Sea Change

This story appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of EXPN Magazine.

It is 6:30 on a chilly February morning in Santa Barbara, and a photographer and his crew are gathered in the parking lot at Rincon Beach Park, waiting for Kelly Slater. "The light is perfect," the photographer says. By 7 a.m., dark clouds are creeping north from Los Angeles. The sun disappears behind their thick wall, stealing the photographer's perfect light and adding to the chill. "I think the rain will hold off," he says hopefully. Slater's publicist arrives. A videographer. More photo assistants. They wait. 7:30 … 8 … The rain arrives, but still no Slater. 8:15 … 8:30 …

In his new book, For the Love, Slater's co-author, Phil Jarratt, jokes that he wanted to title the book Waiting for Kelly. "This was my experience more often than not," he writes in the introduction. Slater's peers accept his well-documented tardiness, though if he shows up late to a contest, he's lambasted in the press as an undedicated prima donna. Then, when he wins the event and perhaps the world title, as he's done nine times since 1991, all is forgiven.

That's what happens at today's photo shoot: Slater pulls up in his black Toyota Tacoma, apologizes and gets straight to work. "No worries at all," the photographer says. "It's only 8:30." Some things, it seems, are worth the wait.

The same could be said of Slater's blueprint to reinvent his sport, a plan nearly 20 years in the making. "I've been thinking about this since I got on the Tour, in 1991," Slater says later in the day, over lunch, when he sits down to discuss an extreme makeover of pro surfing and to play EXPN's version of Scrabble (to see the results, check out page 44). Not surprisingly, the übercompetitive Slater attacks both with the zeal of a finals heat at Pipeline. "I don't want to trash pro surfing," he says, fingering the seven tiles he's drawn from the bag. "It's the reason I have the friends and experiences I've had. But there are ways to make it better."

Here, in Slater's words, are 10.

The new governing body should own and run the events, own the media, do the marketing, bring in sponsors. Right now, the ASP doesn't own any of those things, because it didn't do the groundwork in the beginning. Sponsors own, run and market the events. That needs to change.

There are 45 guys on the Tour. That's too many. Cut it in half. There are guys who lose in the second or third round at every contest. One didn't win a single heat last year. F1 doesn't have 45 cars on the track for a reason. There should be a competitive level at the top, and we don't have that.

The season goes from February through December. We never have a break. We spend so much time around each other that pro surfing is becoming homogenized. It's hard to think out of the box. I'd like the season to go for three or four months at the start of the year and three months at the end.

The ASP has done a horrible job of marketing its surfers. I watch a lot of UFC, and they've done an amazing job of turning around the perception of that sport. People don't think of UFC as tough guys beating the s--- out of one another anymore. They call it mixed martial arts. People understand how technical the sport is and what good athletes it requires. When someone fights for a belt, the next guy in line is often sitting in the crowd. After the fight, they interview that guy. That's great marketing. At our contests, we should have a booth so when surfers are done with their heats, they do a live interview to the web. We need to build personalities. The ASP has left that job to the sponsors, but it's the ASP's job to sell its product. The NBA doesn't leave it up to Nike and Reebok to create visibility for its players.

It's been 20 years since any surfer on Tour shaped his own competition boards. This year I'm challenging myself and shaping my boards. I took a preshaped board of Al's [Merrick] with the rocker I like, changed the outline, made it smaller and added a bottom curve. I surfed it at the first contest of the year, on the Gold Coast. It was 5-feet, 4-inches and a big change from what I normally ride. Now I have to learn to glass and attach fins. Before the season ends, I hope to ride a board I created from start to finish.

Also, if someone attempts something totally risky and pulls it off, he should win. We should encourage people to go for it, even if they fall. There are a bunch of young guys doing that now, and they should be rewarded for it.

The contest format should be flexible and should fit the location. I hosted an invitational in Fiji a few years ago and tested three formats I'd like to see us incorporate into the Tour. The first was our regular format, but with scores for technical and artistic impression, like in the Olympics. Two judges worked together to come up with a score for each. Next there was a tag-team event where two surfers worked together. The final was a free surf. The surfers decided when they wanted to surf during a four-hour time period, based on what they knew about the conditions. It was all about strategy. I'd also like to see us use a jam format, like a skate jam, with no rules. The skaters control the flow and push each other. If one guy gets too aggro and takes too much time, the other guys box him out. But if someone gets hot, everyone gives him room and lets him do his thing.

It's important for the governing body to be based in Southern California, where the majority of the industry is located. And we need to hold more events in the mainland United States. Trestles, in California, is a great contest, but it's not enough.

We need to make wave pools good enough to compete in, and by this summer we'll have them. I'm working on building the best wave pool of all time. Six of us are part of a company, which we're calling Kelly Slater Wave Company. My manager, Bob McKnight from Quiksilver, and a full-time wave scientist who works out of our office in Culver City are also part of it. We've been working on this for more than three years, and we're building our test model in L.A. as we speak. Once we have the technology, we can potentially build these pools all over the world. I'm already thinking ahead, beyond pools, to how we can create a wave-generating system and sink it into lakes, as long as it doesn't screw up the environment. Eventually, I'd love to see a Tour that incorporates a couple of stops on these waves.

We would be able to schedule a contest on Friday at 6 p.m., live on TV. Picture a wave going around in a circle indefinitely. There's a bridge over the wave for viewing, a Plexiglas bottom so fans can watch guys surf above them, and a crow's nest in the middle so people can watch the best guys in the world surf the wave all the way around them. Kids could stand on the edge of the pool and get sprayed by their favorite surfers.

On one hand, it would be great to have double-digit titles. On the other hand, it's just a number. If I was sitting here a year from now and had 10, I probably wouldn't feel any different than I do now. It's an idealism, an external thing. But my friend who is really into numerology said I couldn't stop at nine. When I won eight, he said, "Either stop now or go to 10. Don't stop at nine." Eight is infinity, nine is the number of completion, 10 is a new beginning, a time to start fresh.

I was much closer to stopping two or three years ago than I am now. No way did I think a guy who's 37 could compete on the Tour. But here I am. I would almost welcome someone kicking my ass. Then I'd go, 'Well, I'm not better than that guy, I can never beat him.' So I'd quit. I'm interested in lending my opinion to the next organization, but it's not how I want to spend my days. If I'm lucky, I'll be 95 years old, stand up on a wave with a big grin on my face … and die. Then I'll float out to sea, get eaten by a shark and become part of nature.

"Wait. We're not done. Get that Scrabble board out again."

It's been two and a half hours since Slater sat down to ponder the future of surfing and two hours since he played his word.

"I've been thinking, and my word could have been better," he says. "Get the board out."

"Good, not great," he says. "It could have been better. I think I could have started with the triple-word-score box instead of the double-word … " Slater picks up his letters — definitely not Scrabble-legal, but we're flexible — moves them to a new spot on the board and realizes they don't fit. "Man, that would have been good," he says. "And tough to beat. I guess we'll have to wait and see."

We're thinking he nailed it.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.