Shooting Star

Day Two of the Pipe Masters sees Fanning and Slater focus squarely on the World Title

| posted on December 10, 2013
Kelly Slater has to win the Pipe Masters to win the world title, a possibility no one is doubting. Photo: ASP/Cestari

Kelly Slater has to win the Pipe Masters to win the world title, a possibility no one is doubting. Photo: ASP/Cestari

The scene: Kelly Slater’s parked on the side of the road in downtown L.A. It’s four weeks ago today. He’s just squeezed in 13 holes of golf before sunset and he’s on his way to dinner with friends. He picks the phone up and dials a number in Australia.

There’s always something cool about “Kelly Slater” coming up on your caller ID. The teenage fan in you never goes away. I toy with the idea of screenshotting my phone to capture this singularity but worry I might accidentally hang up on the champ in the process and be left waiting another five years for a return call. I answer.

We talk for half an hour; most of that time taken up by Kelly grizzling about how he feels like a bag of bones right now. He tells how he’s been worked on by an army of human panelbeaters every day for a week and jokes he’s finally feeling every one of his 41 years. He tells how he just got back from Fiji where he ran into Mick. Despite the collective will of surf fans the world over for this whole Mick and Kelly world title thing to go Shakesperean like it did between Kelly and Andy Irons a decade ago, it was pure happenstance the pair met in Fiji. Kelly had booked Tavarua six months in advance, while Mick booked his ticket to Fiji two days before when a swell popped up in the Tasman Sea. Neither knew the other was there and the pair met in the channel at Cloudbreak, Mick in a Fijian longboat and Kelly idling over on a ski. The handshake itself was awkward – wronghanded, upside-down, clammy – but the sentiment was genuine. The pair has been around the track enough times together for this to not get weird. Although a profession of love a la 2003 might not be out of the question after the dust has settled this week, and I’m already unsure how I’d feel about that.

Back in the car I ask Kelly about Mick. “Do you feel your relationship with Mick has change…” The mute night sky of L.A. suddenly burns white like magnesium and Kelly’s green eyes reflect a swoosh of light. “Whoooooah!” yells Kelly. “That’s so weird! Literally right when you said Mick’s name I just saw the biggest shooting star I’ve ever seen in my life. Literally as you asked that question. I thought it was a firework it was so bright. That was crazy. And I’m in Los Angeles where you don’t see shit in the sky at night.” When I ask him what he thinks this celestial firecracker means he replies, genuinely perplexed, “I… I don’t know?” He texted me a photo of the shooting star an hour later just to make sure I wasn’t thinking he was cosmically delaminating.

And so here we are at the Pipe Masters a month later and the day has arrived. Mick and Kelly would surf their first Pipe heats today. This morning was an ugly duckling morning. Even as a guy shone a green laser-pointer into the lineup at 6:15 a.m. this morning something didn’t look right about it. The swell was from the leading edge of the Aleutian system and had a raw, west aspect to it. Most everything was closing out. Mick – as he has done every morning for the past month – was the first guy out, but white lightning was hardly setting The Pipeline on fire. They were hard to find. Parko was watching on from his backyard when he got a call informing him that he had been nominated as the surfers rep for the day (Ace Buchan and Kieren Perrow were both out injured) and would have to make the call whether to run or not. With so much on the line for his friend he was rattled. As he walked up the beach he stopped and spoke to Mick, and Mick told his friend he’d rather wait. Joel got to the contest site where he found everything was green lights. They all wanted to go. Like, really wanted to go. Joel is one of those guys who doesn’t do confrontation well, and while his brain said no his head kept nodding and before he knew it the contest was called on for the day. He was nervous. He wasn’t sure whether he’d just sent his mate to the gallows.

