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The ritzy oceanfront town of Palm Beach usually hums quietly with the sounds of Rolls-Royces passing by and big fat wallets snapping open and shut. On days that the waves crank up, though, the riffraff moves in. Traffic slows as drivers strain their necks to peek at the beach. Pickup trucks park illegally in the driveways of shuttered-up mansions. Bare-chested guys with surfboards scurry around the island like rabbits, sneaking through sky-high hedges or hopping over the gates of country clubs. To reach the best surf break in wave-starved South Florida, they have to trespass.
Here on the beach near Reef Road on a recent Wednesday at low tide, about two dozen surfers are carving up the waves. Many of them drop in on head-high sets, but one guy stands out from the crowd. It's easy to notice Peter Mendia — 33 years old, 6-foot-1, and 190 pounds — partly because of the powerful way he thrusts his board and partly because of his distinctive long hair, bleached almost white by the sun.
"When you think of surfing — of Palm Beach and Reef Road — Peter is the first thing that comes to mind," says 29-year-old Greg Panas, owner of Strange Day Productions, who's filming Mendia for a surf video.
You could say that Mendia is in his office, working. As a so-called free surfer, he has one of the most coveted jobs in the world.
Think of it this way: While most professional sports leagues, like the NFL or the NBA, have room on teams for the top thousand or so athletes, the top tier of surfing consists of just the world's 45 highest-ranked guys. They spend the year on the Association of Surfing Professionals' (ASP) World Tour, traveling to the globe's most challenging surf breaks. The tour began February 23 in Australia and ends December 20 in Hawaii.
Mendia, an easy-going, laconic dude who is vaguely amused by the effortlessness of his own success, is not in the top 45. Nowadays, he's a kind of emeritus surfer stud who doesn't have to compete. Sponsors pay him to travel the world, reporters and photographers in tow, and be pictured wearing and promoting their goods. It's as if Tiger Woods never made the PGA but Nike paid him to play golf with his friends.
Still, Mendia is preparing to go to Fiji, where, beginning May 24, he'll compete against the world's best in a World Tour contest called the Globe Pro Fiji (to be webcast at www.globeprofiji.com). Because Mendia is a team rider for event sponsor Globe Shoes, he'll get a wild-card entry in Fiji. "I've got everything to gain and nothing to lose," Mendia says during a post-surf-session lunch of fish tacos in West Palm Beach, where he lives. "If you lose, you lose. If you beat 'em, you're laughing." At the last Fiji Pro, in 2006, Mendia beat Taj Burrow, who ended up ranking fourth in the world that year.
So Globe Shoes is one Mendia sponsor. Who are the others? Mendia hesitantly lists some of them (it's hard to remember them all): Island Water Sports surf shop. Natural Art surfboards. Billabong clothing. Von Zipper sunglasses. Freak traction pads. Although he doesn't smoke, he is also sponsored by Zippo lighters. They pay him to go to concerts — whichever ones he wants — and sign autographs.
"And I have a candle sponsor," he adds.
A candle sponsor?
"Ted Shred's — they make candles that smell like surf wax." Don't laugh, Mendia warns. "Of all the companies I work with, they're going to do the best because they're totally doing their own thing." The company has cornered the market on slightly coconutty-smelling candles and even branched out to air fresheners for the car. The company's website — tedshredsonfire.com — shows a picture of Mendia, with his sunbleached locks sticking out of a baseball cap, his nose pressed next to a candle. A cartoon bubble shows he's dreaming of surf as he sniffs.
Mendia won't disclose exactly how much he's paid except to say that each of his sponsors doles out a regular salary; four of the eight companies pay him at least a thousand dollars a month. If he gets his picture in magazines — preferably with the sponsor's logo visible — he gets additional checks for thousands of bucks.
Somebody notes that it's curious that Florida, of all places, with its small and erratic waves, has produced a surfer of Mendia's caliber, to say nothing of the three or four others on the tour. Actually, there's an upside to the sparse wave situation in the state, Mendia contends. "You're afraid you're not going to get waves," he says, "so you freak out when you do get them." Florida surfers learn how to squeeze a ride out of a ripple.
