SB Nation

Joe Spring | April 15, 2014

The Deadliest Wave

Champion surfers Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning face Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline for the 2013 crown

The Deadliest Wave

Champion surfers Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning face Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline for the 2013 crown

by Joe Spring

To a casual spectator standing on Oahu's North Shore, Banzai Pipeline's picture-perfect barrels might all look the same — steep faces rising up fast and curling into powerful tubes. Surfers moving through the waves might look repetitive — a drop, a turn and a line; a drop, a turn and a wipeout; a drop, a turn and a line; a drop a turn and a wipeout.

But as every surfer who has ridden through a Pipeline barrel knows, each wave is an unpredictable force in the throes of arrhythmic flux. Pulses of energy have traveled unimpeded through the ocean for hundreds to thousands of miles up to this spot, where they struggle against winds, reefs and each other as they funnel into unique shapes that explode with the speed and irregularity of a racing heartbeat. Each surfer's path through the ever-changing barrel is unique. Each must glean cues from the wave's slightest wrinkles and react in milliseconds. Those subtle moves of mere inches can mean the difference between a fatal blow and the rush of a lifetime.

Those subtle moves of mere inches can mean the difference between a fatal blow and the rush of a lifetime.

A surfer can't possibly take everything in. Even if one could, the wave is always different. Cues that offered rewards in the past might result in punishments in the future. Only one thing is certain. To surf the most beautiful line through this most dangerous wave, surfers must push back fear and commit to the possibility of something uncertain.

"When you spend time and you're familiar with something, you know how it's going to act and react, and how you're going to act and react, so you're probably going to have a greater chance of playing the odds well," said American surfer Kelly Slater. "But no one ever feels like they have mastered Pipeline. I don't think anyone will ever feel that way. There's always some little bit more you can push it."

Entering the last contest of the 2013 season, Slater and Australian Mick Fanning would learn just how far they could push.

Only the two men earned enough points during the 2013 season for a chance to win the Association of Surfing Professionals crown. Their finish in the final event, the Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons, would determine the world champion. Fanning had never before won the event, and he did not need to. Simply reaching the semifinals would give him his first title. Kelly Slater had won the contest six times. He needed to win and hope another surfer knocked Fanning out before the semis.

Though there was plenty of talk of a rivalry before the event, the men had to test themselves less against each other, and, more significantly, against the third and most powerful character in this drama ... Banzai Pipeline. The wave, and how each man approached it, would determine the champion.

Just after 9 a.m. on Tuesday Dec. 10, Fanning checked in to get a light blue jersey with "1" on the back, a reference to his standing in the season-long points competition. He focused his blue eyes forward on the ocean, short blond hair glistening in the sun. As he did, his chiseled face froze into an intense expression. He tied a knot into the back of the black and blue jersey, pulling it tight around the torso of his lean 5'10, 161-pound frame. Everything about the 32-year-old, from his gaze to his build, suggested the single-minded focus and myopia of the driver of a Formula One car.

He tucked his board under his right arm and jogged toward the shore through an opening in the security fence. Photographers followed. His own mother left him alone as he ran along the beach. He stopped roughly 20 feet from the water and spiked the board in the sand. He lay down on his back and swung his legs one over the other. He moved into a butterfly sitting position, closed his eyes, and rubbed his hands together in front of him. His expression offered no hint that he was looking back, imagining the most positive moments spent with friends, family and his wife.

Surfflanning2_mediumMick Fanning has a moment of reflection before his first heat.

He then opened his eyes and stood up to the reality in front of him. The lip of a double-overhead wave hit Australian surfer Bede Durbidge in the head. Fanning watched as Durbidge emerged from the surf and stumbled toward shore. The announcer said blood was dripping out of his ear.

Fanning held his board in front of him and scratched the wax on top. He walked onto the wet sand and rubbed his feet like a bull getting ready to charge. A four-wheeler carted Durbidge along the beach. Fanning flashed a thumb up and then ran into the surf and paddled out toward Pipeline.

The contest unfolds like a tournament, with heats matching surfers against each other in the waves. Fanning defeated Hawaiian Kaimana Jaquias in his first heat, paddled back to shore, and then shook the hand of surfer Kieren Perrow, whose arm was in a sling after a wave ripped it out of its socket. As Fanning started to give an interview, Jack Johnson's "Holes to Heaven" played over the speakers.

Big Hawaiians in red shirts, with "Protection Specialist" written on the back in white, guarded the openings in the fence near where the pro surfers checked in and met the press. Surf company reps often waited behind them with branded hats and shirts, ready to hand the athletes something with a logo to don post-heat, thumbs twitching with anticipation. The crowd switched in and out, keeping the scents of sweat and sunscreen in constant flux. Men in board shorts and T-shirts, boys with pictures and pens, and women in bikinis and little else all took turns crowding against the fence for a chance to take a photo, get an autograph or just be seen.

