Kelly Slater Talks Waves and Watches
The 11-time World Surf League Champion — aka the GOAT — tells us about his latest collab with watch brand Breitling, plus a tempting run at the 2024 Summer Olympics
Kelly Slater is the undisputed GOAT of surfing — one of those special athletes who transcend their sport to enter the rarified territory of a household name. His stats speak for themselves, most notably a record 11 World Surf League Championships, and his shaved head and affable grin are as recognizable in the swells as they are outside them. But it’s his brand work, first with Quicksilver (Slater was to the board short purveyor what Jordan is to Nike) and later with his own sustainable apparel company Outerknown, that’s made him equally important to the surf community and beyond.
Sustainability is what led to Slater’s partnership with Breitling. Known for pioneering the modern chronograph, as well crafting handsome and highly coveted navigational watches, with collections built for air to land to sea adventures, the venerated Swiss horology brand is no stranger to outfitting folks who like to live outside the parameters of conventional society. In Slater, they found the perfect partner, and vice versa, particularly because Breitling was receptive to making bands from recycled materials.
For their latest collab — the Superocean Automatic 42 Kelly Slater, a watch limited to 1,000 pieces — the duo used Breitling’s iconic dive watch as a starting point, retaining technical influences like the revolutionary minutes-based chronograph (dubbed the “SlowMotion”) and chunky luminescent batons for underwater readability, while style came in the form of an Army green band and bright orange dial — a nod to a timepiece once owned by Slater’s late father.
With the recent launch of Slater’s signature watch, it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with the now 50 year old (yet perennially youthful) icon. We caught up with Slater in early June via Zoom as he took a break from surfing sessions in Bali and talked watches, waves and a potential run at the 2024 Summer Olympics.
InsideHook: First things first, what led to your collaboration with Breitling?
Kelly Slater: They reached out about four years ago and they had this idea to collaborate on some watches. I was receptive. Obviously watches are important for me because of what I do. We surf 30 minute heats generally, though I can surf up to almost 50 minutes at a time. So that was the through line that made sense to us. Breitling was also really receptive to working with some sustainability measures that I’ve implemented at Outerknown, my company that I started. They let us at Outerknown design a strap created from Econyl, a material made of regenerated nylon waste, one source of which are recovered fishing nets from the ocean. It’s just been a fun project, really. Breitling has been super supportive of us. We’ve done some beach cleanups, a number of different fundraisers and they’ve offered money to help clean up waterways.
Is watch culture now synonymous with surfing?
Surfers place more importance on travel than spending money on a watch. That said, the type of people who surf now has evolved greatly over the years. In the sixties it was draft dodgers who didn’t have a job and threw parties on the beach. But today there’s a much bigger cross section. It’s one of the biggest lifestyle sport in the world. All kinds of people surf.
When I was a little kid and a teenager I was especially into watches. It actually started because there was a video game on a watch that I liked. Just like a 200 mega pixel Ms. Pac-Man thing that I liked. It also had a calculator on it, so I felt like I was cheating in math class. And I always wore watches because it was a necessity for my sport. It wasn’t so much a style thing when I was a kid: I needed to have a watch on my wrist so I knew how much time I had left in the water. As I got older I received a couple of watches as gifts from people, and obviously working with Breitling I’ve come across many nice watches, so it’s been a nice style addition in my life. A fringe benefit of having a sponsor like Breitling, obviously.
The Superocean Automatic 42 Kelly Slater has a bold aesthetic. What was the inspiration behind it, particularly the colors?
When we started to get into design a few years ago, we got into things that could inspire the design angle. I have some guitars made out of Koa wood, which is a native Hawaiian wood. I have one that has some nice mother of pearl inlays. Actually, I have several. I had a ukulele that got stolen, and I had another one made. I have a couple of Koa wood guitars, and they all have mother of pearl abalone inlay so we were trying to work with that, but it’s gonna take full-time to test those materials at depth and under pressures, so it wasn’t something we could jump on right away. Then we started talking about watch designs, and I said, “oh my dad when I was a kid had this orange-faced dive watch.” One day for some reason after having the watch for 20 years he decided to buy a different band for it. And we went surfing the next day and it fell off his wrist and he lost it. He went diving a few days later to look for it and couldn’t find it. So it was a really important thing in his life. I forget if his dad gave it to him or something, but it was a heartbreaker for my dad. So the orange colorway on this watch is definitely inspired by that as an homage to my father. It was really cool.
Speaking of travel, what’s your favorite spot to surf?
My favorite spot is in Fiji on an island called Tavarua. The waves are amazing, the people are super nice, the water is warm and tropical. The fishing and diving is great. They’re actual in the middle of a giant clam restoration project, so there’s giant clams all around the island. The nicest people I’ve met in the world are Fijians.
What about outside the water — where do you like to go?
