Kelly Slater in New Jersey
New Jersey surfers saw a unicorn last week. The biggest surprise of the year struck the East Coast October 30th- well, at least in close competition with the September to Remember that went down. The unicorn was none other than 11-time world champ, the GOAT himself, Kelly Slater. The people at the beach that witnessed this event are still scratching their heads, wondering how the hell this all happened. Why did Slater pop-up on a New Jersey sandbank, the day before Halloween? According to Instagram, Kelly was in New York visiting family when New Jersey Legend, Sam Hammer, gave Slater the heads up about the pristine conditions. Hammer even brought an extra all-black, 3.2 costume down to the beach for The Champ. I am sure by now you have seen the footage that has surfaced online, it was an all time day here on the East Coast: six to twelve foot waves, hard offshore winds, bluebird skies; a recipe for some of the best barrels of the year, and in this case, a day no surfer in New Jersey will soon forget.
I was at that undisclosed location when Slater showed up, and I can tell you the beach started to buzz from the moment he walked up and checked the surf. Whispers were passed on to each other, most in disbelief. “Is that really him?” “Could he have a doppelganger?” All of the chatter was silenced when Slater turned around smiling ear to ear watching a large Jersey set roll in. It was the face we have seen our entire lives, a face which has graced surf magazine covers and a face that has been plastered on our bedroom walls since we were kids. It was actually him. And he was just as stoked as we were.
Within a few minutes, a handful of New Jersey’s best surf photographers dressed in neoprene, flippers and camera equipment in hand came scurrying down towards the beach like a pack of sea otters. Each and every one of them was in awe, and from what I saw, determined. Most of them have never had a chance to photograph Slater and for those who have, they have not had the chance to do it in their backyard.
Onlookers waited for what felt like hours, the crowds multiplying by the dozens in the meantime, when Slater finally surfaced from a nearby parking lot. Slater, covered in his borrowed wetsuit and wearing an attached hood, started to jog down the beach. As he ran past us all, hungry for waves, someone shouted, “Yeah, Kelly!” and he turned, again grinning, just as stoked as we were.
The vibe on the beach at this point was boiling. The word had spread that Slater was in town as more and more people started to cover the beach and seawall. He paddled out and dialed the takeoff zone almost immediately; finagling himself between huge sets- there was a lot of water moving. The beach was full of talk: half guessing his first possible wave and what he would do, half still in disbelief of what they were watching. For many, it was the first and only time we’d seen a professional of this level surfing our waves.
A few minutes later a set was seen rolling in along the horizon. Two to three bombs were making their way towards the spot where Kelly was sitting. The noise on the beach started to heighten, people began to hoot and holler.
For the most part, everyone in the water looks the same in New Jersey because of all the rubber, but Slater was the only one in the lineup wearing a hood, making him easy to spot, and donned bright red-bottom booties. The surfers in the lineup cleared a path and Slater dug into his first wave. Getting a bit of a late start on the drop-in, he executed with ease, landing one of the steepest drops I’d ever seen in Jersey. He pulled under the lip, got brown barreled, and disappeared in a close out. The beach burst into hysteria. Later Instagram user, @Mattp.aul would upload a photo of that wave, noting a fish riding alongside of Slater. It’s not always that swimming with the fishes in Jersey is a good thing.
Kelly’s next wave was one of the largest waves of the day, possibly the biggest wave ridden. No one that was there could forget that wave. The size, how it looked steamrolling from deep water, and most importantly: how he rode it. Slater took the highline, pulled directly into a massive barrel, completely disappearing for a few grueling seconds behind a brown, frothy curtain of water. We all waited and eventually our beloved Atlantic spit him North out of the barrel. The beach lost it. Even spectators unfamiliar with surfing could appreciate what they just witnessed. For us surf-plebeians who are used to hunching over laptop screens to witness pros and waves like this, it felt like something out of a WSL event, and Slater just scored a perfect ten.
As the day started to lose its light, the wind began to diminish and Slater began to figure out the break inside and out. Something I will attest is no easy feat. Hammer and Slater went back to back on multiple sets towards the end of session, chumming it up like poetry in motion. Hammer would start by taking off on the largest waves, pumping from the deepest sections and giving the beach an amazing show. Slater would follow. They’d both finish stoked then paddle out side by side for more. A local hometown hero surfing in his backyard with the greatest to ever do it, quite the storyline. October 30th 2017 will go down in history books for the Mid-Atlantic, east coasters. The modern day Willy Wonka of our time, the man who created our version of the chocolate factory via The Surf Ranch, gave us the best Halloween treat we could’ve asked for.
Words and photos by Michael DiCarlo.