Revisiting the past and looking toward the future in Ireland in Mick Fanning’s Irish Crossroads.
So I’m downstairs in a rental house in Ireland, drying things that are wet, which are most things, when I hear him from the floor above. Driving through the pit, Florence, great positioning… It’s Joe Turpel calling a round 4 heat on the webcast. …successful tube ride and a solid finishing move. I stop. I listen. My heart skips a beat.
Normally, hearing the echoes of a webcast in a house full of surfers is nothing special. But this is special. This is the penultimate day of the Meo Rip Curl Pro in Portugal, and there is a world title race afoot. John John has an outside chance to clinch the title, provided he makes the final and Jordy doesn’t win the contest. Which is interesting in itself, but not what caught my attention. What caught my attention is that Mick Fanning, a fixture in the last decade’s world title races, and who is taking a gap year to decide if he even wants to compete again, is upstairs. He excused himself 20 minutes ago to “take a nap.”
Taaake a naaap…
Nice try, champ. The fact that I can hear the webcast means he can’t sleep, can’t sleep because he is invested in the race, invested in the race ‘cause he misses it — the jerseys, the performance, the pressure — and so maybe, just maybe, this is a clue to the presently unsolvable puzzle called The Future Of Mick Fanning.
I must confirm. I tip-toe up the stairs, heart pumping like a cop on his first raid. Thump-thump. Top of the stairs. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Down the hall, floorboards creaking. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. I reach the room and peek around the corner and -– he’s fast asleep. In the bed next to him, Irish grommet Gearoid Mcdaid is under the covers, phone raised above his head. He gives me a nod, then returns his focus to the webcast.
John John beats Michel Bourez and Adriano de Souza with a 16.33 heat total, and advances directly to the quarterfinals. From Mick’s side of the room, Joe Turpel’s voice is joined by a light snore.
Remember the Comfortably Numb trip? Where we went to a frozen northern land and rode glacier waves and real waves, too? That happened right after Mick walked off the beach at Bells Beach. He was missing Margarets, starting his sabbatical because, as I wrote in that story, “After a rollercoaster 2015 that included contest wins, a shark attack, a marital separation and the death of his brother amidst a world title race, he figured he had met his drama limit for the decade.”
The year off was supposed to be an exploration, of himself and life outside a jersey, to see if competition was still quenching his surfing thirst. Or, if it was maybe time to retire and do something new — video trips, make beer, save the elephants.
After Comfortably Numb, I would have bet big money that he wouldn’t retire. He’d be too bored, I thought. And the structure that contests provide cannot be overstated — the only thing worse than having to be somewhere is having nowhere to be at all. How many freesurf trips could he go on? Mick is a competitor. Didn’t he have more to accomplish on tour? Another world title, perhaps?
But today, here in Ireland, I’m not so sure. After seven days, 950 miles, 10 surfs, 43 drinks, eight Irish sing-alongs, and a few heart-to-hearts, I must say, he seems genuinely content. So, what is next for Mick Fanning? What direction will he travel in 2017? Forward — and that’s about all we can say for sure.
MICK: People probably look at it and think it was last year that prompted this [year off] when it actually wasn’t. It was something that had been building for two or three years, and I think that the events from last year were the final nail in the coffin. Like, “Just take a break, go do you for a minute. Fill up your fun tank.” Because I got to the end of  and, once I finally got home from Pipe, I just had nothing. I was totally empty. I often try and help other people because I always feel like I’m in a place where I can do that, but this time, I couldn’t even pick myself up. Something had to change. Just to be out of the spotlight and outside of my comfort zone, be in places where I wasn’t getting looked at. Because it felt like people were looking at me going, “Is he OK?” They don’t always have to say something, you can just tell by how people are looking at you. And I don’t need to be reminded of it everyday, because I am thinking of it anyway. But when you walk down the street in Dublin and not a soul knows who you are, you’re just a passing person. And that’s really refreshing.
It’s our first morning in Ireland and Mick’s doing 75 mph along a narrow, windy, stone-walled road. It’s 5am. Still dark. We’re driving three hours to a wave-rich region in the north, trying to get there at first light. Mick handles the oversized van with a confidence he brings to most things he does in life. I feel safe. I doze for a bit. I awake to Mick’s voice.