As a young guy traveling on tour one of the first places I ever went to that is landlocked was Paris. I had a lot of fun going to art studios and parties and restaurants, getting a little culture outside of surfing. In my early 20s I started golfing, and I’ve become really addicted to golf in the past 25 years. I really enjoyed Scotland, going to Scotland to play golf at St. Andrews and Kingsbarns and Carnoustie. I’ve been invited to play in a tournament there a few times in the past 10-12 years. I love going up there. There are some waves around the coast. But I go up there to golf. There’s rarely surf up there.
What do you pack when traveling?
I always have a knife, you just don’t know when a knife is going to come in handy. I always have a screwdriver or wrench tool. Sandpaper. A headlamp or some kind of waterproof flashlight. I take a lot of food and supplements with me. I always have an extra bag or two that roll up small. I like my gear. And I always take an instrument with me. For anyone who likes to play guitar a ukulele is the best because it’s so small. I played music for a long time so I always try to have an instrument handy to unwind.
Surfing torches calories…how do you replenish?
I could live on smoothies. I love smoothies. It’s mostly fruit, so it’s healthy, and you can mix in your protein powders and other things that don’t taste so good and you don’t notice. Not everyone wants a chia seed pudding. I can mask the flavors of things in a smoothie. A smoothie is my go to meal.
What do you eat when you want to cheat on your diet?
Ice cream. I love a sundae. I’ll never not be a sucker for an ice cream sundae.
Do you do a lot of cross-training to keep fit at 50?
I don’t do a lot of cross-training. Surfing keeps you in good shape, especially if you’re surfing hard all day. Your cardio gets good, and certain muscles, like your lats and shoulders will get big — paddling muscles. But it’s not the best for your posture. I’ll spend most of the day arching backwards. To balance that you need some cross-training, some body work, some deep massage to recuperate. But you’ll get pretty lean, you get in pretty good shape. If you’re spending three hours at a time in the water, and you want to surf two or three sessions a day, you’re not going to eat that big of a meal, because then you’re going to feel full and bloated, so you’re going to burn more calories than you’re going to take in.
You’ve won nearly everything there is to win, and you’re still competitive against kids half your age — have you ever considered retirement?
I was actually considering retirement this year. I think the thing about it for me is that competing keeps me having a goal, keeps me in shape, keeps me on top of my game, so by default keeps me fit, aware of what I’m putting into my body, my sleep patterns. How in shape I can be is always going to be better if I’m in competition mode. I have off from September to late January so I’ll have some time to think about it. I did want to get until I was 50. I wanted to make the Olympic team last time but I failed to do so. But there’s a slightly different qualification coming up in the next year. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was on my mind. Because the location of the next Olympics is a spot I’ve probably had my first or second best results in my career — it’s in Teahupo’o in Tahiti. France is hosting the Olympics and they’ve chosen to take it down to Teahupo’o — I’ve won that contest like six or seven times. It would be really great to try to make that team. They only took two people from each country in the last Olympics, and they’re going to take three from a couple this time — including the U.S. I honestly think the qualification is potentially harder for me than winning the Olympics. If I can get in there I think I’d have a shot at winning the Olympics in 2024. And I’d be 52, so I’d be one of the oldest Olympians in that game.
You’ve pioneered apparel lines and brands, most notably with Outerknown, which has a huge sustainability component. Has environmentalism always been a big priority for you?
Honestly it wasn’t as a kid. I just wanted to get sponsored and get free clothes and get free surfboards. I didn’t think about it. But I think as your platform gets bigger and you have more effect on people you start thinking of how you can use your platform in a way that’s more beneficial toward the world. I guess when I got into eating healthy in my early 20s, that’s kind of in line with the health of the planet. When Twitter came out, I got in this algorithm where I started following a bunch of people who were raising awareness for environmental issues, and I started to learn a lot more about that — especially in regards to clothing. I didn’t know the impacts of the clothing and fashion industries on the problems in the environment. You know rivers being dyed blue or red because of dye being used in clothing and the effects that has on the world. The desert in Chile…they’re just literally dumping untold numbers or acres of used fabrics and textiles from the clothing industry. There’s a big wasteland that they’re basically just dumping in the desert. It’s really wild to see. And most of the people who work in the fast fashion industry around the world and in factories, they’re not well taken care of, there’s not very good safety measures, they don’t have good working conditions, often times they can’t use the bathroom for like the whole day. It’s wild when you hear these stories. It wasn’t until I started following some accounts on Twitter back in 2008 or ’09 that it started to hit home for me. The thing that’s made me the most money in my career has been the clothing industry and I didn’t know much about it so I decided to start getting more involved. I started a company when I was still surfing for Quiksilver. We started a company called VSTR, and then when my time at Quiksilver finished I had already decided about 6-12 months prior that I would start my own brand, which was Outerknown. I started to kind of formulate behind the scenes what I wanted it to be, and social compliance was really number one, even ahead of environmentalism, though they’re kind of hand in hand for me.
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