Kelly slept like an angel.
I’m unsure whether I’ve just infringed on Matt George’s copyright here, but last night it was the God honest truth. Of course I can neither confirm nor deny the above statement—unlike Matt I wasn’t in the same room at the time—but I do know that nobody sleeps better the night before the final at Pipeline than Kelly. It mattered little that he had to win that final to also win the world title. It mattered even less that Pipe was going to be north of 10 foot and there were waves washing into his backyard. Pipe is Kelly’s patch. Has been for years, still is today, and when he woke this morning and looked up from Beach Park he was looking Pipe straight in the eye. Neither blinked. He knew he was going to surf a perfect day…and he would.
Mick Fanning meanwhile was down the beach, just past Off The Wall, and he’d hardly slept a wink. The swell was one thing. The dull roar of the approaching freight trains on Third Reef, the sledgehammer-on-steel strikes on First Reef that sounded like time being torn, the whole North Shore a white noise cacophony under the influence of a big north-west swell. But the fact Kelly was looming large in his rearview mirror was another thing altogether. Kelly’s Pipe Masters record here is fat as a phone book…and that’s not even the part you’ve got to worry about. Pipe is one giant magnetic field of energy, and Kelly out here is not only purely magnetic but can also influence his opponent’s polarity.
The swell that filled in yesterday afternoon was forecast to be almost identical to the Black Friday Pipe swell of 16 days ago. Apart from a 10-degree shift to the north you could lay the two swell charts over the top of each other and barely see a difference. Mick surfed twice that day and was glad he did. His Pipe Masters record is less of a phone book and more of a brochure, and although he has years of form on Backdoor, Pipeline itself remains relatively uncharted waters for him. On Black Friday he took a 7’0″ out and spent most of his first session between the “Kalani Chapman spot” and the “Wakita Bowl”. If he got a proper Pipe day for the contest he wanted to be ready, because on the day there’d be no Chapman or Wakita in the water. There’d be just one other guy. There’d be no bearings and nowhere to hide.
The swell had kicked fast yesterday afternoon. I surfed with Mick Fanning at midday and Backdoor was three foot at best. Kekoa Bacalso yelled across in pidgin to Mick, “Gonna be some gravediggaz out here soon, brah!” By dark it was 12-plus. The 51011 buoy of Kauai was showing 17 seconds at 13 feet. A set surged up the beach, smashed into the wall that gave Off The Wall it’s name, and dragged half a dozen people back out to sea with it, including a 10-year old grom who Dylan Goodale was lucky enough to pluck from the briny. It also washed out the campsite of one of the dozens of homeless crew who sleep rough on the sands between Pipe and Keiki. Watching his every Earthly possession—a BBQ cooker and a sleeping bag—being washed out into a boiling ocean as surf stars played was poignant.
Kai Otton watched on yesterday afternoon with a tweaked knee. We were talking about the draw and I pointed out to him how he potentially had a chance to surf against Kelly and win the world title for Mick. “Maaaate,” he piffed dismissively, “I already done that for him.” He did. He beat Kelly in Brazil in 2007 to ice Mick’s first world title for him. I then pointed out to him that this world title thing is only happening here at Pipeline because of him, having beaten Mick in Portugal in a heat that would have wrapped it up for Mick. Surely he could now help a brother out? “Orrr yeah, s’pose so,” he replied reluctantly in a thick Australian strine. Mick and Kelly wouldn’t even meet before the world title was decided, so it all came down to who they did meet and who had more to surf for. To win the world title Mick Fanning needed to win two heats while Kelly needed to win three. Whoever got there would first get the tin cup.
