“It’s the most honest depiction of the chaos, contradiction and tortured genius that most of us know as Kelly Slater I’ve ever read.”
What drives you?
What’s the thing that keeps you wide-eyed and restless in long nights, or wakes you from a roiling, sweated sleep?
Our answers, of course, will vary on a wild spectrum of seediness, but I’ll presume that for most of us here surfing forms a large part of your agonies and ecstasies.
I’ve been interrogating surfing recently, as I am wont to do, and most especially after a recent trip to Portugal that took me through the rollercoaster of emotions that only surfing can – bliss, dejection, rage, longing…
The good moments were great. The kind that make me want to upend my life in service of this objectively pointless activity.
But this was marred by unpleasant, crowded line-ups. Deep, vicious tension in the water that escalated on a couple of occasions to punches thrown, boards speared, and drownings simulated.
I loved this area of Portugal once, but I can’t see myself rushing back.
It was infested with the Digital Nomad. Seemingly lacking any self-awareness in and out of the water and joyful in their amateurism. Perfectly happy, or so it seemed, with pearling take-offs and fruitless flirtations.
I listened one day to a conversation next to where I was changing. Some middle-european long-hair was making advances towards a middling girl shoving a midlength into the back of her van. He was showing her the t-shirts he’d made. Just knocked up the designs on someone’s borrowed laptop at the hostel, he announced, like he was Steve Jobs. She seemed genuinely impressed. I can only assume it was the residual decency of human politeness.
But the truth was, I was jealous. I didn’t want to be the embittered veteran. I wanted the simple joy of a new obsession once again. I was envious of their ignorance.
What to do?
Take up something new, leaving surfing to the angry, clueless masses?
In my existential despair, salvation and answers came from paradoxically the most likely and unlikely source.
I found Kelly.
I hadn’t been looking for him. It began by trawling through the archives of Sports Illustrated, specifically the work of Gary Smith.
If you don’t know Smith, treat yourself to some of his archive. In the late 90s and early 00s his deep-dive profiles of the most recognisable figures in sport were revered.
This Smith is the antithesis of our Smith in his approach to journalism. He wrote just four pieces a year, believing it was impossible to produce quality work quicker. His profiles asked Big Questions. The type of questions we’re all searching for the answers to.
A dream gig.
I read a profile of Mike Tyson. One of those rare things with the power to affirm or recalibrate your sense of the world.
Then, hungry for more, I came across a 2009 profile of our own Kelly Slater. It had the uninspiring title “Ready For The Next Wave”.
My instinct was to keep scrolling. Regardless of author, what could I possibly learn about Slater? Smith might be a far superior writer and mind than me, but when it comes to Kelly, I’d back myself.
(The offer to be your biographer remains open, Mr Slater, sir.)
I’ll have missed a few things along the way, like this Smith piece, but I believe I’ve read most of what’s been written about Kelly. But in all that’s been said, there’s very little I’ve actually found insightful.
Endemic surf media fawns over achievements and the way he rides waves; non-endemic coverage gets wrapped up in what surfing is supposed to be, rather than what it is. Much like the remote workers of Portugal’s Atlantic coast.
I’ve often considered that Kelly would be a particularly difficult profile subject. So little of what he says could be seen as objectively true, even when he’s talking about his own thoughts. There’s a chaoticness to Kelly’s mind and existence that I think has left him as confused as anyone else. What is the truth about Kelly? I doubt even he knows.
So on that basis I had little hope for this profile, regardless of the skill of the writer. Kelly will wriggle and squirm and present any side of himself he feels is the order of the day. Kelly controls Kelly’s narrative.
But I was wrong. The Smith profile is masterful.
Somehow, he acknowledges yet palms away all Kelly’s smoke and mirrors. He cuts to the heart of the things that make the man.
For the first time, reading this profile, it occurred to me exactly why Slater’s mind is so unruly. Why does he obsess over conspiracy theories? Why does he get embroiled in tit-for-tat arguments on social media? Why does he jump on every emerging trend or controversial take?
It’s because he feels there must be something else.
If he, a man with a lifestyle of travel, experience, beautiful women, adoration, passion and mastery, is still not content, there must be something else…
Smith identifies Slater’s discontent immediately, and doesn’t allow himself to be derailed by Kelly’s sleights of hand.
The level of detail is incredible. Kelly’s history and insecurities all laid bare. So too his relationships, his rootlessness, his fragility.
It’s the most honest depiction of the chaos, contradiction and tortured genius that most of us know as Kelly Slater I’ve ever read.
But as with all great profile writing, it’s what we can apply to our own lives that’s most valuable. We can’t ever be Kelly Slater (would you want to be?) but we can look at the blueprint he’s created in pursuit of something we also know and love. And we can lay that blueprint over our own experience and see what, if anything, shines through.
We all want to surf more. We think surfing gives us purpose, like it’s going to make us happy.
If all I could do was just surf, things would be great, you’ve certainly thought.
This is the dream. The one we’ve been sold and perpetuated. The archetypal narrative of what it means to be “a surfer”. The one all those crowds in Portugal are chasing: surf all you can, abandon all else. Saviour lies in the waves.
But ask yourself this: if Kelly Slater, the man who has all you want and more, can’t find salvation in the ocean, how will you?
If Kelly still wonders Why, then we know two things – surfing is not the answer, and neither is mastery.
Somehow, one of the most talented, wealthy and handsome men of our lifetime, a god in a sport of kings, is still just trying to find peace.
That’s not only a compelling story, but a valuable lesson for all of us.