Kelly Slater descended stairs maybe 50 feet from Fanning. Second in points to the leader, Slater put on a red and black jersey with "2" on the back. People cheered and their energy increased. Someone in the crowd shouted, "I love you, Kelly!" Slater flashed a smile and offered a head nod. His blue eyes darted between faces. A lithe 5'9 and 159 pounds, his easy movement suggested the malleable, multi-directional strength of a ballet dancer. He grabbed his board and walked just feet from Fanning, through the side opening in the fence, and spectators flocked to him like iron shavings to a magnet.

If Fanning filtered out the noise, Slater fed off it, at least at the start. Fanning's mom and manager, Elizabeth Osborne, greeted Slater. He asked her for a hug. Once near the water, he crouched down, his board in front of him on his knees with his arms over it. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. Fans and photographers surrounded him and fired off a semi-automatic flurry of beeps and clicks. Sometimes he hears people say he is praying. He is not.

Slater did not grow up in a religious household. His mother said he came up with this meditative routine on his own, when still a boy. He clearly remembers the first time he was questioned about it. He was 14 and late to a heat at a big competition. Rather than running straight out to the water, he stopped to meditate. His coach said, "What are you doing?"

As Slater crouched down, he imagined the word "no" written in the sand. Then, in his mind, he imagined the sand shifting, changing into the word "yes."

Surfslater3_mediumKelly Slater stares out into the Pipeline before the competition.


After Slater and Fanning advanced through two heats, that afternoon event organizers started rubbing their hands together. Forecasters predicted that a weather system off the coast of Japan would move east across the Pacific Ocean and send winds out at speeds of 40 to 55 knots. A storm the size of Alaska promised to bombard Oahu's North Shore with 10 to 18-foot waves packing 1,000 miles or more of pent-up energy. Officials delayed the remaining heats a few days, waiting until Saturday, when the athletes would be tested, the crowd would be bigger and online viewership would skyrocket as Pipeline exploded into giant, picture-perfect tubes.

The wave against which all other waves in the world are compared builds on a meteorological whim and forms courtesy of millions of years of chance. Roughly four million years ago, plumes of lava began rising out of the ocean floor and hardening, forming the steeply sloping island of Oahu. Most continental shorelines have long, gradually sloping shelves that temper approaching ocean energy. Not Oahu. A bump in the middle of the Pacific, waves come at full bore.

"There is enough water and energy in each wave to light up Honolulu or put your lights out."

At Pipeline, off Ehukai Beach Park in Pupukea, only a half-dozen reefs buffer the coast. In winter, waves advance over those reefs like rows of charging soldiers over hilly terrain. They rise up in shallow water over the reefs and bend forward in deeper channels around the reefs. Straight swells advancing from the west, northwest, and north curl in at their ends and focus the brunt of their power into the reef that begets Pipeline, only 200 feet from the beach. "And it (the wave) is only 70 yards either way, but there is enough water and energy in each wave to light up Honolulu or put your lights out," said North Shore lifeguard and big wave surfer Dave Wassel.

Waves that regularly reach 10 feet or more in height break so close to shore that spectators can hear surfers yelling at each other in the lineup, see them bleeding after the wave rag dolls them over the reef, or feel the exhilaration as they get blasted out of a tube in a cloud of spray, arms in the air.

To ride the wave well, a surfer must read the direction of the incoming swell, make a judgment on which way the lip might curl, and commit to a line down the face. That often means dropping under a curling peak that regularly breaks backs. The slightest hesitation or misjudgment can result in severe injury or death.

It is not uncommon. Pipeline is often called the deadliest surf spot on the planet. According to "The Encyclopedia of Surfing," on average a surfer dies here every other year. On a single December day in 1998, 30 surfers were injured.

The reason is thick, powerful waves exploding with lightning quickness over a reef just 3 to 6 feet below the ocean's surface. It's spiked with anvils and pockmarked with holes. The wave often slams surfers down into the reef, sometimes snapping bone, sometimes scalping skulls, sometimes driving them into caves. If a surfer fights toward the surface for air without looking up, he or she might strike an overhanging ledge, pass out and drown. "God must be a surfer," said retired North Shore lifeguard Mark Cunningham, who manned the nearby Ehukai Beach lifeguard tower for 19 years. "On the really big days, on days like yesterday, I'm surprised the ambulance isn't pulling up here five times a day."

Oceanographers say the bigger surprise is that the reef is still around. It's not even a living reef. About 100,000 years ago, sea level dropped 400 feet as the earth cooled and glaciers grew, exposing the reef to air, killing the coral. Over time, sand covered it, dunes formed, and everything hardened into limestone. Then, as sea levels rose again, coralline algae, a regenerating layer of life harder than concrete, coated the rock. "That protects the limestone from being smashed into smithereens and eroded away," said University of Hawaii oceanographer Ricky Grigg.