The Kam Highway was a car park by 5am this morning. Traffic was backed up down to the Waimea bends. The homeless guy who’d been sleeping at Off The Wall now had not only lost all his shit, but woke up on the beach to find a thousand people gathered around his little slice of paradise. In the backyard above Joel Parkinson surveyed a big, brawling lineup that was still raw with the front edge of the swell. “Everything’s a gamble out there,” offers Joel Parkinson sagely as Mick Fanning paddled out for the first heat of the morning. “Boards, waves, where to sit. Everything. You don’t make right decisions, you just make less-wrong decisions.” Mick had already gambled a few days earlier… if you subscribe to the theory he engineered his previous heat to get a cleaner passage in the draw toward the world title. The gamble was that he now faced CJ Hobgood. Now, CJ might be carrying a knee injury, but along with his twin brother has been the form Pipe surfer of the winter. On Black Friday CJ paddled over to Insanities—the sandbar west of Off The Wall that looked like the seven circles of hell—and pulled into closeouts. All because he could.
Deliberately drawing CJ was tempting fate, and Mick Fanning looked like Eugene Fanning for much of the heat. He caught a lot of bad waves, his board looked too flat, he fell from lips and spent a good part of the heat underwater. If the world title wasn’t on the line it would have almost been comical. “Fark,” barked Parko who was pacing the yard, “he’s killing us!” And then the finger descended from the clouds and pointed at Mick and the whole day changed. Needing an eight with three minutes to go—in a heat where he was struggling to find a three—fate served him up a hand. The wave let him in easy, but his fade at the bottom was both audacious and crucial. It set him up deep, and when he came flying out of the tube for a 9.5, fists skyward, it appeared to be the defining image of the season…or at least it would be for another 90 minutes.
If again you subscribe to the theory Mick engineered the draw in his favor, then his quarterfinal with Yadin Nichol was the real target. It sure beats a must-win heat against John John at what, by this stage, was close to drop-perfect eight-foot Pipeline. But Yades needed to win the contest to save his career, and that can drive a man with a family to places he’s never been. Yadin owned the heat, and with the clock counting down Mick could taste a sour reflux in the back of his throat and could be seen muttering, “Are you f–king kidding me?”
Now, Mick has put his Mum through some tough moments over the years, but poor Lizzy has experienced nothing like this. On the beach she couldn’t watch. Mick gets all his heart from his Mum, but even she was starting to lose all hope as the minutes ticked down five, four, three. Mick would later shake his head in disbelief at what happened next, and how eerily similar it was to his first heat. The set appeared on Third Reef at 3:30 in both heats. He needed nines or better in both. And by some righteous and divine providence they were delivered. Needing a 9.57 his Pipe drainer went 9.70, the news delivered after the siren and it met with Mick Fanning’s face melting like a wax dummy on a hot summers day. Not just tears, blubbering, schoolboy tears. This was a world title that literally meant the world.
More importantly, the world title was won before Kelly could change the polarity of the lineup. Kelly wasn’t even wet yet, and was clearly bummed the oxygen had been sucked from the room. But the one certainty in a day of big fat otherwise was that Kelly Slater would win the Pipe Masters, and so it came to be. Nothing could have been surer. He had to surf through John John in a final 15 years in the making between old neighbors, but along the way he redefined his Pipe playbook. What he did on finals day in Fiji back in June he did again here at Pipe today. The big question was always going to be what would winning a 12th world title have offered Kelly that an 11th hadn’t already delivered? But by the end of the day the money question is what would losing a 12th title (for the second year running) mean? Kelly was effusive in the wake of his simultaneous win and loss. He waxed metaphysically on his future, but offered that after a day like today how could he walk away.
“Mick Fanning, Renaissance Man” might sound implausible to anyone who is currently watching the cultural tsunami that is Eugene Fanning drinking beers while breakdancing at the Rip Curl house, but Mick Fanning has grown more as a person this year than any other during his 32 hot laps of the solar system aboard this watery ball of rock. He’s grown in ways that won’t become clear to him for years. He might even achieve a little clarity on the subject after the hangover clears in a couple of days. But tonight he’ll go to bed in the same bed Andy Irons slept in years ago. Andy won all three of his world titles while staying in the same house. Mick will wake tomorrow morning with a category five headache but without the same gnawing anxiety he woke with this morning. And amongst the upwelling of first-thoughts that go through his head as his eyes are crow-barred open, he’ll flash for a minute, with a wry smile, and wonder what Andy would have made of it all.