Kelly’s Eleventh

Lewis Samuels reflects on an unlikely 11th world title

On his final scoring wave, Kelly threw his signature carves all the way to an eleventh world title. Photo: Klein

In the end, Kelly Slater’s 11th world title was unlikely and at the same time a near certainty. The sheer improbability of this accomplishment was steadily eroded by Slater’s dominance. Like the majority of his other 10 titles, his lead was so great that he sealed the deal with a contest to spare. As dawn broke on an equally improbable perfect Northern California morning, Kelly knew what he needed: two good waves in a Round 3 heat against a low-seed (Dan Ross). There are no certainties in life, and there are certainly no certainties in surf contests, but because of Slater’s aforementioned dominance, very few people doubted that Slater would be champ once again by day’s end. But the weight of expectations can crush even hardened souls, especially those who have labored beneath them, like Sisyphus, for decades. Leading up to this—perhaps final—Slater victory, the man who seemed the most doubtful was Kelly himself.

Slater made his San Francisco surfing debut on Halloween, right after sunset. He slipped largely unnoticed through the sparse pre-contest crowd, marginally masked in a hooded 5/4, booties, and gloves. We met up out the back, as most of the crowd was searching for their last waves. Kelly and I had discussed the San Francisco event a number of times in the previous months, as early as February in fact, before he had made it clear if he’d even surf one more event, let alone another full year. But even then, when the event was still a perplexing rumor and the thought of Title 11 ludicrous, Kelly seemed to be taking mental notes about the conditions up north, curious as to what my perspective was after 20 years of surfing Ocean Beach. I told him the arduousness of the cold paddle and the size of the waves would most likely not be the issue everyone expected. The issue, instead, would be the ruthless, callous, fickle nature of Ocean Beach.

In that first session, as darkness fell, Slater did not surf like Slater. He seemed to be cruising, studying, trying to gauge exactly how uncooperative Ocean Beach actually was when it came to performance surfing. San Francisco, despite recent stoke-gentrification, is not a surf town, and there is a reason for that. Ocean Beach is an abusive mother to its hooded, long-suffering children. It takes and takes and gives very little back. Despite how perfect individual waves can look, any local will tell you that the majority of the waves one rides simply don’t want to be ridden. They shift away from you. They fatten up on you. They pinch closed as you pull in, and flare open if you try to hit the lip or float a section. In cold murky water, with Slater’s skill masked by the unpredictability of Northern California, would he finally falter?

As we walked up the beach in genuine darkness, a group of shadowy figures moved towards us, and someone called out “Mr. Slater!” As we turned, a spotlight shone on our faces. It was a news crew from ABC. I stepped away from the blinding light, and watched as Kelly stood there, shivering, stuck in the moment, trying to compose himself for an interview. At times, in the water, Kelly seems like the happy, jovial grom he once was. At other times, the weight of being Kelly Slater seems to dampen his mood. As he waded through the newscaster’s stupid questions, I considered just how easy it was for someone like me to step away from that bright light, and how hard it is for Kelly. The expectations follow him everywhere. As we walked away, news interview complete, expectations and anxiety diplomatically discussed with a complete stranger, for mass public consumption, I sensed a certain sadness in Kelly. Perhaps he didn’t want to win Eleven like this—away from home, in the cold, some family and friends missing, the spotlight on him, prodded, poked, his achievements taken for granted instead of marveled at.

Of course it didn’t turn out that way. A dicey high-pressure system that could have gone either way shifted Kelly’s direction. The wind turned warmly offshore, the swell settled into clean, even lines, and Ocean Beach cooperated in a way that it rarely ever does—not just pretty, or perfect, but genuinely easy. Ripable. It looked like a fun day anywhere—small Hossegor, good Oceanside, clean East Coast beachbreak, even Trestles-esque as a right bank popped-off regularly. It seemed the dour, wind-afflicted sea gods of Northern California had been thwarted by another deity’s divine intervention. As the sun rose over Golden Gate Park and I drove down the hill, marveling at the sheer improbability of it all, I nearly ran over Mark Cunningham at the cross walk. The legendary North Shore bodysurfer and lifeguard, and latter-day embodiment of aloha came to see Kelly win Eleven. I gave Mark a ride to the contest site, and we discussed what it means to support Kelly—like many other friends and family members, Mark had flown in to be there for Kelly, knowing that the whole trip could be a bust. The title could go to Hawaii.

For nearly the entirety of Kelly’s heat, it looked like the title wouldn’t be won today, on the anniversary of Andy Irons’ death. Security ushered Kelly’s support crew into their own section near the competitor’s area. Soon after they assembled and the horn blew, Dan Ross put every ounce of flair he had into a gem of a right, and scored an emphatic 7.70. Everyone hushed, despite the ample time left on the clock, sensing that Ross, and Ocean Beach, had decided to ad lib instead of stick to the script. From there, things only got tenser. Slater got the full Ocean Beach treatment—pinched on two promising barrels, yo-yo’ed by phantom peaks, generally left frustrated as clean rights gravitated to Ross and not him. I’d seen it happen a million times before on this particular stretch of sand to surfers a fraction as good as Slater. But now it seemed to be happening to the best surfer of all time. It was not the brand of theatre that Kelly’s supporters had assembled to witness.

But then, slowly, Kelly began doing what he always does. He laid a foundation with a clean barrel on a right, followed by some precise rail work for a 7.53. But when Ross got a second good score, the tension grew. Sal Masekela tried to rally Kelly’s troops as a set appeared with six minutes left on the clock. “Here it comes, let’s make some noise!” Sal screamed. But the set did just what sets normally do at Ocean Beach—it disappeared into a trench and failed to even break. The mood darkened. All the perfect waves and heroic efforts seen throughout the morning were largely forgotten. With 1:07 left on the clock, a decent right wedged up for Kelly. He did what he could, but the wave was by no means a clear heat winner. It was the type of wave that Kelly’s notoriously won thousands of heats with—a scrappy, precise, make-your-own-luck type of ride.

The family of Kelly’s girlfriend, Kalani Miller, looked visibly distressed as they waited for the scores to drop. Mark Cunningham went to the beach to chair Kelly, although he looked entirely uncertain that his services would be needed. The judges mulled it over as suspense built. The wife of one of Kelly’s crew stated with sincere anxiety that she felt like she was waiting for the results of a pregnancy test. Eventually, the score dropped—7.60. It was enough to take the lead, and his eleventh world title.

The scene, and the celebration that followed had very little to do with San Francisco, just as the weather and waves had very little to do with the reality of life in the city. Instead it was the archetypal podium scene from any classic California contest. For the first time, Slater clinched a title on Mainland American soil. For a rosy half-hour, drenched in golden fall light, it felt like the best of California—clean, crisp backlit blue-green bowls, warm dry Santa Anas bringing a faint smell of history—an imprint of every stoke-filled California surf contest that’s come before it, with a faint hint of the Summer of Love thrown in. A backlog of sensations familiar to any beach grom who’s spent a sandy day in their wetsuit, salt drying on their eyebrows, surfing heats in hopes of hoisting a trophy. For one more day, one more title, any sadness and doubt were wiped clean from Kelly’s face. He’d won. He’d won again. Meanwhile, as the crowd turned their backs on the ocean and focused their rapture on Kelly, sets continued to pour in. A contest was still going, time and the world move on, no matter how much we yearn otherwise. Young Owen Wright, Kelly’s latest rival, his future brightly ahead of him, clinically decimated a left, completing it neatly with a slob grab for 9.77 points. The year was 2011, after all, not 1991. Surfing moves on. But on the beach, hardly anyone noticed.