Year Of The Shark

After being attacked by a great white, losing his brother, and watching the world title slip through his fingers, Mick Fanning should be a broken man. Yet somehow he’s managed to find peace in the chaos

In Steven Hall’s novel The Raw Shark Texts, the book’s central character is stalked by a “Ludovician,” a giant conceptual shark that swims through his psyche, attacking unexpectedly, devouring great chunks of his memory, leaving him to piece his past life back together while he waits for the beast to strike again.

Ever since his fateful encounter with a great white at Jeffreys Bay last year, Mick Fanning has had sharks—both metaphorical and very real—stalking his quiet moments, circling him in his sleep, and following him into the ocean. The malevolent dream fish began taking huge chunks out of his life—his marriage, his brother, a world title—a lifetime’s worth of outrageous misfortune and tragedy all crammed into a single year. It was a year that felt like black satire for Fanning as he walked a gossamer tightrope between his own earthly mortality and a place among surfing’s immortals.

Whether Mick Fanning was lucky or unlucky at Jeffreys Bay on July 19, 2015, depends on your existential view of the world.

Unlucky? Sure he was. Out of all the surfers in all the oceans, that shark went for him. We’ll never know why, of course. The brain of a great white is a Precambrian mystery—2 feet long, shaped like a slingshot, and hardwired in ways we’ll never understand. As Fanning’s shark took its leisurely Sunday swim up the coast, the big palooka could’ve picked off a weekend surfer down at Mossel Bay, chomped a leathery old swimmer at Magnatubes, or simply inhaled a seal. Instead, this shark had a sense of theater. He swam into J-Bay, waited for the final to start and the cameras to roll, and lined up the champ.

Or was Fanning lucky? He’d be the first to tell you there’s no luckier soul on God’s green earth. To be served up as hot lunch to a 1-ton fish and escape without a scratch, you’d be forgiven for pointing to divine intervention, or some higher reason why the universe saved Fanning’s skinny white ass.

The footage of Fanning and the shark—surfing’s own Zapruder film—has perversely become the most watched surfing moment of all time. The whole notion of being eaten alive in the final of a major sporting event captivated a ghoulish public and signaled the end of anything resembling a private life for Fanning.

The footage of Fanning and the shark—surfing’s own Zapruder film—has perversely become the most watched surfing moment of all time. The whole notion of being eaten alive in the final of a major sporting event captivated a ghoulish public and signaled the end of anything resembling a private life for Fanning.

For his part, Fanning held it together in the immediate aftermath. While there was an emotional precipice yet to come, first there were plenty of tears and beers and laughing at his dumb luck. The world around him, however, went mad.

At home, Australia was already in the grip of shark hysteria after a spike of fatal attacks clustered around Margaret River in the west and Ballina—Fanning’s old hometown—in the east. To give you an idea of the public paranoia and the media’s enthusiasm to stoke it, when an unmanned surf cam captured a Japanese surfer being attacked and killed by a great white at Ballina earlier that year, major media outlets were falling all over themselves trying to purchase the footage from the forecasting site.

As it turns out, the real sharks had two legs, and Fanning flew home to a feeding frenzy. “To be totally honest, the actual events that went down in J-Bay and dealing with it and getting home weren’t the worst part,” says Fanning. “It was waking up with four news vans out the front. There were paparazzi following me everywhere I went, and it just didn’t stop.” In the days after he got home, Fanning hired private security to sit outside his front door. “It was intense. I didn’t leave my house for a week.”

He did, however, sneak out one afternoon. Just two weeks before Fanning had been hit by the shark in South Africa, a bodyboarder named Matt Lee had been attacked by a great white at Ballina (again), suffering gruesome injuries to his legs. Fanning slipped the film crews to visit Lee in the hospital on the Gold Coast. “I just snuck into the room,” Fanning explains. “There wasn’t much I could say, but I just wanted to see how he was doing. After being so lucky, I kind of felt like I had to.”

Fanning declined an invite to be on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” he turned down book offers, and he stopped answering his phone. Fanning felt that buying into the shark-hero headline would be mocking the gods of fate that saved him. When he took up the offer to do a “60 Minutes” exclusive, he promptly gave his $75,000 appearance fee to Lee.