Grigg was one of the first men to surf the break in 1961. He ended up on the spring 1962 cover of Surfing magazine with the headline, "New Big Surf Spot: Banzai Pipeline." In the 1970s, he watched as surf contests and traveling surfers exploded. Lifeguards tried to keep visiting surfers away from their prized big waves by downplaying their size, measuring the back of the wave, rather than the taller face.

"That's the real danger, to the spectators, and no one's even talked about that."

The lifeguards must pay as much attention to big waves as to powerful ocean currents. Near Pipeline, those currents sweep north up the coast at speeds up to 6 or 7 knots. They rip the sand off the beach and steal people from the surf. "I've seen more than one guy die because of those moods," said Grigg. "Not only do they not care, the waves, but they do not remember."

Grigg vividly remembers the day of March 23, 1973. He watched as a rogue set rushed up and stole four women off the edge of the beach nearby, pulling them away at a speed of 4 knots, faster than most people can swim. Grigg and a few others jumped in the water to try to save the women, and he pulled a pregnant woman back onshore, but she was not breathing. All four women died. When the oceanographer watches the Pipeline Masters and sees rogue sets occasionally drench spectators on the beach, he worries. "It's a miracle that no one has drowned."

"That's the real danger, to the spectators, and no one's even talked about that," said Grigg. "But the lifeguards talk a lot about it."

Surfrainbow_mediumA competitor paddles out into the Pipeline.


Three days before the heats that would decide the world title, Mick Fanning leaned back on a plush tan leather couch and put his feet up on a coffee table in a nearby beach house. He joked with a friend and passed around a cell phone photo of his new home on Australia's Gold Coast, on the Pacific in southeastern Queensland.

Fanning's parents separated when he was 2, and he lived with his mom. He was scared of the waves, but started surfing at age 5 to gain acceptance from his four older brothers.

When he was 12, his family moved to the Gold Coast. His 16-year-old brother Sean had a tryout with Quiksilver, a surf clothing company looking for young surfers to sponsor. Mick asked to be dropped off at a nearby soccer tryout. He had the date wrong, so he surfed instead. After returning to shore, the scouts asked him how it was going on tour. "I was like, ‘Oh, you're looking for my brother,'" Fanning said. "And they were like, ‘Oh, is that your brother?' We'd like to sponsor you, too."

"That hasn't been taught. He's too young. That's in his DNA."

Two years later, surf coach Phil McNamara spotted greatness in Fanning based on one move, a sweeping S-shaped maneuver called a roundhouse cutback. McNamara had spotted a surfing star in that move before, identifying future ASP champion Mark Occhilupo at 16 years old. Fanning was doing the move better, and at a younger age. "He was doing these beautifully controlled maneuvers, on big waves, too," said McNamara, while sitting outside the house later that afternoon watching the waves. "And had a feel for a surfboard at a young age that you just go, ‘That hasn't been taught. He's too young. That's in his DNA.'"

Fanning had a poster of Slater in his room, but named his dog after Taylor Knox, a California surfer known for clean, powerful lines. He wore out VHS cassettes watching Knox's cuts and carves. "I'd just rewind it and rewind it," he said.

Mick's brother Sean set up a surf class at school to keep younger athletes from skipping. McNamara eventually came in as the teacher. The coach identified two weaknesses in Mick. The teen employed poor wave selection in contests, a result of growing up on the Gold Coast when some of the best surfers in the world protected the waves with their fists. And if Fanning didn't complete a maneuver perfectly, he'd quit. "His pride, or the embarrassment of it, would end up in him giving up on the whole wave," McNamara said.

When Mick was 16, Sean died in a fatal car accident. Mick rarely left home for months because he was worried that something bad might happen, but his friends pulled him back into the water. He recommitted to surfing, adopting his brother's work ethic. "I just wanted to do things right," said Fanning.

Fanning worked and reworked every move McNamara threw his way, becoming the coaches' textbook. McNamara called out a maneuver and Fanning executed it in the surf. McNamara threw Fanning variations, and the teen learned how to salvage tricks from imperfectly executed moves, allowing him to milk the maximum number of points from every wave. "He couldn't be hurt anymore, so he didn't fear losing, he didn't fear his reputation being laughed at, he didn't fear what people thought of his surfing, and as a result he just became the most devastating, cold competitor," said McNamara.

Fanning looked up from the couch and smiled. His wife, Karissa, walked in the living room. She wore a white summer dress and her brown hair was pulled back.

"How was traffic?" Fanning said, referring to the gridlock on Kamehameha Highway.

"Awesome," she said. He smiled. She lay down on the couch with her head on his leg. Fanning moved his left arm up to put around her. Two tattoos peeked out from under the sleeve of his gray T-shirt. One tattoo had "Sean", written in black. The other had his family crest, a yellow shield with three white doves and a white line in the middle. He knew the yellow stood for courage, but wasn't sure about the rest.

