I got the text from Kelly less than 48 hours before we left for the Marshall Islands. I was in Hawaii, and he was on his way there. I was supposed to film an interview with him for the WSL on his mindset going into the 2017 season. I had been working on a photoshoot for Birdwell and was planning on knocking out the interview before going home to LA.
His text said that he wanted to go to the Marshall Islands to chase a late winter swell. I replied that I had my camera with me and would be happy to shoot the interview there. He hadn’t booked anyone to film him there, so I was in.
I emailed his publicist and let her know that plans had changed. I was contracting for the WSL at the time, and I tried to set up the interview by the book: go through the publicist. Don’t contact Kelly directly. Now that was out the window. I also had to let my boss at the WSL at the time, Chris Mauro, know that I wouldn’t be back at work the next day and he wouldn’t be getting his Kelly interview for a while.
The only hitch was that I didn’t have my passport with me. I asked Kelly if it would be a problem. “Not at all,” he said. He wanted to bring Todd Glaser with us to shoot photos. Todd could drive to LA from his home in San Diego, grab my passport from my house, catch a flight from LAX and meet us at HNL. Perfect.
The next day I drove to Honolulu to buy a couple of new hard drives for the trip. I stopped at Helena’s Hawaiian BBQ on the way. Just as I was about to dig into a plate of short ribs, poke, and mac salad, I got a call from Todd. He was at my house and the code to get in wasn’t working. He was late for his flight and was stressing. I tried to reset it with my phone, and, finally, it worked. He grabbed my passport from inside but then the alarm went off. We started the process again to try and shut it off but it wouldn’t work. “Shit, man, I’ve got to go,” he said. “I’ve got your passport. I’ll see you in Hawaii.” He left with the alarm still blaring.
A few minutes later I got another phone call. It was the cops who were at my house trying to figure out if someone had broken in. I was at Helena’s for almost an hour on the phone with them before I touched my food.
That was the first sign this trip wasn’t going to go as planned.
The second was when we touched down the next day in Majuro. We’d taken a 5:00 a.m. Micronesian island hopper flight on United from HNL and were waiting for our bags next to the runway in the early afternoon. I’d checked a bag filled with a tripod, camera batteries, a charger and some clothes, but it was nowhere to be found. The airplane we’d just disembarked from was about to take off for the next island. I was convinced that my bag was still on it, and I pleaded with the United rep to have someone go back and find it before the plane left. The United lady was adamant that the bag had never left Honolulu and was waiting for a call back from the baggage people there.
A few minutes later I watched in dismay as the plane taxied down the narrow runway and took off again over the Pacific. Kelly introduced me to Martin Daly, the legendary captain of the Indies Trader boat, and our host on this trip. He was scheduled to take us on a small propeller plane to the island that had the best waves, but the loss of my bag had screwed up the plan.
Captain Daly, though, seemed to know everyone on this island and was going to figure this shit out. “Don’t worry, mate. We’ll get your bag sorted for you. You’ll need those batteries tomorrow.”
So Kelly, Todd, and the third member of our crew, Jack Johnson, and I sat in the sweaty snack bar of the Majuro International for the next three hours. We ate cold, soggy French fries and hoped that Martin could somehow work some magic. Around 4:00 p.m., he entered the snack bar with news.
“We’ve located Jamie’s bag, and I’ve organized a plane to bring it back here. You’ll have it within the hour.”
We cheered and high-fived Martin. I have no idea how he made that happen. I bought him a beer and thanked him. My bag arrived, as promised, at 5:00 p.m., and we were off to the next part of our journey.
Which got all screwed up too.
Well, not right away. We flew on a tiny propeller jet. Kelly and Jack pressed their faces against the window the whole way looking over the various reefs, crystalline water and small atolls below. We landed on a coral runway and had a look at the wave breaking out in front of the island that we’d flown all this way for. It was windy, nearly dark, and the swell had only started to fill in. As we stood on the rocks, I could tell there was a wave out there somewhere, but had no idea where the takeoff spot was. The top of the reef looked like it was a mile offshore.
“That’s it there, Kelly?”
“Way out there?”
“And I shoot it from here?”
I gulped and felt the airport fries come back up my throat a little. I only had a 400-millimeter lens with me. That was fine for somewhere like Pipe that breaks close to shore, but it wasn’t nearly enough length for a spot like Sunset that’s further out. This wave looked like it broke twice as far out as Sunset. I needed a 600 with a doubler to properly shoot it from the land. The other problem was the flatness of the island. There weren’t any hills or buildings to shoot from to get an unobstructed view of the wave.
I could tell Kelly and Jack were really excited to be here on this island, taking a trip together for the first time in who knows how long. The last thing I wanted to do was bring them down with my worries about getting the shot so I didn’t say anything.
I just hoped that it would all look different in the morning.
The next day, we boated in on the Indies Trader, and it did look different. Way worse. The swell had arrived in force, but a tropical squall had come with it. The wind and rain were coming in sideways, and the barrels were ragged and raw. Kelly and Jack wanted to hit it no matter how ugly it appeared. I was dispatched from the Indies to the island in a dinghy with a guest from Martin’s surf lodge who had come to the Marshall’s to kiteboard, but who was now more keen on shooting Kelly and Jack with his drone.