“How’d you guys sleep?” He asks us (photographer Corey Wilson, filmer Nick Pollet and me). We’re on a wider road now, and the first light of day is forming a dim dome to our east.
We all slept fine.
“I had the weirdest dream,” he says.
“What was it?” I ask.
“I was at a comp, I don’t know where the event was, it felt like a city, New York or something,” he takes a sip from his water bottle. “I don’t know if I lost the heat or what, all I knew was that I had to get out of there. Just grab all my stuff and leave. But every time I went back to my locker there was something more to clear out. Obviously there were boards and wetsuits, but then there were like, [dress] suits and other luggage, just weird stuff that I would never take to the beach. I just wanted to sneak out and disappear, but cameras kept following me and I was like, ‘Just go away…’”
A clear message from his subconscious? Entertaining nonsense that I’ll interpret for this story’s benefit? Regardless, the relative anonymity that Mick’s experienced has certainly been a perk of his year off. More space to live and think and grow, uninterrupted.
As we analyze Mick’s dream, the sun creeps skyward and the Irish pastures turn from black to a vibrant green. In the grass: cows lie down, horses graze, sheeps are spray painted with double digits, a crude form of livestock ID. Going ‘round a roundabout, Mick sees a white horse. We stop to pet it. Do we still have that apple in the van? We do. Mick feeds the white horse the green apple and we get back in the car. We drive.
Gearoid Mcdaid, local ripper and Mick’s newly minted Rip Curl teammate, meets us at a left slab. There are a few guys out, a few guys checking it, and the waves are absolutely pumping. Four-to-six-feet and perfectly groomed tubes. We watch two sets, suit up and paddle out.
Mick chats with the ever-expanding local pack and only goes for one out of every 30 waves or so. When he commits, nobody else paddles, and he gets deep backside barrels across a shallow reef. On land, a trickle of humans has turned into a flood, and dozens of people line the cliff, watching. Gearoid will later say he’s never seen so many people there.
I am the first one out of the water, and as I change from my suit, I see a car racing down the residential street. The driver slams his breaks and reverses, parallel parking like a valet on New Year’s Eve. He jumps out, slams his door and runs — literally runs — toward the cliffs. When he passes me, as if to justify his haste, he says, “Heard Mick Fanning’s out there.”
“Once I took the shirt off at Bells, it felt like this whole weight lifted off me,” Mick says. “At the time, I was lost a little bit in what I wanted to do. I had all these bright ideas of doing this and doing that, and then as time wore on, I found that I was happy just being wherever. I didn’t have to go and chase all these different things. And while I was still busy, I was busy doing things that I wanted to do.”
“Look, being on tour is a really easy life. But, in addition to constantly trying to get yourself to 100-percent peak performance, you’re always focused on the next day. Like, “Is the event on today or is it going to be on tomorrow?” You don’t actually stop. Even if you lose your heat, it’s like, “OK, when am I getting home? What do I have to do for the next event, how do I get my body right for that event? Do I book accommodation? Are my boards ready? Is my mindset right?” But now, I can actually stop and be more present. And that was one thing I’ve learned — is that you can just be here. You can be here today and deal with tomorrow when it comes.”
Tomorrow is now today and, as we wait for the tide to drop, we stand atop a 600-foot cliff and stare down at a cartoon-like right below. Mick will later describe it as a mix between Sunset and Haleiwa and I would confidently add Maverick’s in there. Next to us are heavy-water hedonists Tom Lowe and Nic Von Rupp, and as the waves really start to pulse, we opt to paddle out. Walking back to our cars to get our gear, I notice Mick exhaling through his mouth, lips fluttering like Vince Vaughn doing the motorboat in Wedding Crashers. I figure it must be some special breathing exercise.
Halfway down the cliff side, on a ledge next to the dramatic precipice, we suit up with Tom, Nic and a handful of other locals, all armed with boards in the 7’, 8’ and 9’ range. As Mick pulls on his suit, he emits another motorboat-exhale. Down the muddy goat trail. Off the rocks. Through the shorebreak and into flat water. I paddle next to Mick, who’s impact vest beneath his suit makes him look like a superhero, and he exhales again. I hang back, waiting till he’s out of earshot, and start motorboat-breathing myself. If Mick’s doing it, it must work.
The waves are much bigger and less organized than they appeared from the cliff. Twelve-foot slabs of glassy, green water rise from deep and hurl themselves forward over the shallow reef. Mick doesn’t stop moving the entire session, stalking the bowl like a hunter with a 6’8” spear. Hungry. He catches good waves and bad waves. He gets barreled and he gets smashed and he does the motorboat exhale and paddles back to the bowl. Mick surfs for four hours, the last one out of the water, ascending the cliff in near darkness.
“I forgot I had to save enough energy to climb back up,” he says as he collapses in a heap at the changing plateau. “This is one of the most beautiful setups I’ve ever seen.”
That night, we join the local crew at the pub for Guinness and stew. It’s Friday. The place is packed. We sit at a long table and eat and drink to our heart’s delight. During a break between bites, I lean over to Mick to talk over the hum of the bar. “I noticed you doing this thing at the right…” I say, and I reenact the motorboat exhale. “Is that some sort of special breathing technique?”
“Nah, mate,” he says. “I think I was just nervous.”
“What do I miss about tour?” Mick wonders. “Just friends, really. You travel with these people for so long and you ride highs and lows with your competitors, but they are also your family, and the people that pick you up and help you out when you’re on the road. And you don’t miss everyone. [laughs] But that’s a trend, speaking to older people that have retired — they miss their friends. But there are a whole lot of other people out there, too.”
Boards are packed, wetsuits are dry. We are in Ireland’s far north and we aren’t looking for waves. We are here to surprise Mick’s family, a dozen or so aunts, uncles and cousins who live next door in a small town above a craggy bay. Mick’s dad was born and raised just up the road. As we drive up the headland toward his godmother Barbara’s house, I ask why we didn’t call first.
“Well, we didn’t really know when we we’d be getting here…” Mick said. Then he grins, “…but really, I just don’t think Barbara would have been able to hear me on the phone.”
We pull into the driveway of a modest, two-bedroom house and before we can exit the car, Barbara is opening the front door, wagging her finger at Mick and smiling like, “I thought I smelled you in this country.” Mick gets out and envelopes her 5’ frame in his arms.
Full disclosure: I could only understand about one out of 10 words that Barbara spoke. The 80-something matriarch had a thick Irish accent, a heavy mumble and a command of the room that was total. I didn’t dare ask her to repeat anything. So there will be no quotes from Barbara. But the afternoon went something like this.
- Barbara grins and wags her finger at me, mumbling something about “picture.” I don’t think she wants a selfie. I put my camera away.
- Barbara offers us tea. We accept.
- Barbara pours us tea and feeds us biscuits. Before the tea is cool enough to drink, 10 of Mick’s relatives are in Barbara’s living room. To say this is a small town is an understatement.
- Barbara asks Mick a dozen question about his family, his trip here, the last time he visited, etc. At one point her cell goes off, a loud techno rhythm blares from the flip phone. Mick’s cousin leans over, “We had to change the ring tone so she could hear it.”
- More tea, biscuits. Barbara disappears.
- Barbara busts through the living room door with a faded surfboard under her arm. Mick left it here last time he visited. We ask if she’s going surfing. She shushes us and wags her finger. We all laugh.
There are awkward silences, but Mick sits stoic through them all, forgoing every opportunity to say, “Welp, we should probably get going.” He’ll later tell me, “You don’t get that opportunity everyday, so it’s good to take the time to show them you appreciate them.”
That time and appreciation doesn’t stop with family. He Facetimes with friends from the road. He takes selfies with randoms on the street. He promotes other people’s agendas on his social accounts. Friends, acquaintances, strangers — they are all approached with respect, patience and intrigue. As 12-year-old Sabre Norris said on her Instagram, “Sometimes, when I ask adults questions they talk to me like I’m a baby. Mick never does. He talks to me like I’m an adult and gives me proper answers.” His ability to make someone’s day is as honed as his frontside carve and, dozens of times everyday, Mick has the opportunity to exclude or include, and he almost always includes. That’s rare for anyone, and nearly unheard of for someone with any inkling of fame.
It is this ability to effortlessly connect with people that makes me question his return to tour. Because sure, he has a family of a couple hundred people that he sees on the CT, but there are 7.4 billion people on earth. That’s a lot of selfies to take. A lot days to make.
I think the goal posts have changed. Obviously, world titles are incredible things. They’re something you strive for as a little kid, and people always ask me, “Do you want to win more?” To be totally honest, I couldn’t care. The ones that I won were amazing, and it was great to achieve something, but now it’s not my biggest desire. I think the last thing that I really wanted to achieve was to right the wrong of J-Bay. I actually had a flash go through my head when the final siren went and I thought, “Is this it? Am I walking away right now?” And, for me, that was just the last accomplishment that I truly believed I needed to achieve. And now I want to go and surf different waves and explore my surfing in different areas and try and create film or photos that I’m proud of. Growing up, that was never very high on my priority list. It was just contests. Where now, working with photographers like Corey [Wilson], or filmmakers, like Taylor Steele, they really put their heart and desire into creating the most amazing things, and that inspires me to be better in that area. I want to do my best so they can do their best. That’s where the goalposts are at the moment.
I’m still unsure what next year will bring. At the very least I’ll do Snapper and Bells, because when I do retire, I want to do it at Bells. But winning events isn’t the big on my priority list. It’d be great to do a year like CJ, where he pretty much knew at the end of the year that he was going to retire, and he celebrated with all the people around the world along the way. But then I also think, “I can always go back to these places and see those people away from the event and actually give them more time, rather than go for the event and be on my own schedule.” So, I don’t know…I still haven’t fully decided. I guess, once I spend time at home and just sorta sit with it, I’ll come up with the right decision. But I’m happy not being [on tour] right now.
Mick is a Gemini, and identifies with its “twins” characteristic, that there are two sides to him. The yin and the yang. The devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, perhaps best exemplified by Mick and his alter ego, Eugene, who sometimes emerges during nights of drinking. (He’s currently waging a personal battle against Eugene in hopes of rebranding him the more lovable, “McMuffin.”)
Which isn’t to say the tour is good and freesurfing is evil, or vice versa. But it’s the polarizing nature of the decision that seems to fit with his zodiac label. Here he’s faced with a fork in the road, equipped with vehicles that are suited for each. The choice has always been solely his own, trouble was, he wasn’t in a place to make a clear decision at the start of the year. He’d been through a lot. He had to rebuild. And it’s only now that he’s coming to the point where he can make that decision from a place of strength.
I was thinking about it just yesterday, actually, and…I’m feeling full again. I feel like I can go and do stuff and my self confidence has got to the point where I’m comfortable in my own skin again, which is a really good feeling. I feel like I’m back on the right path. It took a while, but…I’m not running from issues anymore. It’s like, OK, I can deal with shit now.
It’s our final day and we are back in Dublin. John John won the title yesterday. We weren’t watching. We were nursing a hangover from a night out at the northern-most pub in Ireland. An evening of drinking and singing and banjo playing with the local crew. Last night we went out in Dublin, caught a comedy show and heard some more live music.
Right now, I’m interviewing Mick in our hotel, and he’s giving me the answers you’ve read above. He’s thoughtful and well-spoken in his responses, the consummate professional until — ping! — his phone announces a text message after I ask him whether he’s accomplished everything he wants to in surfing. He pulls out his phone to silence it, but looks at the screen first.
“It’s John,” he says. As in, recently-crowned world champ John John Florence. “I texted him yesterday and he just wrote me back.”
“What’d he say?” I ask.
“Umm…” Mick swipes his finger across the screen and reads quickly, almost bashful, “He said, ‘Thanks for the text. I’m so stoked. Couldn’t be happier. Thanks for inspiring me. I’ve learned a lot from watching you and can’t wait to learn more. Hope you’re scoring waves and enjoying the year.’”
“That’s awesome,” I say.
“Um…yeah…” Mick’s looking down, his wheels are turning. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I know what I’m thinking — I wonder if John would have won if Mick had been there. After a few moments, he looks up at me, “What were we talking about again?”
Tonight we’ll see The Lumineers in concert. Tomorrow we’ll leave. Mick will go to London for a few days to rendezvous with Parko, Alain Riou and Ben Howard. Then he’ll go to Amsterdam for a week. By himself. He’ll work on a book project, he’ll wander the city, he’ll be invisible. Then he will go to Norway to surf beneath the northern lights. Two weeks later, I’ll bump into him in the Dubai airport on his way home, the place where he’s going to “sit with it” and make the right decision. He’s pale and unshaven. He buys me a coffee and we talk for while. He doesn’t mention the tour and I don’t ask. He just wants to know how I’m doing.