"You going to come in on this interview?" Fanning said.

"Are you doing an interview? I didn't realize," Karissa said. Her blue eyes searched for a path out. "I have some work to do." She walked away. Fanning laughed.

Fanning drifted away from McNamara for a few years, spending his time, partying and surfing, but eventually he got serious again and reconnected with his coach. In 2002, he made the ASP World Tour and won the Rookie of the Year. In 2003, he finished fourth. Then in June 2004, he wiped out in Indonesia. He did the splits on his board and the lip of the wave landed on top of him, hyperextending his left leg until his hamstring ripped off the bone. A doctor had to drill a hole in his hip and reattach the muscle using a metal grappling hook, which is still there.

Surffanning02_mediumMick Fanning surfs the Pipeline during his rookie season in 2002.

Fanning didn't know whether he would surf again. Alone and depressed, he eventually committed to a healthier lifestyle, met Karissa and returned to the ocean.

In 2005, he rejoined the tour and finished third behind Slater and Andy Irons two years in a row. "I didn't know how to win," Fanning said. "I was always thinking, ‘How do I get over them? How do I get over them?' And it was very, very draining."

He thought back to 2003, when he had lived with Irons in the Red Bull house on the North Shore. On the way to his second of three world titles in a row, Irons walked around with an aura Fanning didn't understand. "If you ever walk into a dressing shed before a football game, that's what it felt like, but he was like that for six weeks, and it was just him," Fanning said.

In 2007, Fanning adopted Irons' single-minded approach in a selfish quest for the crown. He stopped hanging out with friends. At family gatherings, he wasn't in the room. "It was a little bit like walking on eggshells around him," Karissa said. "You didn't know what to say and do, and you didn't want to kind of upset the frame of mind that he was in."

His friends and family didn't mind the practice, the seven-days-a-week routine he has developed with McNamara where he performs move after move in wave after wave as his coach watches intently while keeping detailed notes and stats. And they didn't mind his regular workouts packed with agility drills, yoga and breath training. They worried about the way the waves kept running through his mind when he was out of the water, leaving him distant and distracted.

In 2007, he won the world title, but wasn't able to turn off his singular focus during the offseason. Karissa hit her limit and sat him down. "It was kind of like, ‘Where does your job start and where does your life fit into that?'" she said.

McNamara, who had seen many high-performance athletes ruined by an all-consuming passion to win, said Fanning was in danger of burning out. "It's obvious that love is the other great driving influence in a young man's life," he said. "There is success and there's love."

Fanning continued to work just as hard with McNamara, sometimes spending an entire season perfecting a move before trying it in competition. High-level surfing requires the same kind of dedication as any other sport, and the moves that appear seamless and natural are the result of months or years of hard work. After working on individual moves alone, the pair often selects a series of moves for Fanning to practice surfing in a sophisticated line. Then they practice the line again and again with up to five back-up options for each move. All of the training creates a level of familiarity, so that when Fanning surfs a contest and something unexpected happens, he is prepared to adapt. Layers of skill inform his innate feel for a wave.

It took longer for Fanning to learn how to turn completely off on non-competition days, but six years after vowing that he would change and marrying Karissa, he appears to have succeeded. "It's probably been able to extend his life in competitive surfing," said McNamara. "If he wins his third world title, it's probably because he's changed his world-life balance practices."

Surffanning1_mediumMick Fanning in the Pipeline during the 2013 competition.


Kelly Slater walked onto the beach and flinched. Retired lifeguard Mark Cunningham, a familiar face at Pipeline, had just thrown a branch near him. Slater picked up a branch and playfully threw it back at Cunningham. A big set rolled over a break near Pipeline called Rocky's. "It looks like 10 feet over there," Slater said.

"It has its moments," said Cunningham.

The 11-time world champion entered a crouched position — his feet on the sand, his butt hanging behind him, and his arms held around his knees. Slater, at the time 41, doesn't share his precise fitness routine, but credits his diet for his longevity. As a boy, he didn't care — he would wake up and blend chocolate ice cream, cookies and brownies into a shake. Then, in his early 20s, he bought a $1 cassette in a health food store and said it changed his life. "I don't eat too much sugar," he said. "I take a lot of supplements, and those supplements are all food-based supplements."

Slater first stood up on a Styrofoam board at the age of five. His mother, Judy Slater Lane, flipped burgers at the Islander Hut in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and watched out the window as Kelly and his older brother, Sean, surfed. Kelly stayed in the ocean for hours at a time, showing a level of concentration that made him different from other kids.

Home life was often rough. Slater's father, Steve, drank a lot. Judy sometimes picked up a drunken Steve early in the morning, sometimes after he had been with another woman, returned home, and drove the kids to school late.

