Stab Magazine | The Commissioner
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The Commissioner

Kieren Perrow is the most powerful man in professional surfing.

style // Jul 28, 2016
Words by STORY
Reading Time: 12 minutes

It’s late November on the North Shore of Oahu as the dipping sun illuminates the first west swell of the season, building rapidly in an atmosphere of anticipation. The team houses on the Pipeline strip are choked with nervous groms, uneasy pros and industry bros. The beach is full of Tourists from Waikiki, who’ve come out in their busloads to see the “high surf advisory” firsthand. The Pipe lineup is similar. Overcrowded with everyone from Rick Kane to Kelly Slater, all looking for their piece of glory. A swarming flotilla of surfers and photographers you could throw a large net over. One hundred yards west of the pack is a lone surfer. A wiry blonde regular-footer looking unnaturally calm in a sea of excitement and danger. Every 20 minutes or so he commits wholeheartedly to an angry, raw lump of Pacific Ocean power. He knows exactly what he is looking for and threads the huge cavernous gauntlets with the surety of a surgeon. But not once is there a hint of nonchalance or attitude like the show-boaters on the smaller days. It’s clear he is doing it for pleasure – not photos, not fame. In fact, there are no photographers mad enough to join him. After a handful of rides that any aspiring pro would be happy to count as their “Wave of the Winter” he slips away down the golden sand towards Ke’iki and into the sunset. The man is Kieren Perrow. And the wave is the notoriously fickle and dangerous neighbour to Pipeline, Off the Wall. And, truth be told, it could be any November swell in the last 15 years.

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KP’s strongest play was always in waves that made the majority of world tour competitors uncomfortable, and especially thick righthand barrels. It’s no wonder he sends heats out at The Box whenever can during the Margaret River event.

Photography

Photograph by Russell Ord

Years later and half a world away it’s a still, misty morning in the South West of Oz. A fresh groundswell has arrived in the dead of night. Corduroy is stacking the bay at Margaret River and salty sea dogs are pulling oversized Rhino-chasers from their rusty panel vans. It’s like a scene from a Tim Winton novel! But the man who arguably launched “slab surfing” into the public stream of consciousness with his ride at Shipstern Bluff in 2001 knows the pro-surfing public yearns for more. He knows the mainstream press wants danger, perhaps blood. The fans want to see something new and bold, and the aficionados want to see the young bucks out of their comfort zone. Yeah, Main Break is a good wave – a great one on its day – and custom built for competition, perched beautifully under a manicured bluff. It’s an event that KP actually won back in 2007, dominating a victory-at-sea final day. But if he is freesurfing today, he will be challenging himself at the Box.

Main Break is pulsing at 10-12 feet. Huge A-frames now glow in the rising sun with the offshore sending plumes of spray high into the mist. I’m running back up the beach after a long swim and a broken leash when I hear that we’re on at The Box. It’s one of the most exciting mornings of the year for the fans and the media. There’s crazy, scary wipeouts, plenty of upsets, huge wash-through sets, the swell seemingly too south and locals shaking their heads at the call as maxing Main Break fires. But, there’s the odd mind-bending slab being ridden in between the carnage that makes KP’s call a success. In the midst of the call being made some of the younger surfers had attempted a coup, wanting the event to be run at the much more friendly Main Break – but KP was having none of it. By the time my heat rolls around, it’s mid-morning and the tide is dropping fast and the wind slackens before the inevitable sea breeze. In the lineup, I try to make some conversation with the boys in the previous heat to cut through the nervousness in the air. Wilko looks like he’s seen a ghost and gives me nothing. Mick Fanning and Jay Davies both just shake their heads. “It’s getting too low,” says Jay. “Wind’s coming,” Mick adds with a laugh.

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The many faces of the Commissioner: Relaxed at home in Byron Bay (Main Beach and Broken head), burning lines at bombing Pipeline, and embracing the spectre of Shipsterns, in Tasmania.

