The Stab Interview: Joel Parkinson On The Eve Of His Last CT Event
“After 20 years, I feel like I’ve sucked the juice and life out of it.”
“I don’t think I’ll miss much,” Joel Parkinson says staring out off a magnificent balcony, glaring over Pipe, Backdoor, Off the Wall and the soothing madness that is the North Shore. “After 20 years, I feel like I’ve sucked the juice and life out of it. The one thing I will miss about the tour is being in places like this. This and being in a heat with priority, getting any wave you want at places that are typically really crowded—not everything else that’s involved. I will miss having priority at perfect J-Bay or Chopes. It’s hard to beat that.”
Let me set the scene here: We’ve set up light fixtures, backdrops, and taken test photos for our shoot with Joel, involving this garage we’re in and a glass of whiskey—think Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. It’s raining. Then sunny. Hot and sweaty. Then overcast and windy. Then sweltering, again.
Joel Parkinson enters through the gate adjacent to Kam Highway, in boardshorts, a Billabong tee. He’s about four days unshaven, wearing a thick black pair of sunnies, on the eve of his final CT event. Retirement looks damn good on him.
Joel apologizes for being late—a mere ten minutes, which in the biz of shooting surfers for stylized photoshoots, he was as good as early.
“Hold on, let me go grab my razor. I need a shave,” he says after far too many handshakes with myself, our photographer, our stylist and the handful of various people standing around—for a shoot that requires no more than six hands—not to mention the continuous passersby. Nothing on the North Shore goes unnoticed or undocumented, and Joel is a proper celebrity.
He returns with his dopp kit. We tell him we’re loving the shadow; we’d prefer he looked like the refined, distinguished gentlemen he is—a slight ego rub to complement the Armani suit retailing for nearly two grand we’d brought for him to wear in the mid-80 degree humidity.
“Be back in a moment,” he quips, and runs into the house and upstairs. We wait in the driveway of the Billabong Blue Wave house, which splits the space between Backdoor and Off the Wall. In the garage, 100’s of surfboards have been moved to either side, stacked atop each other, making just enough room for our light set up and backdrop. The backdrop faces the gate Joel just walked through, an awkward viewing space for the inevitable peanut gallery to come.
A bottle of good Japanese whiskey and a fine crystal glass sit on the cement, untouched, teasing anyone hardy enough to wash off their post-SURFER Poll hangovers down with dog hair.
We’re here to reverently document Joel’s 20 years on tour, his retirement, and prod what’s next for the King of Australian style.
As soon as he’s in the suit, our photog Zak Bush starts firing, and the inevitable happens. Folks peer over the gate to the house. First, photographer T-Sherms, who nails the inspiration of the shoot immediately, “Lost in Translation!” He shouts. He tells Joel he’s got a slideshow of photos of him spanning from 1999, old Kirra, old friends, new laughs.
Sherm tells Joel everyone’s been asking for photos of him and Andy.
“When you and Andy were together, we didn’t take photos, that’s what I tell them!” Sherm says. There’s a short pause in the program. “Alright, you guys get to work!”
Between snaps of the camera, I unload questions, wait for the downward looks, the raise of the glass, his thoughts interrupted by “tilt your head slightly to the left”, hardly a seamless conversation.
Joel sniffs the glass for the camera. He comments on the whiskey (and Joel knows his whiskey).
“I’m part of a club, I absolutely love the stuff,” he laughs, and takes and another sip. We give him the bottle so he can make the glass half-full, again. You know, for the shot.
We’re on the topic of style out of the water. “Best dressed on tour… hmm, I don’t know. I can tell you who the worst is,” he laughs.
“The worst has to be Jordy [Smith],” he says as he takes another sip from his glass. “He just wears the same shit from 1999. But that’s just him. It’s kind of cool in a way. As far as the best, I’d probably give it to Kanoa [Igarashi].”
Kanoa is already Japan’s sweetheart, with the Olympics around the corner, he’s calculated and cultivating a profile, embracing the Japanese penchant for luxury.
“Kanoa’s all high-fashion. It’s different for surfing.”
Cameras continue to snap. Over the fence, a healthy laugh grabs our attention. It’s Sean Doherty, one of surfing’s finest writers, and Joel’s longtime media manager. He and Joel share a moment; Sean just penned a profile of Joel for Surfing World, the Australian print mag—the story enjoyed a rare photo saved for an actual cover—before being whored out to the masses by Instagram—shot in March when Snapper went large and Joel stood in what’s been regarded as the biggest tube ever ridden at the famed sandbottom point. The issue’s headline, with Corey Wilson’s banger on the cover: “Author of Australian Style”.
We return to the shoot. Today on tour, there’s a drought of single men wearing singlets. The days of running around, picking up beach bunnies lusting for a crusty dude with stickers on his nose have all but perished—but not due to the lack of willing women. Blame Instagram, or blame the World Tour contingent being generally in their late 20’s early-mid 30’s and taken.
“God, I’d hate to throw anyone under the bus. But out of the single guys on tour…and there aren’t many…I’d say Conner Coffin does the best for himself. He’s got a story or two after some events, but I won’t tell them here. Let’s just say he does alright.”
With time to kill, and no set tour schedule to interfere with Joel’s life, I ask where his next non-surf destination is.
