Surfing Santa Cruz Since 1969

Peter Mel wins the Mavericks Invitational 2012-2013

  • 4 min read

Photo of Bruce Jenkins

When Mel was announced the winner of Sunday's event, held in powerful but inconsistent waves up to 30 feet, it was a cherished moment for anyone familiar with the spot's colorful history. He's 43 now, with a 9-to-5 job that takes him away from his beloved Santa Cruz, and he had bitter memories about the contest now known as the Mavericks Invitational.

Some bad luck here, perhaps an errant ride or a questionable judging call there - nothing ever seemed to click for Mel dating back to the event's first competition in 1999. He was unquestionably in the pantheon of Mavericks surfers, joining the likes of three-time winner Darryl (Flea) Virostko, the late Jay Moriarity and Jeff Clark, the man who pioneered the spot in the mid-1970s, but he'd never finished higher than third at contest time.

King without crown

This would amount to LeBron James never winning an MVP award, or Robert De Niro falling short of an Oscar. Dating back to the early '90s, nobody ever surfed Mavericks with the combination of style, virtuosity and raw courage of Mel, who grew up in Santa Cruz as a protege of the great Richard Schmidt and comes from one of Northern California's most distinguished surfing families.

"That's why it's so great that he won today," said Hawaii's Mark Healey, a new-age charger who finished fifth on Sunday. (A mix-up led to an incorrect announcement of the final standings to a packed crowd at the contest's awards ceremony; see the accompanying chart for the correct order). "Pete's the man out there. This is so good, because he totally deserves it."

Second-place finisher Zach Wormhoudt, a perennial contest mainstay from Santa Cruz, called it an "awesome" result for his longtime friend. "He deserves it more than anybody," said Wormhoudt. "I've surfed with this guy for so long, and he inspires me every time, every session."

It would be impossible for a Northern California day to serve up more perfect conditions: sunny skies, balmy temperatures, mild easterly wind and a gorgeous blue-green color to waves marching in from the northwest. They did not march often, however. The sea fell so calm at times, in fact, there was discussion of postponing the contest to another day.

Pacing irks participants

"A lot of guys spoke up to that effect in the morning," said a source close to the event. "There just wasn't enough surf. Not that big, most of the time, and really long lulls between sets. Guys were angry that it was still a go."

They were angry before the contest started, and there was more talk of postponement after an absurd second heat when the first 38 minutes (of 50) passed without a single rideable wave appearing.

Fortunately, as contest director, Clark was on hand to restore some common sense. There was much more to this event than surf, considering the sold-out festival alongside the Oceano Hotel, permits obtained from local officials, and the willingness of Vandenberg Air Force base to surrender its Pillar Point installation to cliff-bound judges and photographers.

Clark knew that realistically, the event had to be held. And as the day progressed, there was just enough solid, legitimate Mavericks surf to hold everyone's attention. Healey rode the Mavericks' left (seldom attempted; most surfers go right) with a crazy-man's abandon. Greg Long, the 2008 Mavericks champion, surfed for the first time since nearly drowning at Cortes Bank off the coast of San Diego in late December and didn't miss a beat, finishing third. Wormhoudt caught two waves during a lengthy set in the third heat, and back-to-back monster waves actually went unridden during the finals.

'Utter relief' for winner

Above all, though, there was Mel, who spends much of his time in Huntington Beach as a marketing ace for the Quiksilver company. "After the final, I heard guys yelling 'You won!' but the results weren't in, and I didn't even want to hear it," he said. "Didn't even resonate with me after all that's happened."

And when it became official? "It was just complete, utter relief," he said. "Mavericks has been so good to me over the years. It's great to have that feeling back again."

In 1969, Mel's parents moved the family from Hawaii to Santa Cruz and his dad, John, opened a surf shop that he continues to run. How's this for symmetry: On the day Peter won Mavericks for the first time, his 65-year-old dad was competing in a kneeboard contest in Huntington Beach. Peter's 13-year-old son, also named John, was surfing a youth event at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz.

Everything came together for the Mels this day, one that brought inspiration and the ring of justice.

Mavericks results

Top six finishers made the final:

Peter Mel, Santa Cruz

Zach Wormhoudt, Santa Cruz

Greg Long, San Clemente

Alex Martins, San Francisco

Mark Healey, Hawaii

Shawn Dollar, Santa Cruz

Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: