Barbados – Twelve Hours In The Lesser Antilles: The Story Of A Caribbean Swell

It’s getting dark out, and Kelly Slater is burning like a Molotov cocktail. He’s pacing around the house wearing only boardshorts. He’s still wet, and you can tell exactly where he’s been in the house from his footprints that crisscross throughout our aquamarine-with-lavender-trim two-bed, two-bath musty beach rental complete with giant loft area and stack of five thoroughly slept-on twin-size mattresses.

He’s retelling the stories of the day with such enthusiasm he’s almost babbling. He’s talking about being cut off and getting spat out of barrels. He’s making waves with one hand and diagramming maneuvers with the other. His green eyes are so wide open, his forehead is half its normal size. Then, around 6:15 p.m., he utters that quote. He says he maybe just had the best surf of his life and tells everyone listening that if he could, he’d live that day over and over for the rest of his life.

Think about that for a second: Kelly Slater’s best surf ever? Practically begging for Groundhog Day? This is a guy who’s had astronomically more good surf sessions than you multiplied by all your friends, and he’s claiming it.

I quickly glance around the room to see if anyone else picked up on that statement. Ozzie Wright and Timmy Curran are half listening and half watching a video from today at the kitchen table with filmer Dave Emgee, Benji Weatherley is engrossed in conversation with his girlfriend Mai, cinematographer Todd Heater and Dustin Humphrey continue breaking down equipment for storage, Uruguayan cameraman Alex Berger continues cooking his pasta, Timmy’s wife Shanoa is finishing putting groceries in the fridge, Sybil Steele is bouncing baby daughter Jayden on her hip, and our local security man Floyd is out of sight.But I’m relieved when I notice that someone else heard it. I make eye contact with filmmaker Taylor Steele, who’s giving me a “Did you just hear that?” look-head slightly tilted to the left, eyebrows raised. I must have the same expression on my face, because Taylor quickly and discreetly brings his hands up to waist level and with his left hand flat uses his right to scribble a note with an invisible pen-the international symbol for “write that down.”Taylor, who’s been traveling with and filming Slater since the early 1990s, has probably seen more of Kelly’s best surf sessions than anyone. And his appreciation of the statement prompts me to find my notebook and record the quote. After I write it down, I start paging through my notes from the day.

Slept in until 8:30, and by the time I get up, Ozzie has already surfed at first light and Benji is in the water. The surf is pumping. It’s two to four feet bigger than yesterday on the sets, and at six to eight feet, it’s showing an uncanny resemblance to Backdoor. A steep drop, a couple pumps, and then a four- to eight-second barrel section. The channel is starting to close out and the takeoff zone, which is usually empty until lunch, already has fifteen guys on it, mostly locals, all battling for waves. Surfers on the beach are screaming and whistling for their friends. It’s serious surf today-Hawai’ian-style conditions, and, like yesterday, the onshores have yet to kick in. It’s still sheet glass three hours after sun up, and Ozzie tells me it was straight offshore this morning.

Ozzie Wright’s trip to this little rock in the Lesser Antilles (the chain of islands that run from the Virgin Islands in the north to Trinidad in the south) was a nightmare. He flew from Sydney to Los Angeles, where he had a twelve-hour layover, then he flew to Miami, Puerto Rico, and finally our current location, which, at the request (read “death threats”) of locals, will remain unnamed in this article. The trip threw Ozzie’s body clock into a tailspin, and his first three days here were spent sleeping most of the afternoon and smoking cigarettes and playing guitar on the deck all night. But Oz is the perpetual good sport, complaining very little if at all. You get the imprsion that he feels lucky to have the job he does and refuses to take it for granted. There are plenty of friends back in Narrabeen who’d kill for what he has, and he knows it.

