Let’s get one thing straight: I didn’t actually catch any waves when I went surfing with Kelly Slater and Bethany Hamilton.
That would have made for a better story. When a person gets the chance to paddle out with the winningest surfer ever and a woman who embodies the sport’s requisite combo of toughness and fluidity, it would be cool to actually score some nice rides and then finish the day joking around on shore like three best friends. Maybe a campfire and some Jack Johnson music?
But it didn’t go down like that. Not even close.
The day I got invited to surf with Kelly Slater and Bethany Hamilton was the first day of the biggest swell Southern California saw all summer. Plus it was the day before the start of the World Surf League’s pro tour event at Lower Trestles — the same break we were surfing — so there would be plenty of competition for waves.
John John Florence was there. Gabriel Medina. Glenn Hall. So were about 100 local chargers — men and women who were more than willing to jostle the pros for position.
One of the most interesting, engaging things about professional surfing is the “stars are just like us!” factor. If you surf relatively often, you will have surfed with a pro surfer. It’s not a question of if, but when. On the other hand, unless you live near Rucker Park, you can play basketball your whole life without going up against an NBA star. I think it’s one of the reasons why surfing fans so often call their heroes by their first names — they feel like they know them to some degree (first name basis is reserved for a select few in other sports).
Slater and Hamilton are both highly prominent and highly recognizable, so they both had a lot of eyes on them — but once we got into the lineup there were no gimmes. They had to scrap for waves just like everyone else.
I’m not afraid to admit that I was outmatched. (And did I mention how big the waves were?)
About twenty minutes after we paddled out, Slater called over to me, “Drop in on me!”
“What?” I yelled back. I’d heard him, but I was a little frazzled by this point and it didn’t really compute.
“Do it!” he urged.
Which was pretty cool, if you think about it. The best surfer in the history of time inviting you to steal one of his waves. But the invitation came with more than a little self doubt. What if I dropped in on him and didn’t make the drop? What if I crashed? What if the Surf God’s career came to an end because of some writer landing on his head?
I gave him one of these:
Then decided, “No, I am not going to do that. I am not going to drop in on Kelly Slater. I am going to paddle closer to Bethany Hamilton now and see how she’s doing.”