Kieren Perrow reflects on career, transition to WSL commissioner role
As Kieren Perrow watches the World Surf League title decided in the pounding waves of the Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore, he might think about his loss to Jeremy Flores in the waning minutes of the 2010 Pipeline Masters final. Or maybe he’ll flash back to his triumph at the same site in 2011—his first and only World Tour event victory. Or maybe he’ll remember his first round heat on December 8, 2013. Perrow pulled into a seemingly perfect backdoor barrel—the right at Pipeline. The wave “exploded.” Perrow dislocated his right shoulder. Four members of the Water Patrol were needed to carry Perrow out of the shorebreak. He was carted off the beach on the back of an ATV.
It was his last wave in a contest.
But since Perrow retired from competitive surfing after nine years on the World Tour, he has moved into an even more prominent spot among the sport’s elite: He is the commissioner of the World Surf League (WSL).
By the time that Perrow, 38, paddled out for that fateful heat at Pipeline in 2013, he already knew his next step. After ZoSea Media Holdings entered into a term sheet with the Association of Surfing Professionals (which was rebranded as the WSL for 2015) in the fall of 2012, Paul Speaker, the co-founder of ZoSea gave a presentation that highlighted his vision for the “new” tour, including an office of commissioner—a newly created position. Perrow was the likely choice to head up the operation. He had already served several years as the ASP surfer’s representative while he was on tour.
“I didn’t really consider it as an option at first,” Perrow says of the job. “I was still competing, so that’s where all my focus was.”
He was named the interim commissioner during the 2013 season, then transitioned into the role full-time after hanging up his jersey.
“He groomed himself for that role over the last years as the surfer’s rep,” says Darren Handley, the man behind DHD surfboards, which have been under Perrow’s feet for the last decade. “It was a perfect fit.”
The son of a surfboard shaper from Byron Bay, Australia, Perrow was introduced to professional surfing at a young age. He watched his father make boards for the likes of world champions Shaun Tomson and Martin Potter.
Perrow learned to surf on those stars’ old boards. When Potter used to visit the Perrow household, he would sometimes drive Kieren and his two brothers down to the beach to surf in his red convertible.
This, Perrow thought, is where surfing could take you.
At 18, he deferred an architecture degree at university to chase his dream of being a professional surfer. Within minutes of talking with those who know Perrow, you’re bound to here the word smart or intelligent. He used that cerebral approach to help him qualify for World Tour in 2002. Results followed. Perrow ended his first year seventh in the rankings, and earned rookie of the year honors. At the time only two surfers had secured a better result after their inaugural campaigns: Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning.
Perrow bettered his freshman performance with a 6th overall finish in his second year. The trend did not continue. During his third year he dropped to 35th and was relegated to the QS. Once he fell from the sport’s peak, Perrow struggled to regain his form. His spent two unsuccessful years on the QS and and told his wife, Danielle, that he thought his competitive career had reached its conclusion.
“By the third year I was off [the WT] I was ready to retire,” Perrow says. “I didn’t really have any passion for competing.”
But after his first QS victory, at Margaret River in Western Australia in March 2007, Perrow gained momentum and valuable points. He recommitted. He requalified.
“I felt like I had a second chance and I wanted to stay on top,” Perrow says.
Perrow credits that newfound appreciation for the tour as one of the main reasons he managed to retain his spot for another five years. Another factor was his acumen in big waves like Pipeline or Teauphoo. Without an arsenal of high-performance turns or aerials, Perrow instead relied on taking waves his opponents wouldn’t even consider.
“He is exceptional at barrel riding in crazy stupid waves,” says Ian (Kanga) Cairns, who became the first director of the ASP in 1975. “He is always looking for the biggest, meanest, ugliest pit of a wave.”
One of those spots is Ship Stern Bluff on the southeastern coast of Tasmania, originally known as Devil’s Point. The wave breaks over a shallow rock ledge and has so many boils, steps, and bumps that it hardly resembles a wave. It’s referred to as a “slab.” Perrow considers it fun.
“He has a huge amount of respect in and out of the water,” says Ace Buchan, a veteran surfer on the WT from Australia and the current WSL surfer’s representative. “He is a bit of a mad man when the waves get big.”
Yet at surf contests there is no guarantee the waves will be big or even average height. The combination of variables from swell, wind, sand, and tide can make the waves world-class one minute and horrible the next. Add to that the subjective component of judging with such somewhat ambiguous criteria as “speed, power, and flow,” and it’s easy to see how problems can arise.