Photography

Life Style Photos Jenna Agius, Surf Photos Sean Davey

The images from the morning would be beamed worldwide with headlines like “Horror wipeouts and mental swell,” and it’s one of the most talked-about days of the year. The event is called off after my heat as the tide rushes out and the sea breeze blows in, creating eerie steps and sculptures at the bottom of each set wave. I manage to win my heat with one of the most memorable waves of my career and as I walk up the steps shaking my head at the last 10 minutes I had spent dodging 12 foot wash-throughs, KP meets me with a congrats, a chuckle and an apology about the conditions deteriorating so quickly. “I was so stoked when I saw you side-slip into that big one,” he says now of that day. “Because it had been the younger goofy-footers who had led the attempted uprising earlier in the day.” I know it’s a fine line Kieren treads between the athletes’ safety and the desire of the fans to be awed. From my perspective, he was throwing down the gauntlet to challenge the surfers, rather than taking the easy option. “When you get presented with those opportunities, it just pushes the sport to the next level,” he adds. It was a day KP would have revelled in with the jersey on.

Pressure and self-expectation seem to bring out the best in Kieren Perrow. It was the same in a contest jersey as it is now in the button up shirts for the webcast or the boardroom. Just throw in KP’s magic ingredient of some life-threatening waves and you’ll see that excitement on his face. Case in point: The 2011 Pipe Masters. KP is fighting for his career needing a quarters finish to re-qualify. No easy task at maxing out first reef Pipe. Just 12 months earlier, KP’s tour mates and close family had stood with baited breath as he led the Pipe Masters final with priority and five minutes left at small Backdoor. A priority mistake from Kieren and some clutch surfing from Jeremy Flores gave the Frenchman surfing’s most coveted trophy. I remember watching from the Hurley house directly in front as excitement turned to disappointment and his frustration at letting this lifetime goal slip through his fingers boiled over. His poor board, is all I’ll say. “I’d never been in a final before and it was near the end and I had priority and I just felt like I had it in the bag,” says Kieren. “Which is the worst mistake you can make. I was overly confident and not thinking straight. I didn’t have my eye on Jeremy. I took the first wave of the set to block him but he wasn’t even in position to make it. I just got carried away with the excitement, took the wave and it sectioned off. Underwater I just had the worst sinking feeling, I knew I’d just blown it.” But in 2011 he’s surfing on pure instinct and emotion. It’s bigger and more intimidating than 2010, just the way he likes it. “I was really nervous at the start of the 2011 event but once I got going, my confidence just snowballed.

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Photography

Life Style Photos by Jenna Agius, Surf Photos by Sean Davey

It was just so good to be surfing Pipe in real waves for the event. I had one of my best waves ever at Pipe in the round before the quarters to seal my re-qualification and when I woke up the next day, I just felt really calm. I’d never expected to get the chance to win again after the previous year. My focus was just to re-qualify, and after I did that I just felt so relaxed.” KP had a 10 in the semis and then surfed the final against good mate Joel Parkinson. Once again, KP controlled the final and left Joel needing a 9 in the final five minutes. “A wave came through and when I first saw it I thought, oh no, he’s going to get it. It’s going to happen again. It hit the reef and kind of stretched out and he didn’t make it. I had priority then and said to myself I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.” I ask him how much it meant to him and he says: “It made me appreciate the win so much more after having come so close the year before. The first time I went to Hawaii, when I was 18, I’d just finished school and as soon as I got there I surfed Pipe. I was just like, this is it for me.”

