Kelly Slater

Kelly Slater

The Conundrum — Is Kelly Slater surfing’s otherworldly Shaman or simply a kid from Cocoa Beach made good? As the circus descends on Hossegor and the World Tour gathers pace, all eyes are fixed on the demigod that could be crowned Champion for an unprecedented tenth time. Michael Fordham, meanwhile, just wants to get to know the man.

Hossegor at the time of the Quik Pro is a zoo. The menagerie is restricted however to the genus of homo surficus – albeit in its many regional variations. There are soul-boy hipsters in trilbies, deck shoes and Frogskins wielding biscuits and caspers with self-conscious panache. There are übergrom towheads whose every sartorial inch is plastered with sponsors’ stickers, avatars of North County San Diego culturally displaced with baguette in hand. There are scruffy-haired teens from the posher environs of South Devon on the surf lig with their Alice-banded girlfriends. There is also, of course, a legion of the surf curious at the beach enjoying the dying embers of the autumn sun, and an equal number of shutterbugs and other media slags from every corner of the action sports media, brandishing their wristbands frantically in an attempt to get access to the top thirty-four practitioners of the sport of the Ancient Kings of Polynesia.

At the centre of this hullabaloo is one man’s image. Kelly Slater has been the poster child for the action sports industry these last three decades. We have grown up with him as this whole thing blew. Somewhere along the way he became the most all-conquering aquatic athlete ever and the only surfer of which your auntie has ever heard.

When we arrive in Hoss at the end of September, the Slater story is gathering towards critical mass. Having just pulled into the lead of the ASP World Championship Tour (WCT) by winning the Trestles, California, event, the thirty-eight-year-old is focusing on scoring an unprecedented tenth world title. Shadowing Smelley Cat was always going to be a daunting scenario: everyone wants a slice of Slater, and your humble correspondent envisaged a riotous distraction of paps and autograph hunters wherever our subject may roam. There certainly was that. But what we also found was a supremely focused athlete who was, though elusive and contradictory, at times earnestly evocative of his sport’s elemental profundities.

Over a period of five days we hung about in the Slater entourage a little, had some dinner, swapped some stories, and drove from beach to hotel to golf course and back again pretending not to be part of Kelly’s constant, frustrating throng. We had heard that Kelly was scheduled to be playing golf with Quiksilver young gun Julian Wilson and team manager Belly at a golf course close to the centre of Biarritz. Perfect opportunity to have a chat away from the surf glare, right? Wrong.

As we pulled into the golf club, we knew something was up. Seeing the Crown Prince of surfing dressed in chinos and Polo shirt, we could deal with. But it was the battery of long lenses trained on the eighteenth tee like the guns of Navarone that truly disturbed. Turns out, this was a well-publicised charity event, in which sports stars from across the disciplines were scheduled to turn up and raise the profile of a children’s hospice. “This guy, who could hardly speak English, stuck a microphone in my face and asked me to say something for ‘the surgeons’,” Kelly tells me later. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said it about four times before I realised he was talking about ‘the children’.”

With our allotted time running out, with loads of casual conversations and group hangs but precious little in the way of journalistic quotes, on the way back from golf we finally manage to spend an hour in Kelly’s sole company to do an interview (albeit with Julian Wilson, Julian’s girlfriend and Guy the photographer behind the wheel). Alone at last. Sort of.

HUCK: How does it feel to be Kelly Slater, the centre of the global surf industry?
Kelly Slater: I just try not to think about it. The only way you get to the end is to focus on right this minute. Worrying about the end result of something is never going to be the way of accomplishing it. I’ve got to think about the heat I’m in, the wave I’m going for. […] You’ve got to be really present-minded. You’ve got to have a clear head, and you’ve got to have nothing else you’re worrying about in your life. You also have to try to be aware of a lot of things, and to be aware of things on a deep level. You have to be aware of the way you live your life and how that applies to the things that you’re trying to do. You have to be aware of whether these things are helping you or holding you back. I view it as a pretty dynamic thing that’s happening out there. […] There’s a lot of input. You’ve got to figure out which of these inputs are helping you and which are hurting you

But you’re obviously still motivated to compete, right?
That competitive desire is waning somewhat. Right now, I’m competing and that’s what I’ve chosen to do so I’m one hundred per cent applied, but I’m kind of yearning to get off the Tour after so long. […] It’s just not exciting for me when I show up at a contest. It’s more stressful. It used to be so exciting. I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s Tom Curren, there’s Martin Potter!’ […] I need to get away from it for a while to keep it exciting. If you travel around with the best thirty or forty surfers in the world, it’s hard to get a wave when you’re just part of that crowd. If I get to be away from the Tour for four to six months or something and then I see the guys it’s pretty cool. But, you know, generally it’s just a pain in the ass because they catch as many waves as I do, and we’re just competing for waves with each other all the time. I’d hate to be some guy who was just at his local beach when we show up. We’d be a pain in the butt.

