Chasing Kelly Slater Down Under

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Updated: August 10, 2020

Surfing’s king puts media in a spin as he roams the east coast of Australia.

During the COVID-19 crisis, many of us were captivated by the Netflix documentary The Last Dance, which celebrated Micha el Jordan and his six championship victories with the Chiago Bull between 1991 and 1998.

However, while we watched Jordan highlight reels and a seated MJ reflect on his career, Kelly Slater w as in Australia hunting waves up an d down the east coast with youth full abandon. It’s a curious fact that Slater also won six world titles between 1991 and 1998. Perhaps he never soared as high as Jordan in terms of global popularity, but Kelly did go on to win a further five world titles after the year 2000, bringing his total to 11 (Jordan only won six in total).

Not suprisingly Kell ’s presence in Australia during the COVID crisis caused a stir within the surfing community. 48 -year- old Slater was scheduled to compete on the WSL’s champion ship tour, kicking off with the unfortunately named Corona Proon the Gold Coast. However, when the contest was cancelled because of the pandemic, Kelly elected to camp out in Australia and roam the coast in search of waves.

Talen Quest

Kelly may no longer be the number-one ranked surf r in the world but he is still one of the best, and every time he paddles out photographers and filmers scamble to capture his timeless mastery o n a wave. He s pen t much of his time Dow n Under on the Gold Coast, where he owns a unit. However, Slater also has a long-lasting affinity with Avalon on Sydney’s Northern beaches. Kelly owned a unit in Avalon back in the ’90s and once ranked Little Avalon (aka LA), a knuckle of reef that juts out from Avalon’s southern headland, as one of his favourite waves in the world.

Kelly attracted mainstream media attention when he surfed Little Avalon during a massive swell that hit Sydney in late May this year. He rode throaty barrels, broke a couple of boards, and then retired to the cliff-tops to chat with the fans who had come to watch him. The same night images of Kelly were blasted across mainstream news channels, all of which were eager to capitalise on the Kellymania.

Photographer Brendon Newton was another who had good reasons to keep tabs on Kelly Down Under. In addition to shooting surf images, Newton works for AIME Mentoring, an outreach organisation that provides mentorship to marginalised kids in Australia, Africa, and the USA. At present AIME reaches out to over 6000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids across Australia.

One of the company’s spin-offs is IMAGI-NATION (TV) a daily live show on YouTube where kids can tune in and connect. It’s Newton’s gig to source the talent and he set his sights on tracking Kelly down for an appearance on the show.

Eye Spy

Brenden started putting out feelers to friends on the Northern beaches.

“I knew Slater was proximal,” he reflects. “I even had an old friend of mine from Mona Vale looking out for him so he could let me know to drive up and hit him up to go on the show.” Brenden also sent Slater several instagram messages. When he received no reply, he reminded himself Slater was obviously in high demand and remained hopeful.

Champion Pic

After a few days of reconnaissance, Brenden’s Northern Beaches contacts suggested Slater was being his usual self, flying under the radar, and relying on his own Instagram feed to reach his fans. Kelly had already impressed his 2.7 million followers with his crooner skills when he released a couple of acoustic solos on Instagram during the lockdown window.

Brenden had more or less given up on the search for Kelly when a crisp Autumn swell arrived on the east coast for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. Eager to capture the best rides of the swell, Brenden grabbed his camera gear and headed for a famously heavy and hollow right-hander, down the road from where he lives. He was actually accompanied by two of the kids who had been through the AIME program. If you don’t have a boat or a jet-ski, reaching the spot involves a long, unnerving swim or paddle through sharky waters. Once you reach the break you are typically greeted by fiercely hollow waves which jack-up violently over a shallow shelf of reef. It’s not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced, but the spot can deliver riders a dreamy, high-adrenaline buzz and is great for photos.

It’s also a semi-secret spot and the regulars don’t always roll out the red carpet for interlopers.

Go For It

When Brenden reached the channel adjacent to the wave he couldn’t believe his luck. There, bobbing around the lineup was none other than Kelly Slater himself, about 1400km south of his Gold Coast unit. It was like a nature photographer stumbling over a snow leopard on their doorstep. Not only would Brenden have the opportunity to shoot a few photos of Slater in quality waves, but he could also convince him to come on the show.

“I was like, ‘This is perfect!’” explains Brendon. “I’d hustled all week and then I finally paddle out at my local and he’s just sitting there.”

Brenden was convinced that serendipity was at play and reaffirmed his goal of recruiting the Greatest Surfer of All Time – aka The GOAT.

“I just sat in the zone, and I had in my mind I’ve got to get the best f$%&ing shot of him I can and maybe that’ll help me hook him for the show.”

Chance Meeting

Between waves, Kelly got chatting to Jesse Blair, local bodyboarder and an ex-participant in the AIME program Brenden helps coordinate. “It was cool. Jesse hit up Slater too,” explains Brenden. “I know Kelly’s a cool guy and I didn’t want to be overbearing, but I had decided I’m just gonna rope him. With Kelly’s weight behind AIME we could take our program to so many more deserving people.”

According to Brenden, Slater was content to patiently pick his moments at the notorious wave. “He wasn’t going to kill himself by pushing himself over the ledge on a closeout. He was just sort of measured. It was cool when he scooped into a couple and was able to do that thing he does at Backdoor… just glues to the face and sits on his tail. It’s so sick.”

Fate bent Brenden’s way again when it was time to go in. Slater had reached the offshore reef in a Zodiac manned by noted surf cinematographer, Chris Bryan. Brenden had bought his camera off Chris Bryan 10 years earlier and they were old friends. Chris offered to give Brenden a lift to shore, which he happily accepted. In addition to avoiding the long, sharky swim in, he would also get the chance to ride back with Kelly. Granted an audience with the king, Brenden took the opportunity to invite Kelly on his show. According to Brenden he more or less pulled it off.

“So, I got in the boat with Chris and Kelly and his (Kelly’s) parting words were, ‘Yeah, we’ll organise it’.”

Inspiration

As it stands Brenden has sent Kelly his shots from the day and had some correspondence. He’s still hopeful Kelly will bring his magnetic presence onto IMAGI-NATION (TV).

“His genius could inspire thousands of kids with huge potential but on the fringes of the mainstream system,” insists Brenden