On nights when Steve got really bad at home, Judy took the kids into a bedroom, turned off the lights, and cut open a plastic glow stick. "I'd throw it all over the room and it looked like stars everywhere," she said. "And then we'd all lay on the bed looking at it, and it kind of calmed everybody. It left marks everywhere, but I didn't care."

At 10, Slater won the first of six Eastern Surfing Association Championships. At 11, his parents divorced. A year later, he won the first of four amateur national titles.

"I put all of my eggs in one basket. I wanted to know every aspect of Pipeline."

Slater arrived in Hawaii at age 12 in 1984, a rising star who had already appeared in surf magazines. "I remember seeing him surf out here and he was faster and more fluid and connecting sections that no one else was getting close to," said Cunningham.

The North Shore was surfing's Broadway and Slater recognized Pipeline as the top show. It was often a key stop on the world tour, offered a large purse and served as a focal point for large winter swells and crowds. "I put all of my eggs in one basket," he said. "I wanted to know every aspect of Pipeline."

Over the next decade, he worked from small bumps to giant tubes. He loved the low-work to high-risk to high-reward ratio. It was a short paddle to an adrenaline-packed drop down a steep face and into a barrel that could collapse and knock his lights out or spit him forward at the speed of a car on nearby Kamehameha Highway. "I got here and went, ‘Pipeline is my deal,'" he said. "It's the wave of your life if you get a good wave at Pipeline."

He arrived at the right time. In the ‘80s and early-‘90s, only a few dozen surfers sat in the lineup and took turns. Slater could catch wave after wave and learn how to adapt to the intricacies created by different storms, tides and winds. Now, on a given day more than 100 surfers may be in the water at the same time. "One hour out there now is not equal to one hour back in 1990 when I was out there every day," he said.

Surfslater94_mediumKelly Slater surfs in California in 1994.

Complex combinations of swells from all over the North Pacific hit the reef and burst into tubes. A wave might spool to the left, to the right, or both directions at once. Slater learned to read whatever the ocean threw his way, developing an affinity for the wave in the way that a veteran major league hitter who has owned a pitcher can better predict what that pitcher will throw and how the ball will move.

"Someone who has been surfing there for five years knows the rules," said Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Texas at Austin. "Someone who has been surfing there for 20-something years knows all the rules, plus all of the exceptions to those rules and when those exceptions are important."

At Pipeline, Slater usually hopes for a predominantly west swell met by a pulse from the north that leads to triple overhead waves forming clean, extending tubes. When he rides through such a barrel, he is always searching. "For surfing you want some sort of anomaly on the wave, to turn off of," he said. "Something different to help you get a higher score."

Psychologists refer to Slater and Fanning as sensation seekers, people who feed off a high level of stimulation and risk. At Pipeline, they get a rush from both the speed and the danger. The rush from danger may come at two points, from the anticipation of possibly being crunched as they enter the wave and from the realization that they have successfully avoided being crunched as they exit the wave. Both possibilities likely trigger squirts of dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter, in the brain. "When you are really wanting or looking forward to doing something, dopamine is really playing a role in that, in energizing you to make the behavior," said Poldrack. "And then when you actually receive the reward, then it actually strengthens what you did to receive that reward." That's probably one of the reasons why each surfer wants to surf day after day.

Poldrack's experiments show the same brain systems activated by avoiding danger are also activated by winning, a complex process involving many regions of the brain and many chemicals. Dopamine, for instance, is associated with desire. It fires with the anticipation of a reward to inspire work, and also fires after a reward to encourage more wanting. According to a 2011 talk by Stanford neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, "Dopamine is not about pleasure, it's about the anticipation of pleasure. It's about the pursuit of happiness, rather that happiness itself."

Experiments have showed that the introduction of uncertainty can cause a spike in dopamine, bolstering desire. For an athlete surfing Pipeline, a wave that often unexpectedly closes out and pummels the surfer, dopamine may work in the same way.

"Dopamine is not about pleasure, it's about the anticipation of pleasure. It's about the pursuit of happiness, rather that happiness itself."

Dopamine also plays a role in memory. Friends say that Slater has an uncanny ability to remember surprisingly small details in waves. In general, when someone encounters something novel, dopamine squirts and goes to places in the brain like the hippocampus, where memories are formed, and memory formation turns up a notch.

After hearing Slater's motivation to look for new features at Pipeline, Poldrack offered a hypothetical. "As you surf the wave as long as he has, and you develop this really tuned model, if you can start to see really fine anomalies, there is something somewhat attention grabbing and potentially rewarding," he said. "At least in the sense of doing the things that dopamine does to turn up your likelihood of doing things again? You get those from novelty."

