When John John Florence busted up his knee at the Rio stop on the World Tour, dashing a competitive season that was all but certain to end with him clinching a third world title, he was understandably disappointed by the raw deal the universe had served him. But rather than wallowing in self-pity, entering a reclusive phase marked by off-putting beard-and-fingernail growth and shouting at neighborhood children through the window, John took a more pragmatic approach. “I just kind of took my focus from one thing and put it into another.” Yeah, that’s probably the better way to go.
The other thing, in this case, was sailing – specifically, a month-long expedition from his home on Oahu across over 2,500 miles of open ocean to the pristine Line Islands. He’d travel with his brother, Nathan, and a few friends — all of them working the boat, sleeping in shifts and documenting the journey along the way. The resulting series, “Vela”, presents their journey as just about the most enviable form of social distancing you could imagine, even if it was shot well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yesterday, we caught up with John about “Vela”, which isn’t as much about surfing as it is about adventure, building a deeper connection to the natural world and better understanding our place in it (although, yes, there is also surfing). Find our conversation below and check back tomorrow at 11 a.m. PDT, when John will be dropping the first two episodes of the series.
What’s happening over there? How’s things in Hawaii amid all the craziness?
It’s been pretty mellow. It’s a crazy time in the world, but thankfully the North Shore is pretty isolated to begin with. Being in a small community at this time is probably a good thing. We can still surf, which is great. There’s not too many people around and the waves have been really, really fun. I feel bad for everyone else around the world where that’s definitely not the case.
So how did you first learn how to sail? Who taught you how to do that? It seems very complicated.
[Laughs] It’s really not that complicated. Well, it might be complicated, but there are a couple main ideas that you learn and then those ideas kind of guide you through everything else. I learned with Eric Knutson who films with us every day. He had this tiny sailboat on the beach in the summertime and one 4th of July, me, him and Nathan got on the boat and sailed it down to Waimea. We were cracking up the whole time. It was super fun, and something just clicked for me.
So eventually you got your own boat and started sailing all over Hawaii. Not to blow up your spots or anything, but have you found any A-plus waves that you can’t access otherwise?
Well, we’re usually sailing in the summertime and so there’s not really any waves in Hawaii in the summertime. So for me it’s just been about learning — I want to keep learning to be able to sail to Fiji one day and find waves on one of those thousands of islands down there, or go to Tahiti or the Marshall Islands. Just go explore the Pacific. That’s my dream is to be able to go find incredible waves, but here in Hawaii it’s been more about practicing for that.
So what was the rough plan for this voyage?
Before I got injured, I wanted to sail to Tahiti for the contest. So we had been planning it for a few months already, getting the boat ready. And then, short story, I hurt my knee and that goes out the window. But coming home after getting surgery, I was like, “I really, really want to do a trip still.” So started planning that trip, and Travis Rice [the pro snowboarder] had done the Line Islands on the same boat. It looked really cool when they went, it’s halfway to Tahiti and it’s looks like an incredible little chain of islands. So I did some research and found Palmyra, Washington, Fanning — the three islands that are closest to Hawaii – and the logistics of how we could get there, what we could do there and what we could learn.
Obviously getting hurt squashed the rest of your Tour season, which must have been so rough given your results. What was your headspace after all that before this trip?
I was definitely bummed about being in the position I was in on Tour and then having to get surgery and fall out of that position. But at the same time, I was equally excited to be like, “OK, I have all this time and I can go do this other thing now.” One door closed and another opened, it felt like. And then I just transferred all my mental energy into that, so there wasn’t really too much down time in between.
It seems like you’re pretty good at taking these things in stride.
I think that’s been such a big part of my competitive career, because competing and surfing are still my number one priority — I love it, and I love the preparation that goes into it, finding the right boards and getting into the right headspace and all the little things that go into it. But I have these other goals, where if one thing doesn’t work out, I have something else to focus on. When I’m competing, that kind of takes away the fear of losing, which is important. Having other goals outside of competing is just one of the ways I’ve learned to deal with that.
It’s funny, I think surfers feel like they have a connection to the ocean, but really it’s just a connection to the coast. Being alone on the open ocean would be pretty daunting even for a lifelong surfer. What did it feel like to be out there with no land in sight, just knowing you’re completely dependent on yourself and your crew?