But this chapter of KP’s career very nearly didn’t happen. After qualifying in 2001 KP excelled in his first stint on the Tour, to the surprise of some. To those in the know, KP’s extra gears in waves of consequence and groomed pointbreak skills, coupled with his competitive nous and uncanny knack of always being on the wave of the day, perfectly suited the Dream Tour. He consistently beat his more hyped tour mates and finished seventh and sixth, consecutively, in his first two years, narrowly missing out on Rookie of the Year to Mick (5th) in his first season. But in 2004, Kieren and Danielle had had their first child, Tosh, and Kieren fell off Tour. “I just had a bad year. Tosh was born in July but I felt confident and my new family was such an inspiration. Heats just didn’t go my way, you get a few of those in a row and the pressure just starts to build.” He spent three years in the WQS wilderness with a hungry pack of aspiring pros, often five to 10 years his junior, with an ever expanding repertoire in waves that KP is the first to admit didn’t suit him. “It was really tough. It was so hard on the family going from the CT where everything was going great to grinding it out against the kids who were just hungrier.

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Few guys in the game could make the call every morning with such propriety. KP’s always out there before dark, testing conditions firsthand. It’s a stretch well above an umpire testing the grass of a field.

Photography

Photograph by Russell Ord

I really struggled for the first year. I was depressed that I’d let myself fall off in the first place. In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing because I learnt so much from those years. By the third year we’d decided that was it. I just said I’m going to throw everything at it and if I didn’t make it I was going to retire. That actually helped to take the pressure off.” KP won at Margaret River and sealed his return to the top flight with “a second to Adriano in one foot waves in Brazil, believe it or not!” he says with a signature chuckle. “When I came back I just made a commitment to enjoy it more. It was a way better headspace for me after those few years.” His second incarnation on the CT was filled with the ups and downs of competing punctuated by moments of madness and brilliance at Tahiti, Fiji and Pipe and one of the silkiest frontside power gouges in the game on the righthand points. Through all the competitive challenges KP always seemed happy. If results didn’t come his way, KP would make the most of the Tour in other ways. Family safaris in Africa, week long “stopovers” in NYC, day trips to San Sebastian. KP, Danielle and their family, which now included their second child, daughter Frankie, were the most adventurous and well travelled on Tour. Each year when they drive to Portugal from Hossegor It’s in the city of Salamanca, Spain, 200 miles from the nearest beach, that the Perrows stop in. It’s to check out the amazing architecture of Europe’s third oldest university (Kieren deferred an architecture degree before chasing his dream), wander the streets with the kids and eat some of Spain’s mouth-watering Jamon.

Kieren’s willingness to embrace the culture and experiences around him on the road and to immerse his family in them, I believe, gave him his longevity. And, as a young father myself, having my family on tour with me, KP has been a huge influence both in and out of the water. Mick Fanning also counts KP as a great friend. “What a good guy,” says Mick. “I’ve known Kieren since I was about eight years old. He used to compete against my brother Sean. He’s always been a guy that’s really approachable and very honest in what he does. His job as the Commissioner is a tricky one, dealing with what’s right for the Tour and then dealing with peers can’t be easy. But he does it with full professionalism and I admire that about him. Away from the Tour he’s someone I’ve learnt a lot from. He’s a guy that you are honoured to call a friend.”

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Between events, a trip to the WSL headquarters in LA and a quick two-day visit to Kelly’s wavepool, we breezed around Byron with KP (the Roadhouse Cafe, a fav) and observed him in his comfort zone – a place he rarely spent time in during his career as a professional competitive surfer.