Friends say nothing raises Slater's competitive streak more than new, young talent on the rise. After winning six ASP titles, Slater left the sport in the late-‘90s, yet he continued to surf Pipeline as a wildcard and watched as brash young surfer Andy Irons kept improving. "I don't think there was anybody who knew Andy that wouldn't say he was the rawest," said Slater. "I didn't come back because of Andy, but at that time, Andy was the eye."

In 2002, as his father was dying of cancer, Slater returned to the tour full time. In the mid-2000s, Irons won four Pipeline Masters and three world titles, becoming the biggest rival of Slater's career. "He's the only person I ever trained to beat," said Slater.

Slater won the overall crown back from Irons in 2005, and has won four more titles since, both the youngest and oldest surfer ever to hold the title. Beginning in 2007, Fanning joined the men at the top of the sport, winning his first championship. "You always feel that he's super confident," Slater said of Fanning. "He's not going to ever flick his board and give up. Andy would do that." In 2009, Fanning won the title again, but in 2010, Irons died in a Dallas hotel room of drug-related cardiac arrest. Multiple prescription and illegal drugs were found in his system, including cocaine and methamphetamine.

Now, the crown often comes down to Fanning or Slater. They might not win every event, but at the end of eight of the last nine seasons, one man or the other has ended the year on top. Pipeline has been the last, and often deciding, stop on the world tour.

After an hour crouched in the sand, Slater spotted waves that suddenly made him stand up. "Look at that set," he said. "It's the biggest set I've seen."

A girl in a light blue bikini recognized the pro and walked up to ask for a photo. A few fans asked for another photo. Slater turned to walk off the beach. A father and a son approached and asked for a photo. He obliged and left, with one thought running through his head related to that big set. "Hopefully there's another one," he said.

Surfslater1_mediumKelly Slater drops into a wave during the 2013 competition.


Just after dawn on the second Saturday in December, 64-year-old Hawaiian Clyde Aikau the world's oldest competitive big wave surfer, nervously watched the ocean and listened to the repetitive thunder of 15-foot wave after 15-foot wave spooling out into white-lipped tube after white-lipped tube at Pipeline. He sat in the sand and peered through binoculars at his son's silhouette amidst several dozen others 200-feet away. Hours later, the ASP would crown the 2013 pro surfing champion here, but as the light changed, local surfers ripped through the barrels like kings.

A little more than a week earlier Aikau was the center of attention during the opening ceremony of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, named after Clyde's late brother, the legendary surfer who risked his life every which way in the water. Eddie found a life in the waves and set an example for younger Hawaiians, many of whom lacked pride in their own heritage. In 1978, he set sail on a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel, the Hōkūle‘a, and the vessel capsized in a storm. Aikau risked his life by paddling toward shore on his surfboard to get help. His body was never found.

"Children admired him," said Nainoa Thompson, a navigator on the Hōkūle‘a with Aikau. When Clyde spoke, he told the crowd his son's best friend had recently died of a drug overdose, and pleaded with parents to stay close to their children.

Behind Clyde that Saturday morning, workers set up platforms to hold cameras and punched sponsors banners in the sand. Surf company representatives walked on the porches of multi-million-dollar beachfront homes. Thousands of people crowded the shore and took pictures. Occasionally, a big wave rushed in and stole their sandals or knocked their children down. In front of the crowd, the old Hawaiian in brown board shorts and a yellow shirt watched as a triple overhead wave approached his son. He leaned forward and encouraged the risk and natural high Hawaiians shared with the world through centuries of struggle, loss and adaptation. "Rock n' roll here," Aikau called out. "C'mon. Put your head down."

Around 9 a.m., Fanning floated in the water with his opponent, C.J. Hobgood, the 10th-ranked surfer in the world and a former world champion.

In each timed heat, a surfer can ride up to 15 waves. Five judges score the rides from zero to 10, the top two combining for the final score. In general, bigger waves at Pipeline that spool into longer tubes have the potential for higher scores. Judges reward surfers for difficult drops into the wave, difficult bottom turns into the barrel, staying deeper and longer in the barrel, and for emerging with grace from the barrel opening. The variance in the waves and evolving types of surfing make it hard to pinpoint the exact nature of a point system that rewards beauty and athleticism more subjectively than most, if not all, other judged sports.

Both surfers drop into the best big waves by taking extreme risks that put them at the edge of human performance, and both are adept at adjusting to uncertainties that can mean the difference between a face plant and a victory stance. Yet Fanning and Slater each exhibit different styles surfing Pipeline. Slater often moves down and through each wave with acrobatic, graceful maneuvers that surprise. Fanning usually moves in smooth lines marked by powerful maneuvers that appear precise and calculated.

Hobgood surfed four waves and racked up high scores of 3.67 and 6.83. Fanning dropped into eight waves and got pounded by each one. His decisions looked skittish and wishful, and his highest score was only a 2.5. With just three minutes left in the heat, Fanning needed a score of eight or higher to win.

