Grant Baker On The Jaws Wave And Why He Remains Supremely Passionate About Big Wave Surfing
Twiggy does the Stab Interview.
According to several of the surfers polled in our 2018 Stab Surfer of the Year, Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker’s heroic Jaws tube (seen above, here, and several times below) was the greatest wave ever ridden on a surfboard.
Joel Parkinson, Ace Buchan, and Ian Walsh – guys who have not just seen but also ridden some of the most stupendously-formed water masses across the globe – believed Twiggy’s ride to be the foremost display of surfing expertise.
…And Twiggy didn’t even make the wave.
After traversing multiple foamballs and spits, the South African was cast from the tube sans board, landing pancake on his back and going straight over the falls.
The judges deemed it a 7.63.
But Grant Baker is not a one-wave man, nor a one-trick pony. At 45-years-old and with a lengthy scroll of accomplishments to his name, we thought it was time to hear Twiggy’s full story in a Stab Interview.
Ready for the Eddie.
Stab: We wanted to talk a little bit about the Stab Surfer of the Year and how often you were mentioned, especially for that Jaws wave. Guys like Shane Beschen, Joel Parkinson, Ace Buchan, Ian Walsh – they’re all saying that was the most noteworthy wave ever ridden on a surfboard. What do you think about that?
Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker: Well I mean that’s a big call, for sure. There have been so many great rides. I think maybe when the guys were asked to vote, maybe my wave was fresh in their memory. That’s just human nature. You know the other day, that Japanese guy got a wave at Pipe that everyone was talking about. So I don’t know about mine being the greatest wave ever ridden.
Fair enough. But I think most people were amazed by how you rode that twenty-foot wave like it was a four-footer. The way you air-dropped over the lump and somehow landed back on your rail was just incredible. Was that something you thought about or was it just a reaction?
I think big wave surfing has come such a long way in the last 3-5 years. The whole game changed from actually surviving these types of waves to trying to perform in them. We’ve geared our equipment, we’ve geared our safety, and we’ve geared our minds and physical conditioning toward being able to perform in these waves. I think that’s starting to show – especially with guys like Kai Lenny and Lucas Chumbo. It’s entirely different from what we were doing out there five years ago. Having been in the game a long time, it’s difficult but extremely fun trying to keep up with these guys. And that Jaws wave, for me, was the culmination of 30 years of surfing, 20 years of concentrating on big waves, and the last five years of really altering my mindset as to what’s possible on a 10-foot board. It was a fantastic moment for me, and the whole Stab Surfer of the Year thing really caught me off-guard and blew me away. Just the fact that we ended up with five big wave surfers in the top-15 [Kai Lenny, Nate Florence, Billy Kemper, Lucas Chianca, and Twiggy] is a testament to how far we’ve been pushing the sport.
Ten years ago, Jaws was considered un-paddleable. Where has the time gone?
Shane Beschen said it was hard for him to even think about small-wave surfing after seeing all the big wave acts that went down in 2018. Do you think that’s due to the performance-based shift you were talking about?
Yes, I think so, absolutely. And it’s only going to get more exciting, especially in waves like Jaws. I also hope they bring Puerto [Escondido] back to the Big Wave Tour, because that’s the ultimate big wave barrel. Nazare, too, had an incredible ride this year from Natxo, and if they hold out for 20-25 foot Maverick’s and we can roll-in to that big bowl, I think that will be a game-changer as well.
In the past, we were going straight and surviving. But it’s all changed with the new generation. That’s why we saw so many votes in the Stab poll.
You said you’ve been surfing for 30 years. How old does that make you?
I’m 45, so I lied [laughs]. I’ve been surfing for almost 40 years.
And where did you first whet your palette?
I grew up in and around Durban. I was lucky enough to have this crazy group of friends who would always hang out together and surf every day. We always loved it when the waves got bigger and liked to push each other. There are no rips to paddle-out in there; you’ve just gotta paddle straight into the lineup. So it was good training.
Then I used to go to J-Bay a lot, down to my Aunt Cheron’s house, and there I met the guys from Cape Town, who convinced me to come to their zone and check out some really big waves. Obviously the whole Dungeons thing was happening at that time, and I got into that. Dungeons brought international guys like Grant Washburn and Greg Long to Africa, so I got to meet them.
Then they said, “Oh, you like Dungeons? Then you should come surf Maverick’s and Todos [dos Santos] with us.” That was in the early 2000s, then I went over to Maverick’s and won the contest, and the rest is history.
All it takes is a few good friends to push you at each step.