The intense public scrutiny happened at the worst time for Fanning, as he was also going through a very private separation from his wife of seven years, Karissa. The pair was living apart at the time, although Karissa flew home from New York to be with Fanning in the days after the attack. A brief reconciliation failed, but the pair has remained amicable and respectful, acknowledging they were simply two very driven people, just driving in different directions. Once the media vans cleared out, chasing some other tragedy in some other postcode, the palatial, whitewashed beachside home that Fanning and Karissa had built together was suddenly empty, just Fanning and his dog, Harper. It wasn’t a good time to be alone, so Fanning promptly moved a few recently divorced friends into the place and turned the seven-figure house into a kind of group-therapy venue.

Everybody close to Fanning will tell you a story about how he went out of his way to spend time with them after the shark attack, to surf, drink beer, and riff about life, his own problems barely mentioned. “It was healing for me,” offers Fanning. “What I’ve been through recently, I’ve had so many people pick me up, so if someone needs help I’ll be straight there. It’s something from when Sean passed away, I reckon. [Sean, Fanning’s brother, died in a car accident in 1998.] Back then everyone was f–ked—I’m talking my mom, my dad, my brothers, my sister, and all our friends—and I just blocked out my own feelings because I thought, ‘Look, you need to help these people before you help yourself.’ I didn’t talk about those things with anyone back then, not even my mates. Looking back, it was really hard, and it took me years to come to terms with it.”

Fanning’s best coping mechanism, however, was winning. Apologies in advance for the analogy, but, like a shark, Fanning needed to keep moving forward to get through what had happened, and the best way forward for Mick Fanning was surfing heats. It’s what he does.

From the minute he survived the shark attack in July, the notion that Mick Fanning would win the world title crystalized perfectly in the public subconscious. From the primal jaws of a big, dumb fish to Fanning’s face reflected in a silver world-title trophy, the karmic dots were being connected. Nothing made more sense. Pro surfing follows narrative, and there was no bigger story that season than Mick Fanning.

 

Fanning is no stranger to hardship, but the rippable waves around his Gold Coast home have always provided a healthy distraction. Here, he takes a brief, well-earned vacation just down the road from his house. Photo: Grambeau

Fanning is no stranger to hardship, but the rippable waves around his Gold Coast home have always provided a healthy distraction. Here, he takes a brief, well-earned vacation just down the road from his house. Photo: Grambeau


If he wasn’t already the world-title favorite heading into the Pipeline Masters, the final event of the season, he certainly was after winning the Sunset Beach contest the week before. But two days after his win, while walking down the beach at Pipe, Fanning saw Taj Burrow in his yard, and from the look on Burrow’s face, Fanning immediately knew something was wrong. Burrow had just seen Evan Geiselman pull into a barrel at Pipe and not resurface for three waves. Fanning sprinted down the beach, arriving just as Andre Botha and the lifeguards were dragging the lifeless Floridian to shore. “Mate, he was gone. Blue as f–k,” Fanning recalled later that afternoon. “Then the lifeguards got a breath into him and the saltwater just gushed out.” Two days later, Fanning’s housemate, Owen Wright, said he needed to lie down after a bad thrashing at Pipe. When Fanning went to check on him, Wright couldn’t get back up, prompting a 911 call and a swift trip to the hospital. It seemed as if White Lightning had become a lightning rod for matters of life and death, although the worst was yet to come.

The knock on his bedroom door came at 5 a.m. It was the morning Fanning was due to surf for the world title at Pipeline, and as he kicked off the sheets he knew whomever was getting him out of bed at that hour wasn’t bearing good news. It was Fanning’s mom, Liz, in tears. There was a brief pause while she composed herself and told Fanning that his oldest brother, Pete, had died in his sleep that night back home.

It wasn’t the first time Fanning had experienced shattering loss. But it had taken Fanning years to process the death of his brother Sean. Now he’d be surfing for the world title in just a few hours.

At 9:20 a.m., Fanning paddled out against Jamie O’Brien and won. After lunch, he beat Kelly Slater and John Florence, emerging from his winning wave with palms supine, fingers soft, head to the heavens, and eyes closed. The still frame echoed a Renaissance fresco. As Fanning inched closer to the title, it seemed that his greatest and his lowest moments were playing out together. It was macabre, yet compelling theater.

“I guess it was a blessing in disguise, missing out on the title. I would have come home and the media would have started all over again. But I really didn’t give two thoughts about the world title. My tank was empty and I didn’t even have the energy.”
[Mick Fanning]

“The world title gave me a focal point, but I was just running on emotion,” Fanning said later when asked what got him through those final days at Pipeline and, ultimately, one heat short of a world title. “When I came off the beach after that quarter against Kelly, I was done. Nothing mattered after that, not even the world title. Just seeing all my best friends standing there, I could’ve packed up my boards and walked away right there. I felt like I’d already won.”

