The Immaculate Perception

The Bald Menace is in there somewhere, maniacally plotting world domination

The Bald Menace is in there somewhere, maniacally plotting world domination


As I watched 42-year-old Kelly Slater pull off another incomprehensible maneuver in competition last week, I was reminded of something I read recently about what makes great athletes great. If you missed it, in the quarterfinals of the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, the ageless, hairless wonder flew out of a tube and was already on his way toward banking off the top of the wave, which was rapidly cascading. Other elite surfers might have escaped the barrel with enough time to straighten out towards the shore, but none would have dared such a cheeky combination. As surf encyclopedist Matt Warshaw tweeted afterwards, “Nobody else would of even thought of it.” I’m gonna tell you how he did it.

I’ve been researching the factors that influence athletic prowess for years and have recently come across some interesting findings. Nature and nurture seem to be fairly equal contributors, as evidenced by Kelly’s ideal build and flexibility coupled with his insatiable hunger for improvement and a wicked competitive streak. The 10,000 hour concept is pretty reliable, give or take a few thousand hours and assuming that the hours represent deliberate practice. Regardless, there are plenty of masterful surfers, but none of them would have considered trying what Kelly did on that wave. The key to his freakishness, I believe, lies neither in his creativity or his quick reaction time. It’s all about perception.

Kelly's track illustrates his unlikely route out of the tube and straight to the top

Kelly’s track illustrates his unlikely route out of the tube and straight to the top

David Epstein, in his 2013 book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, spends a great deal of words explaining how an elite athlete perceives his or her playing field as compared to others. “Where the novice is overwhelmed by new information and randomness,” Epstein writes, “the master sees familiar order and structure that allows him to home in on information that is critical for the decision at hand.” The ability to mentally slow a situation in order to come up with the perfect move is apparent in listening to Kelly talk about surfing. He can spend three years dissecting one instant of wave riding.

Epstein cites multiple studies measuring elite athletes’ perceptual superiority, be it in volleyball, tennis, field hockey, cricket, boxing, or chess. Across the board, the masters are able to look at an image of their playing field for mere milliseconds and glean all sorts of information. For less skilled participants, this isn’t the case.

Why would surfing be any different? If anything, given the moving surface we deal with, perceptual skills gain a larger importance. Surfers are essentially making predictions about how a wave will act, and Kelly’s insane perceptiveness of the playing field separates him from us as well as from his competition.

This latest instance of Slateriority took place at Margaret River, a spot he was having a hard time figuring out, a slow, wonky wave that rewards restraint over an all-out assault. Kelly surfed (for his standards) like a kook in the first few rounds, then spent a day riding Margie’s much more intense neighbor, the Box. Back at Margie’s for the final day, Kelly experienced the main break in slow motion.

He easily lands what others cannot even imagine

He easily lands what others cannot even imagine


Guys like Kelly, according to Epstein, “Need less time and less visual information to know what will happen in the future.” In other words, Kelly feels what will happen on a wave and is able to put himself in places the rest of us cannot imagine. Honed on tiny East Coast waves that required him to find and extract any semblance of power, he is now afforded a much larger field to work with. As a result, he sees the future.

Kelly once explained to me his “Parallel Planes” theory of proper surfing technique. Imagine a plane extending out from your shoulders and another extending out from your surfboard. Those two planes, he said, should always remain parallel to maintain perfect form. In order to keep them parallel, you must know what the wave is going to do before it happens. Kelly doesn’t react to situations on waves; he makes predictions and acts accordingly.

If perceptual ability is such a difference maker, and I believe it is, can we all acquire it? Sure, with heaps of time spent in the water while your brain is still developing, so probably not as an adult. Too much conceptualizing about surfing, while doing it, is counterproductive. Thinking while engaged in activity, Epstein confirms, “is the sign of a novice in sports, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur.” So no, you’re not going to learn how to see a wave through Kelly’s baby blues. We’ll have to settle for our own boring old eyes, but at least we get to use them to watch him.

