Golden Daze: “Kelly Had Won 11 World Titles, Joel Had Lost Four.” Joel Parkinson And The 2012 Pipe Showdown

23 Sep 2020 6 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Parko had a banner freesurfing year in 2012. Photo Jon Frank

Parko had a banner freesurfing year in 2012. Photo Jon Frank

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY | BOOK EXCERPT

The following is an excerpt from Sean Doherty's new book – Golden Days: The Best Years of Australian Surfing – which tells the story of Australian surfing through the lives of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame members, one year at a time from 1915 to today. Last week we met 15-year-old Wendy Botha in 1984 heading to Australia for the first time. This week, it's four-time World Champ, MR.

You felt that by now Joel Parkinson might’ve been well past caring.

He had everything else in life. He had a beautiful young family, a house on the Tweed River and a fishing boat moored out back. He’d lived through a golden era for the surf industry and had done well for himself, with a garage full of toys and even a slice of the local football team. He could drive down to Snapper Rocks and take whatever wave he wanted from the crowd behind the rock, and then later head upstairs for a beer at the Rainbow Bay Surf Club, where he led the footy tipping comp. He often had to remind himself of his own outrageous fortune. He got paid to go surfing, a fact that was never lost on him.

But Joel’s surfing was a gift; watching him surf was like watching a campfire slowly burn. Purists and pros alike revered his languid grace on a wave, honed on Queensland’s pointbreaks but equally hypnotic on the walls of Jeffreys Bay or Sunset Beach. Joel made surfing look easy and in many ways he made life look easy. He just flowed with it. Monica Parkinson used to joke her husband was the ‘no worries’ guy. That was his stock response to anything thrown at him. ‘Just the classic laidback Queenslander,’ is how Rabbit Bartholomew described him. So, no, he certainly wasn’t letting it consume him in the way it once had, but in his quiet moments, between sets at Snapper or watching the tip of his fishing rod in a meditative state, he also knew that if he didn’t win a world title at some point soon, he would be, as he put it, ‘going to be really hard to live with when I get older’.

World titles had always been the metric of surfing success in Coolangatta, and by this point Joel had finished runner up to the world title four times. The most heartbreaking of those losses had been three years earlier, when he’d led the tour by a mile, only to injure his ankle and be run down by childhood friend Mick Fanning in the last event of the season, the Pipe Masters. The loss ate away at Joel and was compounded the following year by a gruesome foot injury and the death of good friend, Andy Irons. Joel spent time at home and thought way too much about everything, the world title included. At 30, that window wasn’t going to stay open forever.

In the end he applied some circular, Gold Coast logic to his predicament. He reasoned the only way he’d ever win a world title was to stop thinking about it, and the only way he could stop thinking about it was to just go surfing. That’s what he did in 2012. Joel Parkinson went surfing. He surfed new waves. He surfed bigger waves. He threw himself into the dark art. He surfed pure and true and let the tour worry about itself.

And it worked. He started the season building, making the quarters at Snapper, semis at Bells, and a surprise final in Brazil. He was flying high, figuratively. His only problem, however, was that at Santiago airport, en route home from Brazil, he’d made the fateful decision to choose the chicken empanadas at the buffet and what followed he described as the ‘worst 24 hours of my life’. He was violently ill on the plane and spent most of the flight slumped in the toilet, the empanada evacuating itself in whatever way it could. He lost six kilos on the flight and landed in Brisbane realising he still had to catch the express train back to the Gold Coast. A wan shadow, he boarded the train. Ten minutes later, his stomach let out an ominous gurgle, he looked around and realised the train had no toilet.

With a break in the tour (and time to recover) it was then onto Indonesia in May. Joel was on a photo trip for Billabong aboard the Indies Trader IV, the biggest, most opulent surf charter boat in the islands. It had three levels, its own jet skis, a bottomless beer cooler and a helipad on the roof. The only thing the trip didn’t have however was waves. Joel was fine with this. Couple of surfs. Couple of beers. Rehydrate from the Santiago flight.

Joel and Taj Burrow had to leave the trip early to make the Fiji contest, and the only way they could get to Padang Airport in time to make their connect was by helicopter… the same helicopter that had been sitting on the boat’s helipad for three days, broken down. Joel had a phobia of helicopters – an acute phobia for Indonesian helicopters – and when he saw the little red bird arrive his worried reaction was, ‘Is that it?’ The chopper was Vietnam War surplus. The pilot looked like he was also Vietnam War surplus.

