Kieren Perrow Interview
The Australian journeymen on his pipe win and the future of the tour
It was American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald who proclaimed there were “no second acts in American life.” That applies in spades to pro surfing, where the necessity to appeal to youth culture ensures aging journeymen are shown the back door and ushered off stage without fanfare. Slater is the exception that proves the rule. Odds were that Kieren Perrow would have flown back from Hawaii with the sun having set on a long career that lacked a distinguishing victory in large, hollow surf that natural justice demanded. Thankfully, Pipeline turned on the kind of death-defying tubes and beat-downs that force even the best of the best to the beach with their tail between their legs. It was the kind of surf the mild-mannered madman from Byron Bay has been charging for years. Over three days Kieren copped the savage beatings and kept throwing himself over the ledge on the steepest and deepest bombs Pipeline could dish up. When the siren had sounded, the champagne corks were popping in Byron and the underdog finally had his day in the sun.
Have you come back down to Earth after the victory?
Ahh, [laughs] I don’t think so. I’ve been pretty tired actually. It was such a big build-up to the end of the year—the whole Hawaiian season came to a head at Pipe. I was either surfing in the last heat of my career or making it through to the Quarterfinals, which was really my ultimate goal. We’ve had a big year, my family has been on the road with me for a while, so everyone is pretty tired. We’ve been ecstatic but we’ve had this underlying weariness.
Sounds like after that huge buildup the dominant emotion has been relief?
Yeah! It’s been like that. It’s not just the relief of making it back on Tour, which was fantastic, but the relief of making a long-term career goal. I’ve always wanted to win and event and to do it in Hawaii at Pipe, well, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’d take that win right now over winning three or four other events in Brazil or France.
You’ve always had a reputation for charging waves of consequence. Does it feel satisfying on a deep level to now be vindicated in a contest in real Pipeline?
I guess it does. When Pipe’s breaking like that, a lot of the time it’s so crowded and I’d love to be surfing waves like that with just a bunch of your mates and just pushing ourselves as hard as you can, but you just don’t get that opportunity. So, it’s interesting to find out how you’re going to go when you’ve only a got a couple of guys out in the water. It’s good to be able to put yourself in the right position where you wanna be and push yourself to improve out there. I felt like I was improving through the comp and making better choices in my boards. And using my experience out there, every year I feel like I’m getting better out there, so that was a really great feeling.
So what board choices did you make out there? What did you ride?
I debated it a lot throughout the event because it hasn’t been big for a while and guys have come down in size on their boards over the years, and I have too. I don’t ride long boards out there anymore. On the first day, the real big day, I was tossing up a 7’3” or a 7’0” and a lot of guys were riding 7’6”s. I chose my 7’0” and I was a little disappointed in how it felt in my heat. It felt too long. I couldn’t control it sometimes off the take-off, especially on backhand where you want to take off really late and slide down the face and up under the lip. So the next day I went back to my 6’9” and some of the waves I was catching were bigger because of the way the waves were hitting the first reef. The 6’9” felt like the perfect choice that day. You have to paddle harder and be underneath it more, but it lets you have more control of what you are doing in the tube and I think you can get deeper. I went down to a 6’6” on the final day, and that board was a really nice board. Probably could have gone shorter, but there were still some sets and it was windy. It helped me stay in control.
On a personal level, how hard is it to stay positive and psyched and produce a peak performance when you’re right on the cusp of having your career snuffed out?
[Long exhale.] Yeah, it almost helped in some ways because it took away…I mean you go into every event wanting to win, but my focus for Pipe was a little different because I knew I needed to just make a couple of heats and keep going. And if I got to the Quarterfinals, I was going to stay on Tour, and at that point I wasn’t even sure what that meant, because I’d spent so much time discussing what would happen otherwise—which was the more likely scenario. So I’d had to plan for that not to happen [to stay on Tour]. So, when I actually did, it was a strange feeling really. It was kind of the Plan B almost. It was great that the event ran over three days straight so I didn’t have time between rounds or heats to dwell on it. It just was done. Bang. And it was all over.
So you kind of rode a wave of momentum. Did that feel like it was out of your power, like you were part of something bigger or were you conscious of being in control of your own destiny?
Yeah, I felt like it was combination of both. I wanted to be in control of it but I think with surfing you have to let go of the control you want to have because you really don’t have it. You can’t really have control of the ocean and what it’s going to deliver to you. You can make choices at the time and in the moment but you can watch the ocean all day and go out there and get flustered because something you thought was going to happen didn’t. Sometimes you just have to go with it and make the best decision you can. I just had these little moments in heats where I could sense where I wanted to be. When you make a choice and it pays off then you get full of confidence.