Parko needn’t have worried. The ugly duckling morning was a swan by 10 a.m. The trades kicked and Pipe pumped and both Mick and Kelly surfed their first heats like the title belonged to them. Mick took an eight and a seven without priority and dissected the heat. His pulse stayed low. Kelly meanwhile put on a top hat and swung a cane and put on a show. Gone was the wretched, buckled, and beaten figure who’d left the water in Portugal seven weeks earlier after losing all hope of this World Title. Kelly looked reborn. Today Pipeline was the swimming pool from Cocoon, because the old geezer jumped in and was suddenly 20 years old again. And the incredible physicality of Kelly Slater was one thing. In one Pipe tube Kelly flattened himself on his board like a cat falling from an apartment window and somehow squeezed out. The black pearl of his head pinballed. He danced like no one was watching. But then you add to this the justified arrogance of him standing tall in the maw of Backdoor, too deep, too showy…but just knowing that he’s gonna be shot out of this thing like a suntanned cannonball. He came in and held court for as long as anyone would listen. He’s got a tagger from the New York Times in tow working on a feature piece, and the guy was warned that Kelly might dodge him artfully, with this whole world title thing happening and all. Well, an hour after Kelly plonked himself down this morning beside the journalist and started soliloquizing, the journalist interrupted Kelly and excused himself, “I think I got plenty, thanks.” Kelly has to win Pipe to win the world title. Now just repeat those words again in your head and think about what you saw today. Hmmm.

Four weeks ago in his car in L.A. a voice down the phone line from Australia asked Kelly Slater: “Does it feel like fate for you the way the numbers have fallen and that you have to win Pipe to win the world title? Not make the semis, not make the quarters, you have to win Pipe. There’s a certain romanticism about that would you agree?”

“Yep, I do,” he replied. “It’s bizarre. I’m going to have to look back at it later on and work out what it means, but for Mick to lose to Ottz in those waves in Portugal, I was not expecting that, and it was like a magical thing where Ottz was the last person to beat Andy in a heat and that was at Supertubes, then Ottz won his only contest he ever won at Supertubes and he beat Mick to keep me in by one heat. It’s pretty crazy. I’m not sure what the connection is there or if there is one. Maybe it’s just me. But there is some weird thing there for me, this golden prize, it’s literally as all or nothing as you could possibly have for a contest and there is definitely a bit of romanticism there for me. But I’ve got to put that aside and I’ve got to go and win a contest. For me to just have a shot at this is a huge bonus and those low moments will be forgotten when I get to Pipe. That being said, I’d give myself a 5 percent chance of something happening at Pipe.”

But for Kelly Slater at Backdoor, 5 percent of the time works every time. This is his domain and suddenly there seems to be one eventuality being delivered by the universe – Kelly will win Pipe. Mick, a raging pragmatist, acknowledged this weeks ago and started work on his own plan. If he makes the semis he takes Kelly out – win, lose or draw. Mick’s destiny is in his own hands. He lost his non-elimination heat this afternoon to John Florence, meaning he now needs to win two further heats to win the World Title. John John stood as the guy most likely to scupper Mick’s title. If they’d both kept winning they’d have met in the quarters…meaning Mick would have to beat John John Florence at Pipeline to win the world title. Those are words no Australian wants to be hearing.

But Mick changed his destiny in the dying throes of his heat this afternoon. Already beaten, he dropped in on John John on the last wave of the heat, scoring an interference and dropping from second to third. It seemed an act of frippery, a bird flipped to the universe with the heat already lost. But that drop-in might just be butterfly wings flapping in the Amazon. It meant that instead of surfing against Julian Wilson and John John – young, bristling, Pipe savvy, very ready for the Mick and Kelly era to end – standing between him and the World Title, Mick now needs to beat an injured CJ Hobgood and a wide-eyed Yadin Nicol, who’s into the quarters for the first time in his career.

Mick says he never saw John John on that wave, let alone plotted the implications for the draw in his head. Yet that drop-in might have more consequences for this World Title than Tom Carroll’s finger-paddle interference on Todd Holland did 25 years ago. Tom was here today. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. As he watched on he actually seemed to have more invested in this world title than either Mick or Kelly. He’s fresh from telling his story – his real story, including some ugly home truths – back home in Australia in a book with brother, Nick. The truth has set him free, he looks a foot taller (he’ll still never play in the NBA), but he is simply happy and thankful to be here in Hawaii and get the chance to watch the two giants of the modern era duke this thing out in 12-foot Pipeline. This world title may be remembered as one of the greats. It’s already been written in the stars.

  • Ben

    This sucks. Mick interferes and is rewarded with JJF’s removal from his draw? Best tactic ever. Merry Christmas, Australia.

    • Mik

      God works in mysterious ways… Maybe CJ or Yadin are destined to be the spoilers? Or maybe Mick faces Kai Ottz……

    • Jason Janecek

      Big Pipe plays right into CJ’s hand. If the swell lives up to the hype, I’d rather see a backhanded Mick VS a hellfire CJ on his forehand than almost anyone else in the queue (besides JJF obviously).