When Fanning eventually lost to Gabriel Medina in the semis, he ran up the beach, gray and drained. He pushed to the very back of the tent his crew was gathered under, knelt down and buried his head into a towel, roaring like a wounded bear. He sobbed loudly as every wall he’d built around his brother’s death came crumbling down. No one spoke. His friends formed a circle around him as a sea of cameras and phones stared in.

“I guess it was a blessing in disguise,” says Fanning of missing out on the title. “I would have come home and the media would have started all over again. But I really didn’t give two thoughts about the world title. My tank was empty and I didn’t even have the energy.”

That night, with the house full and the floor shaking, his crew grabbed two bottles of tequila and retreated to Fanning’s room, each person taking a swig before taking the floor and saluting their friend with a few words. Blitzed, few of the tributes made much sense, but the sentiments were clear. These were people who’d known Fanning for 10, 20, 30 years, friends who’d seen him do some extraordinary things along the way, but nothing as extraordinary or courageous as what they’d just witnessed at Pipeline.

Fanning flew home the next morning with a volcanic hangover, buried his brother, then took off to Vegas and Japan and didn’t return for a month.

 

After last year’s fateful J-Bay event, Fanning became a reluctant media sensation and came home to find an army of reporters waiting at his doorstep. Here, he puts himself in one of the few places news vans can’t follow. Photo: Hornby

After last year’s fateful J-Bay event, Fanning became a reluctant media sensation and came home to find an army of reporters waiting at his doorstep. Here, he puts himself in one of the few places news vans can’t follow. Photo: Hornby

Instead of a preseason in 2016, Fanning opened a brewery. Instead of surfing heat drills, he just went surfing. When Matt Wilkinson won at Snapper, Fanning hosted the party at his place, the texted invitation simply saying, “Let’s go to war!” It got wild. One guest fell face-first into a cactus. Slater tried to get in the front gate, but security wouldn’t let him in.

Fanning was officially taking a “gap year” from pro surfing, but at the rate he was going, he was going to need another gap year to recover from this one. His phone never stopped. He never stopped. Coolangatta became claustrophobic. Then, when the Tour kicked off again, Fanning found it hard to quit competing cold turkey. While he’d been dismissive of being typecast as a contest machine, Fanning began to realize that in many ways it was actually true. His whole life had been engineered around the rhythms of the Tour—where he needed to be, what he needed to do, how he needed to surf—and with the Tour about to move off without him, he suddenly felt like a circus animal released into the wild.

“There was a fear there for sure,” he says. “It sounds strange and a little sad, but I really didn’t know how I could surf without the Tour. Ever since I was a kid, I was all about performing in contests. I never cared about video sessions or crazy photos. My priority was heats. I always felt the best surfing I did was in a heat, and that’s what I worked all my life to do, and suddenly here was the flipside to that. I was trying to figure out how I could just go surfing.”

The first event Fanning missed was in Margaret River, and the anxiety of missing it was so great he made sure he was “a million miles away when it happened.”

As Fanning’s heat paddled out without him, he was in a bar in Seward, Alaska. He ordered tequila from a tattooed waitress who was running from her past back in the Lower 48, back in Des Moines, Iowa. She had no idea who Mick Fanning was. She asked if he was English. She asked what he did for a living. He laughed. Fanning wasn’t in Alaska to find himself; he was there to lose himself. Nickelback played. The barmaid dried glasses. It was -5 outside. In three days Fanning was due to be in Berlin. He quaffed the shot and placed the glass on the bar and walked out.

 

Caption

Caption

Fanning grew up carving the tapering walls of Snapper Rocks (pictured here) to pieces, honing an impressive frontside rail game in the process. It’s that same approach that has made him a regular on finals day at J-Bay, for better or worse. Photos: Shield

Fanning grew up carving the tapering walls of Snapper Rocks (pictured here) to pieces, honing an impressive frontside rail game in the process. It’s that same approach that has made him a regular on finals day at J-Bay, for better or worse. Photos: Shield


By the time the Tour made its way to Fiji in June, Fanning had surfed more events than he’d missed, but he didn’t appear to be overcome by the burning desire that had won him three world titles. It was 3 a.m. on day three of a bender, and Fanning was standing on the bar singing along to Adele’s “Hello,” his emotional trigger song. He sang it word for word, terribly. I pondered how many times he’d listened to it alone. As he hit the final chorus, he slipped on a spilled piña colada and fell off the bar, somehow landing on his feet like a cat. His mantra for the week was “Having a filf time!” which appeared to be very much the case.