The contestants’ area at a WCT event is like an F1 Grand Prix paddock in flip-flops. There are surf legends and assorted entourages gathered shoulder to shoulder. There is an atmosphere of expectancy in the air. But Kelly’s crew is relaxed. There’s Shelby, his energetic publicist, and Catlin, from Quiksilver in California, as well as ever-present girlfriend Kalani. But there’s also a bunch of very loyal Florida friends from way back, with whom he has travelled for decades. As the crew tell stories from the night before and laugh at the local newspaper report that has billed Kelly ‘Le Bruce Lee Du Surfing’, uncle Kelly apes about, entertaining fellow Floridian pro Damien Hobgood’s three-year-old daughter. They’re walking around tickling each other and pulling faces, and she’s riding on Kelly’s feet while the gathered crew and random liggers snap pics on their iPhones, rom-com smiles frozen on their faces.

Are you conscious of the way people react to you, especially when you’re in the water?
I’d rather be oblivious to it and just surf by myself or with a couple of friends and not have any expectations from people. Whether they think you’re killing it just because you stand up and you’re a pro surfer, or if they’re critical of you and think you’re surfing like a kook because they expect a lot out of you, it takes away from the fun of it in some ways.

When you’re not competing, how do you like to spend your day?
I like to play golf with my friends. To me it’s just a great thing lifestyle-wise, to spend hours and hours golfing with your friends just talking about life, family, kids, houses… whatever’s going on in your life. A lot of guys, almost all the guys I [used to] surf on tour with, aren’t on tour any more, except one guy, Taylor Knox. Pretty much my whole generation doesn’t really compete anymore. So I get to catch up with them for maybe a couple of weeks or a couple of months at the most in a year. I like to play music by myself at home, and I just learn songs that I like or write songs that I hear in my head. I’ve got some property on the Big Island on Hawaii but I’m not there much. […] When I do have free time, I just like to look at the map and see where there’s good swell and just fly there and surf. […] I love searching for waves; I love that excitement of maybe finding something you haven’t had yet, something new and fresh that you haven’t experienced, new cultures and new waves, climates, food. I love the whole experience.

Kelly is a foodie. Surfing and travelling all the time on the Quik account entails the constant search for carbo loads of the finest quality. We’re in a particularly civilised restaurant at the Capbreton harbourside. Kelly eats Carpaccio of beef. The Californians amongst our entourage eschew our oysters for some straight-ahead local flavour in the form of duck and chips. Halfway through the meal, reigning champ Mick Fanning strolls by with his wife, pronouncing a true blue ocker “Bon appétit” on the way. Fanning’s brief appearance brings on the subject of drinking. The Aussie champ is legend. Kelly less so, at least in the noble art of dipsomania. We’re talking about Cornwall, England’s surf-rich Atlantic peninsula. “I was in Newquay during my first year on tour,” he tells me. “The thing I remember most is seeing some guy eating his friend’s puke off the floor for a bet.” Sounds about right. The surf was pretty crumbly too, apparently.

That’s the root of surfing, isn’t it? Isn’t it that search for the new that motivates anyone to surf in the first place?
No, actually. I was ultra competitive as a kid and I wanted to win. All the other stuff came much later. I wanted to prove my skills, my abilities. I just felt I had a lot to prove. Originally, I just surfed because my dad surfed and we just hung out at the beach. […] I’d play in the sand, build sandcastles, play in the dunes, and I’d bodysurf and surf. I never looked at magazines. I just went to the beach and started surfing. Only after I started surfing did I start to look at magazines and say, ‘That’s my favourite surfer’ and watch movies, you know? It took a couple of years for that to sink in for me. I probably really started surfing the first year of the World Tour, so around ’77. I started competing in 1980 when I was eight years old. I had an older brother, three years older than me, who beat me up all the time and so I had a little chip on my shoulder. We were super competitive from an early age. […]

So it was that energy within your family that created your desire to go so far competitively?
Well, my parents split up when I was twelve. They didn’t have a very good relationship. When I was ten or twelve my dad moved out and then they got divorced; they just didn’t get along very well. I think they loved each other. I don’t know, we just had this kind of weird situation at home and that was pretty tough, but I think it also formed my independent, competitive self too, so it’s all part of the picture. You know, everything I’ve done in my life is a small part of the big picture of how I was formed and how I became myself.

