There's a lot to be said for the North Shore of Oahu, destination-wise. The food is surprisingly tasty. The landscape is wet, tangled, ropy and green, writhing suggestively in a mist of sex aromas -- cut plants, sea water, clay dirt shiny with wet minerals. The ocean is a cool pool-temperature, around 68 degrees, and supposedly, on the breaks of Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline, it boasts some of the best, biggest, gnarliest and most deadly waves in the world, which is why the G-Shock Triple Crown of Surfing competition is held there at the end of every year. It's the biggest surf event of the season.
Unfortunately, I wouldn't know about the goddamned big waves on the North Shore. I went to cover the final Association of Surfing Professionals surf contest of the year at Pipeline, and six out of seven days I was there the sea was flat, flat, flat -- apart from a few puppy-ripples you might find on a 50-foot potato chip. The Pacific Ocean doesn't love you. The ocean doesn't care that today is the Superbowl of surfing and it is the field; it says "ha ha ha ha" and rolls away to attack Venezuela where they don't want anything to do with it.
The small North Shore community has the feel of a condominium poolside singles scene. The people listen to a lot of "Jawaiian" music, which is a kind of audio drip torture created by extracting all the soul from reggae standards and adding ukuleles. There is such a "laid-back" island attitude that many of the inhabitants treat the sandy island like a big hotel ashtray and, in a carefree fashion, leave big viscous globs of filthy surf wax under the restaurant tables, that you might rub up against them unawares and ruin your pants.
The North Shore also has whores. We saw one right off, a hip-weaving brunette cat-walking the side of the main road along the beach with a hard expression of crystallized pornography, wearing nothing but a turquoise string bikini, black eyeliner and a pair of red 6-inch fuck-me platforms. A truck stopped for her and she got in.
The surfing world is not really covered by any major press, save surf magazines. Even in the Honolulu paper, the front page headline one contest day was "Christmas Trees Selling"; the surf results were buried around Page B6. Famous surfers are famous almost exclusively to other surfers, surf-mag readers, sponsors and interested locals, so they hang around in the restaurants of the small North Shore town of Haliewa fairly unguarded, close enough to breathe on; no entourage armies or swarms of pie-eyed little girls.
Even the wildly photogenic six-time world champ, water-djinn and Pam Anderson Lee-ex, Kelly Slater, rates fairly low in the mainstream public consciousness compared with other sorcerers of sport. Slater is surfing's Michael Jordan, its most transcendental practitioner ever, but the ASP and/or surfing's annual world championship tour has virtually no corporate infrastructure comparable to the NBA's. So to the average tourist, the Holy Slater is just a freakishly good-looking young guy with a cell phone.
The first legend I spotted in Haliewa was big-wave stud Brock Little, who looked like a piece of animated driftwood. He'd been absolutely chiseled by the teeth of the ocean, physically and spiritually -- he had the look of somebody who's died six or seven times already and is now a project of voodoo scientists, running on some whole other ghost chemical. All the blood in his body has been removed and replaced with concentrated adrenaline and a clear, high-octane bionic fluid made from denatured testosterone and the distilled essences of his dead friends, which makes him beautiful and creepy to look upon.
When it isn't completely flat and eventless, Pipeline is the mother of all dangerous surf zones. The area boasts a huge tubing wave, which when it's doing what it's supposed to do, stands up a couple of stories high, throws its white lip over itself and makes a perfect "Hawaii Five-O" circle that accelerates into a howling Niagara then crushes down into hard, chunky spray -- like an imploding concrete building -- as it nears the shore. The reef underneath it is hard and nasty and lethal, covered with weirdly shaped rocks and deadly little caves an unfortunate surfer can get sucked into.
The day before we arrived there was a flurry of casualties: Cory Lopez, the sullen son of Florida and one of my personal favorites, broke his nose when his board snapped up and bashed him in the face and out of the contest. Taj Burrow, another top contender, slammed his ass very badly on the reef. Derek Ho, a native local hero who has won the Pipe Masters competition enough times in the past to feel real comfortable, almost drowned when he bounced off the reef and his foot leash got caught on a rock. He went to the hospital with a head injury and lungs full of ocean.
On the last day of our stay, the ocean graciously kicked in again and we were able to see 32 of the ASP top 44 whittled down in eight hours of heats to 16.
The state of surfing that day seemed to be a general contentedness under the reign of Occy -- aka Mark Occhilupo -- the lovable Australian "Sesame Street" monster, who had just been crowned 1999's World Champion. Basically, every surfer in the ASP, even the most gargantuanly bitter, entitlement-barking horror egos like Sunny Garcia, are pretty happy about this.