A couple of heats it seemed you had the heat won and you kept charging and taking some massive wipeouts. Was there ever a point where you thought you might have crossed over into recklessness? Potentially injuring yourself out of the contest?
Yeah, about halfway down the face of that one big right where I realized I was about to get absolutely annihilated. That was definitely a scary feeling. You think sometimes you can make a choice and get away with it but it’ll slap you down and make you realize, “What the hell was I thinking?” That was one of those for sure. That’s the way it is out there. When I hit the bottom I thought, “Oh no, this is gonna be bad,” because I hit with so much force and pretty much tore the heel off my foot. It was really lucky that it wasn’t a stitch job or like what happened to Joel. I could have easily been out of the event at that point. Fortunately, I had some luck on my side.
How hard mentally is it to come back from real beating like that and step in the ring again for the next round?
Surprisingly, I wasn’t that phased by it. It was really weird. As soon as I knew it wasn’t going to put me out of the event I was happy. I got it taped up and glued up. The glue actually held my heel together for the entire event.
What’s the best mental state for you to be in when it comes to charging heavy barrels? Fully psyched or calm and relaxed?
I think it’s different for everyone actually, I was watching guys walk down to the water with their headphones on listening to full amp up music—well, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t listen to music, I try not to focus too much on what’s coming because you spin off into too many mental tangents about stuff you’ve really got no control over. You’ve always got that nervous energy and you have to try and control it. There are two boundaries: One where you’re too relaxed and flat and the other where you’re too pumped. I try and stay relaxed and be aware of everything. It’s strange what your body does. I start sweating.
In that situation, do you feel that you’ve already made the decision before you paddle out that when that wave comes to you that you’re going to charge it?
[Laughs.] I’d like to think that, for sure. It’s a challenge isn’t it? I always feel that with Pipe I’d like that opportunity to get the bombs so when it happens in a heat it’s great. There’s always that moment at Pipe when you see a bomb and you know you’ve got to commit where you think, “Whoa, what’s gonna happen?” You just have to trust in your instincts as a surfer. That’s what puts you in the right place to not hesitate. I think hesitating is the worst thing you can do. The more committed you can be early in the decision-making process, you’ll always be better off.
You say instinct, but it’s not really instinct is it? Instinct would be to flee. It’s more of a learned response. Some people learn their way into surfing big waves, while others seem to have that innate ability to charge. Where are you on that spectrum?
Umm…good question. I think it’s a bit of both. You do have to learn how to do it, you can’t just feel like you should be able to do it and do it. But if you don’t have that desire to do it in the first place you’re probably never going to put yourself into a position where you’ll be able to learn to do it. I think every surfer has that desire somewhere to get a big barrel or to charge, but it’s how far you want to take that and how committed you are to pursuing that. A lot of guys don’t want to paddle out at Backdoor when it’s crowded because it’s frustrating and it’s so difficult to get waves.
On that note, and considering the importance of Pipe to world titles and careers, do you find it odd that some of the Top 34 don’t have a strong working relationship with Pipeline?
I don’t find it odd, I just think it’s a product of what that wave is. It’s a fairly unique kind of wave. You don’t see it really pumping a lot, so when it is pumping everyone wants a piece of it, including all the locals, and that’s unique in that most of the other waves around the world the guys on Tour are going to be at the top of the pecking order. At Pipe, it’s not like that at all. It’s a tough lineup, but if you want them, you can get them. I’ve seen Owen start when he was a grom and go out there and start catching waves, and now he’s really good out there. It’s understandable that not everyone wants to have a piece of it.
Do you think it’s important for a pro surfer’s credibility to be at least capable and competent at Pipeline?
I guess, because it’s such a key part of the Tour. You have to be able to surf in all kinds of waves. It seems to be that if you win at waves of consequence like Tahiti and Pipe, the respect and accolades are much greater than winning at a beachbreak. I’m stoked with that. It works for me.
A lot of people have observed that when you get married and have kids it’s harder to charge because of the obvious consequences of things going wrong. How hard was it for you to have your wife and kids on the beach while you were out there in life-threatening surf?
I try not to let that affect me. I guess it’s a stretch [of reef] I’ve surfed a lot. I mean, anything can happen, you could be anywhere in the world surfing any kind of reefbreak and anything could happen to you. I do think about it. With a family you want to make sure you can be there for them. I kind of try and keep my level where it’s at…you know, 10- to 12-foot surf that’s barreling. And try not to get into any situation I can’t get out of.