The moment the guy walks in I can tell there is something special about him. Kelly lights up as the man joins us for an aperitif in the hotel foyer. There’s a certain old-world dignity to him. He wears handmade shoes and bespoke horn-rim specs, sports a cashmere hoodie in sky blue offset by tastefully cut chestnut-coloured cords, and speaks with a languorous accent from the Deep South. Turns out he’s Jimmy Buffet, legendary ‘gulf and western’ musician and surfer. Jimmy has flown down from Paris, where he had a gig, to watch Kelly surf and to talk music. “Jimmy’s music was a soundtrack to my childhood,” Kelly tells me the following evening. “My dad and I would listen to the music on the way down to the beach, listen to tapes on the beach. Having him come down to hang for a couple of days was really emotional for me.” Kelly lost his dad to cancer a few years back. Now Kelly gets to dine with his dad’s hero. It’s a tribute of sorts.

You’ve spent twenty years as a professional surfer, at the top of this huge tree the industry has become. Any regrets?
When I was younger I think I regretted things, but now I’m older and wiser I don’t think I regret anything in my life, because you can’t do everything right if you don’t know how to. You’re going to make mistakes and if you don’t make the mistake you made, you’re going to make some other one that’s almost identical. I could say there are things that I’d rather have had in my family with my parents and stuff like that. There’re mistakes I’ve made that I wish I’d never made in my life, usually personal things with friends and that kind of thing, but it gets easier to not fuck up and it becomes easier to apologise when you do. […]

You have this incredible status within the surfing tribe. Do you feel some responsibility to representing surfing and the surfing environment in a certain light?
I think that’s just a natural part of being a surfer… I don’t think that I, necessarily, am any more obligated than the next person. I think that we’re all obligated. I think that when you have the right opportunity, when you’re aware and you can help put the word out about something, then you have a responsibility for it. I don’t feel like there’s any sort of pressure for me to do one thing or the other. Almost everyone who gets involved in any one cause tends to be tainted by their view of the world depending on their particular cause. You always have to adhere to the thing that you’re most passionate about. That’s a good thing because change doesn’t happen until people make that change.

On the front at Biarritz we grab an ice cream and, somehow, we get on to the question of whether or not Obama would win the next election. God knows what the connection was. “I don’t think we need a president,” Kelly tells me. “I mean, if it’s supposed to be a real democracy then the president just implements the will of the people, right?” The conversation then ranges into the whole issue of George Bush’s rigged election, and how Kelly enjoys the National Public Radio shows, and a certain BBC man born in San Diego who was physically ejected from the office of Florida governor Jeb Bush for asking too many of the wrong (or right) questions.

You’re quite political at one level, though, aren’t you? I’ve heard you’re into conspiracy theories…
I’m into the truth. Not conspiracy theories. If you look at the big picture, somehow it all actually makes sense. For example, if I were a doctor, well, if everyone’s not sick, my job doesn’t exist anymore. I’m not saying doctors are bad, but if people aren’t sick, there’s no need for them. So we have this ‘self-creating’ society. There are a lot of pieces that work together. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle. […] Look at cancer, for another example. There’s a lot of shitty food out there. Look at what’s happening with the environment and our food sources, and who’s controlling what. There are new diseases that didn’t exist a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago there wasn’t one out of a hundred and fifty kids being born with autism. There are a lot of really heavy things that are happening in the world, and you could pick any one of them and spend your life trying to fight for the whole cause, but number one you’ve got to look out for yourself and the people closest to you. I think, generally, the people who make the biggest changes in the world are the people you don’t even know. Obviously there’re people like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, but the people working behind the scenes – the people they get their information from – are generally people who are working with just small groups of people trying to understand what’s going on around them, rather than someone who’s looking at the bigger picture. I’m not really sure where I’m going with that, but basically, you can get too involved in big things and forget about the real things that matter.