Kelly wakes up around 9:00 a.m., and he, Ozzie, and I drive down the street to watch Timmy surfing the left. He’s getting six-second barrels and coming out. After surfing this spot for a couple hours yesterday, I can’t believe he’s sitting so deep and coming out. I got clipped by the lip every wave. WCT guys are no joke. Timmy’s session out at (spot name omitted) yesterday was inspiring, and he modestly accepted congratulations from everyone for the dozen or so backside barrels he slid into and out of.

Here’s what I knew about Timmy before this trip: he’s probably the best air guy on the tour, he’s a Christian, he’s sponsored by Hurley. We’d met once or twice, but I’d always gotten the feeling he didn’t want to talk to me. After a few days of hanging out with him, I realize that he’s just quiet until he gets to know you. He and Shanoa are thoughtful and sedate, and after a few days together, I feel like I’ve known them for years.

At 10:00 a.m. Kelly pressures Ozzie into paddling back out. The takeoff zone is so small out there. It’s like watching people surf Padang-twenty guys in the lineup, all sitting so close to one another they’re almost touching elbows. Plus you’ve got locals snapping on each other, and to top it off, Kelly’s out there.

The wave our house sits in plain view of is famous on the East Coast of the U.S. and throughout the Caribbean, and in ways, the setup is similar to Sunset Beach-a heavy right with huge barrel potential and the possibility of swing-wide sets that send people scratching for the horizon, praying not to get caught inside. Near the kick-out point on the wave is a powerful rip tide that will tow you straight into a mess of a treacherous left that pounds on a waist-deep coral and volcanic-rock shelf. To lose your board and get caught in the rip is not an enticing proposition. Add to all this a pack of rambunctious locals-some of whom aren’t really prepared to surf this spot at eight-foot-plus (that’s Hawai’ian, folks … we’re talking about fifteen-foot faces)-and you realize that this is a work-class wave with world-class pitfalls.

By 11:00, it’s a couple feet bigger. The swell is serious. The surf is easily double-overhead plus, and Kelly, Benji, and Ozzie are all having incredible sessions. I’m really impressed with Ozzie. Anyone who says he’s a gimmick or a product of marketing can f-k off. He’s schooling the locals on his fourth-ever session out at (name of spot omitted). At 11:15, he gets two barrels on the same wave, and a bus full of tourists driving by are screaming like they just won the lottery.

As the editor of a surf magazine, I get more complaints than you’d ever believe (mostly from people in the surf industry) about running too many Ozzie Wright photos. I’ve heard him called everything from a “gimmick” to “fake.” People have told me he speeds his video parts up, so that it’ll seem like he’s surfing faster. Advertisers have threatened to pull out if we run another Ozzie photo. Watching him backside tube ride in such heavy conditions, I suddenly feel vindicated.

Benji follows Ozzie’s wave with a stand-up barrel. Thirty seconds later Slater catches the biggest wave of the day so far and stands in it with both hands raised over his head. (Spot name omitted) is huge-ten feet Hawai’ian, people are claiming. The rights are starting to connect with the left just north, and it’s making the channel a boiling cauldron.

At this point in the session, the locals (even the really good ones) are starting to pass on set waves. This is the size that typically separates the pros from the bros, and I begin to notice that when the swell pulses, only Benji, Kelly, or Ozzie are going.

In the distance, Timmy is getting deep left-hand barrel after deep left-hand barrel. Alex comes in to reload his 16mm water camera and says, “F-k man, it’s heavy out there. There’s some serious waves coming in.”

I have huge respect for the guys who swim in heavy conditions and shoot photos and moving pictures. You’re battling currents, rip tides, and closeouts; you’re trying to stay in the right position for the best angle; you’re avoiding getting hit by guys who shouldn’t be out there; you’re lugging around twenty pounds worth of dead weight in the form of your camera; and all the while, you’re trying to create art. Alex has been swimming six to eight hours a day for a week. He’s up early, in the water anytime someone is having a session, and constantly eating to maintain energy levels.

A few minutes later, Timmy comes in battered. He smashed his right arm against his knee, and his heel is bleeding after making contact with the reef. He looks a little guilty for not having surfed the right, where all the cameras are, opting for the left instead, but you can’t blame a goofy-foot for wanting to go left.