  • Mik

    Another great column by SD. Great to see SURFER grab this talent.

    On th downside: probably few will have noticed, but Kai Ottz was underscored on that 7.83 wave… It should have been an 8.5 because it was big, and he was really deep the whole wave. Imagine if Kelly or JJ had been on that wave? I guarantee it would have been an 8.5.

    it matters cause all of the scoring from this point on is mega critical.

  • Michael S

    Beautiful work Sean!

  • gannysesh

    Regarding that interference affecting Mick’s seeding – well, Yadin seems to be performing better than Julian at pipe. And CJ’s not exactly a pipe lightweight.

    • Ben

      But neither has anything on JJF. JJF in form beats everybody at Pipe, period.

    • Pburns

      Yadin wouldn’t in a million years spoil Mick’s WT bid. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Yadin “accidentally” interfere with Mick in that heat.

      • Andy G

        Doesn’t Yadin need to win Pipe to requalify for the Tour? If so, you can bet he won’t be laying his Aussie ass down for Mick to secure the title. His own future is at stake.

      • Andy G

        Yadin has to win Pipe just to requalify. He isn’t going to lay down for anyone.

        • gannysesh

          Good point!

  • az

    well written

  • bruddah

    “…it was like a magical thing where Ottz was the last person to beat Andy in a heat and that was at Supertubes, then Ottz won his only contest he ever won at Supertubes and he beat Mick to keep me in by one heat. ”


  • mventura

    how did kelly get a picture of a shooting star?

    • steven

      It made the news it was so big.

    • Jamie Currie

      He probably requested it from the same celestial higher power that sends him the waves

    • Jonphen

      He’s that good

  • dg1501

    Pretty funny to see how different sites interpret Mick’s “luck” differently. Over on Surfline, their take is that CJ is one of the last people you want to face at bombing Pipe. I agree, unless his injury has gotten worse than it appeared in his last heat. If conditions pan out as forecast, as long as he can get to his feet and make the drop, he’s as capable of a 20 point heat as anyone left in the draw if the right waves come to him.

    • Tommy

      There’s no doubt CJ is one of the last people you’d want to face. I think the real tactic is that he needs to make semis to secure the title and he would’ve had to face JJF (who is probably tied with Kelly as the last person you’d want to face) in the quarters (presuming he beat Julian in round 5) if he got second.

      • dg1501

        Yeah, no argument here. If I had to bet on how I think it’s going to play out, I’d bet on CJ beating Mick, but John John taking the win in the end. Mother Nature, luck, and judges are going to play a huge role as always, so anything can happen. It’s going to be exciting no matter what!

  • Steve Briggs

    An the Award for Best Writer of the Year goes to, Sean Doherty. Insightful, intelligent, invested in knowledge and flat out fucking awesome to read even after watching the entire webcast. Someone fire Brendan Thomas already and hire Sean who really gets it. I can’t give enough props to Sean on his coverage and scripting such a good read that I want more. Again, clean house at “ER” and get some real talent in there. Start at the top.

  • Mik

    hey chas… I read ur site and i like your commitment to freedom, the environment, and humanity. thank you for helping us protect the ocean and its people.

  • Bas

    nicely written!

  • Jamie Currie

    Great article, mate. Best thing I’ve read in a while.

  • lilou__b

    It’s so nice to see beautifully written pieces that can capture surf magic into words, that’s rather rare so thanks!

    as for Kelly taking pictures of shooting stars while being on the phone, i am just starting to get used to the fact that the guy will always come up with the impossible (don’t his sponsors push for the apt #onlykellycan hashtag?), and i wouldn’t be surprised seeing him pop champagne bottles out of a Pipe barrel while writing recommendations about heat format on the back of his hand.

  • Sean Davey

    Wow! That was a great read Sean and I’m really kicking myself now for not hanging around for the Pipe Masters, this year. Looks like Saturday could be a great day.

  • markfitzy

    great article. Nice work, Sean

  • Dean Miller

    Can’t wait until Saturday, going to be a great show!

  • Jamii Hamlin

    What a great read…real life drama without needing to involve a team of Hollywood script writers!
    So looking forward to the showdown later today! Go Mick Go Kelly may the best man win!


    Think about this. Kai Otten goes up against SeaBass in Rd 5. If he wins (tough), he gets Kelly in the quarters. So Kai was Kelly’s savior on Portugal, but he could end his title chances at Pipe (or not).