Travis Lee is Al Merrick’s man on tour. As the main guy from the company that has shaped Kelly’s boards for the last twenty years, he knows something about what makes Slater such a spooky talent: “I can’t remember if I read it somewhere, or what, but Kelly has something the French call the coup d’œil. He can glimpse the reality of a situation in an instant, like Napoleon on a battlefield.” It makes sense. We mortals just stumble through and do the best we can, but Kelly knows instantly the ebb and flow of a heat, and can apply his knowledge of the way his body and the waves work to any given situation. Even next to the other super surfers on the dream tour, the Slater act is simultaneously more radical, refined and flowsome than any surfer I have ever seen.

You’re arguably the greatest surfer who has ever lived. Does this mean that the surf experience is most intense for you?
Well, if we’re out in the ocean I’m going to catch a lot better waves than you’re going to catch, based on my experience and my knowledge of the ocean. But if you spend more time doing something for a longer period of time and you know it intimately, that’s just what happens. I would compare it to having someone in your family compared to someone you casually meet. You know that type of person and you go, ‘Oh, I know people like them,’ but you don’t know everything about that person, you know? You could meet someone and feel like you’ve known them forever, but you really don’t know them deeply and intimately. You surf a bit and stuff, but not like I surf. You don’t live and die for going surfing every day. It’s not your job. It’s not your passion every single day. I spend so much more time in the ocean, when we go out I’m going to be able to read what’s going on much better.

But I know a lot of people who surf every single moment possible, who totally dedicate their lives to the ocean. Look at the other top guys on the Tour. Even these guys don’t surf like you. What is the difference between you and them? 
I don’t know. But if you do the calculation, if you figure out what the waves are doing, who you’re surfing against, how they surf, you start getting an overview of what’s happening. You get an idea of what’s going to happen, but you never know until you’re in that situation. You may go out against the toughest guy in the world and have a really easy heat. You may go out against a guy who you totally underestimate and he smashes you. I’ve had both things happen. I had a final at J-Bay against Mick Fanning, and he proved to be the other best guy in the contest. I could have beaten him switch foot – he fell on every single wave he caught. […] Sometimes that happens for whatever reason, you know – you get tired, your mind stops working, you get nervous or whatever, you choke in the moment. You can be on either side of that luck, depending on how you’re approaching what you’re doing.

So you still have those days when everything seems perfect but you can’t surf?
Yeah, did you see the first round? I’ve just pulled into the lead of the world rankings in my attempt for a tenth world title and I’ve just had the lowest score of my life! Sometimes you have an off day; some days you just have to stick with it. I could have gone out maybe half an hour later and caught all of the good waves – it could have been the opposite.[…]

During the time we’re with Kelly a strange dynamic has emerged. We seem to be stumbling around in the entourage’s wake like a couple of Hugh Grant-type caricatures. Bumbling Englishmen to a man. It’s something Brits tend to do when they spend any time with Americans. That’s cool. It makes us seem unthreatening and naïve. Little do they know. It comes to a head right in the middle of our elusive interview, when Guy spazzes out going through the Péage (the money for which he has to borrow from Julian). Flapping under pressure he chucks the coins everywhere, missing the gaping coin bin that’s been purpose-built to gather road tolls from even the shoddiest of throws. “Oh, you stupid English cunt!” says Kelly. He’s got a smile on his face, though.

What other sportsmen have inspired you?
Generally the best guys in their sport inspire me, because they’re doing something that the other guys aren’t. Whether it’s Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant. Those are three guys who definitely have had an influence on me because I’ve watched what they do and have learned from their tactics, or their natural ability or whatever, you know, how they reacted in different situations. And the most dominant of them at any given time has been Tiger. Tiger went out there for a few years and played a different game. Instead of doing what he needed to do to win, he went out there and did what was possible. He wasn’t doing the impossible; he was doing the possible. You know, he was going out there and making mistakes but still beating the field by big margins. Competitively, that’s amazing.