Photography

Life Style Photos by Jenna Agius, Surf Photos by Sean Davey

In the summer of 2013, whilst spending some time in Byron and visiting the Perrows, Kieren told me over a beer that 2013 would be his last year on Tour. He was moving into the role of Commissioner and wanted me to take over from him as the Surfers’ Rep. I was honoured. It was a role he had carried out with aplomb. He’d spent the better part of his break pouring over an acquisition document and fighting for the Surfers as the ASP was changing hands. What he achieved and the legacy he created for generations of pros-to-come went largely unheralded. During the midnight international conference calls and all day board meetings, not only were KP’s work ethic and commitment on show, but also his resolve to stand up to the status quo of industry heavyweights that had been controlling the sport, as well as the powerful new regime, was gutsy and impressive. He walked away as a pivotal figure in the WSL and with several invaluable assets for the athletes. A profit share arrangement was struck between new owners, ZoSea, and the surfers, which would annually feed a new Savings Plan for retiring athletes to be kickstarted by a significant seed fund provided by ZoSea. Minimum annual increases to the prize money were guaranteed, as well as caveats on any changes to the Tour structure, including number of events and athletes. The WSL would also financially support the already strong WPS (World Professional Surfers, the surfers’ union of which all male and female CT surfers are members), with an annual stipend to help foster relations between the surfers and management. After nearly five years of uncertainty, strained relations between surfers and management, and a Rebel Tour circling, the fog seemed to be clearing for Pro Surfing. KP emerged as one of the key players. The idea of a partnership between the surfers and the WSL was no longer an idea. It was a reality.

KP’s right hand man and Deputy Commissioner of the WSL, Renato Hickel, knows better than most the delicate path that professional surfing was treading post-financial crash. When asked on the role Kieren played in the transformation, Renato had this to say: “KP was one of the most important components of the transition from the old ASP to the new WSL, not only because of his deep knowledge of the company through years of experience as a Surfers’ Rep and a Board Member, but also because he is business savvy. He provided peace of mind to surfers, old owners, new owners and financial supporters alike, legitimising the acquisition to all parties, nursing its transition period and ultimately the establishment of the World Surf League.”

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Photography

Life Style Photos Jenna Agius, Surf Photos by Sean Davey

Fast forward three years and KP is sitting in his office onsite at Bells Beach, pouring through the latest weather and swell forecasts with former Bells runner-up, Adam Robertson. Robbo is Surfing Director for the Rip Curl Pro, a position KP created to help him with the conditions and idiosyncrasies at each location. “They can just have one little piece of info on one morning that really helps the flow of each event,” says KP. It’s the most talked about part of his role but admits: “You can’t always get it right. It’s the ocean and that’s the beauty of it. I didn’t think the call would be so all-consuming for everyone. All you do is think about the conditions; Are they changing? Do we need to go on hold here? It does impact my relationship with the athletes but it comes with the territory.” But the calls are really only the tip of the iceberg for Kieren. “It’s been really interesting. A lot of what I see in the role is the potential for me to really follow my passion, which is being at the forefront of the sport and making positive change so we evolve.” We talk new events, new formats and getting the career path right for the next generation. “I’m starting to be able to devote more time to all of this now.” When we talk, KP has just returned from LA where he did a two-day trip to Kelly’s wave pool, surfing himself, but “only 15 waves in two days,” he laughs, and watching Kelly and his Golden Ticket Holders. He’s more than excited by the possibilities.  

It’s still dark as Kieren pulls up at Broken Head a week after Christmas. The sandbank is “the best It’s been in 15 years.” He grips his coffee and stares out into the ocean illuminated by stars. There’s already the sound of wax on fresh fibreglass in the carpark. By nine, he will be on the phone with the WSL head office in LA, planning the upcoming season. But this is his time. At Broken Head, on the swell of the summer, he will rule the roost along with Danny Wills, the Byron child prodigy and idol of KP as a grom. Kieren is a surfers’ surfer. Even with his current job, he stays surf-stoked. Whether it’s swimming with his daughter Frankie, teaching Tosh to surf or hunting some barrels with his mates, surfing runs in his blood. His laid-back Byron upbringing as the son of a shaper, worldwide respect for his ability in heavy water, and sharp intellect, should allay the anti-corporate misgivings of sceptics towards the WSL and its exponential growth. In many ways, that calm kid floating out at Off The Wall all by himself, that Pipe Master, weathering all the energy that the unruly Pacific can throw at him and picking a few diamonds in the rough, is the perfect man to usher the WSL into the future.

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