At the dock, we got in a battered truck and drove to the other end of the island where the wave was. The classic WWII movie The Thin Red Line had been shot nearby, and the surroundings felt a little spooky and weird to me. I half-expected to see an old Japanese or American vet gone native stumble out of the dense palm groves wearing tattered fatigues and toting a rusty machine gun.
We arrived at the rocky shoreline by the wave. The clouds opened up again, and lightning streaked across the sky. The drone pilot and I hid from the rain in tin roof pig shelter and watched Kelly and Jack take off on windy closeouts far away. Maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be better I thought.
But actually, today got better. Way better! The storm departed as quickly as it arrived. The sun came out and the wind puffed offshore. Suddenly the wave revealed itself to be one of the best in the world: a glowing, spitting, submarining, rifling blue beast. The sets would hit a small kink in the reef and then heave across a shallow slab, slow down for half a second, then barrel even harder the second time, open up and then spin off a ridiculous third tube that looked nearly unmakeable. It was like three Backdoor Pipelines in a row.
No one was out but Kelly and Jack with Todd shooting photos. All of them screaming so loud I could almost hear them on shore.
But, of course, I couldn’t because I was so damn far away. And I couldn’t see shit because I was so low. Now I was stressing. I’d gotten invited on a once in a lifetime trip with an 11-time World Champion and his buddy Jack who’d sold 20 million records. All I had to do was shoot their waves and I was blowing it. I imagined how I would have covered the action with a proper crew: two guys in two towers on the reef with long lenses, couple guys swimming, a guy on the boat with shot over rig, a guy in a jet ski, a helicopter above.
We didn’t have any of that. Just me on the rocks and the kiteboarder with a cheap drone he probably bought at Best Buy. I dropped the resolution on my camera down from 4k to 1080 to get more focal length. The drone took off into the air. We were ready.
Our guys put on a show. Jack had been busy finishing up his latest album and hadn’t been surfing much, but charged anyway. He pulled deep into barrel after barrel and made more than his share. By the end of the day, he had a purple bruise across his thigh that covered most of his leg.
And Kelly? I’ve honestly never seen him surf better. He pulled into tubes from the top off the reef and never stopped pumping. On his best one I never saw him take off, but it was a set wave so I figured he was on it. I think he was in it for ten seconds before I even saw him. The wave let him out momentarily and spat behind him as he pulled into the wave’s second section. Then the the wave breathed again as it hit the third and shallowest part of the reef. Kelly gave it a final, giant low-line pump across the foam ball, stretched his arms in front of his body and came out with his head tilted backwards, getting a last longing look at his tracks.
I’d gotten invited on a once in a lifetime trip with an 11-time World Champion and his buddy Jack who’d sold 20 million records. All I had to do was shoot their waves and I was blowing it.
It was clear to me that this is the Kelly surfers had wanted to see for a long time – a guy nearly alone in the world’s best waves, his mind, body and boards in tune. I felt like that moment needed to be documented in an epic fashion, but the crew, expense and planning required might have killed the vibe. Maybe it was better this way.
Kelly broke a board and swam over to the dinghy. The truck driver who brought us to the island signaled that it was time to head back. He drove us to the dock and we waited for the dinghy to arrive. An hour passed, then two. Neither of us had phones with reception to call Martin on the Indies. Were Kelly and Jack still surfing? We didn’t know.
Finally, the dinghy arrived to pick us up. We realized the truck driver had made a mistake, and we’d missed the epic afternoon session.
Kelly and Jack didn’t seem to mind. They were sunburned and stoked. Nothing was going to bring them down. They laughed, sang, and played ukuleles all the way back to Martin’s lodge on another island.
The next day the swell dropped and the wind went back to being onshore. Kelly surfed for 20 minutes and then called it a day. Jack’s hip was so bruised and sore he couldn’t even paddle. He played us songs on the boat he hadn’t yet released, showed us videos his kids had made, and listened intently to my fevered anti-Trump conspiracy theories.
Pretty much the nicest guy in the world.
We all slept on the Indies Trader at night. Its spartan surroundings were like a time machine for Kelly and Jack. It took them back to the late nineties, Thicker Than Water and September Sessions days. They ran around the boat, dove off the sides, fished, Scuba dived and had the spark and energy of guys in their mid-twenties.
Martin showed us his islands. This was the final frontier. He’d given up on the Indonesian waves he’d made famous and had brought his Bahasa-speaking crew here. “Mate, I’ve sailed from Timor to the tip of Sumatra, and every single wave is packed now,” he said. Every one of them.”
Here, they were all empty. Rights and lefts peeled around the edges of the palm-fringed islands. But all the ones we saw were exposed to a relentless trade wind that blew day and night. The kiters loved it, and we could see how good it would be on glassy days, but the winds continued to howl and we didn’t get many more waves after that incredible first session.
We flew back to Hawaii and finally shot that interview. Kelly then jetted off to the Gold Coast for the first event at Snapper. He looked fresh, alive, better than he’d been at that event in years. He went down in a controversial quarterfinal to Gabriel Medina, but seemed like he was ready to give it one more shot at a world title.
In July, he shattered his foot during a free surf at J-Bay and has spent the last two years recovering from it. He said that 2019 will be last on tour.
What happens after that? I’m hoping he makes it back to a little island in the middle of the ocean with the best wave I’ve ever seen, breaking offshore from that old coral runway.