Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before

Kelly Slater puts on a historic performance en route to victory at the Fiji Pro

Who is honestly going to stop this guy? Today at Cloudbreak, the answer is nobody. Photo: Joli

There’s a certain detachment out here on the fringes. Here we are this morning, floating free in the South Pacific, anchored off the northwest corner of Navula Reef with nothing but ocean and coral and the promise of nearby tourist resorts in all directions. Tranquilized by the early morning Pacific sun, you could be forgiven for thinking this could be any reef in any lost corner of this warm blue galaxy. But this is not just any corner of the Pacific. This is the corner. This is Cloudbreak, and occasionally you still have to remind your pampered Western ass of this fact and allow yourself to be awestruck.

The romantic morning haze is burning off quick. Even out here the world is closing in, and today the world is closing in real quick. There’s a surf contest running, a big one, but for the moment this artificial construct is dwarfed by the munificence of the elements. The waves are firing. They’re spinning from one end of the reef to the other, bigger and cleaner and bluer than yesterday. There are yachts moored around the corner—lazy sailers from Auckland, Cairns, Honolulu, and far-flung Pacific ports—and they’ve all dropped anchor to see what the fuss is about. Is Kelly Slater really here? Acoustic guitars drift on the trades. Looking around, Huntington this ain’t, and the panorama makes you think that ever given the chance, even Jimmy Buffett couldn’t run the ASP any better than this. And as if to confirm this assertion, there’s even a bar now floating in the lagoon behind Cloudbreak.

There’s seven heats between now and a trophy, and the first of these heats is John John and Jordy. The tide is high (there’s a song in there) but they’ve started early to beat a predicted low tide lull for the final. The extra water on the reef should work for Jordy—if this heat is decided on turns his chances increase. In his current form, no one in the field will match him. For the first nine-and-a-half minutes of the heat there’s nada, and a restart is only 30 seconds away when Jordy scratches into a nothing insider to activate the heat. As an opening gambit it’s smart. “You don’t want to go wave-for-wave with John John out there,” offers CJ Hobgood, taciturn, pointing at Cloudbreak. Jordy, however, turns around and his worst thoughts are confirmed when John John comes screaming out of the belly of an 8-foot set. John’s been in there so long he comes out with stubble.

They say if you walk in like you own the place, then you’re halfway to where you’re going. Well, Kelly announced his arrival at Cloudbreak this morning by burning some hot laps on his jet ski through the lineup, shooting follow-footage of local surfer Aca Lalabalavu who was heavily piped at the time. Kelly dismounts and paddles straight out for his quarter against Seabass, and that’s when things really start to burn. John John, still dripping wet, catches Kelly’s first perfect 10 and comments, “I don’t know, but from here it kinda looked like a 20.” John John didn’t know how prophetic he was being, because it’s only a matter of minutes later that Kelly draws another wall of Pacific toward him. It’s bigger, foamier and throatier than the first, and tail of his 5’10” quad is doing it’s best to skip out from under him. CJ offers, “Man, that thing was a bull ride!”…and it was another 10. That’s your perfect heat, right there folks, the fifth in pro surfing and Kelly’s second. History made before 10am. The signs for the rest of the day are there early. When Kelly comes in and starts talking about the significance of the feat, he adds the caveat that, “Man, the way the waves are out there today, someone could go real close to getting another one.” And when he says someone, well, you probably know who he means.

Kelly is watching CJ’s heat with Josh Kerr. He watches pretty much every wave ridden today and offers a running commentary as he goes. “You watch, this one is going to barrel on the inside.” It doesn’t barrel. The next wave rolls in. “You watch, this one is going to barrel on the inside.” Again, it crumbles. Third time, “You watch, this one going to barrel on the inside.” The thing turns itself inside out, and Kelly turns around to the assembled with a wry smile. “There, see. I told you.” He’s immediately called out. “Man, that’s all anyone who predicts the future does—they’ll keep repeating their line, tell their story a little differently, sell it a little better, then wait for the law of averages to prove them right.” He then goes on to tell a story about a heat he surfed with Tiago Pires at Uluwatu in 2008. He was holding the lead and priority when a two-wave set rolled in. “I saw it and I knew—I knew—that whatever decision I was going to make was going to be the wrong one. I had a sick feeling in my throat. I was resigned to it. I took the first one and turned around and he got barreled the length of the point.” I ask him if he gets that kind of feeling very often. He replies, “No.”

