What's It Like Having Kelly Slater Talk You Through A Soup Bowl Cleanup Set? - Stab Mag

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What’s It Like Having Kelly Slater Talk You Through A Soup Bowl Cleanup Set?

Josh Burke recalls unheard GOAT stories and gets remarkably slotted at fabled Caribbean ledge.

cinema // Jan 23, 2024
Words by Holden Trnka
Reading Time: 4 minutes

“If I could repeat this day for the rest of my life I would,” said Kelly Slater during a 2005 session in Barbados which Taylor Steele recounts as the best surfing he’s ever seen. 

The most easterly of the Caribbean isles, Barbados was briefly visited by Portugal in the 15th century, but largely overlooked by European colonizers until the British settled there in the 17th century.

Irish emigrants reportedly began arriving on the island in the 1620’s in the form of convicts, merchants, and indentured servants. One of those servants was a man named Burke, whose 10th generational descendent  — Josh Burke — is now one of few regular tube-gladiators at the wave which Kelly Slater so deeply adores.

“Barbados is definitely a lot different to America,” Josh says, regarding his upbringing with a subtle Irish accent. “It feels a lot more free. I remember when I was a kid, the first time I went to America and found out you had to pay for parking, I was baffled. In Barbados you can park anywhere you want, you can park in the middle of the road if you really want to.”

“We speak a kind of broken English here,” he tells me. “When I speak to you now, I speak clear English, and some people say I have an Irish accent. But, if I was speaking to my friends, it would seem like a different language to you. It’s called Bajan, we just chop a lot of words in half, it’s kinda like pidgin.”

A prevailing side-onshore often plagues the Atlantic isle — allowing Josh to become quite a skilled pilot.

When he’s not traveling, competing, or running Burkie’s Surf School with his dad, Josh spends most of his time hunting bathymetrical mutants on Barbados’ easterly shores. As you’d expect, he’s extremely dialed into the meteorological nuances which turn the coast of Bathsheba into a mutated, toothy dream-cone.

The last couple of years, we’ve actually been getting a lot of offshore wind,” he tells me, in response to my mention of Soup Bowl being a terrific onshore wave. “When hurricanes pass at the right distance — you want it to be like 150-200 miles north of us — it sucks all the wind offshore, and we’ve had quite a bit of that. Recently though, the cold fronts have been glassy too, which is super rare.”

“The end section of the clip was when Parker Coffin got hurt and Kelly was down there. Same exact session, and it was onshore. The middle section though, with the glassy clips, was the same swell just a week before. We’ve been blessed with a lot of glassy swells the past couple years. This winter it was glassy for like two months straight.”

I press him on the actual difficulty of surfing what appears to be such a treacherous wave, and he laughs.

“Yeah, it’s pretty hard. I didn’t realize how difficult it was to surf until I saw other pros come down and really struggle. It’s a hard wave to read, and to see where it’s coming off the reef. That’s why Kelly is so good out there, he’s incredible at reading the ocean and nature.”

One of the most distinguishable surfing images of all time. Photo by Dustin Humphrey

Recalling a session with Slater, Josh chuckles.

“Kelly came down in 2013, I was probably 15, and it was one of the biggest day’s I’ve ever surfed out there. I was on a 5’4, and I think my dad has a picture of me and Kelly — with him running down the beach wearing a flotation spring suit next to me.”

“In that session, it was getting dark. You never really want to surf Soup Bowl when it’s big and getting dark, because if your leash pops, you’re pretty much gone. There’s a rip next to it that sucks out really bad. If you break your leash or board in a bad spot when it’s big, you’re pretty much always gonna need help. 

“I remember it was starting to whitewater out the back, which is super rare because it’s like 100 feet deep past the reef. I tried to catch a small one, because I was terrified of the sets that were coming, and I missed it. I turned around and the set was just building on the horizon. I got through a few of them, and Kelly was in the channel after getting a wave. He was yelling at me to breathe and not panic, right before I took the biggest wave of the set on the head. I remember clawing onto the bottom with my fingers and feet, getting dragged all the way to the beach. I had sea urchins under my nails and I was bleeding everywhere. That was a pretty sick experience for me [laughs].”

A reminder that anything worth having (see: huge visions) often comes fairly priced.

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