Exactly how Fanning was doing was hard to gauge. He did appear, as he said, to be having a filf time. But in between filf times in Fiji, he also had plenty of quiet time with his headphones on, pacing the island, staring out to sea or locked away in his bure, watching the Dr. Dre documentary or reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography. I didn’t know Fanning read, although I was pretty sure he hadn’t read his own book when it had been published. He told me he prefers nonfiction, biographies in particular. “I like to hear real stories,” he explained. “Because you wonder how these people actually got through life.” We discussed how in the modern world tragedy is currency—how nobody is interested in feel-good stories, and people are drawn instinctively toward calamity, toward the macabre, toward, say, the story of a shark-attack survivor. “I think a lot of people in this world go through a lot of shit,” Fanning said, “and everyone has a story.”

We discussed how, in the modern world, tragedy is currency—how nobody is interested in feel-good stories, and people are drawn instinctively toward calamity, toward the macabre, toward, say, the story of a shark-attack survivor.

Through his own shit, Fanning’s maintained his ability to laugh. He even laughed through his first post-attack interview in the seconds after he clambered aboard the boat in J-Bay. That’s probably the one aspect the public doesn’t see, the one aspect that’s been distorted by the media’s rush to earnestly portray him as heroic and resilient. In Fiji, we laughed about an old Tracks magazine cover of Fanning from my days as editor. Under the cover line, which read, “Fame… easy money, fast cars, hot chicks,” Fanning posed next to a red Porsche with a bikini-clad plus-size model under his arm. It was a different time on several levels. Fanning could mock the notion of fame back then, but he has a very different take on it now. “I don’t want that fame, and I always question people who want to be famous,” he said. “When the shark thing happened, I was like, ‘There’s no way I want to trade off this. It’s not who I want to be.’”

Fanning is a hard guy to ask if he’s OK. Even when he’s not, he generally is.

When I asked Fanning that question, he looked at me like I was taking the piss, but realized that, for the purposes of the story, I’m required to ask.

“Look, it’s not easy being in the limelight with everyone always wondering, ‘How’s he doing? Is he OK?’” said Fanning. “My friends know how I’m doing, they don’t need to ask, but the outside world is always curious. They always mean well and most of the time I’m doing just fine…right up to the point someone reminds me I probably shouldn’t be. But we all get dealt good cards and bad cards. I just had a few shitty cards in the one year. As I come out the other side, my life ain’t bad. There are people way worse off than me, so I can’t sit there and cry, ‘Poor me.’”

Under Fanning’s arm, right next to the tattoo in memory of his brother Sean, there’s a new tattoo that says “Peter.” He told a story about his brother Pete, who would not only talk in his sleep after a few beers, but hold entire conversations. Fanning once caught him fast asleep, chatting away, and asked Pete what he was up to. “I’m in Sydney…just heading home for Christmas,” Pete said, and then began telling Fanning how he’d bought their mom this beautiful artwork for Christmas, describing it in great detail. Fanning then asked, “So, what have you got Mick?” Pete replied, laughing, “F–kin’ nothing!”

 

In the wake of his shark encounter at J-Bay, Fanning decided to take a personal year and compete only in select events. From the look of this Indonesian drainer, it’s safe to say he’s making good use of the down time. Photo: Gibson

In the wake of his shark encounter at J-Bay, Fanning decided to take a personal year and compete only in select events. From the look of this Indonesian drainer, it’s safe to say he’s making good use of the down time. Photo: Gibson


I caught up with Fanning at his place at Kirra the week after he came home from South Africa. Not only had he returned to J-Bay a year after the attack, but he’d won the whole damn contest.

It was the hottest July day on record, and he’d just walked in the door from cleaning one of the rental properties he owns in Coolangatta. He was sweating and covered in a fine film of dust. I made the obligatory joke about his soft pro-surfing hands never having seen manual labor before we sat and talked on his veranda. Directly in front of his house, the shark nets make it hard to forget what happened a year ago. But he told me that before he went to J-Bay, he’d driven down to Ballina and paddled out at North Wall, a far sketchier proposition. Those demons, it seems, have been exorcized.

