The Moment

During a flat spell the week of December 15, 2003, the surfing world was holding its breath. The Pipe Masters event, which was in a holding pattern as contest organizers gambled on getting a swell before the contest window closed on the 20 , was four rounds from complete, and the 2003 world title lay in the balance. In line at Starbucks, in the aisles of Foodland, in the lineup at Off The Wall, at the bar at Haleiwa Joe’s, and on the dance floor at Breakers, all people were talking about was the possible showdown between reigning World Champ Andy Irons and former six-time World Champ Kelly Slater. People mulled over possible scenarios, point totals, heat draws–and eventually, the question always came forward, “What if we end up with a Kelly versus Andy final?”

During that week off, that flat spell, those slow days of gossip and Christmas-shopping trips to Honolulu, a strange event transpired that would become North Shore legend. At around 8:00 a.m. one morning a few days before the final, Andy and his girlfriend Lindey, Mick Fanning, a filmer called Shagga, and photographer Steve Sherman were sitting around the Red Bell house at Off The Wall having a lazy morning. Sherman remembers, “We were all just hanging out, Andy was checking e-mails and messing with the computer, and then suddenly … Kelly walks in! An uncomfortable silence overtook the whole living room.”

Everyone was silent for a second. These guys who had battled for a year in every corner of the globe, who the media had pitted against each other like Ali versus Foreman, who would be competing for the world title in a matter of hours, were suddenly face to face.

“What’s up?” Andy greeted Kelly.

“Where’s Damien?” Slater responded. Kelly was supposedly looking for one of the Hobgoods, with whom he had a tee time out at Turtle Bay’s golf course.

“Damien lives next door,” Andy replied, a hint of “I know you know that” in his voice.

At that point Sherman remembers silence. Kelly had taken a couple steps into the house and was looking around as if he was thinking about renting the place. Andy was still sitting at the computer, a puzzled look on his face, watching Slater. This went on for what Sherm estimates to be about 30 seconds.

“Okay, I’ll see you guys later,” Kelly finally said. Then he turned and disappeared. Everyone was stunned by the simple interaction with so many complex undertones.

Andy broke the silence, “That was f–kin’ random.”

Was it? Was Kelly really looking for Damo? Or was the wily old vet of six world-title battles testing the nerves of an adversary? This was the question that had circulated around the North Shore by lunchtime. Whether Kelly was playing mind games or not, this moment (which was written about on every Web site in the surf community–and often exaggerated for dramatic effect) somehow made the final matchup that much more important.

Three days later, Andy won his second world in solid six-foot Backdoor. The final, which people began referring to as simply “The Showdown,” saw Andy Irons claim a second world title, and Kelly Slater lose big for the first time in recent memory … or ever. Andy’s fans exploded, Kelly’s clapped politely, but everyone finally exhaled.

On page 72 of this issue you’ll find an interview with Kelly about his year, about Andy, about the future, about pressure, and about growing to understand that winning surf contests is only so fulfilling.–Joel Patterson