A large wave reared up. Fanning turned around to take it, but at the last second held off. The wave collapsed. He made the right choice, but left himself praying for something better.

With roughly two minutes left, a triple overhead wave bubbled at the lip as it formed. Fanning turned around and dropped into whitewash breaking down the face. The wave did not yet tube and Fanning rode straight down ahead of the advancing wall, still needing to get inside the tube just before it formed to earn a high score. Then the wave steepened. Fanning turned left onto its face as the lip pitched over him. He grabbed his rail with his right hand and pushed his heels down to drive the left edge of his board into the wave as the ocean hid him from the sun.

McNamara watched his surfer disappear. Two days before, McNamara said the judges would reward Fanning with a high score for this maneuver in this type of wave. "If you have a look at some of Mick's waves, he'll enter the wave and leave it to the last second to actually turn up into the barrel, and he doesn't have to do that," said McNamara. "He can make the wave just by taking the safe line, the easy line, but by taking the most difficult option, to delay the point where he hitches up in, it adds a degree of difficulty and it shows commitment at this place, a comfortableness with danger that is rewarded with points."

Just as the opening in the barrel collapsed, Fanning emerged from under the lip and cut a line toward the beach. He sensed victory, raised his fists in the air and his face moved from focus to exhilaration. The judges scored Fanning's last wave as a 9.5, giving him the win.

Mick Fanning's title-winning 9.5 ride

Fanning walked back up the beach for an interview. A man gave him a can of Red Bull. He accepted it and shared his plan for the next round. "I'm just going to go out there and, yeah, just try to start a little bit quicker," he said. "So I don't give everyone a heart attack in my camp."

One more victory would put him in the semifinals and assure that he had enough points to lock up the world championship. If he won , it wouldn't matter what Slater did.

In his next heat against Yadin Nicol, Fanning's camp held their collective breath. With about two minutes left he had even less time than in the previous round, and needed an even bigger score, a 9.57 or better, to move up. Fans on the beach started whistling as a large wave arrived, its lip bubbling over at the second reef out. Fanning recognized that type of wave from the last round.

Once again, he dropped down the face, this time just ahead of a surge of whitewash. He looked left, rode forward and looked left again as he rode toward the bottom. He waited and turned back up into the wave before it pitched. He cut the heel side of his board into the tube and managed his speed so the back of the board touched the whitewash inside the collapsing end of the tube, a critical placement rewarded with points. He carved toward the opening and emerged in a spit of spray. It was a wave remarkably similar to the one he caught at the end of his previous heat, but this time he stayed deeper and longer in the tube.

After the wave collapsed into roaring foam, the crowd mobbed Fanning as he waded through the water to the shore. He squinted at the judges' booth. Nothing. He cupped his left hand around his left ear. Nothing. He threw his arms out. The head judge, Richie Porta, had the judges looking at video replays of Yadin Nicol's 9.33 wave and Fanning's wave, comparing the two. The judges heard the cheers and knew from hearing the announcer the score Fanning needed to win. They knew this score could determine the world title.

The judges scored Fanning's ride a 9.7. The announcer shared the news over the P.A. Spectators lifted their arms, whistled, and cheered. Later, head ASP judge Richie Porta offered analysis of the score during a video interview. "For us, that bottom turn is just that tiny bit of difference between the two rides," he said. "Whereas Yadin drops and runs, Mick has to bottom turn up and into it."

Fanning and his coach had executed a plan based on observation and experience. On the beach, former world champion Joel Parkinson and Fanning's childhood hero Taylor Knox lifted the world champion onto their shoulders. Fanning raised his arms, an Australian flag in his right hand.

Surffanningwin_mediumMick Fanning celebrates on the beach after clinching the title.

Away from the crowds, resting in a nearby beach house with friends, Slater watched as Fanning clinched the world title, "I was able to think about it for a few minutes, to dwell on it, and then let it go and get back to the task at hand," he said.

Slater knew he could no longer win the world championship, but still wanted the Pipeline Masters title, arguably the most prestigious in pro surfing.

Slater knew he could no longer win the world championship, but still wanted the Pipeline Masters title, arguably the most prestigious in pro surfing. He also wanted one of the winner's trophies, a surfboard shaped by legendary Hawaiian Gerry Lopez featuring a painting of Andy Irons crouched on his board, surfing at Pipeline.

Slater obliterated Sebastian Zietz, 18.8 to 7.8, in the quarterfinal. In the semifinals, he knocked out 2012 world champion, Joel Parkinson, 19.67 to 14.84. Other surfers described this as signature Slater, grace under pressure. None of them knew where it came from. "I think I grew up so familiar with uncomfortable and difficult situations that I actually kind of thrive on it," he said. "And it has actually allowed me to put that knowledge to work somehow.