Fanning won J-Bay riding a channel-bottomed, swallow-tailed 5’8″, a board he never would have imagined riding back when he was “all serious on Tour,” and while he won in a fairly ruthless display, he surfed fast, loose, and free. A year on from the attack, if ever there was a symbolic moment of closure, this was it. The win drew a line under a shitty year. The conceptual shark had been killed off. We can all move on now.

But move on to where? Mick Fanning might be the last guy to ask what Mick Fanning is going to do next. “When I go somewhere—anywhere, lately—I feel like I’m a passenger,” he said. “Someone else is steering the ship. For me, it’s about not having a schedule and not needing to be somewhere. If someone tells me I have to be somewhere on a certain day, I’m like, ‘Really? Sorry, I can’t commit.’ I just don’t know. I don’t know where it’s all going.”

At 35, Fanning has a name. He has means. He has opportunity. The world is an oyster. What Fanning does next, as the drama of the past year fades in time, will surely provide a truer insight into the man than his instinctive reaction of punching a shark in the ribs. Travel? Sure. The Tour? Who knows? He seems disenchanted by it, but telling Mick Fanning not to compete is like telling a shark not to swim. A reinvention, maybe? Kit him out with a faux-hipster starter pack—a single-fin, long hair, and a van? Hmm, unlikely. Maybe a red Porsche and a bikini girl. Whatever Fanning does, you get the feeling it’s been a long time coming, pre-dating the events of the past year. Fanning has been looking for a chance to break free, and, for better or worse, the universe threw it his way when the shark rose from the depths underneath him last year.

For now, Fanning shoulders the unbearable lightness of simply being himself. “I guess it’s about being in a place and actually being there,” he said. “That’s the beauty; now I don’t need to be somewhere else, so I can just enjoy the moment. It’s just a whole different mindset. It feels really light.”

At that moment, a plane took off from nearby Coolangatta Airport and flew straight overhead. “There goes your plane,” I quipped.

“Missed it,” he replied. “Oh, well, I’ll just get the next one.”

[This feature originally appeared in “Reborn,” our November 2016 Issue, on newsstands and available for download now]

  • BIG Shark Tails…

    First off it’s narcissistic of Mick to think that “…everyone always wondering, ‘How’s he doing? Is he OK..”…most people are not thinking this, they just want to watch WSL surfing & barely have notice that Mick is missing from the pro line up this year. It’s very hard for sports figures to walk away from their game, even though they want to appear humble their ego for attention is always underlining, it seems Mick is in this mindset right now by rehashing all of this stuff again & again & again in interviews. We got how he felt at Pipe, no one needed an Interview to tell us how he was doing after losing his brother, a shark encounter & a divorce.

    Second in reference to Mick’s then wife this article states “The pair was living apart at the time”..yet at the time his mother stated “leave them alone” when the press dug up the fact they were living apart & Ronnie Blakely stated in the press at the time… “they were never living apart”…I personally don’t care it’s their private life but to LIE to the press just goes to show you that Mick, his family & manger will lie about anything to prevent his image from being tarnished just like Andy Iron’s family lied about him having dengue fever vs the real reason of this death = drug overdose. Hate liars. Next time just state “it’s a private matter”…end of story!!

    It’s pretty clear that Mick drinks to much. More then 2 drinks a day for a man or 14 drinks a week (1 for a woman/7 drinks a week) is a serious addiction to alcohol. Bet this is one the reason why his marriage fail apart. Mick seems to be more of the binge drinker..he stopping during surf events then going full blown alcohol crazy at the end of an event or between events.

    Sports figures & celebrities have control over what is talked about in an interview….it seems that Mick (or his managers) always want to pull at peoples heart strings to get sympathy press for what ever reason…attention and/or more sponsor money?? What ever the reason it’s time to keep these personal issues private between family members & friends.

    Last…Mick is two faced when it comes to Kelly…he will pretend in the press that he & Kelly are respectful friends but then continually back stab Kelly at parties or during an event when a Australian beats Kelly. These little slights towards Kelly always make it into the press such as not letting Kelly into his house party for Wilko. Every time I hear one of these stories about the Australian surfers towards Kelly I loose respect for them. Mick & All the Australians need to talk it out with Kelly and end the underlining feud with Kelly once & for all. Life is two sort to act this disrespectful towards another human. Remember Kelly is a better surfer then all the current Australians combined = Kelly has 11 WORLD TITLES to prove it.