“Kelly had won 11 world titles. Joel had lost four. Everyone close to Joel was on edge. Joel refused to be knocked from his cloud.” Photo Duncan McFarlane

“Kelly had won 11 world titles. Joel had lost four. Everyone close to Joel was on edge. Joel refused to be knocked from his cloud.” Photo Duncan McFarlane

The day came for them to leave and Joel was already white and clammy. The Indonesian crew began jamming boardbags into the tiny chopper, loading it to the gills, and Joel and Taj said their goodbyes and climbed in. The little red chopper huffed and wheezed as it inched free of the boat. It was clear immediately the helicopter was struggling. The Indonesian pilot hit the gas and began to panic. ‘Too heavy! Too heavy!’ The chopper rolled off the boat and dropped toward the ocean. Everyone on the boat looked on in horror and ducked for cover. The chopper sat inches above the ocean as the engines screamed and after 30 awful seconds finally gained some altitude, spun around, and took off in the general direction of Padang. The last vision of Joel those on the ship saw was a ghostly face pressed against the glass, silently screaming.

The Fijian event, the next stop on tour, had never felt like a tour event for Joel. It felt more like a holiday. The following year he’d actually miss his heat when he went deep-sea fishing and didn’t make it back in time. In 2012, though, the contest took a back seat to a huge swell that had stormed up from the Tasman. 

The swell built during the day on 8 June. Joel sat on Namotu Island eating a fish and chip lunch when he looked across and saw a wave almost close out the channel between Namotu and the reef at Wilkes, which he knew was a hundred foot deep. ‘It was monstrous. We were looking across at Wilkes and there were 12, 15-foot perfect right barrels with not a soul out. No one else was interested, so I went, “Fuck it, I’m over there.” I just grabbed Tom, the Fijian boatman, threw my 6’10” in the boat and drove over there. I got one big one straight away and rode it pretty far and flicked out in the channel. I was lucky. The one behind me must have been 15 feet, maybe bigger, and if I hadn’t caught the first one it would have just destroyed me. I climbed straight back in the boat with Tom and he got on the radio to Scotty out in the channel at Cloudbreak asking, ‘‘What’s going on out there?’’ He said the contest had been called off, but I needed to get out there with his biggest board. He said, “You need to see this.”’

At 12.57pm, while Joel had been out surfing Wilkes, the first real set of the swell had hit Cloudbreak. It lurched up out of the South Pacific and steamrolled down the reef. There were no takers. The guys out there were either stunned by the majesty of it, or paddling for their lives. With the contest called off a bunch of guys on 10-foot boards paddled out to challenge it. Joel didn’t have a 10-foot board but, ‘I had to go out. This was a once in a lifetime chance.’

He paddled out on the same 6’10” he’d surfed Wilkes on, and ducked and weaved between the sets. By late afternoon it was getting big. ‘I took off on a wave and I just couldn’t set a rail in the water. I tried a bottom turn and my board just wouldn’t hold a rail. Being so small it just wouldn’t turn, and at the last minute I tried with all my might to pull it up into the barrel but I just fell flat on my face. The lip landed on my legs and just blasted the legrope off. The board was gone.’ He was lucky. There was no next wave. ‘I was still swimming though when the next set came, a big one, and I had to hustle and dive through it before it broke. I wasn’t in harm’s way, but it was starting to feather above me when I dived. That was when I realised how big it really was. It was only a swell, but there was so much water in the wave that it went from chest-deep to 30-foot deep in an instant. My ears started killing, and I had to do 10 big strokes to make it back to the surface. There was another one behind it and I tried to dive a little shallower this time. It just picked me up and you had that horrible weightless feeling. I think that was the moment I realised how much force was in that swell, what we were dealing with, and it wasn’t even a broken wave. They were the biggest, most perfect barrelling lefts I’d ever seen; maybe the best waves I’ve ever seen in my life.’ A week later, Joel’s missing 6’10” was found by a fisherman, floating between the fringing reef and the mainland, somehow still in one piece.