North Shore 2.0

northshore
Rick Kane was a haole kook from Arizona, but even he knew that a surfer ain’t a surfer until he’s done the North Shore thing. Kane, the floppy-haired lead in the ’87 flop North Shore, won $500 by outgroveling some other kooks in a desert wave tank. He immediately used that money to fly to Oahu so he could hang out with pros, get his ass handed to him by the waves and the locals, fall for a lovely local chick, and surf his way into the main event of the Pipe Classic.

The following winter, I set out to follow in Kane’s fictional footsteps. I also earned my passage to Hawaii via a surf contest, in fact a series of contests known as the 17th Street/Billabong Summer Surf Series. By claiming the men’s division, I won airfare and entry into the non-fictional Billabong Pro. I’d visited the North Shore for a week with my family a few years earlier, but nothing had been expected of me. Now, I owed it to every guy I’d beaten in the series to get out there and charge. So, from the moment I boarded my flight in Norfolk, I felt like I was gonna puke.

I was met at Honolulu airport by my friend from VB, Harry “Greek” Fentress, a Gumby-esque veteran of the North Shore who’d arranged our lodging for two months in an A-frame alongside Foodland, the area’s lone grocery store. Greek knew all the spots, and he had a funny way of making friends. Nearly every session, he’d get into a heated argument over a wave and very nearly come to blows with another surfer. I’d look the other way as if to say, That guy’s not with me, but when I looked back the two were shaking hands and exchanging shakas. Once I realized that the lineup was distracted by these skirmishes, I took the opportunity to sneak a few waves. I guess with friends like me, Greek needed to find new ones.

The cast of The Real World North Shore 1988. From L to R, Nan, Derrick, Charles, Harry, Me, Seth, and Tess.

The cast of The Real World North Shore 1988. From L to R, Nan, Derrick, Charles, Harry, Me, Seth, and Tess.


We walked or hitchhiked everywhere and surfed forty-three times each day. By the end of the first week I felt like I’d ridden every inch of the Seven Mile Miracle. But that evening, Greek shocked me by saying, “Waimea’s starting to break, grab your big board.” Clearly I hadn’t surfed everywhere, just everywhere that wasn’t considered the most notorious big wave in the world.

To be honest, Waimea wasn’t close to breaking, but the swell was rising and Waimea’s often overlooked inside section known as “Pinballs” was overhead, empty, and unbelievably fun. The ominous spectre of the place washed away, and Greek and I took turns as the sun dipped towards Kaena Point. Then, out of nowhere, Waimea stirred.

Greek had just ridden a wave, so I was farther out. In the fading light, I saw what looked to me like the entire Pacific congregating in one giant mass. I paddled for my life, the whole time thinking maybe I should have just gone to Arizona to visit Rick Kane.

By the time the wave reached me, I realized I was in the perfect spot. Greek’s Inspector Gadget arms had narrowed the gap, but he was screaming at me to take the wave. Without thinking, I spun, paddled…and froze. In front of me, the bottom of the wave was a boiling cauldron of rocks that looked for all the world that they would become my final resting place. I pulled back, and Greek swung and took it, adding insult to my injured ego. My “better safe than dead” approach belonged in a wave tank, certainly not on the North Shore.

Flanked by a pair of lovely chicks

Flanked by a pair of lovely chicks


Fast forward a few weeks. The rest of our gang had arrived, and my comfort level had risen after around my thousandth session. One afternoon, on a dying but still semi-legit swell, I borrowed a 9′ single-fin gun and stroked out to Waimea. The waves were much bigger than the one I’d avoided, but knowing the surf was fading eased my fears. Along with my roomie Charles Kirkley, OMG Wes Laine, and a dozen other dudes, I rode the biggest waves of my life. I didn’t bust down any doors, but I didn’t scurry into a corner either.