It’s definitely daunting and I was super nervous building up to the trip. The scariest thing is just the weather. When you’re on the coast and you see a storm coming, you just sit in your house and watch the storm. But when you’re sailing and there’s a storm coming, you really don’t want to end up in the middle of it. So you have to get around it and you’re trying to predict where it will go and try to put yourself in the right position to kind of bounce around the storm. The most important thing I learned was how to really slow down and absorb what’s happening around me rather than always just looking at the weather chart. I feel like I got a lot more comfortable with that on this trip.
So when you visited Palmyra Atoll and Fanning Island, you saw these natural habitats and these people kind of living very sustainably. Did that impact you at all and think about your own lifestyle and impact on the environment?
For sure. I think going to Palmyra was a really interesting contrast because there are just a few scientists on the Island. I think there’s up to 20 people there at the most, and their job is to study the ecosystem and make little changes to try to get the atoll back to its original, natural state. Life on the island was decimated during World War II, then after that there was a coconut plantation. So there’s been a lot of these drastic changes to the island over time and now they’re just slowly tweaking it, bringing it back to its original state. It’s interesting to see what happens when you put a link back into the chain and all of a sudden it helps all these other things. Just putting those little links back and giving nature time and space to do its thing allows it to make a comeback. It’s resilient, as you can see from what’s happened down there. That was our main takeaway, just that people don’t necessarily have to stop fishing, but we should think about it differently and do it with more of a thought process. We’re a part of this whole natural order, we’re not separate from it, and that stuck out to me because when you think about things in those terms, it automatically makes you think of doing the right thing by the environment.
Then when you go to Fanning Island or Washington Island, the local people are living off the grid, they’re catching their own food. They’re running solar-powered batteries because it’s not efficient for them to bring fuel to the island for generators. They’re living very sustainably in the middle of the ocean — in the middle of nowhere — and if they can do it, we can, too. I think that’s such a cool thing. But it was interesting to see the difference even between Fanning and Palmyra. On Palmyra, you really see this abundance and variety of life there. On Fanning, it has the abundance, but not the variety. It’s the first thing you notice when you go underwater. You’re like, “Wow, there are so many fish. Oh wait, these are all the same type of fish.” Having a variety of life, those are the links that help the overall health of the ecosystem. Each thing helps the other in some way.
Do you think about sustainable systems much in terms of your own life? I know you keep bees, but do you grow any of your own food or anything like that?
Yeah. We actually have a little a piece of land and we’ve been working on lately, because we have so much time now. We’ve just been planning and planting stuff and doing a lot of research. The same ideas apply. Like growing a variety of crops is better for overall soil health, so we’re not just planting the same thing over and over again in the same area. When you have that variety of things, everything kind of works together and that clicked for me recently. I was like, “Oh my gosh, we should take the same approach as Palmyra on our little piece of land here in Hawaii.”
That’s awesome. So when you were on Fanning Island and you went for a surf on the soft top, was that you’re first time riding a board since your surgery?
Yeah, that was my first surf back. It was our first day there and the waves were absolutely firing – just a perfect left point in the middle of nowhere. I was super excited just to belly board, and then when I was paddling out I was like, “No, I have to stand up on a wave.” The first little wave that came to me, I just turned around and didn’t even think about it. I stood up and it didn’t hurt at all. I was so stoked, having so much fun just standing there and cruising on the soft top. It was as much fun as I’ve ever had surfing. It was like a dream, you know? Being in the middle of nowhere, surfing perfect waves with your friends and brother.
Yeah, that’s as good as it gets. So how did this trip spark your imagination? I’m sure you started planning the next one before you even got back to Hawaii.
Definitely. Especially now that I have all this time with there being no Tour at the moment, I’ve definitely been thinking places we can go. I’m looking forward to doing a trip where we score proper, crazy waves and that I can really surf on. That’s the next thing: going somewhere specifically to find good waves.
And how’s the knee feeling?
I think I’m right about there — pretty close to a hundred percent, I just take a lot of time stretching and warming up as part of the recovery. But the last couple of days I’ve felt comfortable pumping down the line as fast as I can and going for the biggest airs I can. I feel like that’s a good indicator for me that I’m feeling back to normal again.
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