The Painful Logistics Of Running A Big Wave Event

As told by Peter Mel

waimea-brent bielmannWaimea Bay. Photo: Brent Bielmann

Tents lined Kam Highway. Every flight touching down at HNL held another one of the world’s best big wave surfers in its belly. The whole world held their breath and then…nothing.

Today might be remembered for the most elaborate morning surf check ever, but it will not be remembered for the 2016 Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. The contest was called off, three days after it was called on. This wasn’t the first time that’s happened and it won’t be the last — The Eddie only goes when the conditions are truly worthy. You can’t help but respect that. Even from your tent.

Still, this morning brought attention to how difficult it is to successfully run a big wave event. I called the commissioner of the WSL’s Big Wave World Tour and asked him to define difficult. This guy has won in these events. He’s won at organizing them. He’s Peter Mel, and here’s what he had to say. —Brendan Buckley

SURFING MAGAZINE: Big wave contests only take one day to run, but they have waiting periods that last over four months. Do you look at forecasts every single day during event windows?
PETER MEL: I do. The US Navy uses all of their technology to put out four maps a day and I check every single one of them. You really can’t miss a map. I look at every storm and monitor its behavior. I look for consistencies and inconsistencies and watch how everything is changing — which is difficult because you’re reading weather. It does what it wants to do, and that’s the hardest part. There will always be a pretty large margin of error.

Is it hard to take emotion out of decision-making when things look like they’re starting to line up?
Yes, but you have to. As a human, you want to see success for everyone and everything. You want to please the fans, the competitors, the organization and the sponsors all at once, but each of them have slightly different expectations. You expose yourself to everybody’s opinions and excitement levels, but at the end of the day you have to take emotion out of it. You have to set yourself apart and make the best call for everyone involved.

What’s the latest you can call an event on?
You have to officially call it on with a green alert three days in advance for the athletes. But with what we do at the WSL, we need to make decisions earlier than that. We have to move people and broadcasting gear and set everything up. We usually need at least five days to get that process going, but each event is different. They all have their own challenges that you have to acknowledge and work around.

Damo, doing Damo things. Photo: Murray Damien Hobgood, Todos Santos. Photo: Murray

Todos Santos, for example, took longer because it was the most logistically challenging event by am mile. Not only did we have to get everyone and everything across the border, but we also had to deliver it all from the mainland to an island nine miles off the coast. It’s amazing that we got that level of broadcast out of that event.

How do you gage success in big wave events?
Any time you crown a champion and the fans have been able to witness it from start to finish, that’s a win.

Could you single out the biggest challenge in planning big wave contest?
The hardest thing is pulling the trigger.

Look at The Eddie, the oldest running big wave event. It’s 31 years old. When it first started, it was 24 guys, a scaffold and a couple judges. You could just pull up in the parking lot one morning and say, hey it’s 20-foot, everybody get down here and let’s go. But so much has changed and it doesn’t work like that anymore. You need to give everybody a lot of time to get to the venue and get all the broadcast equipment here. You have a lot more people you want to make happy and a lot more demands to meet. That makes it really hard to pull the trigger and get it moving. And once you do get it moving, it takes a lot to stop it.

I think this is the third time I’ve come to the Eddie to have it not happen. The good thing is how understanding the WSL has been. They can handle drama. They understand it. We’re pretty much making an 8-hour live movie on a few days notice. Surfing is by far one of the most challenging sports to broadcast, especially big waves.

What have you learned from competing in and organizing big wave events?
It’s taught me patience. When I was younger, it was all about more. I wanted more more more, especially in surfing. But I realized how much more patient I’ve become when I surfed Maverick’s last week. It was one of the best days I’ve ever seen out there and I only rode three waves. I only selected three moments that I needed to participate in. And I came in glowing like I’ve never glown before in my entire surfing career, all from those three waves.

That relates a lot to these events. If we can crown a champion and show the fans every minute of it, that’s a success. And getting there takes a whole lot of patience.