The Tahiti contest in August, however, saw the South Pacific becalmed. Teahupoo, the most dangerous wave on tour, was flat for 10 straight days and the contest put on hold. Nothing to do but fish, swim, savour a poisson cru lunch on the veranda of his French colonial homestay, before pulling up a chair with a beer and watching the sun drop into the Pacific. The most dangerous moment of the event was Joel stepping on a stonefish while walking his tinnie in the shallows, the thong on his right foot saving him. The contest finished on the last day of the waiting period when Joel drew – of course – Mick Fanning in the final. The pair had paddled out that morning at first light and surfed perfect Teahupoo on their own. As the sunlight poured out of the valley behind the village, they couldn’t believe their luck. That day perfectly framed the awkward dynamic that shadowed their careers, where they’d surf together either as best mates or fiercest rivals.

In the Tahiti final, the symbolism of 2009 was strong. Joel led the final all the way only to gift Mick the winning wave in the dying seconds. Joel washed off the loss. This year wasn’t about wins and losses. A dozen Hinanos later and Joel and Mick were wrestling drunk in Joel’s front yard, unable to breathe through laughter.

As the day rolled on, it appeared Joel would need to win the Pipe Masters to win the world title. Photo Pat Stacy

As the day rolled on, it appeared Joel would need to win the Pipe Masters to win the world title. Photo Pat Stacy

What happened next might have been the pivotal moment of his year… and it didn’t even involve surfing. Joel’s long-time trainer was ironman Wes Berg, and the pair hatched a plan early in 2012 to compete together in the Molokai to Oahu paddleboard race. ‘Molokai’ has real significance to the Hawaiian crew, and Joel figured it might have significance for his year as well… he just wasn’t sure how. He and Wes trained for months beforehand, paddling long downwind runs a mile out to sea from Kingscliff to Snapper. By July, Joel had never been fitter. On the day, the 42km channel crossing between the two Hawaiian islands was kind to them – downwind, a long sea – and to their surprise they finished third. Six hours and 18 minutes. Committing to the race would be a masterstroke, if for no other reason than whatever else he did that year would seem like a walk in the park.

Joel now had a month at home, and his days included little else but dropping the kids to school, surfing, fishing, then making it back in time for school pick up at 3.30. Joel was indeed a master of ordinary life. He lived a low pressure lifestyle, which was helped even further by the fact that Mick was currently number one in the world, not him. All the world title talk was about Mick and few people were even talking up Joel’s chances, including Joel himself.

The Parkinson family had been on the road since eldest daughter Evie was six months old, and by 2012 they were in a comfortable groove. Dad did the first half of the year on his own; the family tagged along for the back half. The Parkinsons spent three months on the road and they were good at it. Evie was eight by this stage, Macy was six and Mahli two, and they had the travel down to a fine art apart from Joel himself, who’d lost so many passports he was on his last strike with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Monica Parkinson ran a tight ship, and when they got to where they were going she could kick back with the kids and take in the cultural smorgasbord while Joel went surfing. It meant that for the back end of the year, for Joel, home was on the road.

Having his family with him kept things steady for Joel, and his results reflected that. He made another final in Trestles, California. He made the semis in France and made the semis again in Portugal. The highlight of his trip however came during the Portuguese event on a day the contest was called off due to a huge North Atlantic swell. Joel jumped in the car and drove an hour north to the small fishing village of Nazaré, Europe’s new big wave Mecca. Within an hour of being there he was being towed behind a ski, underneath the centuries-old Nazaré forteleza, into waves five times overhead. Joel described it as, ‘Giant, mongo-sized South Straddie’. Later that afternoon he was sitting down to a late lunch of polvo á lagareiro and drinking vino tinto at Restaurant Celeste in the old town.

Joel by this stage was leading the ratings and the title was becoming hard to ignore. It was October. The other development was that Kelly Slater had won two events in a row and was now breathing down his neck. Kelly, already with 11 world titles, loomed large. At Santa Cruz, California, during the penultimate event of the season, Joel tempted fate. He was in the water at Steamer Lane and had just won his heat. Kelly was paddling out for the next heat. Joel caught a wave and saw Kelly down the line. Kelly saw Joel. Kelly, in a gesture to defuse any tension between them, held a hand up as Joel surfed past, waiting for Joel to high five him. Joel instead jammed hard on the tail of his board and spritzed Kelly in the face, laughing. Joel would pay for it.

