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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, six-foot-one, 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 ... 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 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, such as 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 44 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 44. 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 ASP contest called the Globe Pro Fiji (to be webcast on 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. The company pays 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 car air fresheners. Ted Shred's homepage — www.tedshredsonfire.com — features 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 $1,000 a month. If he gets his picture in magazines — preferably with the sponsor's logo visible — he receives additional checks for thousands of bucks.
Somebody notes 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 half-dozen or so 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 years old, 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.