Occy made a positively stellar surf comeback after being a fat, depressed guy on a couch for several years, and is now a sunshiny example of plucky human triumph; everything is fair and right within a world in which Occy earned his champhood at 33. Kelly Slater didn't do the ASP tour in 1999 or try for the title, and this prompts the terrible question: Is anyone really world champ in any way other than ceremonially if Slater didn't surf? Slater reserved himself for choice surf events in '99, in which he competed as a "wild card." Naturally, he was there at Pipeline, lending star aura, being the big dog in the park.
There is a dumb but enjoyable surf movie called "North Shore," where a dopily sincere blond boy from an Arizona wave pool comes to the North Shore as a hick-weed nobody and soul-surfs his way to Pipeline domination. This was very nearly the case with cuddly Aussie newcomer Zane Harrison, a DiCaprio-cute, blond beach-bunny boy -- a total unknown until he conquered the Sunset Beach Jewel of the Triple Crown and the Pipeline trials.
Overnight, he became a surf-porn centerfold, competing against the biggest faces of the spitterati ("spit" is the name given to the white stuff a tube hurls at you after you ride through it) and giving bashful autographs to big gushing blond surf-groupie, free-love hippie chicks with hardly any clothes on.
There were several thousand people on the beach, listening to a Brazilian announcer provide a weird, non sequitur rambling narration for each surf heat, particularly when fellow Brazilian Victor Ribas pulled into a tube and didn't come out: "Look at heem stand up. Proud he is. Victor, he jut do the job. He jut pull it in and die inside. Also, you must remember to buy Vans fine footwear, appropriate for all situation and occasion, Vans, yes, they keep you looking great."
There was some early drama when Trevor Knox popped an eardrum, and Brock Little towed him into shore on a Jet Ski. He stumbled onto the beach holding his head with two people supporting him under the arms; later, everyone learned he hadn't lost his equilibrium.
Andy Irons, a Hawaiian-born bruiser who underperformed at the beginning of the year because he was totally drunk, had the perfect-10 scoring wave of the day. He's better now, his blood has been laundered, he's clean, bathed, focused and no longer sporting those tragic 3 a.m. self-haircuts that made him look like he'd been taken to the vet for stitches.
He began on a big second-reef wave, way offshore, looking like a tiny speck, then zigzagged up and down the wave and got closer and closer to the beach. Finally the wave obliged him and made a little, wobbly barrel-tube (crucial for point accumulation), and he slid inside and vanished and everyone on the beach thought it would close out and eat him -- we were all beginning to feel disappointed.
Suddenly, Andy shot happily out the other side with his arms up and it was wholly magical. Everyone started screaming. It was as if he'd just turned the island upside down like a snow globe and shook the ocean until it did what he needed it to do.
Old surf hero Gerry Lopez, the Godfather of Pipeline and the man for whom Mountain Dew named the Pipe Masters contest, was casually slouching and shuffling around like beloved beach royalty; egoless, beatnik-suave, in faded surf shorts and an old T-shirt. He was lovingly flanked by wrinkled, long-in-the-tooth white hula ladies in bright bikinis and hand-clasped by starry-eyed young men, and he made funny, humble comments over the loudspeaker. He might as well have been in a bathrobe in his living room, he was so ultracasual, despite the fact that the surf cognoscenti were weepy and trembling in his presence.
Watching Kelly Slater in the water was kind of ridiculous -- he does things that look physically wrong. Nature has a crush on him and is obeying him. Waves that don't come for anybody else come for Slater, and he bats them around gleefully, with a scalpel-clean precision that nobody else has.
Later, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting and eating with the Surfers, a musical trio composed of Kelly Slater, perennial ASP top 16er Rob Machado and big-mouth, fun-boy surf monkey Peter King. In Japan, the Surfers are huge. In the States, their label fucked them over and nothing happened, just like any other band, the usual dismal reaming by the iron-fanged dildo of the music industry.
Kelly Slater was nothing like I thought he'd be. Much as I loathe blowing gold up anyone's ass and digressing into hapless fan-girl twaddle, I have to say Kelly Slater is superhumanly cool. My previous impression of him, from magazines and videos, was that he was incredibly distracted by his Otherworldly Communication with the Ocean, which I figured took up at least 75 percent of his total brainpower, and made him kind of a weird, shapeless personality, glazy-eyed and only about 12 percent present.
Socially, I had expected him to be a thick, simple genius type: I sit here with a placid smile beautified and incoherent behind my sapphire wall of athletic godhood, thinking things only dolphins would comprehend, and am therefore totally boring.
I theorized that Pamela Anderson Lee, his last girlfriend, dumped him because he was this sanctified type of boring. This is not the case; he's fascinating, funny as hell, scarily bright, totally there, ready with the relaxed one-liners and spot-on impersonations.
He and Gerry Lopez both reminded me of the Zen idea that Zen masters are like great stand-up comics -- they are so preternaturally relaxed and flowingly in tune with the cosmos, they always have an ironic, sublime zinger in their pocket ready to ignite the dinner table. Some surfers have it too; I reckon a constant awareness of death will make you a funny guy.