Exactly that. I think those early years growing up at The Pumphouse in Durban – our parents used to drop us off after school and early on the weekends and just leave us there. We were a wild group of kids just running amok at the beach all day. And when the waves were big and scary, we would push each other hard. That’s where it all came from.
I also have to give some credit to the bodyboarders from that zone. I grew up with guys like Andre Botha and his whole gang, and he ended up becoming a 2x World Champion and changing the game at Pipe. It was just a hotbed of guys who loved to charge, all coming out of Durban and South Africa at the same time. I’ve still got friends who charge in Durban and Cape Town. It’s like a badge of honor in South Africa to charge bigger waves.
All those Durban beat-downs made the Hawaiian ones that much easier.
After winning the Maverick’s event, did you think big wave surfing could be your actual career path?
Not really. I worked for Billabong for almost 20 years. My Aunt Cheron had the Billabong franchise in South Africa, and when I left school in 1990, I joined her and together we built the whole Billabong South Africa brand. Then we sold to [Billabong] International in 2007, I think it was, and with that payout, I was able to get over to the States again to give it a real go. From there I managed to win a few more contests and XXL Awards, got a few sponsors, and that’s how it all developed.
It was funny because, when I won Mav’s comp in 2006, I came back to South Africa and had a meeting with the guy who had just bought Billabong off of my Aunt Cheron. He said that they didn’t want me focusing on big waves anymore and that instead, he wanted me to concentrate on “real” work for Billabong. So I quit that job pretty soon after that.
Now you have a wife and kid, right?
Yes, I have a wife and a baby daughter – she’s three this month. And I have a few great sponsors who help me chase this dream, so we spend about five months between Europe, the mainland US, and mostly Hawaii, then the rest of the time we’re in South Africa.
How is it balancing work and family, especially when your job entails regularly risking your life?
I have full support from the wife, Kate. She’s on my side, and she trusts me. She trusts my judgment and she trusts my ability in big waves. She’s never negative and she doesn’t show that she’s worried, even though I know that she is. That goes a long way.
For me, having a child now, I have to make sure she’s got everything she needs. My wife likes to joke, “You have to catch bigger waves now because you’ve got two mouths to feed.” [laughs]
So I look at it like this: I’ve gotta catch a few big waves each year to put food on the table and give us an amazing lifestyle. Who wouldn’t choose that?
Are you still inherently passionate about big-wave surfing, or is it just a job at this point? You’ve been doing it for 20 years now.
I think I’m more passionate than ever because I know now that time is short. If you’re 25, you might think, Ah, I’ve got 15 or 20 more years, so you can lose focus. But even if I stay in tip-top shape and work hard every day, I’ve still only got another five years in me. So I’m gonna make the most of that.
On top of mental and physical prep, I’ve also put a lot of effort into my boards. I’m working on equipment with everyone, and that’s helped my growth as a big wave surfer tremendously.
You shape your own boards, right?
I don’t shape boards; I design them. I’ve got my files on a board-shaping software, and I send those out to my various shapers across the world. I’ve got a shaper in each territory, and those guys take my file as a basic framework before adding in their thoughts and expertise. So there are slight differences to each board for each zone.
Bushman does my boards in Hawaii. Chris Christenson and Paul Naude do my boards in California. I’ve got the Pukas guys over in Europe. Ryan Von Dresselt in Australia. And Rodolpho Klimaxin South America. It’s this amazing, fluid partnership with all these shapers and all this knowledge that’s coming through each of the boards.
Then I’m the test-pilot; I go out and test the boards. I’ve got the knowledge of the shaper files in my head on every wave, and then I can go into the computer and make little tweaks as we go.
That’s incredible. Tell me, where and how do the boards differ from another?
The boards are all based off the same file, so they’re similar in many regards. But at Nazare for example, we’ll make the rocker a bit flatter because you need a lot more paddle power and the takeoffs aren’t as steep. At Maverick’s you’re bumping the rocker up, and you also don’t want the board to go too fast at Maverick’s – you want more control – whereas at Jaws you’re looking for as much speed as possible. Puerto Escondido is different because you’re looking for something that’s going to work in the barrel and on steep takeoffs, but you need projection for the barrel as well.
There are slight differences in every board – mostly to the rocker but also to the bottom. My Maverick’s bottoms are very different to my Jaws bottoms.
And I’m riding these boards all the time. Testing them all the time. Trying to improve on them all the time. And I think the proof is in the pudding, especially with that wave we were talking about at Jaws. If my equipment wasn’t 100% dialed in, that would have been the end. The board would have stopped on that little air-drop, and that would have been it. But instead, it set the rail and took off as soon as I reconnected with the face.
