Twiggy's Ride To Redemption
About a year ago, South African big wave surfer Grant "Twiggy" Baker was in a bad spot. He had just been dropped by longtime sponsor Billabong, a company that was circling the drain of financial disaster. Paying Baker to chase swells around the world was not a top priority for the company, but those swells were still top of mind for Baker. They were his livelihood -- how he'd come to define himself as a surfer over decades in the water.
Tracking giant waves costs money, and traditionally there has been little of that in big wave surfing. Many big wave riders are self-funded. What few sponsorship dollars do exist are typically doled out to thoroughbred world tour race horses or aspiring grommets.
"Big wave surfing is expensive, and for a lot of these guys it's simply a pursuit of passion," said Frank Quirarte, an occasional XGames.com contributor who has been photographing and working in water safety at NorCal big wave haven Mavericks for over 20 years. "You have to be very extraordinary to separate yourself from that pack and be able to make a living riding big waves."
Until the XXL Awards and Big Wave World Tour were created in 1998 and 2009, respectively, there was no prize money in big wave surfing. Even today, the top prize at the XXL Awards nets about $60,000 -- and there's only one of those checks given out each year.
"When we began the Big Wave World Tour, it was with the idea of giving these incredible athletes a forum to show the world what they do, and I think we're accomplishing that," BWWT founder Gary Linden said in an interview in 2011.
With Billabong funding Baker's Poseidon-like exploits around the world, he was at the top of the game. When he was dropped like a sketchy Mavericks takeoff by Billabong, he had to figure something else out.
So he rallied. He refocused. He didn't dwell on what was, and he looked at what could be. He sought to resurrect an already stellar big wave career. Hunkered down in his native Cape Town, South Africa, he trained hard.
"You better be ready when the situation arises," fellow "Big Wave Hellmen" star Mark Healey said. "You can die. It's that simple."
Baker prepared, not only to face and survive life-threatening oceanic conditions but also to dominate them. He stopped using shortboards altogether and rode the big boards in any and all conditions so he wouldn't have to acclimate to different board sizes when the surf ramped up.
Like the scene in "Rocky" where the champ has to go back to his humble beginnings and throw uppercuts at sides of beef, Baker thrived at square one. With the steadfast support of his fiancée Kate Lovemore, Baker found himself again. He surfed. He focused on getting his professional priorities straight and assumed good things would follow.
And they did. In a chance meeting with "Big Wave Hellmen" producer Paul Taublieb, Baker earned a spot in the three-part series.
"I loved his work on the "Eddie" movie," Baker said of Taublieb, "so when he contacted me early last season to be involved in the show, I jumped at the opportunity."
Then came the 2013-14 BWWT season. Clearly Baker had a world title on his mind, and his performances backed that up. In a statement-making victory, he won the first event of the year, the Punta Galea Challenge in the Spanish Basque country. Then came a victory at the Mavericks Invitational in January, which vaulted him ahead in the ratings. He made the final at the Billabong Pico Alto contest despite an injured ankle. Then with a semifinals berth at the Nelscott Reef event in Oregon in March, he clinched his first world title.
"All I ever wanted to do is travel and surf, and this world title means [a lot] to me," Baker said.
But the highlight of his season may have come in January during the filming of "Hellmen" at Jaws off Maui. While contests may be validating, it's what big wave surfers do in huge, hectic conditions that truly defines them.
"We had a weeklong trip to Maui last season where Jaws pumped for seven days straight and I got to surf myself sick at the best big wave in the world," Baker said.
He would go on to win the inaugural "Hellmen Challenge," despite suffering that serious ankle injury in Peru and being forced to sit out a giant swell at Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
With Baker's newfound competitive accolades has come financial stability. He has a new sponsor in Vissla wetsuits and apparel and is looking toward once again raising the wave-riding bar to an impossibly high level.
"I had a good season last year, and my surfing seemed to improve to a new level personally," Baker said. "It's great to be recognized for that and to know that you are on the right track. It gives me confidence for this upcoming El Niño season, and I'm determined to surf harder than ever."