Timmy’s says his tricep is killing him, but you can’t really tell by looking at it if it’s injured or not. Shanoa brings him some ice for his arm and helps him clean his heel, and he sits on the deck in front of the house, where we all sit when we aren’t surfing or filming, and watches Kelly for a while. Like all the WCT guys, Timmy seems somewhat in awe of Slater. His surfing is so otherworldly, even the best surfers alive just want to watch.

Occasionally one of the guys comes in from a session and seems upset to have had to surf with Kelly. “Kelly is the best crowd surfer of all time,” Benji tries to explain this phenomenon to me a few days later. “Everywhere in the world, he’s the best local out.”

“Oh look, here he goes,” Benji points to the lineup where Kelly is catching his fourth wave in ten minutes. Kelly beats a half dozen locals for the wave, gets barreled, and a bodyboarder drops in on him, closing the wave out. Benji laughs, “He probably hit the bottom, cut himself, but it’s healed already. It’s hard to surf with Kelly because he’s so on it out there. He’s paddling around you, catching everything.”

Kelly to Taylor about the Friday morning session: So that was probably one of the best filming sessions we’ve ever had, huh?Taylor: It was, for sure.

I think this entry kind of speaks for itself.

Midday on Friday, none of the locals want anything to do with the biggest sets (and I seriously don’t blame them). Only local Mark Holder is charging with Oz, Benji, Kelly, and Timmy. Most guys are scratching over the big ones, looking over the lip, and opting out. Before he goes out for the afternoon session, I ask Ozzie if he’s scared out there. “Yeah, I’m scared,” he answers. “It’s an easy wave, you just have to commit to the drop, put your head down, and charge. I’m scared of Pipeline. I’m scared of Teahupo’o, too, but I’m gonna go there and surf it. I know once I’m there, I’ll go.”

I ask Ozzie that before he paddles out for his third surf on this Friday. At 4:00 p.m. he’s already been in the water for over five hours, and he looks skeptical about going out a third time. He sits and stares as set after set come in, each one bigger than the one before it. It’s maxing out at this point, the biggest it’s been all day. This is the peak of the swell. After each wave, Ozzie says something like, “Shhhhhhit.” Eventually, he jumps up, waxes his board, puts on his leash, smears sunscreen on his face, and runs toward the beach. It’s as if he’s getting out there before he thinks too much more about it.

Watching Kelly, it becomes clear to me that if he has a good year on tour, title number seven should be easy. He’s surfing like a man possessed. In the water, he has a crazy look in his eye-he hassles and battles, and, at times, gets two waves from a six-wave set.

Kelly’s in a zone. The wave is getting thicker and more square as the tide bottoms out and the reef near the shore slowly pokes its porous head out of the water. All day, locera and says, “F-k man, it’s heavy out there. There’s some serious waves coming in.”

I have huge respect for the guys who swim in heavy conditions and shoot photos and moving pictures. You’re battling currents, rip tides, and closeouts; you’re trying to stay in the right position for the best angle; you’re avoiding getting hit by guys who shouldn’t be out there; you’re lugging around twenty pounds worth of dead weight in the form of your camera; and all the while, you’re trying to create art. Alex has been swimming six to eight hours a day for a week. He’s up early, in the water anytime someone is having a session, and constantly eating to maintain energy levels.

A few minutes later, Timmy comes in battered. He smashed his right arm against his knee, and his heel is bleeding after making contact with the reef. He looks a little guilty for not having surfed the right, where all the cameras are, opting for the left instead, but you can’t blame a goofy-foot for wanting to go left.

Timmy’s says his tricep is killing him, but you can’t really tell by looking at it if it’s injured or not. Shanoa brings him some ice for his arm and helps him clean his heel, and he sits on the deck in front of the house, where we all sit when we aren’t surfing or filming, and watches Kelly for a while. Like all the WCT guys, Timmy seems somewhat in awe of Slater. His surfing is so otherworldly, even the best surfers alive just want to watch.

