It was a slightly different world seventeen Decembers ago. And yet, even then, Kelly Slater was still the defending world champion and a young Democratic sat inside the nation’s oval office. So, in some ways the world has changed dramatically since December 1995, yet in other ways, things remain the same… as they most often do.
What I remember most about that long ago December is a dramatic high-five shared between two of surfing’s most cool, young cats. To be more specific, this was a deftly cool exchange of friendship, stoke and aloha; showcased before a transfixed surf world in the midsts of Hawaii’s most competitive aquatic arena.
Pipeline is a wave that most of us mere mortal men dream of surfing and if given the chance, would strive to just survive its vertical takeoff, spitting barrels and deadly coral reef. Yet, there are those who made or make surviving Pipe look extraordinarily elegant… the non-mortal likes of Butch Van Arstdalen, Gerry Lopez, Tom Carrol, Jamie O’Brien… to name a few.
But for many, the extraordinary elegance summoned by Kelly Slater and Rob Machado during the semifinal’s of the 1995 Pipe Masters ranks as one of surfing’s most special occasions. It’s not that they rode Pipe any better than the names listed above that winter day, or that Pipe’s reef fashioned more glorious barrels than ever before (although the waves that day were what many call, “Perfect Pipe”). No, it was the high stakes in play between these two leaders of the Momentum Generation that made this day, heat, and session different.
For both surfers the stakes could not have been higher; with a win at Pipe, Slater could secure his third world title and claim himself a spot among surfing’s historical elite. But first, he had to dispense with his close friend Machado. Going into the event, many of the surf media’s crystal balls had logged overtime forecasting this meeting of bros to be a blood-bath of epic portions. As the event progressed, it seemed to be shaping up much like the mags and commentators had hoped. Machado, the kid from Cardiff Reef, contending for his first world title, would have to go through his amigo from Cocoa Beach, Florida. Creating an exciting reality for the surf world to face, largely because Machado was not just another speed bump for Slater to negotiate on his way to the world title – aka another Quiksilver commercial wet dream. No, Machado was a significant contender for the world title in 1995 with a serious groundswell of support behind him to dethrone the reigning champ.
As the heat played out, Machado and Slater traded the perfect barrels forecasted by media gurus; yet, there was no blood in the water. It was as if the young rippers failed to read the press releases or that they simply cared-less about their media-inspired death match and cared more about the stoke of sharing perfect waves. In a page out of almost every surfer’s grommet history, the two basically stopped competing and began rooting for one another, fueling each other into bigger and deeper barrels. The highlight of their epic heat came as Machado exited a gorgeous Pipe tube; soul-arching along the shoulder… he coolly swerved his skinny frame to give the young Champ a perfect high-five. Perfect!
Now Machado could have forgone the skin slapping and kicked out of the wave to gain priority. An action that would have more than likely assuring himself the heat win and a world title. Was the high-five a mistake? No. In fact, this moment became even more extraordinary as surf minds began to recognize the implication of Machado’s stoked action. In the end the high-five shared by Machado and Slater was a display of surfing worth more than any world title could ever afford.
Slater went on the win the heat and ultimately earn his third world title, but in that signature surf moment, Machado cemented his free-spirit firmly upon our sport and salty culture. It is that moment, that display of friendship from seventeen December’s ago that is deserving of remembrance this Pipe season.