Far from the Michener novel of early this morning, there’s quite a scene in the channel out here by late morning. There’s a woman from NBC on the bough of our boat practicing her live cross…she gets it nailed and goes live only for the contest PA next to her to drown her out with 110 decibels worth of score updates. And I notice a guy on the marshalling boat who looks vaguely familiar. I know this cat from some previous lifetime. I rack my brain all day, only to later be informed Zack de la Rocha was on the boat. 1991 punches me in the face. He’s minus the dreadlocks and the rage, but the Rage Against The Machine singer tops my list of most unlikely people I’ve met in the middle of Buttf–k, Nowhere. All of a sudden I’m seeing them everywhere…there’s a guy on the boat under a floppy hat who could be Moby, and there’s a guy on the boat across from us with three cameras in his face who could be Sal Masekela, but I’m not sure.

Mick Fanning (pictured) may have started the final with a valiant 9.2, but it was Slater who finished it with a 19.8 total. Photo: Joli

“Shit the bed! Look at the Joe Engel on this Warwick Capper!” [Translation: Warwick Capper is a retired Australian football star famous for wearing impossibly tight shorts, also Aussie slang for a wave capping on an outside reef. Joe Engel is an Aussie surfer who won Bells in 1983, also Aussie rhyming slang for “angle”. “Shit the bed” is a universal expression uttered when one cannot believe the set rolling through Cloudbreak in front of them.] It had to be Parko. He’s bouncing around on the marshalling boat as a big ol’ set rolls through. He’s up against Mick in the last quarter, but the pair have already surfed a heat this morning. They paddled out at dawn on their own. Not another breathing soul. And they found Cloudbreak way bigger and way better than they’d imagined. Mick was on a 6’0”—way undergunned—but snagged the wave of the morning. By the time they paddled out for their actual quarterfinal it looked a little iffy—the wind had drifted cross-shore south, the sets started to cap and crumble, and the barrels became rare gems. Again, you figured turns favored Mick, while tubes favored Joel, and Mick ended up squeaking past his mate by 0.3 of a point in the dying seconds. It was typical of Parko’s season, the result not commensurate with his surfing, but he took it on the chin…eventually, on the way to the airport.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. As the quarters rolled into the semis a familiar pattern emerged. Kelly’s heats pumped stratospherically beyond all others. His perfect quarterfinal, won by two 10s, was followed by a heat won by two fives.

Kelly caught plenty of bombs on the ledge, sure. But a more careful examination of his heats today would see nothing waves caught by Kelly that would somehow put him in the sweet spot for a sneaky blue blowtorch on the inside. They’d see him catch a nothing wave that would suddenly put him in rhythm with the sets…he’d get evens for the rest of the heat while the other guy would get odds. All day, it was uncanny, unfathomable, and defied most laws of physics, but we’ve seen it now for almost 20 years. There has to be a science behind it. CJ Hobgood, who’s surfed with Kelly from Spanish House lefts to Cloudbreak over 20 years, watched today as Kelly waxed John John in the first semi with a script playing out not too dissimilarly to the one above. “Man,” he turned to me, shaking his head, “I’m perplexed. Totally perplexed.”

In the end it was Kelly and Mick. There’s a clear pattern that has developed over the past decade, and that’s whenever you put pro tour contests into good waves, the old guard are gonna tap the young guys, and those old guys for most part have been Kelly, Mick and Joel…along with CJ and Damien in the tropical lefts.

Kelly opened the final audaciously, painting the ceiling on a gaping pit out the back before the wave coiled and cannoned onto the inside reef, eventually guillotining him. It was a wave he reckoned was heavier than the one that famously clipped Raoni Monteiro here last year. It was showy, but downright ballsy at the same time. And after that—the first wave of the final—you could never accuse Kelly of being calculated. It was almost as if he wasn’t going to allow himself to be upstaged by the quality waves. And as the waves got better, so did he. You could only put on a show like this if you believed you had the chops match it. There had to be supreme self-belief…and you know he has it by the bucket.

Mick opened the final the same way he’d opened the day, and when he chalked a 9 it looked like the future Kelly had predicted for himself this morning might have gone a bit “Tiago” on him. But then they came. The first wave was wide, the second one long, and by the end of them he was a struck match from posting his second perfect heat of the day. He finished with a 19.8 out of 20. He won in Fiji again, and you can now set your watch by it. I asked Kelly afterwards if—just as he’d known at Uluwatu that day he was going lose—that this morning at Cloudbreak he knew he was going to win. “I just had a vibe,” was all I got.

But maybe the most powerful observation was made by Kelly’s long-time wrangler—and friend—Stephen Bell. While Kelly was doing hot laps around the lineup celebrating his fourth Fijian win, Belly clambered onto the boat. He reached in, grabbed a Fiji Gold, cracked it and shook his head. “You know, after all these years surfing around the world with him, even I still get amazed. That was the best I’ve ever seen him surf today. Ever. Not a word of lie.” He takes a swig and stares out over the Cloudbreak lineup and the attendant mayhem that’s broken out. “Makes you wonder where it’s all going to end, doesn’t it?”

Somehow, someway, after 20 years of dominance, Kelly Slater's performances just keeps getting better. Photo: Joli