When the Billabong Pro rolled around at Sunset Beach, I was as ready as I’d ever be. I showed up at dawn to check my heat, but by name was nowhere to be found. I scanned the alternate list, and there I was, at the bottom, the 23rd alternate for the trials. I waited around for most of the day, but short of a salmonella-laced batch of pastries from Ted’s Bakery, there was no way 23 competitors would miss their heats.

Maybe it was a good thing I wasn’t in the event. In riding the biggest waves of my life, I’d found they were big enough. No spark was lit that day at Waimea that made me hunger for more. Those biggest waves of my life remain the biggest waves of my life. I’d return to Hawaii many times, but I’d never again push my limits in terms of size.

My Rick Kane moment was not to be. That stuff only happens to guys from Arizona. It’s a bummer, too, because I had the ultimate setting for the closing scene. Our whole house drove into Honolulu on New Year’s Eve for a free Devo concert at the Hard Rock Cafe. Can’t you see it, the flower-potted New Wavers belting out, “I-can’t-get-me-no…satis-faction” while my friends and I bounce around in the crowd? Cue the closing credits.

Be afraid, be very afraid

Brundlefly

Brundlefly

As best I can tell, I haven’t lost my mind, and that worries me. For more than three months, I have steadfastly denied myself the supreme pleasure of riding waves. In that time, I’ve missed surfing, at times painfully so, but I haven’t done anything crazy. What I have done is potentially much scarier to me. I’ve begun to change.

Like Seth Brundle in The Fly, my experiment has led to my gradual transformation. He shed his human skin and appendages, grew coarse hair on his back, and morphed into a giant fly. “Brundlefly” as he called it. I’m also growing hair on my back (but sadly this had begun prior to the experiment), and I feel as if I’m turning into a “normal” human.

I still mindsurf every wave I see, but I’m not checking the waves religiously like I did for the first few months. Back then, not surfing was a novelty. Now it seems more like a reality.

Consciously or not, I’m fighting the change. I’ve started thinking about my return, whenever that may be. I’m randomly stopping by surf shops, checking out boards, even pulling them off the rack and putting my hands on them. You might call it groping, but nobody has kicked my out yet.

Strangely, despite the stream of Hatteras barrel images and world tour webcasts I subject myself to, I’m not feeling stress over being landlocked. I think there’s a good reason this stuff isn’t freaking me out, and it’s not just that most of the heats are fantastically boring.

Surfing really is like (somewhat healthy) crack. It relieves stress, but only the stress it has caused itself. I’m not suggesting this is the case for every surfer, just the avid ones whose lives revolve around the surf. The recreational surfers, those who I used to look down upon, I suddenly admire. They’re not the crackheads.

The moment we feel like we “have” to surf, that’s when there’s a problem. But that wasn’t me, was it? Even as a pro, I rarely felt like I had to paddle out. I wanted to. Even when my wetsuit was still sopping wet from a previous session, I wanted to.

I’m trying to pinpoint why. What made me want to surf? What was I looking for? Was it the camaraderie? The competition? The glide? The freedom? The connection to nature? The opportunity to allow my actions to speak so I wouldn’t need to?

Slomo

Slomo


Life has a funny way of answering questions. I’d written that last part when I stumbled upon Slomo. You may have seen him on one of those facebook links that your “friends” tell you is a must see. He’s a doctor in California who quit the rat race to rollerblade up and down Pacific Beach all day, everyday. He did some research about the addictive nature of skating (or surfing or any other pursuit that involves lateral acceleration), and what he found is interesting. He claims there’s a neurological explanation, something about receptors in our ears connecting with the center of the earth by gravity. I don’t get science, but he’s a doctor so who am I to argue?

I have no idea if this post (or this blog, or this world) makes sense. I’ve been trying to tie each entry up with a cute little bow. Not this time. It wouldn’t be true. I’m changing, and I’m not sure what I’m becoming. I’m Brundlefly. I’m Landlubborte. Maybe I should’ve stayed a crackhead.