Since comparatively few people know what a Thing it is to be alive in the time of Kelly Slater (Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, etc., the Great Sports Personality, the Realized Man), he has no toxic star aura; you can sit at a dinner table with him and feel at ease and interrupt him and you never feel like you couldn't steal a parking place from him, or sock him in the thigh as punctuation.
I was appalled to find that there are really no grubby, humanizing aspects of Kelly Slater. I always look for the flaw in the Wall of Wonder, the dirty little thing that makes the star more like me. OK, Pamela Anderson Lee ditched him to get pimp-slapped by Tommy some more. OK, he's got a goofy, irony-free music project, and he played himself on TV on "Baywatch" for a while, ha ha ha, snicker snicker. But Slater is so open about all this stuff that there is no use trying to tie it on him as some kind of bib of shame. It's just more evidence of his superior well-roundedness, his not taking himself too seriously.
Even Kelly Slater's glaring deficiencies are fucking cool, revoltingly enough. It is wholly disconcerting to see that much unflawedness coagulated in one human being. Disgusting, really.
I found myself easily divulging embarrassing personal information to Slater in the course of conversation, just because an intimate chat with him naturally swerves toward death and mortality and religion; it's everyday stuff for him in his workaday world, like a jammed Xerox machine for the rest of us.
"What's the longest you've ever been held under, Kelly?" I asked.
"Not very long. Around 15 seconds, I guess. It's never the big waves you think are going to hold you under that hold you under, it's the little, innocuous-looking ones." (Ah, yes. Applicable to art and life. He's always inadvertently spouting off these multileveled walnuts of experiential folk wisdom and esoteric universal law.)
"Kelly Slater is the horniest guy in surfing," Peter King whispered to me, across the table.
I got some gossip out of the group. Apparently, California hard-ass surfers Christian Fletcher and Flea Virotsko hate each other so much that they have decided to do a no-holds-barred fight wherein they get locked into a cage and thrash the living shit out of each other until one of them isn't moving anymore. The winner will get $10,000; the loser will get $5000. (Gentle Readers, your author hopes to cover this event for you.)
All the big boys at Surfer magazine are running far away from the magazine, quitting en masse, chucking 40 years of tradition (now kneecapped by corporate disease) in favor of a new online surf mag slated to come out in the spring called Swell, and held aloft by Japanese money. Only the Japanese care about keeping our better, more isolated American art forms alive; rare jazz, surfing, rockabilly hairdos. America places no value on its own genuine blasts of culture, and therefore will eventually have none.
Big blond Chris Malloy, the earnest John Boy Walton of the ASP, said he was using the bathroom and he heard someone say, "I just saw a table full of all the guys from Surfer magazine, and Kelly Slater was over there totally kissing their asses!"
"Man, I'm just trying to get a quarter-page picture! That's all!" squealed Kelly. Everybody laughed, kissing Kelly's ass, knowing he's the axis upon which their whole commercial world spun for the last few years. There is, in the surfing world, a love/hate relationship with what little press there is; it is both too much and not enough. There is barely a surf industry to speak of, but those surfers who actively court photo opportunities are regarded as the worst, most laughable kinds of whores.
I got to talking to Slater about Trevor Sifton, one of the most (or least, depending how you look at it) legendary surfers on the North Shore, and maybe the only surfer Slater suspects is cooler than himself. Sifton is an "international male model" of absurd beauty and a hallowed big-wave masochist who has never, ever let himself be shot for surf magazines. He continually haunts the most obscure, lethal and remote areas to surf all alone, and is self-professedly "anti-ego" to the point of total obscurity, except to the surfers who are in awe of him, who've paddled out to the heaviest, most fearful, hidden outside waves found in nature and discovered Trevor sitting there already, camped out like a hermit on the wet mountaintop, executing drops that others would need a crowd on the beach and board shorts electro-charged with unclean Fame Nerves to pull off. Trevor's always been doing it, and still does; no leash, no cameras, no endorsements, and nobody watching. Just him and the ocean -- looking better than God, if you paddle out far enough to see him.
"I don't think he's ever had his picture in a magazine," mused Slater admiringly, mindful of his own glossy uber-presence.
The day I left the North Shore, they ran the finals. Kelly Slater loop-de-looped to victory, capping off a perfect-10 ride with an aerial 360 against poor Occy, who had surfed his ass off to no avail. (It was Slater's record-making fifth Pipe Masters title.) Sweet, all-too-human Occy was so saddened and demoralized he left the beach without a word, knowing all too well that he was world champ only because Slater had flung the title away like a chew toy that had lost its squeak.
Kelly was onto other things, fighting crime, banishing demons, reinventing golf, somersaulting in the air over fields of poppies. Whatever a perfect fucker like Kelly does. "Stay hidden. Be Trevorina Sifton," was one of the last things Slater said to me.
Oh, yeah. We should all be so cool.