Grant "Twiggy" Baker (ZAF) is the top-ranked surfer on the ASP Big Wave World Tour (BWWT). Recognized this spring at the 2014 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards for becoming the 2012/2013 tour champion, he also scored Surfline's prize for Best Overall Performance, and was just nominated for an ESPY.
Still, heading to contests with just 48 hours notice to drop into massive waves is unlike any other profession, and comes with its own challenges. Less than a day before competing at the 2014 Billabong Pico Alto in Peru, Baker discussed life as a big wave surfer, what he does before each contest, and whether women should be on the ASP BWWT.
What are your training and lifestyle like?
I just try to surf as much as possible to stay in shape and, especially, as much as possible in large surf. There's no substitute for this as it directly influences your mental state on the biggest days. I back that up with swimming lengths in a pool, kiteboarding, and SUP [stand-up paddling] as well as yoga.
Unlike most professional surfers, you don't have the luxury of knowing months in advance when you'll be competing, or where. How does the nature of last-minute calls impact your daily life in terms of training, relationships, and mental health?
It's not bad at all and I have no complaints; we only have to compete for a maximum of 10 days a year so it's pretty easy. You just need to make sure you are always ready mentally and physically and never make any plans for the future like weddings, birthdays, or anniversaries.
You also don't have the luxury of knowing which waves to prepare for until the very last days leading up to it. What are you doing -- physically, mentally, intellectually -- to get ready for Pico Alto that might not have applied to Punta de Lobos?
I'm lucky to live in South Africa so I get to surf big waves year round and train in similar waves to both Pico Alto and Punta Lobos. I've rented a granny flat on the beach in Cape Town with a left-hander very similar to Lobos right out front, and then there's four waves similar to Alto within a 15-minute drive. So I'm always surfing big waves, and this keeps me focused and ready.
What do you do from the minute an event goes on Yellow Alert (which signals that a competition may happen within 5 days)? How do you prepare?
It's important to always be prepared and not suddenly have to start jumping when a call is made. So when a yellow alert goes out I just try and stay calm and know that I'm ready. Then just get as much basic travel stuff organized as I can prior to them calling a green light.
What happens from the moment you get the call for a BWWT Green Alert (the official contest call, 48 hours prior to start date) to when you're paddling out for your heat?
I just get ready to travel, really. It's always a long way to wherever I'm going from South Africa so I normally have to jump on a plane immediately. So it's all about confirming tickets, packing up and rushing to the airport. No time to think or waste once the green light is on!
What do you think about and do on the flights, busses, and car rides to an event site before a contest? Are you tense? Excited? Playing Words with Friends with the other Top 12?
(Laughs) none of the above!! I just sleep as much as possible and try to imagine what the waves are going to be like, while staying calm. It's such a gift to be able to travel to these amazing places and surf these incredible waves with only six guys out, so that's what I try to focus on.
Apart from your gear & passport, is there anything that you take you with you to every event?
My South African flag scarf.
Surfing can be intimidating -- much less surfing 30+-foot waves. What do you think makes you -- and perhaps big wave surfers in general -- different from other people? What is it about each of you that compels you to do what you do?
There's nothing different about us. Everyone has that special something in their lives that gives them excitement and motivation to be a better person. Be it dancing, riding motorbikes, or closing a business deal, it's all the same. We just happen to get our fulfillment in the ocean when it's big.
Finally: This past spring, the Dive 'N Surf Nelscott Reef big wave contest in Oregon included a women's heat. Will women be part of the ASP BWWT -- and should they be? As the profile and safety of big wave surfing increases, will the number of people tackling big waves also grow, regardless of gender?
That's a tough one and I don't believe gender has anything to do with it. The girls were fantastic at Nelscott and the wave suited them perfectly but at the same time, everyone needs to know their personal limits in the ocean.
Every surfer needs to realize what it takes to surf certain waves and be honest with themselves when the time comes. I personally know that big Pipeline and Chopes (Teahupo'o Tahiti) are out of my skill level. So I choose not to surf and get in the way of people who have the ability to tackle those waves.
No one can tell you when it's out of your league, and I feel everyone needs to do the same and make wise choices about the waves they surf.
The 2014 Billabong Pico Alto in Punta Hermosa, Peru will stream LIVE on aspworldtour.com, starting at 9:00 AM PET/7:00 AM PST Thursday, July 3, with a live show starting at 8:45 AM/PET.