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The Bigger Picture

The Bigger Picture

Nov 2014

Words Will Bendix, pics Alan van Gysen & Greg Ewing

In a world of booming clichés – huge, gigantic, monstrous – Grant Baker is decidedly small in stature compared to the trade he plies. His 9’6” Mavericks slayer towers over his 5’11 frame like a nuclear missile. At first glance his relatively slight build belies the magnitude of the waves he rides. He’ll tell you with a depreciating laugh that his legs are the reason he earned the moniker ‘Twiggy’ all those years ago. But this name will forever be juxtaposed against waves of consequence. Huge, gigantic, monstrous waves. Which makes it all the more comical that the first board I see when we step into Grant Twiggy Baker’s garage is a diminutive Spider Murphy twin-fin.

“This thing is sooo fun when it’s small,” he says as he absent-mindedly fondles the rails, turning it over to show me the dimensions. 

It’s a mere three days after Twiggy has officially been announced the new ASP Big Wave World Champion and we’re hanging out in his garage. His ridiculously neat, organised garage. Fins are stacked according to size in precise piles against a wall. Wetsuits hang on a line going from thickest to thinnest. SUPs, kiteboards and surfboards are meticulously arranged. There’s even wax sorted into separate boxes according to water temperature. An old single seater couch sits nestled in-between the hardware, the armrests forming the perfect trestle to prep boards in comfort.

“You’d think this has been all set up,” he grins. “But this is what it normally looks like.”

I don’t doubt it for a second. The garage reveals the mind of a surfer who approaches wave riding with a military zeal. Someone who has dedicated his life to always being prepared and putting himself in the right place at the right time, no matter what it takes. It’s just the sequence of events that’s lopsided in Twiggy’s case. 

Most professional surfers leave school, have their run, then hang up the towel and get a job, usually in the industry. But Twiggy turned that equation on its head. He only became a pro surfer in the true sense of the term – being paid to surf – six years ago. And then, just as suddenly, he wasn’t anymore. But instead of letting that derail his plan, it pushed him harder. He made sacrifices. He took risks, both personal and professional. At 40 years of age, he is now the Big Wave World Champ, probably the greatest achievement by a South African surfer since Shaun Tomson won his world title in 1977. This is how he got there. 

Everyone knows about Twiggy the Mavericks Champ, Twiggy the Dungeons Champ etcetera, but few people know about Twiggy the full-time clothing rep. How did you make the transition from being a rep to professional big wave surfer?

I worked full-time for Billabong for twenty years. But you can get to surf a lot too, being a rep and living in South Africa (laughs). I used to manage my time well and get down to Cape Town and surf big waves, and then J-Bay, and do my trip to Indo or West Oz. Every year I’d try do a trip somewhere where the waves were bigger. That just stood me in good stead for when the (Red Bull) Big Wave Africa came along in the 90s. And from there we all learnt together - how to surf bigger waves, proper big waves, through Big Wave Africa. Up until then I think most of us had only surfed up to 15 feet or so. Big Wave Africa made us see that the possibilities were bigger than that, 20 foot, 25 feet... Luckily for me I had the best teachers in the world right there in Cape Town. Guys like Mickey Duffus and Davey Stolk and to a lesser extent the rastas, Ian Armstrong and Cass Collier. I think that was a big turning point, when those guys won the (1999 ISA Big Wave) World Championships at Todos Santos. They showed us what was possible: if you surfed a lot in Cape Town, it automatically gave you the skills to be able to compete against the best in the world. It all just kinda snowballed from there to meeting Greg Long and Grant Washburn, and them saying ‘Oh, you can probably surf Mavericks well if you can surf Dungeons’. At first I was like ‘Nah, I’ll never be able to surf Mavericks’. I’d seen the pictures and it looked way too big and gnarly, but they convinced me ‘no, you’ll be able to surf it’. Eventually I got over there and the rest is history. 

