AS a child, Kelly Slater surfed the modest swells near his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
“You wouldn’t ever say we had world-class waves,” he recalled. “They don’t have good shape and aren’t especially great in any way.”
In fact, among surfers, the ocean off the Florida coast has long been likened to dishwater. Yet it was out of these humble waters that surfing got one of its most revolutionary figures and greatest champion. In 2011, Mr. Slater, now 40, won his 11th Association of Surfing Professionals World Champion title, becoming both the youngest and oldest person ever to win, and surpassing the previous record holder by six titles. His impact on the sport has been as indelible as it is undeniable. Below are excerpts from a conversation with him.
Q. What are some of the best places you’ve surfed?
A. I’ll start with my home. Florida has a shallow and long continental shelf. The swells start out in the Atlantic and drag pretty far before they get to the coast, losing a lot of their energy and speed. Because of that you usually end up with a slow, relatively small wave. The good thing is those work well for beginners. A wave isn’t like a skate ramp or mountain; everything’s moving around and you have to time how to move along with it. That’s easier with a slow wave.
Currumbin, Australia, is just south of Brisbane, near a city called Surfers Paradise. Within 10 minutes, on either side, you can find half a dozen world-class waves. The waves are point breaks, meaning the swell comes in at an angle, instead of directly toward the beach, and peels to the side. The waves here are clean-tapering and just perfect; not too slow, not too fast, not too big and scary, but never slow and boring. A few years back a guy came here and caught a wave that went for five minutes — that gives you an idea of their length. The beach is crowded, though.
Most of what Hawaii has to offer is no secret. Pipeline is probably the most famous wave in the world. Millions of years ago, lava poured out and just happened to form a perfect-shaped bottom. The result is really good waves. It’s not often you’ll get a huge one. On a big day they are somewhere between 15 and 25 feet. Most only last five seconds.
And a few more people wouldn’t think of: Israel, Egypt and Tunisia are all fairly active spots. Also, Morocco is very interesting, given the Muslim influence and the food. In Agadir there are 10 to 20 different surf schools, and hundreds of people there at a time.
Q. What should you know when surfing a new location?
A. Know what the reefs are like and what the bottom is made of. You could paddle out over flat rock and find out it’s covered with urchins. If you are in South Africa, South Australia or Northern California, you can guarantee there’ll be a “great white factor.” You also have to look out for the locals. There’s inevitably a pecking order at every break. Let the established locals do their thing and let you in when they want to.
Q. What resources can you recommend?
A. Surfline, Windguru, Magicseaweed, Stormsurf and Buoyweather. I go through all five of those to get reports on wind, swell and weather.
Q. Any traps newcomers fall into?
A. A lot of times I’ll see guys who are nowhere near the level of the board they’re riding. They might love surfing and love how it looks, but you really have to work your way up. It takes eating a little humble pie at first, and stepping back to equipment that might be a bit slow, but do it. It makes things better for everyone in the water.