The Turtle Bay Hotel on the North Shore of Oahu. Gated, manicured, and full of rich mainland folk with golf clubs and swizzle sticks. They’d just announced a 1300-room expansion, which hadn’t gone down real well with the locals out that way. The hand-painted sign down the road said ‘Nuff hotels already.’ The hotel was teeming. Just try getting a table at Lei Leis… or even a car park. The Pipeline Masters press conference was being held at Turtle Bay, and Joel was running late. He circled the lot in his silver SUV for 15 minutes looking for a park. He finally spotted one and gunned for it. He swung the wheel, only to be cut off by some bald guy in an even bigger SUV. Joel swore. Kelly Slater got out of the SUV. Joel swore again. Joel was adamant Kelly, if not the universe was screwing with him. A few days earlier at a charity golf day in memory of Andy Irons – the world’s worst golfer – a longest drive contest was held where everyone had to match Kelly’s opening 328-yard three wood. No one, not even seasoned golfers got close until Joel – the world’s second-worst golfer – stepped up. He struck the ball crisply and it shot like a dimpled white comet down the fairway… exactly 327-and-a half yards. Joel swore again and hoped this wasn’t symbolic of what was about to happen at Pipeline.

The Parkinson’s Hawaiian rental looked directly over Pipe. It was the same house he’d stayed in when he lost the title to Mick three years earlier and the wall around the side still had holes from where Joel punched it that afternoon. The vibe this time around was a little more upbeat. Joel’s house boomed Marley’s Three Little Birds, his theme song for the Hawaiian winter. He danced around the house like a white guy dances to reggae, his easy style stopping at the tide line. The whole place felt irie and righteous. Joel had convinced himself this was his time and that every little thing was going to be all right.

Compared to the guy who’d lost the title three years before, Joel was more assured and more in control of his own destiny. He’d learned hard lessons from 2009, where he was racked with self-doubt. ‘There are no two ways about it; it fully consumes you’” he said at the time. ‘To a point this one has, but only as much as I’ve let it. In ‘09 I was second-guessing everything I did. Walking down the beach for a heat and just putting one foot in front of the other didn’t feel right. I’d question whether I was even walking the right way.’

Three years earlier Joel had lost the world title to Mick Fanning at Pipe. This time Mick was there to meet him on the beach. Photo Pat Stacy

Three years earlier Joel had lost the world title to Mick Fanning at Pipe. This time Mick was there to meet him on the beach. Photo Pat Stacy

Taj Burrow was his housemate in Hawaii, and Joel’s monastic calm both reassured and made him nervous. ‘There must be all sorts of crazy noise in there. There has to be, because nobody can be that relaxed.’ Joel seemingly had buried all the doubt, all the ghosts, all the bad juju. He’d buried 2009 and he’d buried the spectre of Kelly. The fear for his fans, friends and family was that at some time during the event they’d all crawl out of the ground to ruin the fairy tale. Joel, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to it all, pushing little Mahli Parkinson around on his skateboard, cracking jokes, shadow boxing and whistling Jahwaiian reggae.

The morning of the Pipeline final and there was a rooster in the yard, a dandy golden bird with a green sheen, ghosting beneath the coconut palms in the hour before the dawn. He’d strut in every morning in the darkness from the farm across the road, grubbing the lawn of the three million-dollar beach house. Joel was standing in the dark, alone, holding a cup of macadamia coffee while looking out over Pipeline. He could hear the new swell but couldn’t see it. He’d been up since four and was wrapped in a hoodie, squinting into the dark to make out the plumes and white lines of breaking swell. He sees the rooster. The rooster sees him. The bird’s head twitches nervously while his eyes stay locked on Joel. Slowly, deliberately, Parko puts the coffee cup down. He looks back out to sea. Then in a heartbeat he pirouettes, drops the clutch, and races off after the rooster who’s squawking in panic as it flees into the shadows.

Finals day was a Friday, and Uncle Bryan Surratt woke up at 4am. Nothing special here, that’s every other day of the year for him. Uncle Bryan has been collecting sunrise shells on the beaches of the North Shore for years in the pre-dawn dark, and he walked into Joel’s backyard at 6am wearing his lucky sunrise shell necklace. The shells are incredibly rare, but the day before Joel found one while playing on the beach with Mahli, a tiny one, big as a thumbnail, and he took it as a sign from above. Uncle Bryan also brought around a tray of eggs from his backyard chickens for Joel to ‘put some lead in his pencil’. They cooked them up together and talked surf. As the light cascaded over the escarpment there was not a soul in the water. The building west swell was butting heads with a whipping north-east tradewind. It was pissing down and ugly. ‘Ah, bullshit weather!’ barked Uncle Bryan. It was an ugly duckling morning destined, however, to later become something more majestic.

