Kepa Mendia is 9 years old.
He likes Instagram, socks, GoPros and drones and he’s the son of renown pro surfer Peter Mendia. Which has many perks… like going on sponsored surf trips and scoring. Or having free professional surf instruction. But there’s one underlying advantage that’s cherished far above these, and Kepa – even at his young age – has already laid claim to it.
It’s 9:30 pm and the Mendia house is buzzing. All lights are on, illuminating the wet sidewalk and before I reach the door, I can hear chatter that drones out the South Florida rainstorm. After a single knock, the door swings open and inside the floors are terra cotta, the walls are plastered with photos of Pete and company threading stand up blue/green barrels, there’s a half opened box full of leashes and stickers in sight, and a handful of paper bags with the Billabong logo are lying on the living room table. After a quick but warm handshake, Pete continues fading back and forth between rooms while his wife – Ali – is sitting on the couch watching young Kepa fiddle with a fishing pole and Egan, the older brother in the Mendia clan, also within earshot, is playing on an iPhone. Excitement is in the air.
So I ask. “Are you guys headed somewhere soon?”
“Yeah, Costa Rica in two days” Pete says, only stopping to answer my question.
“Kepa, too!” says Ali. “Right?
Kepa looks up and shyly nods. The 9-year-old’s messy blonde hair is creeping towards his shoulders and his eyes look red from an overexposure to saltwater. I’m surprised he’s up this late, but after all there is no school tomorrow.
“Do you know where you guys will be surfing?” I ask him.
Kepa stays quiet. “It’s a bit of a surprise” Pete says, coming back into the living room. “Hey Kepa, you want to show him your boards?”
The “everyone will experience 15 minutes of fame” notion doesn’t quite synonymize Peter Mendia’s career because the pro surfer is well known in the global surf industry. And he’s especially known in Palm Beach. He defines surfing in the area as well as other Sunshine State meccas (think Sebastian Inlet, New Smyrna, Cocoa Beach); he’s also notorious for the power he displays when carving any Californian, Hawaiian or Indonesian wave. Photos consistently surface of his blue water strike missions.
And Pete, I think, would agree that there’s always a better wave out there…that next surf session can truly be better than the last. It’s what makes surfing so special: consistently moving forward and never backwards. Never swatting at the mosquitoes that lay eggs in the murky waters called stagnation.
But at the same time, Pete has favorites. Favorite trips, favorite waves, and the same goes for surf photos, like the one where he’s standing tall while a furious dark lip curls over his head. The wave looks fast and expert only, yet Pete looks to have a resting heart of someone sitting on a couch. This photo landed on Surfer Magazine’s cover, with the caption “Hell & High Water”, discussing Pete’s wave at a break that rarely sees waves – Pumphouse – and the devastation that was Hurricane Sandy.
I interviewed Pete following the swell (for this bimonthly magazine you’re holding in your hands), and he said that “had it not been for a family celebration” he wouldn’t have been in town for the best waves South Florida had seen in decades.
At the time, Egan was 10 and Kepa was 6 and they both watched from the safe confines of shore. But three years later, Kepa is taller, stronger, and has seen enough images and videos and live sessions of Dad ripping. Pete, who averages “a trip or two a month”, now has an equally blonde travel partner.
We’re standing in Kepa’s room, which is taken up by surf posters, a bunk bed filled with Dad’s surfboards, and 1st place trophies. I’m crouched down to Kepa’s level examining this impressive quiver of his, and Pete is standing in the background, beaming.
“This one is a 4’ 4”.”
“What about the one you showed me earlier?”
“Oh that’s a 4’ 7”.”
Pete’s shaper – Todd Proctor, of Proctor surfboards – has made these boards for Kepa, and given their size and weight, they resemble large, delicately crafted kickboards, but with fins, leashes, stickers, wax and traction pads. Sponsors like Nomad Surf Shop, Electric, Freak Traction and others each have a space on the foam, and one older looking board has a sharpie drawn billabong logo on the nose.
Kepa hands me a bright yellow and newer looking board. This one has an actual Billabong sticker planted on the right side of the nose.
“Tell him about the wave you caught on that board,” Pete says.
“The wave that was in Surfer Magazine…I was riding this,” Kepa says shyly.
“You’ve seen the photo, right? Pete asks, leading me into the kitchen.
“Absolutely! I say. “But that wasn’t his first surf photo in a print magazine, right? I can’t imagine starting off in such a big…”
“It was!” pipes in Ali. “It was his first shot in a print magazine.”
Now at the dinner table, Pete reaches towards a stack of surf magazines and pulls out the trophy: a copy of Surfer Magazine, which has a photo of California’s Mavericks detonating into a golden but dangerous explosion, with a hooded figure escaping through the barrel on the cover. There’s identical issues underneath it, and I notice that the stack is covering up the cover of Pete’s own “Hell & High Water” photo.
He flips to a creased page and there it is: an overhead (for Kepa, double overhead) blue barrel breaking in sand with a tiny figure half covered up, half poking out the blue. The caption reads ‘Eight year old Kepa Mendia, making the most of gromhood.’
“That was Veteran’s Day. I remember because he was off of school,” says Ali. Pete stands in the background, smiling.
After this magazine photo hit the international newsstands, Kepa scored yet another print segment in a recent Eastern Surf Magazine issue, and according to Pete, there’s more on the way. When Kepa leaves to take a before bed shower, Pete hands me the magazine. “You see that? he says, pointing at Kepa’s hand placement in the photo….or lack thereof. “Look at that…no rail. I wasn’t doing that at 8 years old.”
I wasn’t either, and I certainly don’t know if I’d even paddle for the wave. It looks like a typical Palm Beach dredger: if you don’t drop in quickly and immediately get under the lip, you’ll go end over end and get a true taste of the beach break.
Minutes later, Kepa is back and his hair is wet and he looks even more tired. I wanted to ask him standard journalist-like questions, like who is favorite surfer is, if he wants to surf like a pro, and something about where he likes to surf the most.
But all of these yield obvious answers, I’m realizing. Of course his dad is one of his favorite surfers. Earlier, Pete was telling me about how Reef Road used to break…before the sandbars shifted. And when talking about a fun, “perfect” wave, Kepa stopped him mid-sentence, staring him in the pupils.
“You’re lying…” to which Pete smiled and responded “Nope. I’m dead serious”.
I’m sure Kepa wants to surf like a pro, but he doesn’t need that desire right now. Everything should be fun. I don’t want to give his subconscious reason to think about pressure, and his favorite spot is wherever his Dad is, wherever Mom takes him, or some exotic location that few his age have ever been to. Like Costa Rica.
I say goodnight to Ali and Egan and bid safe travels to Kepa and Pete, and step back into the night. Instead of excitement, humility fills the air.
Two days later, I see on social media that Pete and Kepa are off to Costa. The photo posted shows Pete, blonde hair and beard flowing, wearing a Billabong shirt and a Nomad Surf Shop hat, standing in front of the duo’s board bags.
And beside him is Kepa, blonde hair alike and wearing a Billabong shirt with a Nomad Surf Shop hat. Of the many hashtags written on the post, one predictably sticks out of the crowd. It reads: #Billabongbloodlines.