But was there a point where you made a conscious choice that you were going to pursue being a professional surfer full-time?

Well, that was kinda forced on me. When the Aussies took over Billabong South Africa (in 2008), the new CEO at the time came out to SA and pointed me out. I’d just won Mavericks and I still wanted to be a rep and I just wanted to surf part time, if you can call it that. I wasn’t too interested in becoming a professional surfer, I was happy in my job but he picked me out in the first meeting and said ‘Hey you, you’re working full time, there’s no more surfing for you’. That was bizarre because he had a Mavericks champion as a rep… That blew all the wind out my sails. I probably stayed on for another year as a rep and then said ‘look, I want to surf, I want to be able to go compete at Mavericks and defend my title at least’. And they told me I had to choose one or the other. So I chose to go surfing. That was the first major decision I made towards being a pro surfer. Because there was good money in repping. It would have been perfect for me to keep doing that and leave for a month, come back, have the security. But that was the first great decision of my life. And to their credit, they offered me a decent sponsorship deal. Nothing like what the other guys who were at my level were getting, but because I had saved, I’d paid off my house and had other interests, it was enough for me to go live the dream for a few years.

And then that ended.

Ja, right when I was ready to blow up, I got dropped. Basically I was sent an email the day before last year’s Mavericks event that said we can only pay you this much from next year, and it was just a fraction of what I was on… There’s actually no bitterness though. There was initially, because of the shock of being fired from a company you’ve dedicated so much to. But Billabong were good to me over the years. They’ve done a lot for surfing. What I learnt afterwards, it wasn’t about me, I could carry on and get another job and I was fine, I’ve been fine. But you know, hundreds, thousands of people have lost their jobs during this global surf industry downturn. And at the same time some of the guys in charge are still paying themselves the same salaries and still getting bonuses and shit. That’s a tough thing to swallow, but I guess that’s just business.

So it was inevitable that the industry bubble was going to burst, again?

I don’t know. But back when I was a rep, when they first asked me to start selling ladies pleather handbags, I knew it was over (laughs).  But in the end, that was the best thing that could have ever happened to me, getting dropped. I think it just put a fire in my belly! I was never really a competitor in surfing. It was probably, A, because I wasn’t good enough to win but B, because I never really enjoyed that competitive environment. Even when I was competing in a lot of the big wave contests I wasn’t giving it my all because my heart just wasn’t in it, competing. Getting dropped made me realise, shit, if I don’t jump on this competitive side of big wave surfing with the ASP taking over and give it 100 percent and win some contests, then I’m going to have to get a regular job. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing better than being paid to surf. Nothing better in the world. So that lit a fire under me, like, oh shit, I’ve got to compete now and I’ve got to compete to win. And if I don’t win, then it’s over, the dream’s over. That was a huge driving force for me these past eight months. I knew I had to win and I just put everything into it. I put my personal life on hold. I was supposed to get married and that got put on hold, again. Poor Kate has been waiting ten years. I could never have done any of this without her love and support. We finally got engaged last year. We would have been married ten years ago if I hadn’t won the first Mavericks! 

Was there a lot of preparation involved? In the title assault I mean, not the  marriage plans.

(Laughs) Ja, I only rode big boards. For nine months I pretty much just rode my big boards over 9’0”. I gave up a lot of swells, good J-Bay, good Namibia swells, where I’d stay in Cape Town and surf windy, messy Dungeons but big, often by myself with just (photographer) Ant Fox in the water. I just put everything else on hold and just went for the title. My goal was to win the world title and then go into the new ASP season as the number one guy, and with that get that whole marketing push through ASP which would obviously be attractive to sponsors. I had the opportunity to sign for small deals before that, but I knew I just had to hold out and make it happen and my stock would be up. And amazingly the plan worked (cracks up laughing)! Bos have been amazing with their support through it all, and I’ve just signed with Vissla, Paul Naude’s new company, so I’m really excited about that.

