No contest on earth matters more than the Pipeline Masters, typically the pro tour’s final event and the scene of the defining Slater-Irons clash, when Irons erased the myth of an unbeatable Kelly Slater. Only yards off a gorgeous Oahu beach, Pipeline funnels the raw energy of the North Pacific through a shallow-water reef, the waves breaking with a force that has killed at least a dozen surfers and inflicted horrific injuries over the years. One surfer was raked so thoroughly by the rock that lifeguards found him with his scalp flopped over one ear. Other waves might offer a better opportunity for fancy tail slides and aerials, but Pipeline is the ultimate showcase for the sine qua non of high-performance surfing: riding the tube. A toreador’s game in which every surfer taunts the bull before a roaring crowd, riding the Pipeline barrel is all about aplomb in the face of mortal risk, and it requires absolute and unflinching self-confidence.
When there’s no contest running, Pipeline has some of the most territorial locals anywhere. Surf culture has a universally accepted priority system for claiming waves — a function both of your positioning relative to a given wave and of your place in the local pecking order — and at Pipeline, Irons’s Wolf Pack dominates. On the day before the 2003 Pipeline Masters, while many of the contestants warmed up in the water, Slater claimed wave after wave for himself, behaving like the undisputed king of the beach. Nobody cares more about good manners than Slater, so he was clearly taunting Irons, trying to unhinge him in advance of the contest.
“Kelly Slater will do everything he can to get in your head,” Phil Irons says. “That’s his character. He’s in there to get under your skin.
“What Slater does best is intimidate,” he continued, adding: “My boys are born and raised Hawaiian, their clout and presence locally is way higher than Slater’s. And in that pre-event surf session, his arrogance got to the whole crew that was in the water.”
He concluded, “Their gist to Slater was ‘Go back to Cocoa Beach.”’
Although there is some dispute about exactly what happened in the water that day, at least one account has Irons screaming vulgarities at Slater, who infuriated Irons further by telling him to calm down and get a grip on himself. Slater’s psych-out didn’t work: throughout the contest, Irons dispatched one opponent after another, surfing with such wild abandon in the semifinals that his board buckled near the nose. At last, it came down to him and Slater in the final heat. As Irons stretched on the beach, Slater sidled up next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “I love you, man,” he whispered.
An entire generation of professional surfers had lost its focus as a result of such Slater antics, but Irons couldn’t be bothered. When the judges gave him the contest — and the world title — Irons became the first man ever to face Slater one on one and just plain beat him. After the heat, Slater stayed in the water alone for half an hour as the crowd carried Irons on their shoulders. He then ran up the beach to the home of his rock-star friend Jack Johnson and wept under the outdoor shower.
An hour later, the two were together again, waiting in a trailer before talking to the journalists outside. Irons slapped Slater on the back. “It’s on,” he was quoted as saying.“ See you next year.”
We all say things we regret, and for Irons that comment has doubtless turned out to be one of them. He seized the world title again in 2004, bringing his total to three and putting him in rarefied company. Besides Slater, only two other surfers, Mark Richards and Tom Curren, have won that many titles. But Slater, who was knocked out of contention during the 2004 season, was already plotting. The 2003 loss, he told me, “symbolized a whole lot of things in my life going in the wrong direction.” As he talked, it was clear he had convinced himself that his defeat was purely the result of emotional distractions, as opposed to, say, the surfing ability of Andy Irons. It was true that Slater’s father had died of throat cancer in 2002, spending his last months on a cot in Slater’s living room, and that throughout the 2003 season Slater had been heavily focused on repairing relationships with his mother, his brothers, an ex-girlfriend and a daughter he fathered during a fling and didn’t know well. “I’d been used to being a real loner when I travel,” Slater said, “and the intimate things are the real confronting things. Then my ex and I got back together, and it was painful for both of us. It kind of shut me down, and then I got to Pipe and just had a real struggling time.”
As the 2005 season began, Slater went looking for a catalyst that might spark his drive and give him the self-confidence to make a full-bore world-title run. He found it during the annual contest at a Tahitian break called Teahupoo — the name means “end of the road” — widely considered the single most dangerous surfing wave on the planet, more so even than Pipeline. Slater says that right before one of his early heats, he was approached by an old friend, the big-wave surfer Brock Little.
“You going to win today?” Little asked. “Or have you forgotten what it feels like?”
Thank you, Slater said to himself, you just won the contest for me.
The aura of Teahupoo comes in part from a 2000 death there, when a local rider was driven so hard into the reef that his neck was broken and the skin torn off his face. On one of his first waves, Slater was at risk of meeting the same fate, free-falling down the wave’s front, out of control, before somehow recovering his balance. Ducking below the lip, Slater vanished into the tube. When he emerged from the water, the judges awarded him a perfect 10. In the finals, they gave him two more. By the time the contest was over, Slater’s 2005 world-title campaign had begun.
Over the next few months — from Tahiti to Japan to Europe to South Africa — Slater and Irons traded contest victories. A single heat between them on the coast of France drew 650,000 viewers to a live Webcast. When they reached the Nova Schin Surf Festival in Florianopolis, Brazil, in October, Slater was finally far enough ahead in the points race that if he won, he would lock up a seventh world title. If he lost to Irons, the title would be decided at Pipeline, where Irons had already beaten him three times. As it happened, Slater was eliminated in the quarterfinals by a relative unknown, and a friend said he was already in his car and about to drive away when he decided to stay and watch Irons’s heat. When Irons, too, began to falter, Slater did the math: if Irons lost this, the world title would be in the bag, right then and there. Yanking his jacket over his head to hide his anxious face, Slater watched with wide eyes. When Irons finally lost the heat, Slater leapt with joy and filled the winner’s cup with beer.