Welcome to the Kellydome

Look at those eyes. No, please, just look at those eyes. Look at the frigging eyes!

Look at those eyes. No, please, just look at those eyes. Look at the frigging eyes!


“Let’s face it, your writing isn’t what’s going to sell this book. Kelly’s eyes on the cover are what’s going to sell this book to 12-year-old girls.” These words, flying into my ear at 3800 mph (five times the normal speed of sound) from the mouth of Kelly Slater’s manager across the country in Los Angeles, struck my temporal lobe and knocked me off my chair. He was probably right, and the bargaining technique his ancestors developed through centuries of bullshitting was probably effective, but I wasn’t having it.

“Look,” Mister Hollywood Manager Guy added, “there are three other people on our list, so if you don’t want to do this, we’ll move on to the next guy.” Not that I’d be stupid enough to pass on an opportunity to write the life story of the greatest surfer, arguably the greatest athlete, of forever, just because of a couple grand and some royalties. I would’ve taken the gig pro bono, but I wasn’t going to let some silver-tongued douchebag talk me into a corner. I hung up and called Kelly.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.


Lucky for me, Kelly had been hearing the “your manager is an asshole” line for so long that he knew his manager was…well, if you don’t have anything nice to say. I’d known Kelly since we were ESA groms, and he’d been humbled by a piece I wrote about him for Surfer’s “Most Influential Surfers of the 20th Century.” We weren’t bosom buddies, but the powers that be figured a fellow East Coaster from the same generation could best tell Kelly’s story. Manager Man was bypassed, and royalties were added to the contract. I had a job. A good one.

The timing of the project couldn’t be better for me. I’d recently lost my Surfline position in a final slash of the editorial staff, and had I still worked there I wouldn’t have had six months to dedicate to the book. Oh, and Kelly was in Hawaii for the Pipe Masters, so I had to bail on Va Beach in December and fly to meet him on the North Shore. Duty calls.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.


For two weeks, I slept on a sofa or under my friend Cab Spates’ dining room table, the whole night alternating between battling mutant mosquitos and sweating inside my boardbag. Don’t feel sorry for me. I spent the rest of the trip surfing the seven-mile-miracle, watching the event at Pipe, and swimming through the head of a waveriding genius nonpareil.

I learned a few things about the champ in the process:

He’s late. We set up a time to meet every day, and every day I sat around waiting for Kelly to show up. His tardiness is not due to rudeness but negotiating an endless parade of people asking for his attention. It’s a wonder he makes it anywhere, ever.
-He’s patient. That endlesss parade of hangers on would be enough to break any lesser man. Kelly, lemme get a photo. Kelly, sign my vagina. Kelly, gimme some free clothes. Kelly, tell your manager to stick his offer up his ass. Slater understands that invasions of privacy comes with the territory and never loses his cool.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.


-He’s sensitive. You might think the best water-walker in 2000 years (if you believe the gospels’ accounts) would have thick skin, but the guy is human. I mentioned Kelly’s receding hairline in an article, and he reacted by calling and telling me it was a surf mag, not a hair mag. He was being serious.
-He’s generous. Kelly didn’t hesitate when I asked him to give up a piece of his royalties. When the book was complete, he also offered me two custom boards from Channel Islands. (I didn’t need any boards at the time so I grabbed one of his personal sticks as a raffle prize for a local fundraiser and gave the other to Steve Hawk for helping my career.)
-I wouldn’t want to be in his flip flops. People see Kelly’s magic and think, I’d love to be him. I beg to differ. In addition to being pulled in fifty directions, hounded by fans, and belittled by wannabe journalists, imagine the pressure he faces every time he paddles for a wave. Kinda tough to have fun when every pair of eyes expects you to surf like Kelly Slater. I have mad respect for the way he handles his stardom.
That Pipe Dreams!

That Pipe Dreams!


All in all, the experience was invaluable. I wrote the book, convinced the publisher to abandon the kooky sea animal images they wanted at the start of every chapter, and handpicked the title, the cover, and the photos (many of which I plucked from digging through Kelly’s closets). As Slater made the late night TV circuit and signing tour after the release, Pipe Dreams peaked at #29 on the NY Times bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction.

The weirdest thing about the process, which makes perfect sense, was that after six months of writing Kelly’s story in the first person, I felt like I was inside his head looking out. Seeing the world through his eyes made me hyper-aware of my surroundings, especially when I was surfing. Things made more sense, except I couldn’t figure out why so many 12-year-old girls were staring at me.