Perrow is now the man in charge of this imperfect enterprise. “It is really broad-reaching,” he says of his role as WSL commissioner. “Mainly to uphold the integrity of the sport and also looking at all of the judging and formats and schedule and our tours and then on-site during the events.”
The last component of the job is the most visible. While he consults with the head judge, the surfer’s rep, and a Surfline forecaster before making the call, Perrow is the one who has to go on the live broadcast and explain whether the event is or is not on, and why the waves are (or, more often, are not) cooperating.
“As commissioner he is kind of in a tough position since our playing field is the ocean and it is continually changing,” Buchan says. “The grass is always greener for a lot of surfers and the waves are always better around the corner.”
There was the time Flores confronted the judges after he lost his second round heat at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa against Sebastian Zietz by .14 points. Flores was suspended for the next event and fined $6,000. Or the time at Snapper last March when Gabriel Medina, the current world champ, vented during the live post heat interview after his loss (and collision with) Glenn Hall in the third round.
“First of all that was a really bad call for the comp,” Medina said. “We waited like 10 days and extended two days to get waves like that, and I don’t think KP did a good job, but I hope he can get better.”
The WSL fined Medina an undisclosed amount. He was not suspended.
“You are not going to please everyone,” Perrow says. “There are going to be conditions in heats that some surfers are not going to be happy with.”
“As commissioner, everyone knows that you have to drop the hammer once in a while,” Cairns says. “But they don’t have to like it.”
Yet, the moment that has defined Perrow’s time as commissioner occurred during this year’s final at J-Bay on July 19, when three-time world champion Mick Fanning fought off a shark attack.
“It just kept coming at my board and I was kicking and screaming,” Fanning said in an interview on the rescue boat. “Wow…I was waiting for the teeth.”
He was unscathed save for a broken leash.
The whole exchange was broadcast on live television and the You Tube video of the incident has almost 22.5 million views. Yet what’s been lost in the media blitz and Fanning’s heroics is the response by the Water Patrol, and the safety protocol Perrow says the WSL addresses before every event.
Even before the announcer screams, “Get him out of there! Get him out of there!” a jet ski races over and picks up Fanning. Seconds later, he and fellow finalist Julian Wilson are on the rescue boat. When that boat returned to the shore, an ambulance was already waiting in case.
“It was really an incredible effort on all parts,” Perrow said in an interview after the final was cancelled. “Everyone really came together like a team. That’s what we’re here for, it’s a well-oiled machine.”
And that protocol will be necessary next summer. The WSL announced it’s 2016 schedule in late November.
J-Bay remains on the list.
When Buchan traveled with his family from the contest in Biarritz, France, to Portugal this fall, they drove. Halfway along the route, they stopped in the small town of Salamanca, which is said to have the third oldest university in Europe. The town is 200 miles from the nearest beach. It’s the type of place you’d never see a surfboard or expect to find a surfer.
Except for Perrow, that is. He stopped there dozens of times with his family and recommended it to Buchan.
“He is interested in different things,” Buchan says of Perrow. “He is not sheltered at the beach.”
When Perrow isn’t exploring new cities, or putting his interest in architecture to work (he drew up the plans for his family home just south of Bryon Bay); when he isn’t helping his son Tosh (11) or his daughter Frankie (5) progress at the sport he loves, he commits the same drive and passion that helped him stay on the World Tour to now devising ways to make it better.
Perrow has overseen the creation of a pension plan for the surfers and for the first time at the Hurley Pro Trestles, both the male and female surfers received equal prize money.
But Perrow isn’t finished. After 20-minute interview in early November, Buchan noticed he had a missed call. It was the commish.
“He has a whole list of things he wanted to go over for next year,” Buchan said. “He is always thinking of new ways to do things.”
For now, Perrow will concentrate on the Pipe Masters and his goal for every contest: put the athletes in the “best surf possible.” And despite dealing with the responsibilities and pressure of being commissioner, Perrow has found some time to get a few barrels. He was one of the first in the water this past Sunday, when the largest swell so far this season produced 12-to-15-foot waves. Perrow still rides the exact same dimensions for his boards that he did while on tour and has maintained his lean physique (5’9”, 150 pounds).
Handley has a theory.
“He would love to get out there and have another go at Pipe [in a contest],” Handley says. “He still thinks he might get the call up.”