What's Kelly riding? Photo: Ed Sloane

It’s nearing dark on Easter Saturday and after a test-lap at Bells, Kelly Slater paddles over to Winki Pop for a few waves with a little more zip and run than the lumbering rollers at The Bowl. Although a lay-day has been called, a late arvo pulse has transformed both lineups into three-to-five foot fun parks. As Kelly joins corner-man, Stephen Bell, in the lineup, from up on the cliffs at Winki Pop Greg Webber is watching on with particular interest. Greg, the shaper who pioneered the controversial banana board back in the 90s, has made the trip down to Bells to deliver Kelly a quiver of his extreme-rockered boards. *

“Is he riding one of yours out there Greg?” I ask. “No he’s not!” exclaims Webber with equal parts disappointment and acceptance. He knows that Kelly is beholden to no shaper at present and will ride what ever he sees fit at the time. As the on-dark wind drops to a flicker, Kelly slides into an oily four-footer and Greg and I zone in on the performance. Kelly whips a quick turn off the top and then accelerates down the line with typically fluent body English. All eyes are on the next section, which steepens and curves markedly, presenting itself as the obvious point of contact for a major turn. Not content with another regulation snap, Kelly throws himself at the lip and launches into a rotation, however as the wave projects him into the air he loses contact with the board and it spins uncontrollably, like a kite whose only master is the wind.

“That board looks pretty flat,” comments Greg, perhaps a little chuffed that Kelly had fallen on a board that wasn’t his own. (It was later confirmed the board was a stringerless Channel Islands with parabolic rails and EPS foam.) “I just hope he likes the curvier ones that I’ve made him a lot more.” With that he was gone, walking off into a setting sun that would later play its part in a lunar eclipse. Webber was no doubt hoping for a similar eclipse in Kelly’s attitude towards boards *
Kelly is obviously aware of his innate brilliance but he also fully accepts that his genius can only be fully realised if he is riding crafts that inspire him. This may seem like stating the obvious but it is interesting to examine just how multi-dimensional Kelly’s approach to boards has been in the last couple of weeks.

Just over a week out from the event surf media outlets (including this one) were confident that Kelly had acquired a major share in Firewire and would arrive at Bells with a quiver of boards from the company for which he’d supposedly become the surfing CEO (more on this later). Instead Kelly showed up to round one with a trusty rounded pin Channel Islands (Rook15 model 5’9” x 2 1/4 x 18 1/4) and carved his way to an emphatic victory.

Channel Islands global team and marketing manager, Travis Lee, shed some light on where Kelly stands with Channel Islands. Putting aside his lengthy job title it’s worth noting that Trav is probably still Kelly’s most trusted board consultant.

“He was with the brand for 25 years and there will always be a relationship,” indicates Travis. “But I think now it’s not about having a sponsorship for Kelly, it’s about having the freedom to ride the boards he wants to without feeling guilty.” Lee suggests that the relationship he and Kelly have is close enough for Trav’ to be completely candid when it comes to what Kelly is riding. “If I think something he is riding is going better for him than one of our boards then I would tell him… I’ll always support his decisions,” claims Trav, who also understands that maintaining an open dialogue on design with the best surfer ever is always a good thing if you are running a board company.

For the present moment it seems Kelly is still using his Channel Islands quiver as his default option. He knows exactly where and when many of the boards work and will go to them if he thinks the conditions are suitable. As Travis explains, “If the conditions in round three look similar to round one then I think the chances of him riding the same board are good, but if the conditions are different he might jump on something else.”

Meanwhile, Kelly’s trusted cornerman, Stephen Bell, made it apparent just what kind of options Kelly has at his disposal. According to Belly, Slater’s shopping list of pre-Bells experiments included a couple of Maurice Coles, a Lee Stacey, the Webber banana boards and his regular cache of Channel Islands. He’d also planned to try a couple of Simon Andersons but when the order got lost in email translation he couldn’t get them in time.

Belly also offered a little insight into what motivated Kelly to ride different boards and his desire to maintain the option to do so. “Well, he gets influenced by other people… And he’s always looking for something new.”

When quizzed about the deal that would see Kelly become the major shareholder of Firewire, Belly suggested that to his knowledge it was a done deal, all bar the signing of the paperwork. When asked why Kelly wasn’t riding Firewires and endorsing his future product Belly spelt out why Kelly has gone to a whole other level in the industry. “It’s not like he’d be sponsored by Firewire and riding for them, he’d be the owner of the company… it would be part of the Kelly Group which includes the wave pool project (Kelly Slater Wave Pool Company) and the clothing label (Outerknown).”
When Tracks suggested it would still make sense for Kelly to ride his own product (even though he was under no obligation to do so as the owner) Belly was again matter of fact. “Well that might be the smart thing to do, but he still wants the freedom.”

The surfing world is infatuated with Kelly’s every move. If and when the deal with Firewire does go through it will be intriguing to see where he takes the company. Belly seems to think he will open the Firewire technology up to a much broader cross-section of shapers and in doing so give himself more options to ride boards under his own banner. For now however, it’s enough to wonder what he will be riding in the next heat at Bells …

*This may seem like blowing our own trumpet but some readers may be interested in how Kelly became interested in riding Greg Webber banana boards. At last year’s Bells competition, Tracks handed Stephen Bell a usb stick containing a version of Monty Webber’s mini doco’ on Shane Herring, Journey On, which eventually ran as a Tracks cover-mount DVD. We’d hoped that Kelly would be able to feature in the final edit but unfortunately that didn’t happen. He did however watch the version that Belly handed him on the USB stick. The film featured Herring at the zenith of his powers riding Greg Webber banana boards. Inspired by the flashback footage of Herring, from an era when he was also using a lot of rocker on his Al Merricks, Kelly reached out to Greg Webber and began talks about ordering a modern version of Greg’s extreme-rockered banana boards. If you haven’t watched Journey On you can do so below.