wave Surfing. For those of us hitting the middle of our lives, your ability to push yourself both professionally and as a man of character within your family and friends, is a source of inspiration :).

Photo credits: Anthony Solis,Tara Mel, and Tim McKenna

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