Occasionally one of the guys comes in from a session and seems upset to have had to surf with Kelly. “Kelly is the best crowd surfer of all time,” Benji tries to explain this phenomenon to me a few days later. “Everywhere in the world, he’s the best local out.”

“Oh look, here he goes,” Benji points to the lineup where Kelly is catching his fourth wave in ten minutes. Kelly beats a half dozen locals for the wave, gets barreled, and a bodyboarder drops in on him, closing the wave out. Benji laughs, “He probably hit the bottom, cut himself, but it’s healed already. It’s hard to surf with Kelly because he’s so on it out there. He’s paddling around you, catching everything.”

Kelly to Taylor about the Friday morning session: So that was probably one of the best filming sessions we’ve ever had, huh?Taylor: It was, for sure.

I think this entry kind of speaks for itself.

Midday on Friday, none of the locals want anything to do with the biggest sets (and I seriously don’t blame them). Only local Mark Holder is charging with Oz, Benji, Kelly, and Timmy. Most guys are scratching over the big ones, looking over the lip, and opting out. Before he goes out for the afternoon session, I ask Ozzie if he’s scared out there. “Yeah, I’m scared,” he answers. “It’s an easy wave, you just have to commit to the drop, put your head down, and charge. I’m scared of Pipeline. I’m scared of Teahupo’o, too, but I’m gonna go there and surf it. I know once I’m there, I’ll go.”

I ask Ozzie that before he paddles out for his third surf on this Friday. At 4:00 p.m. he’s already been in the water for over five hours, and he looks skeptical about going out a third time. He sits and stares as set after set come in, each one bigger than the one before it. It’s maxing out at this point, the biggest it’s been all day. This is the peak of the swell. After each wave, Ozzie says something like, “Shhhhhhit.” Eventually, he jumps up, waxes his board, puts on his leash, smears sunscreen on his face, and runs toward the beach. It’s as if he’s getting out there before he thinks too much more about it.

Watching Kelly, it becomes clear to me that if he has a good year on tour, title number seven should be easy. He’s surfing like a man possessed. In the water, he has a crazy look in his eye-he hassles and battles, and, at times, gets two waves from a six-wave set.

Kelly’s in a zone. The wave is getting thicker and more square as the tide bottoms out and the reef near the shore slowly pokes its porous head out of the water. All day, local radio stations have been announcing that Kelly Slater is surfing on the island, and people are starting to amass down near the beach. They’re sitting in their cars, standing along the beach access road, honking, cheering, whistling. Ozzie gets a couple bombs and pig-dogs his way to daylight. Timmy and Benji are having phenomenal sessions, too. No one from our group is backing down.

Benji comes in about an hour after paddling out for the afternoon session, throws his board down on the deck, and looks upset. “I brought boards for Cuba, Tortola, and Barbados. Nothing for this!”

True statement. Our original plan was to hit some islands in the Greater Antilles that are known for having rippable mushy surf, so most the guys brought shortboards and fish. The biggest board in the house was 6’3″, and the surf was starting to take on a Teahupo’o feel.

Ozzie breaks his only shortboard-while holding it in his hands. “I was holding it against my chest,” he laughed, “and I went over the falls and felt it snap.”

Oz comes in with just the back half of his 6’2″ Merrick with a giant painting of Batman on the deck. He looks exhausted and somewhat relieved that his third session today is over. Ozzie tells me that out in the water, Kelly paddled up to him and said, “I’ve been waiting twenty years for this day. I don’t care if I go home in a stretcher.”

Kelly’s last wave is a perfect five-second barrel followed by a crazy, straight-up frontside snap, and finished with a trademark under-the-lip floater on a closing-out section. Back at the house, Kelly says, “I’d call this a twenty-year swell, because I’ve been coming here for twenty years, and I’ve never seen it this good. It’s not often you see waves like this … ever … anywhere.”