Write good, you be trippin’

One cannot write about an event at Jeffreys Bay without spending lots of time getting to know Jeffreys Bay.

One cannot write about an event at Jeffreys Bay without spending lots of time getting to know Jeffreys Bay.


As easy as it is to be a professional surfer (enter a pro contest, wait for chicks to flock), becoming a surf journalist is easier. Trust me.

When I was a grom in Virginia Beach, getting my hands on a new magazine was as exciting as getting a new board. I remember several instances where a group of us frothed over a fresh issue, one kid doing the flipping and the rest of us elbowing each other for viewing position. We intravenously slurped up the stoke that oozed off each page. My buddies were happy gawking at the pictures, but I pored over every word of every issue. Repeatedly. That’s what you do with your bible.

I hated reading, but I loved reading surf mags. Matt Warshaw was the professional, Derek Hynd the instigator, and Dave Parmenter the god. Anything by these wordsmiths got reread so many times that their phrases were seered into my eyeballs.

As a fledgling pro in 1993, after scoring epic Hatteras barrels courtesy of Hurricane Emily, I was told that a shot of me was under consideration for the cover of Surfer. I happened to be in California, so I dropped by the hallowed Surfer offices to sneak a peek. “You’re who? From where?” I never made it past the lobby and sulked back to my rental car. And I didn’t get the cover.

A few years later, after hacking up a rundown of a local surf contest using my parents’ word processor, Surfer invited me inside the fortress as the new East Coast Editor. Under the bony yet nurturing wing of Tony’s big brother Steve Hawk, I became part of the family. I found myself sitting in editorial meetings with Warshaw and Hynd, hobnobbing at the Surfer Poll Awards, and like The Talking Heads I had to ask, Well, how did I get here?

"Daddy's in Africa working right now. He'll be home next week."

“Daddy’s in Africa working right now. He’ll be home next week.”


When Dot Com boomed at the turn of the millennium, Hawk assembled a dream team at Swell.com and asked me to join them. I had just started teaching, but when he said he could top my teacher salary by 50%, I could work from home constructing an online encyclopedia (surf a-z), and travel to the best surf spots on earth to cover world tour events, I flew out my classroom door faster than a kid on the last day of school. Um, like, where did Mr. Borte go?

My typical day: Wake up. Surf. Enter my dungeon. Scan list I’d compiled of a few hundred people, places, and events that, together, comprised the history of surfing. Pick a couple to write that day and email Warshaw with a request. He had every surf mag ever printed, and he’d fax me everything on those topics. Peruse the info, make some phone calls from a rolodex of surfing’s royalty, and cobble together the entries. “Gotta put you on hold, Laird. Curren’s buzzing in. Oh, forget it. That’s Lopez on the land line. No, not Shea, you knucklehead. Gerry! I’ll call you back.” And Parmenter was regularly sending me pieces about surfboards, for me to edit and post. Another miserable day at the office.

Over the next few years, my passport gathered more stamps than my kindergartner’s school folder. Cuba for exploration with legendary lensman Art Brewer, Tahiti for death-defying barrels, France and Portugal for beachbreaks and old world culture, Fiji for Cloudbreak perfection, Hawaii for world title showdowns in the mecca of the sport, and South Africa for the regularfooter’s dream come true at Jeffreys Bay – and I don’t have to pay for anything? Wait, you’re gonna pay me? Are you out of your freaking mind? I mean, yeah, sure, I’m okay with that.


Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is. The writing had been on the wall for a while as Swell had blown through megamillions without turning a profit. The editorial staff had been steadily shrinking. As I was about to put my son to bed one evening, I got the call from the boss, Sean Collins. He’d become one of the most powerful people in surfing thanks to his revolutionary surf forecasting and web cams. It was the only time he ever called me, so I knew that after two-and-a-half years my time had come.

Sean seemed genuinely bummed about letting me go, so much so I almost felt bad for him. When he mentioned a severence package, I did feel bad for him. He’d been paying me to do what I loved, and now he was going to pay me while I did absolutely nothing, at least for a few months.

I thanked Sean and went to read some Dr. Seuss to my son. “Right this minute our future looks muddy, but we’re gonna get to play together a lot more, buddy.” I needed a job. Little did I know that Harper Collins was in negotiations for a book on the world’s best surfer. All they needed was a writer.