Twiggy has yet to ascertain the rocker required to pole-vault Mr. Slater.
You came from so far back on that wave. Is that another part of big wave progression – just seeing how deep you can take off, or how late you can swing and around and go?
Everybody wants to get barreled now. That’s the main thing, especially at Jaws. And if you’re on the shoulder, you’re not gonna get barreled, hence where we were sitting in that heat. A lot of waves went under us in the first 20 minutes that anybody could have gone on, but we all wanted the deep one.
And I was in the perfect spot to make mine. Just the spit was so intense, and the whole wave kind of ate itself – that’s why I didn’t make it out. If that thing had just stayed open, I probably would have made it to the channel.
What were you thinking on that wave? I mean that in a literal sense. Is there any conscious thought going on or is it just hold on and survive?
Have a look at my Instagram. I wrote about the whole experience at length there. [Read here then here]. But basically I was so focused during that wave, I was kind of talking to myself the whole way through. There were all these thoughts going through my mind: get in early; set your rail; get the right angle. Then I saw the lump coming up the face, and I knew I was gonna have to jump over it, but I didn’t want to get any air because that would take me off my line, which would push me straight toward shore, so I wanted to keep my rail in the water. Somehow I managed to do it.
Then I got to the bottom and really saw the wave for the first time. The lip was already starting to throw, and it went through my head in a split-second: pull in, don’t pull in, pull in, don’t pull in.
I finally willed myself to try, and the board took off. I made it under the lip – that lip basically parted my hair [laughs] – and then when I was in the barrel, the whole time I thought I was gonna make it because I had the perfect line. I let the wave draw me up the face until I was just high enough, then I switched rails and started driving. I could see the boats and everything. Then the spit hit me so hard that it picked me up and threw me like 10 feet in the air… on a 10’6.
I can’t even remember how I landed that, but I landed it, completely in balance, and I thought I was gonna make it for sure. But then the foam ball came up underneath rather than from behind, and it threw me over and onto my back.
Did you get hurt on that wave as well?
I did. I think I landed quite heavily on my back, and what happens is that sometimes from the impact… I’m not sure if it’s the canisters in the inflation suits, but it’s happened a few times before where you burst some blood vessels in your lungs. You cough up blood, but you’re not actually hurt.
They took me to the WSL medical boat, and the medical guys were freaking out. I was trying to explain to them that I know what it is, that it’s happened to me before, to let me go out and finish the heat, but they were holding my board and not letting me go. Eventually, I had to pull my board from them and jump off the medical boat [laughs]. It must have looked quite intense though; I was coughing up quite a lot of blood.
A bona fide warrior.
Speaking of the WSL, how do you feel about the way the Big Wave Tour is run?
Generally, I’m happy. I think the WSL has helped take the sport to the next level since they’ve taken over. They’ve improved on a lot of areas that needed to be improved upon. But in saying that, there’s always room for improvement. Being the elder statesman, I’m there to make sure that I leave the sport in a better place. I’m fighting tooth-and-nail behind the scenes to make sure we get what we deserve.
And we really just want what we deserve.
For example, if we’re putting up [viewer] numbers that are similar to the CT, then our prize purse should mimic that. That’s all we’re asking for. But the WSL has been amazing for the sport and we can never forget that. Bill Sharp and the XXL Awards – that’s the reason we’re here and have this stage. It’s just a matter of all of us working together to grow the sport.
We know that a lot of people have called your Jaws ride the best-ever, but I’m looking at a clip on your Instagram right now that got nominated for Best Barrel at this year’s Surfer Poll Awards, and that’s pretty special too. Then in the Stab Surfer of the Year, we had Jay Davies say that you surfed the best wave he’s ever seen in person, which was separate from each of these rides. So, what is your best wave ever?
Well, let’s just say that I’ve been surfing a long time, and we’ve got a lot of amazing waves in Africa. I surf a lot of good waves that we don’t film and we don’t tell anyone about. So yeah, the Jaws wave was the biggest, heaviest, gnarliest wave I’ve ever had, and that other wave that you’re talking about is probably one of my best barrels, but it’s hard to choose one wave that stands above the rest. Let’s just say we’re very blessed in South Africa [laughs].
Actually, you know what? In the early ‘90s, I used to spend two months every year surfing at Bawa in Indonesia – we used to go camp out there. That was the best big wave in the world before the earthquake took it away. We surfed waves there that blow everything else that I’ve surfed away – 12-15 foot barrels.
I remember those days very fondly, but maybe that’s because it got taken away.
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