Kelly is the last one out of the water, and when he gets back to the deck and sets his boards down, Benji, Timmy, Ozzie, Alex, Todd, Dustin, Taylor, and I give him a subdued but respectful round of applause. Kelly, who everyone simply calls “Hell,” gets a couple pats on the back, he tells some stories about the afternoon surf, and someone puts a beer in his hand just as he’s saying, “If I could, I’d live that day over and over for the rest of my life.”

Sidebar

Timeline Of Friday:

6:00 a.m.
Ozzie paddles out. After his surf, he reports the swell has definitely picked up overnight.

8:30 a.m.
Benji paddles out. The surf is definitely coming up. Each pulse of the swell looks incrementally bigger, and the guys are already making Backdoor comparisons.

9:00 a.m.
Kelly wakes up, freaks out at how good it looks.

9:30 a.m.
Timmy paddles out at the left down the beach (now being called “Timmy’s Left”).

10:00 a.m.
Kelly and Ozzie paddle out. Oz’s second session. The surf is firing. Solid eight-foot-plus Hawai’ian-style.

11:00 a.m.
Timmy comes in holding his right a.m.
in pain. He’s bashed his tricep muscle into his knee and cut his heel on the reef. Applies ice and takes Advil.

11:15 a.m.
Benji gets out.

NoonKelly airdrops into a.m.
nster of a double-up, gets barreled, and spat out. Ozzie later says: “I wanted nothing to do with that f-kin’ wave.”

12:15 p.m.Ozzie gets out.

12:45 p.m.Kelly gets out.

1:00 p.m.Lunch at the house. Cheese sandwiches, potato chips, and bottled water.

3:00 p.m.Surf has maxed in size at ten-feet-plus and seems to be a bit less consistent but more square as the tide bottoms out. Occasional wave resembles Teahupo’o. Kelly, Tim, and Benji paddle back out. Ozzie lags back, psyching himself up.

4:00 p.m.Ozzie paddles out for his third session of the day. Everyone is charging. Kelly is having the self-procla.m.
d “best surf of my life.”

4:15 p.m.Kelly gets a.m.
ntal barrel, hands raised over his head. The wave closes out the channel.

4:30 p.m.Benji comes in fuming that the biggest board he brought is a 6’2″.

4:45 p.m.Kelly comes in for food. He’s amped. He’s surfing the best anyone in the house can remember.

5:00 p.m.Ozzie bbreaks his only non-fish-style board and comes in. Kelly paddles back out … he’s on a roll. The swell is pulsing again and is easily ten-foot Hawai’ian, consistent to the point of seeming like a never-ending set, and backless.

5:15 p.m.Timmy comes in.

5:45 p.m.Kelly comes in. When he gets back to the house, he gets a round of applause. Those who saw his session can’t believe it.

6:00 p.m.Girls arrive with beer and food. Emgee screens his footage of the day for entire the neighborhood. Everyone is exhausted.

-J.P.radio stations have been announcing that Kelly Slater is surfing on the island, and people are starting to amass down near the beach. They’re sitting in their cars, standing along the beach access road, honking, cheering, whistling. Ozzie gets a couple bombs and pig-dogs his way to daylight. Timmy and Benji are having phenomenal sessions, too. No one from our group is backing down.

Benji comes in about an hour after paddling out for the afternoon session, throws his board down on the deck, and looks upset. “I brought boards for Cuba, Tortola, and Barbados. Nothing for this!”

True statement. Our original plan was to hit some islands in the Greater Antilles that are known for having rippable mushy surf, so most the guys brought shortboards and fish. The biggest board in the house was 6’3″, and the surf was starting to take on a Teahupo’o feel.

Ozzie breaks his only shortboard-while holding it in his hands. “I was holding it against my chest,” he laughed, “and I went over the falls and felt it snap.”

Oz comes in with just the back half of his 6’2″ Merrick with a giant painting of Batman on the deck. He looks exhausted and somewhat relieved that his third session today is over. Ozzie tells me that out in the water, Kelly paddled up to him and said, “I’ve been waiting twenty years for this day. I don’t care if I go home in a stretcher.”