And so began one of the most intense, emotional, and breathtaking days pro surfing had seen. Pipe came to the party. The sun was shining, Backdoor was rifling and the beach was full, the Hawaiian crowd split between Joel and Kelly. With less than a heat between them on the ratings, neither Joel nor Kelly could afford to lose. The title rode on every heat, and a loss for either of them would lose the title as well. It was heavy. For both camps it was excruciating, but for Joel’s especially. Kelly had won 11. Joel had lost four. Everyone close to Joel was on edge. Monica Parkinson paced the yard, somewhere between despair, joy and catatonia. Most of Joel’s crew couldn’t even bear to watch. Joel walked around like nothing was happening. He refused to be knocked from his cloud.

Both Joel’s quarter and semi were nail-biters, the latter even more so. To get to the final, Joel had to beat the Hobgood twins in successive heats, CJ in the quarters and Damien in the semis. Joel is close to both of them, but the Hobgoods are just as close with Kelly, a fellow Floridian. Against Damien, Joel looked sunk. Damien picked off a rare left on a day of rights, which sucked the oxygen from the room up in Joel’s house. With five minutes to go Joel looked cooked. ‘Andy would tell himself, “I’m not losing this heat. There is simply no way I’m losing this heat,” and that’s what I was telling myself in that heat with Damo,’ recalled Joel. ‘In the past I’d lose dogfights like that, but I just told myself there was no way I was coming this far and losing this fucking thing.’ Two waves in two minutes and Joel was in the final.

Kelly now faced Josh Kerr in the other semi. Kerr had been bounced badly on the reef that morning and had just returned from hospital where he’d had X-rays on a suspected broken neck. Yet here he was. Having grown up in Coolangatta, Kerr felt a sense of duty. If he could somehow beat Kelly the title would be heading back to Coolangatta with Joel.

When Josh Kerr stood tall in a Backdoor drainer and was spat into the channel, hopes in the Parko camp were cautiously raised. And then a strange thing happened. Nothing. Not a wave. It was a becalming, Ancient Mariner style and on a day as dramatic as this it actually supplied its most tense minutes. Kelly and Kerrsy sat and waited. And waited. Kelly couldn’t conjure anything and the clock ticked down.

Earlier that morning Monica Parkinson had lit a candle in their bedroom and said a quick prayer to Andy Irons to look after his old friend. That candle burned all day as Joel won his heats, but with two minutes to go in Kelly’s semi, as a world title loomed and Joel paced the room, the candle went out. Joel freaked. He kept repeating, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ over and over. Kelly only needed an eight, and then it would be Joel against Kelly in the Pipe final, winner take all. Joel started delaminating. Kelly always finds a wave. The ocean always delivers for him. Joel had managed to stay calm all year but was threatening to come apart at the vital moment. Joel suddenly felt the ghosts of titles past filling the room. Just then Bruce Irons walked in. Bruce – Andy’s younger brother – apologised for not coming around earlier. ‘I didn’t want to ruin your vibe.’ The pair embraced on Joel’s balcony, Bruce lifted him off the ground, and reassured him, ‘It’s all good brah, I did a deal with the devil to get you this!’

With 30 seconds left and no lines on the reef outside, a building chorus of hoots from a backyard full of friends drifted up to the balcony above, a paean on the Hawaiian trades. The countdown started and for Joel it was the sweetest sound. Standing on the royal balcony was the new world champion. Monica hugged him in tears. This was it. The place erupted. Grown men cried. Joel cried. Champagne rained.

The following morning, long after Joel has gone on to win the Pipe Masters, and shortly after the last people had left the party, the world title trophy sat on the floor outside Joel’s room. Over it was a shirt a friend had printed up for him, which simply said, ‘I finally fucking won.’

Tags: Kelly Slater , Joel Parkinson , Mick Fanning , Sean Doherty (create Alert from these tags)

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