If you’re the sort of surfer who takes time to read this magazine and aren’t simply flipping through the pages to drool over the photos, then I’m confident I can sketch a spot-on picture of you, dear reader. You’re a man, roughly 31 years old. You’re a goofyfoot, and you surf twice a week. You first got tubed on a trip to Costa Rica when you were 19. You work as a sales rep for a beer distribution company in Ocean City, New Jersey. You drive a 2009 Subaru Forester (blue; dent in right rear fender), you have an Australian sheepdog called Randy, your favorite band is The Pixies (well, you tell people that, but really it’s the Dave Matthews Band), your wife’s name is Robin, and she has a double-jointed elbow. Her left.
What? None of that is true, you say? You’re actually a 60-year-old woman in San Diego? An 18-year old college kid in Hawaii? A bored truck driver reading an issue you found in a Florida rest stop? Fine. For the purposes of this column, it doesn’t actually matter. Regardless of your age, your dog’s name, where in the world you surf, or even if you surf, you almost certainly believe that Kelly Slater is the undisputed Greatest Surfer of All Time (trumpet sound). What you might not be aware of, however, is that Kelly Slater will also be the last undisputed Greatest Surfer of All Time. No one after Slater will hold that position again, from now until the sun expands, consuming everything we’ve ever known. And it has nothing to do with Slater’s surfing talent (talented as he certainly is). The culture itself has shifted.
It’s worth pointing out just how long Slater has held the GOAT title. Any surfer still breathing has witnessed at least part of Slater’s brilliant career. Retired surfers who haven’t paid a shred of attention to competitive surfing in years(and have therefore missed out on the joys of WSL-commentary-caused eye rolling) likely remember Slater’s ascendance in the early 1990s. Menehune-age fans continue to fight to the death in the Pipeline shorebreak for pieces of Slater’s busted boards. Had we not stopped stapling posters into the centerfolds of surf magazines, even cooler-than-thou teenagers in 2015 would be ripping out the Slater pinups and Scotch taping them to their bedroom walls. The point is, no other top-of-the-heap surf god has had Slater’s kind of shelf life.
Combine that longevity with the scientifically documented fact that Slater was sent to Earth as a child to avoid the annihilation that doomed his home planet of hyper-advanced surfing beings and you get a level of universal appeal that is never happening again. Ever.
Here’s why: There’s just too much good surfing today. Too many great surfers in too many places, riding too many different kinds of waves on too many kinds of surfboards for any one of them to capture the public’s attention and hold it the way Slater has for the last 20-plus years. The act of surfing has splintered into a million different wave-riding possibilities, all of them thoroughly documented and watchable at any moment with one click on a million different media platforms. Who can possibly process and rank all that surfing anymore?
Combine Slater’s longevity with the scientifically documented fact that he was sent to Earth as a child to avoid the annihilation that doomed his home planet of hyper-advanced surfing beings and you get a level of universal appeal that is never happening again. Ever.
In the years before the Internet—and you may even have the faintest memories of this—mankind often huddled together for warmth in front of the warm glow of a television set, the choices of what to watch limited by the particular benevolence of the network and, later, the cable gods. Magazines were looked to as a source for—believe it or not—cutting-edge news, especially in the surf world. If you wanted to watch a surf movie, and you were anything like me, you and a roommate argued over whose turn it was to scrounge up $1.87, then went to the video-rental place and pawed through grimy videocassette cases, praying that they had the newest TearDevils flick.
The limited surf-media bandwidth meant that your surf heroes could only be people you’d seen surf in person, surfers you’d seen surf on VHS, or surfers you’d seen in a magazine. That was pretty much it. It also meant that videographers and magazine editors were effectively curating the selection of surfers who were eligible for superstar status. It was far easier for people to agree that Slater was the best we’d ever seen because, for the most part, we were all watching the same surfers surf at all the same places while riding the same boards. (This doesn’t explain the strange coterie of people who claimed that Joe Crimo was the best surfer in the world because he could do shuv-its. Nothing will ever explain those people.)
That kind of media homogeneity is all but gone in today’s surf culture, and much of that change is due to an expanded surfboard menu. As recently as the ’90s, your choices of a daily driver were just about restricted to 6-foot-plus thrusters or high-performance longboards. Busy lineups these days, however, are likely to include shortboards, SUPs, mid-lengths, old-school single-fin logs, and a few bodysurfers darting around with hand-planes. Plus, each of these different forms of surfcraft has its own websites, video edits, magazines, and cliques, with its own constellation of surf stars and heroes.
And that’s without even mentioning the divides in shortboard circles. WSL jocks and pro freesurfing hipsters have their very own hierarchies. The big-wave contingent does too. None of that variety looks to be fading away anytime soon. As the digital media landscape further carves itself into niche-ier and niche-ier slices, there’ll be an ever-widening smorgasbord of opinions about the best surfer in the world, and that division makes it almost impossible to imagine a future surf star having the universal appeal of Slater, regardless of his or her talent.
“Few men try for best ever,” Richard Ben Kramer once wrote in a profile of baseball great Ted Williams. “And Ted Williams is one of those.” Kelly Slater is one of the few who, like Teddy Ballgame, made good on his quest to stand atop the summit of best ever. But Slater did Williams one better. Through longevity, but also sheer historical luck, Slater will never have to climb down to make room for another. He’s the last best surfer.