Kelly’s last wave is a perfect five-second barrel followed by a crazy, straight-up frontside snap, and finished with a trademark under-the-lip floater on a closing-out section. Back at the house, Kelly says, “I’d call this a twenty-year swell, because I’ve been coming here for twenty years, and I’ve never seen it this good. It’s not often you see waves like this … ever … anywhere.”

Kelly is the last one out of the water, and when he gets back to the deck and sets his boards down, Benji, Timmy, Ozzie, Alex, Todd, Dustin, Taylor, and I give him a subdued but respectful round of applause. Kelly, who everyone simply calls “Hell,” gets a couple pats on the back, he tells some stories about the afternoon surf, and someone puts a beer in his hand just as he’s saying, “If I could, I’d live that day over and over for the rest of my life.”

Sidebar

Timeline Of Friday:

6:00 a.m.
Ozzie paddles out. After his surf, he reports the swell has definitely picked up overnight.

8:30 a.m.
Benji paddles out. The surf is definitely coming up. Each pulse of the swell looks incrementally bigger, and the guys are already making Backdoor comparisons.

9:00 a.m.
Kelly wakes up, freaks out at how good it looks.

9:30 a.m.
Timmy paddles out at the left down the beach (now being called “Timmy’s Left”).

10:00 a.m.
Kelly and Ozzie paddle out. Oz’s second session. The surf is firing. Solid eight-foot-plus Hawai’ian-style.

11:00 a.m.
Timmy comes in holding his right a.m.
in pain. He’s bashed his tricep muscle into his knee and cut his heel on the reef. Applies ice and takes Advil.

11:15 a.m.
Benji gets out.

NoonKelly airdrops into a.m.
nster of a double-up, gets barreled, and spat out. Ozzie later says: “I wanted nothing to do with that f-kin’ wave.”

12:15 p.m.Ozzie gets out.

12:45 p.m.Kelly gets out.

1:00 p.m.Lunch at the house. Cheese sandwiches, potato chips, and bottled water.

3:00 p.m.Surf has maxed in size at ten-feet-plus and seems to be a bit less consistent but more square as the tide bottoms out. Occasional wave resembles Teahupo’o. Kelly, Tim, and Benji paddle back out. Ozzie lags back, psyching himself up.

4:00 p.m.Ozzie paddles out for his third session of the day. Everyone is charging. Kelly is having the self-procla.m.
d “best surf of my life.”

4:15 p.m.Kelly gets a.m.
ntal barrel, hands raised over his head. The wave closes out the channel.

4:30 p.m.Benji comes in fuming that the biggest board he brought is a 6’2″.

4:45 p.m.Kelly comes in for food. He’s amped. He’s surfing the best anyone in the house can remember.

5:00 p.m.Ozzie breaks his only non-fish-style board and comes in. Kelly paddles back out … he’s on a roll. The swell is pulsing again and is easily ten-foot Hawai’ian, consistent to the point of seeming like a never-ending set, and backless.

5:15 p.m.Timmy comes in.

5:45 p.m.Kelly comes in. When he gets back to the house, he gets a round of applause. Those who saw his session can’t believe it.

6:00 p.m.Girls arrive with beer and food. Emgee screens his footage of the day for entire the neighborhood. Everyone is exhausted.

-J.P..Ozzie breaks his only non-fish-style board and comes in. Kelly paddles back out … he’s on a roll. The swell is pulsing again and is easily ten-foot Hawai’ian, consistent to the point of seeming like a never-ending set, and backless.

5:15 p.m.Timmy comes in.

5:45 p.m.Kelly comes in. When he gets back to the house, he gets a round of applause. Those who saw his session can’t believe it.

6:00 p.m.Girls arrive with beer and food. Emgee screens his footage of the day for entire the neighborhood. Everyone is exhausted.

-J.P.