"I'd rather not have that trait, to be honest with you. If I could choose certain things in my upbringing that come with being comfortable in a stressful or unknown situation?" he said. "It's not what I aspired to as a kid, but it was a reality in our lives, and it's served me well in terms of competition."

Although fans relished the idea of Slater and Fanning meeting up in the finals, surfing's next generation had other ideas. In the other semifinal, Fanning went up against 21-year-old surfer John John Florence. Florence was born in 1992, the year Slater first won Pipeline. He grew up nearby in a house on the beach and first surfed Pipeline before he was a teen, another rising young talent ramping up Slater's will to win. Fanning, perhaps deflated after the adrenaline rush of clinching the championship, failed to catch a good wave, while Florence put his local knowledge to use and won, 18.3 to 4.76.

Before the finals, Slater stopped to meditate and then ran into the surf. Florence joined him in the water.

As it often does in elite surfing competitions, the title really came down to the best ride. With roughly eight minutes left to take the lead, Slater needed a score of nine or more to top Florence.

He paddled around to judge where the lip of an incoming triple overhead wave might curl, triangulating in the same way an outfielder moves under a pop up. The wave reared. "If I blow this, the heat's over," Slater admitted thinking later. "I could get pinched real quick or get hurt."

He dismissed those thoughts, paddled hard, and put his head down. The lowering tide had forced the wave to break sooner than he anticipated. He got caught in the curling lip and decided to freefall for at least part of a roughly 15-foot drop.

Slater pointed his surfboard in the direction he was falling. He had to turn just as his fins hit solid water at the bottom. If he turned early, he would tumble. If he turned late, the lip of the wave might smack him into the reef. As he fell, he noticed a kink of energy roughly a third of the way up the face.

Slater hit a speed of more than 20 miles per hour as his fins grabbed solid water. He pulled his right rail up with his right arm and pushed his heels down to cut his left rail deep into the wave face. He threw his butt into the water to slow down and hold his line. He pushed his left arm into the wave for traction. He focused on blending in and harnessing the wave's energy for his next move, in the same way a kung fu artist might use his opponent's energy to launch a counterattack.

The kink of energy Slater noticed earlier in the face moved over him and hollowed out the barrel. As the tube expanded, it pulled air in. As thousands of gallons of water churned around him, the veteran pro felt a breeze on his face. As the back of the tube collapsed, spray pushed out and tickled the backs of his ears. Slater sensed a dying breath. He braced. A cannon burst of salt water stung his backside, bending him forward. He emerged from under the lip in a maelstrom of spray while still standing and holding both arms out just before the wave collapsed.

Spectators yelped and clapped and howled. "Wow," the P.A. announcer said after the surfer turned off the wave. A nice wave, Slater said later, but not perfect. The judges scored the ride a 9.87.

Kelly Slater's competition-winning 9.87 ride.

Slater won the battle for Pipeline and Fanning the championship, each of them taking away something he wanted, yet each left wanting something more.

At the end of the heat, locals paddled out to congratulate Slater and Florence, and to take their place in the lineup. Slater then paddled back to shore and was carried up the beach and to the trophy stand by Cunningham, former pro Ross Williams and others. Fans held up phones and GoPros in waves as Slater made his way through the crowd.

On the trophy stand, Florence accepted the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing trophy for finishing with most points in the three North Shore winter surf contests: Haleiwa, Sunset and Pipeline. Joel Parkinson, adorned in Billabong gear, handed Mick Fanning the ASP World Champion trophy. Then Lindy Irons, Andy Irons' widow, placed leis on Fanning and they kissed and hugged.

Down below, Slater's girlfriend, Kalani Miller, rubbed his left arm as he watched. Then Slater moved up to the stage and accepted the Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons trophy and surfboard. Lindy Irons gave him leis and they hugged and kissed. The MC asked Slater if he would retire. "Uh, I think that pissed me off just enough to keep going," he said.

Slater then made his way off the trophy stand and ascended the stairs that led off the beach. As he did, he smiled for pictures and gave fans fist bumps. A young boy sat on a ledge near the top of the stairs, and called out to Slater as the champion passed, but the cheering and noise drowned out his voice. Slater didn't look the boy's way.

In between the boy and Pipeline, thousands of spectators stood with their backs to the ocean as they watched Slater leave. One after another, locals took to the waves again, playing in the same dangerous barrels that the world's most famous surfer had just earned $75,000 for riding better than any other man in the sport.

Behind the champion, someone carried the surfboard featuring the painting of Andy Irons riding through the heart of Pipeline, tucked into the curl of the wave.

The boy saw it, eyes wide, and pointed.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Getty Images | Lede Video: Eric Sterman

About the Author

Joe Spring has written for The New York Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, and others. He has master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism from Columbia University. You can follow him on Twitter at @joespring and find more of his work at