“I’d like to go to New York. It’s a cool city. If I’m going anywhere to not surf, New York is where I’d be.” At this point, the interview is interrupted by a man asking where the nearest fish market is. Which isn’t hard to find on an island. I sent him toward the east side to meet a man named Ken. “If I’m going to go somewhere that’s tropical,” Joel continues, “I’m going to surf. I don’t want to go somewhere like Thailand and sit and drink on the beach and just sweat. If I’m going to be in the sun, I want to be in the ocean. That’s what I like about New York, it’s such a cool fun city. There’s so much to do and it’s easy to get lost in. It’s a good place to spend your time. But to be honest, I haven’t traveled to many non-surf destinations.”
We’re about finished with our time in the garage, er, studio. “How’s the heat?” I ask.
“Fucking melting mate!”
As we head upstairs to the balcony off the master bedroom of the house, Joel asks, “Wait, can I bring the whiskey?” We confirm.
“Alright. I’m bringing the whiskey.”
A car peels out on Kam Highway. The smell of burnt rubber permeates the pristine Hawaiian air. “Sheez, that guys really going for it, hey?”
The conversation moves onto what he’d change about pro surfing and the tour in general. “I’d want to change the monotonous side of going to the same destinations each year. I’d like a couple of floating options, or variables that we could strike within a week notice. I know that with how large the production is today, you don’t really have the ability. But if there was a way to have three places that you could hit when the waves are good, it would guarantee the best waves for the tour. It’s probably unrealistic, but that’s what I would change.”
“But it doesn’t matter—I’m leaving,” he laughs.
With his narrow-eyed thousand-yard stare firmly on Pipe and Off the Wall, the conversations turns to the future, and Parko’s got no shortage of opportunities to explore, as one of Australia’s true international ambassadors, well beyond the surfing world. But Joel’s a Coolie Kid at heart, and that’ll never change.
“I just want to surf,” he says. “From my house, I’m three hours from Fiji, six hours from Indo. Those are my strike missions. I always wanted to spend more time in West Oz. It’s so amazing down there. Now that I have the time, between May and June, I think I’ll spend a month going up and down the coast there.”
I ask where he’d be happy never setting foot again.
“Lemoore,” he says, flatly. “The wave pool is great and all. The pool is not the problem. It’s where it’s at. Hanging out there for a week in that casino…”
The Tachi Casino is the main hotel, casino, place to eat and lay your head in Lemoore. If you’ve been to Kelly’s wave, you’ve been to the Tachi, inhaled the smoke-filled geriatric gambling hall, saddled up at slot machines next to 80-year-old women in wheelchairs hooked up to oxygen tanks, cigarettes dangling from their lips, watched California’s desert lizards waste away in the so-called Golden State’s cow shit capital.
“That place is brutal. The town is so hectic and the casino is sad. I was there for seven days during the contest, and it gets pretty depressing. Previously, I’ve been there for one or two days, and that’s fine. The wave is fun, but once you walk out of the Ranch, it’s completely different.”
After almost twenty years, Joel’s gracefully exiting the tour, with a win at the Haleiwa Pro, his demeanor suggests he’s quite content with the way he’s departing the CT. I ask who has had the best World Tour exit. Without hesitation he says, “Mick.”
Then pauses… “Freddy P’s was pretty amazing. He dropped that ten, came in, said thank you and walked away. Then, of course, Bobby’s [Martinez]. That was probably the best ever actually, in a good and bad way. But on a professional level, no one has done it with the grace of Mick.”
In typical Stab fashion, I prod who he’s happy to never share a lineup with again. Joel looks at me with light eyes, he laughs and takes another sip of whiskey. “Oh, jeez,” he says with the Hawaiian breeze. “Most guys are great to surf with. Gabriel [Medina] is the most ruthless, though. He’s always great to me, so I can’t really say anything negative about him. But I’ve watched him do some ruthless shit. The reason he’s like that is Gabriel is the strongest paddler I’ve ever seen. He paddles twice as hard as anyone in the water and that’s why he’s on twice as many waves.”
Reflecting on his own surfing and if he could change something, Joel responds in a way that borders on zen, on someone totally satisfied with his skillset, which, in surfing, is a rare thing to hear – even from one of the best to ever do it.
“I don’t really care to improve my surfing. That may be bad to say, but I’m pretty happy with how I surf. I just want to enjoy it. When you’re trying to improve, you end up disappointed, and I’m not going to have a disappointing session ever again. I’ve got no more expectations. I enjoy the way I surf and I enjoy surfing. I don’t care to improve it.” And, with Joel’s accolades: A World Title, 3x runner-up on the CT, 3x Triple Crown winner, a Pipe Masters Win (with a perfect heat) and being widely regarded as the New-Age godfather of Australian style, we agree.
“I will say, I won’t be riding straight high-performance shortboards very often anymore. I want to ride twins and quads. I want to try out assyms and different stuff. [Josh] Kerrzy’s been on assyms and loves them. I don’t see the need to ride a high-performance board much anymore, now that I have the ability to ride whatever.”
As Joel continues to sip his drink while slipping out of the Armani suit and Ferragamo slides, I ask what he’s got in store for the remainder of the day.
“Well, I was going to have a surf, but now that I’ve got a couple whiskeys in me, I think I’ll just cruise.”
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