Looking ahead to the ASP taking ownership of the BWWT, what do you foresee in the year ahead?

Gary Linden and his team did such an amazing job running the tour last year, so it’s going to be a learning curve this year, both for the ASP and for us. But we all have to come to the party. The surfers have got to come to the party and really support the tour and support the ASP through marketing, through social media, through everything. And the ASP’s also got to come to the party too. If we put on a good show, if our ratings are high, and if we show ourselves to be a valuable member of the ASP, in turn, next year, the prize money is going to go up. Everything’s gotta come with it. So it’s going to be an interesting year. 

Is there room for the tour itself to actually grow? Is there anything that’s missing at the moment?

Yes, big barrel waves like Fiji, like Puerto Escondido, those two specifically for barrels need to be on tour.

So there’s been talk about these waves becoming part of the tour?

100 percent. We’re also bringing Cortes. There’s been a lot of talk about that. Obviously we want to bring Mavericks back. In the end we want 12 events – six southern hemisphere, six northern hemisphere – and with that you’ll probably get four and four that will run, or between three and four, and then you’ve got a proper tour. 

10 years ago, did you think any of this would have happened? An ASP sanctioned big wave tour, being a world champ?

I don’t know what I was thinking 10 years ago! We were just having such a good time, just surfing. No one was making any money, and we were still just having the best time ever. I guess we were just setting the groundwork for what’s happened. We didn’t realise that we were working towards anything back then but obviously what we did has brought it to this stage and I think that’s something that we can all be very proud of, guys like Greg (Long) and Mark Healy and myself and a couple of other guys. We really made it happen without even knowing it (laughs).

So it was never a ‘Busting Down the Door’ scenario, where you all got together and said right, let’s make big wave surfing a legitimate professional sport?

We were never competitive like those guys; we never really had that in mind. We just really wanted to travel and surf, that’s all we wanted to do. I think it came more organically maybe than the Busting Down the Door era. Those guys had a competitive vision and they wanted to be world champs and beat each other, whereas we were… it was far more about the camaraderie and just a lot more about having fun. 

Fun isn’t the word that always comes to mind. How do you contemplate life and death and put this into context with your career, chasing down waves that can quite easily kill you?

Well for me, life and death is…(pauses) My father passed away when I was young, 17, and that will obviously give you a different perspective on life. I think that kinda shaped the way I perceive life and death. I don’t think that death is something to be afraid of. At all. I’m not afraid of dying at all. But at the same time I love my life and it’s good to be alive. But I think people put too much emphasis on the fear of death. That just doesn’t come into the equation for me. I definitely don’t want to die, I don’t have a death wish, I couldn’t think of anything worse than leaving Kate by herself and I know she’d be devastated, and my mom and my sister and my nephews. But at the same time, you can’t be scared of dying. Because it’s going to happen. It happens to everyone. That’s like being scared of breathing. Because you have to breathe. Everyone has to die. And we’re just such a small pinprick in the universe. So I think what’s important is just living your life now. I think that’s what makes me be able to surf big waves and become really calm in those moments.

Which moments are those?

Like at Belharra and at Jaws this year I had two really bad caught-inside moments, which doesn’t often happen to me. At Belharra, 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 behind that wave. And it’s a big, slopey thing. And it was just such a huge, massive peak of water that I just panicked completely. All the training and preparation and everything completely went out the window. For some unknown reason I tried to get my leash off – I don’t know why – and couldn’t get my leash off, which is the easiest thing in the world to do, you just pull the pin and the leash comes off. So I was flapping around trying to get my leash off for no reason. And then, we leave a bit of air in our inflatable vests so that if you get knocked out you still come up. So I let my leash go and I went to inflate the vest properly before the wave hit me, which is also not a very good idea, but instead of pulling the inflation tab, I pulled the deflate tab. Panic, just complete panic. All the air that was in the vest got sucked out, and as that happened, the wave hit me. I didn’t even breathe up or anything. I don’t even remember, like, taking a deep breath, or even looking at the foam. I was messing around with my fucking vest and my leash (laughs)! And then the foamie hit me. That wave pushed me super deep. It pushed me so deep I did three equalisations. But as the wave hit me, I just went calm. That happens in big and small waves, when you really get pumped - your body just goes into that shock. I think you see it when a rugby player gets a really heavy tackle and they just go limp, they’re not writhing around on the floor, it’s just an automatic survival tactic for your mind and body. So as the wave hit me I just went completely calm, just relaxed, equalised three times and then calmly just pulled the inflation tab and came up. 