Okay, let’s talk about your role on the Tour. Where do you stand with the mid-year cut-off?
I think it needs to go. Every single surfer on Tour wants it to go. When guys like Kolohe do qualify they want an opportunity to prove themselves, not be out of the Tour after six months. The Tour’s tough right now, it’s hard to find your groove and move up a few spots and stay on. Obviously with this year’s rotation there were elements of success for the events because there were guys who came on and performed really well, but that’s not always going to be the case. There are a lot of positives about the Tour and there’s stuff that needs to be fixed, and once that’s fixed it’ll work amazingly.
Do you think there’s a credibility problem when you get guys like Dane and Bobby turning their back on the Tour? Or are they easily replaceable?
Ah, it’s not easy to replace either of those guys in terms of their talent. Bobby was an amazing surfer on Tour and it was unfortunate he didn’t have the results. It didn’t work for him in that rotation because his results dropped away and he hadn’t competed in the Primes to back himself. That was a decision he made and it was a tough call. It was a bummer he didn’t stay on Tour. Dane is totally separate to that, because he doesn’t seem to even want that. Who knows what he wants. He’s the best surfer in the world in my mind. He’s not the best competitor in the world but it doesn’t matter when you’ve got that level of talent. I’d love to see him still on Tour, I think it’d be great, but everyone makes their own choices. I don’t think it makes the Tour lose credibility. I think everyone understands Dane will do what he wants to do and that’s cool.
What would you like to see the new CEO bring to the ASP?
I think the surfers and the board really need to spend some time thinking about that. Obviously everyone wants to see some good experience in the areas where we need it. Sponsorship and marketing are the key areas of the sport that the ASP needs to develop and get stronger. I think it’s going to be a different period of time for the sport, there are some structural changes that are probably going to happen, which I think will end up being a great thing. Brodie did a lot of good stuff for the Tour and escalated it to a really high level compared to where it was when he started. I think the next guy can come along and probably escalate it even further.
Do think Brodie’s decision to step down over the Title miscalculation was premature. Did he have the support of the surfers?
I like Brodie and I think he was really good in the role. There have been a few situations where things have, um…if things don’t go well then the surfers are always ready to blame a single person, but there are other elements in the way the sport’s structured that create that kind of feeling too, and it’s not just the fault of the CEO. My personal opinion is not that important. It’s more about what the surfers want to see come out of the sport. I think they are pretty excited about this upcoming time and how the ASP is going to work.
You talked about structural change in the ASP. Could you outline how that would be implemented?
I can’t really talk about it right now because we’re in the middle of it right now with the board. I can’t really put the chicken before the egg.
Is it how the Tour is run, or how it’s marketed?
Combination of all things I guess. There are a lot of ideas among the surfers about the best way forward and I think the surfers have to step up and become more involved than they ever have been. That way the sport can benefit them as well as the industry.
When do you think we will see these structural changes?
I think as early as next year. There are definitely some changes that are going to come in next year. A lot of elements of the Tour all changed at once when the Tour went from 48 guys down to 36 and we brought in the One World Rankings. It was a full clean sweep across the board and that was probably too much in one hit I think. We probably shouldn’t have done it all that at once. There have been some unfortunate consequences of that. So, we’re trying to work out how to fix that and not go back to how it used to be, but to improve it and make it better for everyone.
How was the general vibe between the local surfers and the ASP?
This year seemed pretty good actually. The general feeling was good. There are always two groups: the locals and the guys on Tour. And either one of those groups always wants something more than what they’ve got. I can understand a lot of the Tour surfers are frustrated because they come to Hawaii with their careers on the line and they’ve got to compete against guys they’ve never competed against before during the year. Win or lose. And their career is determined on that, which is a pretty difficult thing to accept in a sport. However, that challenges everyone and pushes everyone. It’s a unique situation in any sport and I don’t know what the answer is.
OK Kieren, you’re back on Tour next year. Congratulations. What are you going to bring to Professional surfing next year?
Gosh, it’s going to be really fun. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve had this thing in the back of my head that my career is coming to a close and I always wanted to win an event, so to win at Pipe has just ticked every box. So I’m going to go out next year and relax. It’s not going to be desperation next year. I’m kind of only looking at one more year anyway. The way the sport is evolving there’s good potential for me to be involved a lot more for the surfers so I’m going to take that ball and run with it and try and create something that’ll be really good for everyone.