It was the summer of 1992 and I was traveling up the coast flogging “Good Things Love Water,” my first volume of surf stories. In Santa Cruz I walked into Freeline Design, a surf shop owned and operated by one of that city’s finest surfers, John Mel.
John was not there, but a tall kid who looked a lot like him was behind the counter. I introduced myself as Chris and said I was looking for John. Extending his hand he said, “John isn’t here right now. I’m Peter, John’s son, maybe I can help you.”
I don’t recall if Peter ordered books from me or not, but that was the only time I met the then-23-year-old.
Santa Cruz was still a rugged frontier type surf town, newly pregnant with a technology boom that would soon arrive from just up the road to forever gentrify the place. There were a lot of big wave surf spots in town — Steamer Lane and various hidden points to the north among them.
Pulling into Half Moon Bay, the first thing you see is Pillar Point Harbor. A small, usually junky beach break crumbles near the sand, resembling some of the lesser surf spots in North County.
What I and few others, except pioneer Jeff Clark, never suspected then was that the biggest rideable wave on the West Coast lay a mere few hundred yards to the north where it had been breaking in obscurity for longer than anyone on earth had been alive.
Back in Santa Cruz I heard rumblings of a death wave, but barely believed tales even when they came from chargers Vince Collier and Richard Schmidt, who told about a wave that broke out there and was equal to anything in Hawaii. I don’t recall if they said the name was Mavericks or not.
It was nearly a decade later when Mavericks took center stage and eventually even a life, the life of big wave surfing legend Mark Foo. The spot spooked even those who survived, since a trip into the rocks could be a one-way ticket.
In time, shots poured out from the surf magazines. Especially memorable were those of a 16-year old kid we knew named Jay Moriarty. Jay made surf history one day when he was featured on the cover of Surfer Magazine being blown off the face of a city block of water.
Other surfers who dominated included Kenny “Skindog” Collins, Darryl “Flea” Virostko and Peter Mel.
Among that crew, the surfer who consistently rode the deepest and caught the biggest waves was Mel, who co-ruled the place with his friends for over a decade. Then, as time would have it, Peter faded from the scene, no doubt a victim of advancing age.
Remember the swell that shook Cardiff last month? Well, we were experiencing the tail end of a vicious dog that hammered Mavericks with waves over 30 feet.
Then, without skipping a beat, 51-year old Peter Mel took off on one of the biggest paddle in waves of our era. He was deep, deeper than anyone thought possible, and the tube that threatened to devour him could have contained all the boats in the channel that day.
I have no photographic proof of the feat, but check this YouTube video and believe your eyes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SzNlJCHBU0