And at Jaws?

I came over the top, I saw the wave, and it was almost as big as Belharra, with a full-on lip that was going to land on my head. But this time I just slipped off my board quietly, breathed up three big breaths, took the lip to the head, let it drive me down to the bottom, pulled my inflation tab and came up. At least I’m learning (cracks up laughing)!

How would you compare a wave like Jaws to, say, Dungeons?

You can't compare any of the big waves to each other because they’re all so different. Each one has got their little nuances that make them different, but the thing with Jaws is, it’s so perfect, so it’s very deceiving. You mind surf it on videos and when you’re there, watching off the cliff or out in the channel, you’re always mind surfing it and you’re thinking ‘take off there, big bottom turn, in the barrel, spat into the channel’. That’s what you want to do at Jaws. And each time it works, one or two guys will do that but, in reality, it’s not that easy. It’s a super, super challenging and difficult wave to surf and especially to get barrelled at. It’s super crowded, the best big wave surfers are all out there and the locals get the best waves, which is the way it should be. And then on top of it, what looks like a perfect wave is really difficult to ride. On any given day you’re looking at maybe 200, 250 rides, and only a few of those will see guys taking off on the back peak, getting barrelled through the west bowl. I still haven’t had that magic wave. At least this year I felt like my equipment was almost 100 per cent dialled in, whereas years before, I was just nowhere on my equipment. I think I’ll do better out there next year. I’m really looking forward to the contest with six guys in the water. Then it’s more of a fairer playing ground and you can see who’s who.

What about the next generation of big wave surfers. Who is impressing you?

There are so many guys who are coming up around the world but three zones in particular impress the most, Maui, Mavericks and Dungeons. I'm not going to name everyone as they know who they are, but it’s the guys putting in the time from a young age and who have been slowly developing from childhood in waves of consequence that will be the world’s best going forward. It takes a long time to develop the skills necessary and the sooner you start, the better.

Do you see a difference to how these upcoming guys are approaching big waves? 

I still think guys like Shane Dorian, Greg Long and Shawn Dollar are leading the way performance wise and you can see this from how the XXL awards go every year. But the younger guys are bringing a more reckless, go-for-it attitude, as well as more skill in their surfing. That's just the nature of the game - the youth will always be smarter, faster, stronger and have more passion and it's amazing to watch, especially at places like Jaws.

Is this where the future lies, at waves like Jaws?

100 percent. Waves like Jaws and Mavericks, it’s those perfect big waves, which are very rare. Then Cortes, Dungeons on one or two days a year can get that perfect barrel. Dungeons actually, whew, we’re still seeing what our limits are out there. The tow revolution showed us what was possible to survive, while improvements in board design has given us equipment that works in huge surf and then of course there’s the focus on safety. It’s all given us the tools to tackle bigger and heavier waves. Before it was like we were climbing Everest barehanded and now we are using ropes. But we’ve still got a long way to go at places like Dungeons. I think we made big strides last year out there because we got to surf it so much, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before we’re surfing that wave properly. On those 20, 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 then you can get perfect long barrels out there and spat into the channel. My XXL entry from last year is pretty close, but if I had got in earlier and a bit deeper, I could’ve got the barrel of a lifetime out there. That thing just doubled up and ran down the reef. It’s all just about improving, improving on what we’ve done.

Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine