The world junior surfing championship was moved from Phillip Island, in the bay of Western Port on the south coast of Australia, a few miles west to Powlett River beach. The surf was better there. The air was thrumming with blowflies the size of golf balls. Dairy cows watched on as two kids from the Gold Coast, two best friends, paddled out into the waves. It was the final of the world junior surfing championships, and one of the boys would soon be crowned the best young surfer in the world. Neither really cared which one of them it would be. Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson were so close that a win for one was a win for the other and regardless of the result, the party that night would be big. (As it happened, Joel beat Mick in the final.)
The childhood mates had the world at their feet. The pair would soon tear holes in the ASP World Tour, pro surfing’s top rank. Together they were ready to face Pipeline and Teahupo’o, surf breaks among the toughest of all, and the best surfers in the world, like Kelly Slater and Andy Irons. Their boundless teenage enthusiasm and non-rivalry meant that it hadn’t really dawned on them that, if one of them was to be world champion, the other could not be.
Thirteen years later, on a quiet Thursday morning, Fanning and Parkinson are heading out together for a surf at Duranbah, their local beach, an hour’s drive south down the Pacific Motorway from Brisbane and a 15-minute walk from Coolangatta town centre. The waves are small, so they’ve brought the dogs as well as their boards. It’s rare air for these two, hanging out together away from the kaleidoscopic fizz of the world tour. “You know, it’s funny,” says Fanning, “that we see each other less these days, but are actually closer. Joel’s got his family; I’ve got mine. He does his thing; I do mine. But it doesn’t matter how long we’ve been apart. As soon as we start a conversation, it’s like we only talked two minutes ago. It’s been like that with Joel forever. We click straight back into that groove, we come straight back to the place we’ve always been.”
There’s been a fair bit of water under the bridge since that day at Powlett River. Fanning is the reigning ASP world champion; his third world title, after wins in 2007 and 2009. Parkinson won the world title in 2012. Without Slater and his remarkable return to winning ways – a first title in eight years, in 2005, and four further titles since – they’d have more. Both men enjoyed strong starts to the 2014 ASP World Tour and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them duking it out for another world title come the end of the year: the final event, in December, is at Pipeline. Surfing has been good to the kids from Coolangatta. They still live there, although they’ve upgraded from the rundown brick apartments into which they moved, aged 12, and subsequently grew up in. Parkinson lives on the Tweed River in a house with a private jetty and swimming pool, while Fanning is building a palatial beachfront crib.
Both men came from broken homes, both ratbags, both possessing something special when they paddled out into the surf. Now, aged 33 – Parkinson is the eldest by nine weeks – they carry the assured swagger of men who’ve spent a great deal of time in the ocean. They can summon at will the statesman-like presence required of a world champion, and can, in an instant, devolve back into carefree snotty-nosed kids the second their toes touch saltwater. Early in their surfing lives, the pair tapped their natural talent like an oil well, but success at the highest level didn’t come easily to either of them.
Parkinson finished as runner-up for the world title four times before he went one better. He almost sliced his heel off in a surfing accident, he at one point was on the world tour with his wife and three kids under six, mid-flight tantrums, misplaced passports and all. Fanning, meanwhile, lost his brother, Sean, in a car accident just over the hill from Duranbah, and would later suffer a horrible injury while on a surf trip to Indonesia, tearing his hamstring clean off the bone. During these times, the pair developed a bond where they’d feel each other’s pain from the other side of the world. “When Mick hurt his leg, it was like losing a piece of yourself,” says Parkinson. “When he did his hamstring and was stuck at home recuperating, I remember feeling how badly I wanted him back on the tour with me… then he came back and smashed everybody and I was thinking, ‘Jeez, I wish he was back on the lounge again.’”
Fanning’s injury turned out be a blessing, forcing him to completely rebuild his body and, in the process, reinvent himself: “All I knew was that I never wanted to be back on that couch again. I wanted to take control.” His 2007 world title campaign was blue collar in nature and became the blueprint for the modern surfing professional. He disciplined himself in training, narrowed his focus, snuffed the partying and became, he says, “the most boring guy in the world”.
The adjustments in athleticism and attitude meant he won the world championship at a canter. Watching closely, every step of the way, was Parkinson, who borrowed Fanning’s strategy and used it against him. At the halfway mark of the 2009 season, Parkinson had won three of the five events and led the ratings by a big margin. The world title was his to lose, an outcome that looked very likely when he buckled an ankle surfing in Bali. Five doctors said, “Surgery now,” before one eventually said, “Surgery in December.” Parkinson decided to surf through the injury, but was run down by a guy who completely caught fire in the back half of the season, who won three events on the trot and who Parkinson knew all too well. Mick. Of all people, Mick. They didn’t speak for months. “It was the biggest test of our friendship, for sure,” says Parkinson, “and things got awkward. Really awkward for both of us.”
In the lead-up to the deciding event of the season, the Pipeline Masters, they avoided each other like the plague. Parkinson lost the first heat at Pipe, gifting the world title to Fanning in the process. Fanning was in the water at the time, but out of respect for his good friend, his celebrations were muted. Parkinson, meanwhile, ran off to his rented house and collapsed on the floor of the shower, sobbing. His board was outside, impaled on a garden stake. He knew, though, that in 20 minutes time, in front of the whole world, he had to walk down and chair Fanning up the beach as tradition dictated. Winning a world title is never easy, but losing it to your best mate is the toughest.
“I wouldn’t have held a grudge if Joel wasn’t there to pick me up that day,” says Fanning, “but it just goes to show how strong our friendship is. It’s one of those things I’ll remember forever.” Parkinson remained the best surfer never to win a world title, until he won the Pipe Masters on the last day of the 2012 season to snatch the world title from Kelly Slater. The first guy to meet him at the water’s edge that day, screaming, tears streaming down his face, was Mick. “I think we go through stages where one of us is hurt in some way, physically, emotionally, whatever,” says Parkinson, “and the other one is the first on the scene to help out. And then during contests it’s weird between us, we’ll be saying good luck up to a certain point in the event – or a certain point in the year – then we just go into our own little bubble and try and beat each other.”
Fanning v Parkinson is the most highly anticipated duel in surfing. Ghosts of competitions past are summoned and circle the line-up. They stare at each another, before realising the absurdity of it all and pissing themselves laughing. On the water, they still bring out the best in each other. “We both surf better when the other one is on the tour,” says Parkinson. “I don’t think I could win without Mick there and I reckon the same would apply to him. It’d be like trying to surf without your left leg.”
After all they’ve been through together, they can be forgiven for indulging in a little sentimentality. “I look back a lot,” says Fanning, “but I don’t sit there and look back and go, ‘Well, I can relax now’. I look back and see things that have worked for me in the past and try and bring them into my future with a new twist.” Former upstart punks of the tour, they now face a bunch of kids a decade younger, surfers who nail turns Fanning and Parkinson can’t even name. The challenge for them now is as much about motivation as it is about surfing. “I think it’s more about keeping yourself happy,” says Fanning. “I think every year you reinvent your surfing, but you’ve got to be happy with it before anything else.” And what happens when Parkinson and Fanning wake up the day after they walk away from pro surfing? “We might just go surfing,” says Parkinson, laughing. “I just hope we never have to work a real job because then we’ll both be screwed. But when that day comes, we can just walk down to D-Bah and go surfing and go back to being kids all over again. It’ll come full circle.”