The son of a homemaker and a professional jai-alai player, Mendia grew up in the same house where his mom did, off Flagler Drive in West Palm. When he was about 10, a kid from his baseball team invited him surfing, and that was the end of baseball. Mendia competed in surfing contests up and down the coast (eight-time world champ Kelly Slater, who's from Cocoa Beach, was an age group above him), and by 1991, he had won the Junior Men's Crown in the amateur Eastern Surfing Association.
After winning a big contest and a $4,000 prize in New Jersey, Mendia started getting major attention. "When I was 17," he says, "I didn't ask for it, but I got a contract in the mail from [clothing company] Quiksilver to get paid." That in effect bumped him up from amateur to pro. He moved to California for a while and started competing on the World Qualifying Series (WQS) — the international tour that's one step below the ASP World Tour.
About eight years ago, Billabong became Mendia's main sponsor. Two years in, they asked if he wanted to be a free surfer — meaning he'd no longer have to compete. "At first, I didn't want to!" he says. "I was stuck in that little world." He chuckles. "All those years, I was trying to make the [World Tour]. Then as soon as I stopped competing, my sponsors started to put me in selective events that suit my surfing." The waves in places like Mundaka, Spain, or Tavarua, Fiji, Mendia says, are generally long, left barrels — so goofy-footed surfers (people who surf with their right foot forward) like him can draw out their turns.
Mendia can't quite articulate what's so special about his turns. His friend and fellow surfer Blake Burns, 23, chimes in: "It's that backside laid-out thing you can do that no one else can. We all sit out there in the water and try to copy it." Basically, when Mendia is riding a wave face that's jacked up straight like a wall, his turn is so powerful that his spine goes straight and he lays out almost horizontal to the water.
"I go around the world with magazines, and their photographers just shoot this turn over and over and over," Mendia says. He knows — it's pretty awesome.
All right, he's got some moves. But let's be honest — how much of his success is based on his hair?
"That's half the reason why this is still on my head," Mendia laughs, tugging at his mop top. Saltwater isn't easy on his mane, and the back half of his hair has molded into little dreadlocks. "I'd like to get a haircut, but I'd have to shave it bald."
"The whole thing's about marketability," videographer Panas says.
Other local surfers — like Ryan Helms and Barron Knowlton — might be equally talented, but they still have to keep day jobs — partly because they haven't gotten lucky breaks. Burns says they tease the hair-challenged Knowlton that he'd be rich "if people wanted to see old bald guys."
Burns himself has model looks ("They call me Blakelander") and gets free clothes from sponsors Ezekiel and Sanuk. But he still aspires to be a free surfer like Mendia — who doesn't have a coach ("some crazy person pushing you") or a training regimen ("I've never been to a gym").
Maybe best of all, Mendia acknowledges, is that he has no boss, save for a few contacts at Billabong who arrange his trips. He develops close relationships with the best photographers, who also stand to profit if their images get bought by magazines. Incentive, Mendia says, comes from his family — he is married, with two little boys.
For the record, Ted Shred's founding president, Ed Hennessey, says he hired Mendia not because of the sun-bleached Malibu looks but because he is "a fantastic guy on a personal level and also an unbelievable talent." Hennessey says his support has "0 percent to do with the hair," adding, "I happen to think Peter looks more handsome with short hair. In fact, during the photo shoot, he didn't even have the consideration to brush it for us. We had to put a hat on it."
Around his friends, Mendia has a comically self-deflating take on the easy-come manna of sponsorship.
"I need a watch sponsor!" he tells Burns, taking it up a ridiculous notch. "No — I need a car sponsor. Everybody has a car sponsor now — they give you a three-year lease..."
"I definitely don't want to know what kind of shampoo he uses," Burns notes.
So long as he doesn't get sidelined by physical injuries (he's rehabbing a knee he hurt on a trip to Uruguay), Mendia will travel to California in June to help coach the Jupiter High School surf team in a national contest. Then he's got an East Coast tour in July — he'll visit surf shops in Bob Dylan's old tour bus. September, he's going to Indonesia, and in the winter, he heads to Hawaii. "I'm about to sign another three-year contract with Billabong," he says. "I'm happy — because this could have ended a while ago." Every day, he's just "prolonging the inevitable real job."
After lunch, Mendia heads to his parents' home, where his beautiful wife awaits, his kids climb a banyan tree, and his mom calls hello from an upstairs window. It looks like something straight out of a picture-perfect J. Crew commercial.
Hey, J. Crew. Do you, by any chance, make watches?