What are your plans after you finally finish with the Tour?
I’m going surfing. The Tour is a way of life for people for many years and it’s a fun and exciting thing. A lot of people have goals for winning events or winning titles, but at this point I want to have more freedom to go home to spend time with the people I want to be around. I’m honestly just tired of being in that pressure situation for twenty years, or longer, maybe thirty years now of competing full time. […] Last year kind of broke me. I was just tired of being in heats with people all the time. All of last year, especially at every contest I went to, everyone was like, ‘What about that tenth title, what about that tenth title?’ and I was like, ‘I’m having a shitty year, stop talking about it!’ Obviously it’s not something you can deny talking about – people are talking about it to me all the time – and now I’m having a better year and I’m more relaxed. It’s been a fun year for me. […]

News hot off the press is that the first two series of Baywatch, in which Kelly starred in a less-than-stellar performance as surfer ‘Jimmy Slade’, is being re-released. The Kelly connection is highlighted by the PR crew representing the Hoff-and-Pammy show. The distributors are sending box sets to every surf magazine editor on the planet. “They could offer me a million dollars to do one episode and I wouldn’t do it again,” he laughs. “That was my old manager’s fault. He thought that one day people would hardly remember that I surfed, that I’d be in Hollywood or something.” The irony in the fact that Hollywood has come to surfing, and that he could be scarcely any more famous for doing what comes naturally, is not lost on him.

What was the Baywatch experience really like?
It was excruciating… It’s funny, I don’t know how that was such a big show; it was just painful. […] I’d pull the writers aside and say, ‘How did you guys even come up with this?! How do you come up with the surfboards getting lost in a cave and being held captive by an octopus – and we have to fight the octopus to go get our surfboards back?’ I asked the guy [who wrote that scene] how he came up with it, and he said, ‘I actually got that from a surf magazine I read about how these surfboards had disappeared into this cave and they only found them years later.’ And I was like, ‘Where did the Baywoctopus come in?!’ I actually almost got in a fight with Dave in that scene… well, I actually did get in a fight and someone [had to] literally pull us back off each other. I was laughing and he was serious, like, ‘This is my fucking job, what the fuck are you doing?’ and I was like, ‘This is a fucking side gig for me, I’m over this thing.’ I was just embarrassed. It was crazy. I’d ask them all these things about the scene like, ‘How come when they’re doing CPR, their arms are bent and they’re not pushing? How come they give one breath, and the person coughs up water, opens their eyes and they’re totally fine? Can’t you guys give at least some reality to this?’

What about Pammy [Pamela Anderson]? If I didn’t ask you about that I would be neglecting my journalistic duties.
Pam and I are still friends… we’re good. She’s actually super nice, very smart. We dated for a little while, but it wasn’t right.

Kelly’s girlfriend, Kalani Miller, does banter well. She and Kelly met around four years ago, when Kalani was a hard-working Roxy Girl. Now, she has her own successful beachwear line and travels with Kelly a lot. Lounging about the hotel, she is currently rocking a set of bleached and died jeggings, the entire concept of which seems to amuse her man. “I think Quik should start a line of jeggings for men,” she tells Kelly. “You’d look great in them.” The couple are relaxed together. They’re affectionate without that cloying, sentimentalised bullshit that seems to pervade high-profile hook-ups. Having been brought up in Southern California by a local surfer father and a Hawaiian mother, the globally wandering existence of a pro surfer seems to mould naturally into who she is. She is, we suppose, a surfer WAG, but not as we know it.

Are you in a good place in terms of relationships right now? That must make a huge difference when you’re travelling all the time and dealing with constant pressure?
I’m sure it feeds into it. I’ve had relationships in the past where I was really stressed out and really not getting along well with the girl that I was with, and it definitely detracts from what you’re attempting to do when you go out in a contest or in a heat. It makes it real tough to enjoy what you’re doing and to focus on what you’re doing completely, to be happy inside. That’s probably the number one key to that.

We arrive back at the Quiksilver superstore at Capbreton. Kelly gets a shave from the in-house barber (yes, a barber shop in a surf store). On the stairwell right next to where he’s being lathered up is an eighteen-feet high mural of Kelly by David Carson. The icon realised. As a journalist doing a profile you’re looking for conflict, looking for the place where the tectonic plates in a person’s character rub each against each; the place where energy is released. The fissure in Kelly seems to me to centre on the fact that he just happens to be the greatest surfer who has ever paddled out into a heat. If there is a conflict there, between global superstar and good-old, beach-bred boy, then he’s harnessed the energy. The energy is still burning after all these years. And that’s the thing that fascinates.