The Jerseylicious Life of a Pro Surfer

The fruits of my first photo session. Note the "Brown Water Issue" foreshadowing.

The fruits of my first photo session. Note the “Brown Water Issue” foreshadowing.

Many people have asked, “What does it take to be a pro surfer?” Literally, nothing but an entry fee. Any bozo can enter a professional event and by definition “be” a pro surfer. In 1988, after graduating from First Colonial High School with honors*, I became one of those bozos.

I must point out that Kelly Slater was just a really good 16-year-old kid from Florida at the time. Being from Florida, or anywhere else on the East Coast, meant that however hard you ripped in little waves, you couldn’t hang with the pros when conditions got serious. And thus, you didn’t matter. We were the bastard stepchildren of the sport (no disrespect to bastard stepchildren).

With no travel fund, much less a salary, I set out in late June with nothing but a few bucks from graduation to make my debut at the Garden State Pro in Seaside Heights. While others equated 1980s Jersey Shore with used syringes and Bon Jovi hair, for me it represented the land of opportunity.

Just before leaving, I took part in my first photo session, if you wanna call it that. SURFER lensman Dick Meseroll waded into the knee-high slop at First Street with his water housing, and I did everything I could to run him over. Mez was a pro, and since his camera was aimed at me, even if it was only to protect his face from my board, I felt like a pro too.

There was nothing dreamy about the world tour back then, unless you were a hungry youngster looking to get a start. With no such thing as the interweb, contests venues were based on proximity to crowds rather than good waves. Every contest held an open trials beforehand, and sixteen lucky trialists squeezed into the main event. There, guys like Tom Carroll, Martin Potter, and OMG Wes Laine waited to squash any cocky young upstarts. Amazingly, after a couple days of surfing I found myself in the last round of the trials, one heat from vast fame and riches, or at least a paycheck and a good beating from one of my heroes.

On a cold, foggy morning, I pulled up my fullsuit and prepared to announce my arrival in the world of pro surfing. With under five minutes until my shot at Main Event glory, I sensed the last thing I wanted to feel at that instant, an unwelcome visitor rearing its ugly head – the dreaded turtle head.

I had to poop, but there wasn’t time.

The moment was too big. I couldn’t let this chance slip. The horn blew, and I paddled into an ocean that had plummeted in temperature overnight due to upwelling. In other words, I wasn’t about to unzip my suit to drop a deuce.

Halfway through the twenty minute heat, a dense fogbank rolled in. The announcers called us back to the beach to wait for the fog to pass, which could happen at any time. We were told not to leave. My big moment was becoming an endless nightmare.

This turtle was no shrinking violet. He refused to retreat into his shell. A frantic search of the boardwalk turned up nothing. There were pizza slices and funnel cakes at every turn, but nary a porta potty or public restroom anywhere. And the more I roamed, the more my little friend longed to be free.

The fog finally lifted, and my three opponents, my turtle head, and I were all sent back into action. With my effort focused on the preventative clenching of my bum, my surfing suffered. I likely wouldn’t have advanced either way, but my delicate state guaranteed epic failure.

Thankfully, it finally ended, and I was able to flee the event sight to track down a delivery room. Labor went well. It was a girl, and I named her Snooki. I never saw the little shit again, but I hear she’s done well for herself. (True fans know that Snooki was born six months earlier, but I couldn’t resist.)

For the record, the event sponsor skipped town with the checkbook just as the finals wrapped up, leaving some angry pros wondering why they’d just spent a week in New Jersey. At least I only had to spend two days there without getting paid. I consider that a win.

Seaside post Sandy

Seaside post Sandy


*I didn’t technically graduate with honors. I had a 2.97 GPA, but at graduation I figured out that all the honor students had an asterisk on the index card they handed to the announcer as they ascended the stage. I scrawled an asterisk on my card, and I was announced as an honor student (but not an honorable one.)