33 Surfers Dead, One Ghost To Blame
The story of John Florence’s record-breaking, 2017-title-winning, indisputably magic surfboard.
Have you ever had a magic board?
And when I say magic board, what I’m talking about is this:
Its movements mirror your thoughts to a T, as if you and the board were telepathically aligned.
It provides unparalleled confidence, opening your eyes to new realms of possibility.
No matter the waves, you’ll never not want to ride this board.
If you’re struggling to agree with any or all of these criterion, your answer should probably be No, I haven’t had a magic board.
And that’s okay. Due to a plethora of uncontrollable independent variables, even pros have a hard time finding that special one. But a magic board is a magic board is a magic board, meaning that when you find one, you’ll know. There’s no mistaking a Unicorn for the trusty, dependable Quarter Horses in the stable.
Despite John Florence winning the 2016 Title, it was Matt Wilkinson who stole the Australian leg of the tour, amassing two straight wins on his magic DHD cherry.
In 2017, coming in just shy of 16 points, John Florence’s CT heat average was the highest in WSL-recorded history.
Perhaps even more astounding is that, according to a recent study by data analyst Robbert Brouwers, roughly one in four waves that John surfed last season was in the excellent range (8-10 points), and 50% of his rides were over a 5. (For comparison’s sake, his closest rival, Gabriel Medina, scored in the excellent range less than 10% of the time and saw 50% of his rides come in under a 3.)
Now, what if I told you that One. Magic. Board. was responsible for the majority of Florence’s commanding 2017 run?
You see, John John surfed the same exact surfboard across 6 of the 11 Championship Tour events in 2017 (Margie’s, Bells, J-Bay, Tahiti, Portugal, and Pipe). And no, I’m not talking about the same model (though he did ride different versions of the same model throughout the entire season), but the same singular craft.
The board—a 6’2 Ghost—was conceived and cut by two-time Stab In The Dark winner, Jon Pyzel, and inspired by John’s coach, Ross Williams, who encouraged John to ride slightly bigger boards in 2017 to complement his increased strength.
What follows is the Ghost(‘s) Story, from its first to final wave, through the eyes of an avid John John fan and with additional insight from Jon Pyzel, Ross Williams, the esteemed WSL commentators, and Mr. Florence himself.
Yes, she’s broken now, but just like Shadow in ‘Homeward Bound’, the Ghost brought its friend all the way home before collapsing at the final stage.
The 2016 Pipe Masters was plagued by small, northerly swell for the majority of its waiting period. On December 17, with only four days left to run the event, Pipe saw its first decent morning of surf in over ten days. However, Kieren “The Commish” Pierrow chose to further delay the event, due to the the threat of incoming Kona winds. A good call. The surf was blown-out by 11 AM.
But from 7-10 AM, two noteworthy rides went down. The first was a barrel-to-’oop combo by Kelly Slater.
The second was (arguably) the biggest air ever done on a surfboard—also an alleyoop—by John Florence.
“That was his first session on that Ghost,” Pyzel told Stab. “It was technically the second Ghost I’d made for John — the first one went with him and Kelly to the Marshall Islands [filming for Taylor Steele’s Proximity], and it got pretty thrashed. I made the second one as a 6’2” x 18 ¾” x 2 ½”, which is a step-up for John, and I put a double-four glass across the entire deck.’
‘I figured it’d be a good board for Backdoor — just point it out of the barrel and go. Then John went and did that massive alleyoop…”
Little did Pyzel know, that air was just the tip of the performance iceberg. Over the next 12 months, John would go on to achieve unprecedented competitive feats on that very same Ghost.
March 29 – April 9, 2017. Margaret River, Australia. Pumping Main Break Margie’s
The most dominant competitive surfing performance of all time.
Winnings On the Ghost (OTG): $100,000
John’s surfing at Margaret’s was beyond the surfing world’s collective imagination. He turned what was considered an old, misshapen relic of a contest venue into the most high-performance playground on Tour.
“John didn’t ride the Ghost at Snapper,” Pyzel explained, “because the surf was pretty soft, and that board was made for waves with punch.”
In other words, Snapper wasn’t West Oz.
Across six total heats at the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, Florence clocked an average two-wave total of 18.07 points. That’s a pair of nines every time he touched the water (and another WSL record in his cap).
But beyond the statistics, John dominated at Main Break in a way that’s difficult to comprehend or communicate. Nobody could touch him. Nobody even came close.
While John’s competitors struggled to bury the rail in Margie’s large, lumpy faces, the Hawaiian cut through the chatter as if his fins were forged from steel. The technical brilliance of John’s wrapping and layback maneuvers, paired with the sheer power he exerted through his board, demonstrated an unequivocal superiority over the field.
For him, it was just… fun.
“Surfing big, open-faced waves like the ones Margaret’s during the contest, that’s my favorite.” John told Stab. “Just going super fast and laying into big turns is the best thing ever, and that board performed better than I ever expected it to. No matter how fast I was going, it would just hold through my turns. That set the pace for the whole year with that board, really.”
The board John’s referring to, of course, was his 6’2 Ghost.
After that event, Pyzel made Florence a quiver of Ghosts ranging from 6’0 to 6’2. For the remainder of the season, John would never surf a heat on a different model.
“To me—and, obviously I’m biased—but to me his performance in West Oz was a monumental thing,” Pyzel explained. “That was like a little mark in surfing history. I got goosebumps watching it.”
April 12 – 24, 2017. Torquay, Australia. Solid, but lumpy, Bells Beach
A near-perfect alleyoop and another massive heat average.
Winnings OTG: $125,000
John’s Round 4 clash at CT stop number 3, the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, was nothing short of a barnburner. Coming up against the most successful surfer in Bells history, Mick Fanning, and the vicious forehand attack of fellow Hawaiian, Sebastian Zietz, Florence would have no easy path to victory.
While Zietz never found his groove in the 30-minute match, Fanning surprised even his most ardent fans by collecting close to 19 points. This left Florence in need of a 9.33 to win the heat — not an impossible score to get, especially for a guy with a 9.57 already in his scoreline, but still no easy task.
With 1:45 remaining, John took off on a walled-up right, bounced off a few pieces of chop, bottom-turned toward a lurching section and exploded out of the lip. Once in the air, Florence turned his head over his trailing shoulder, thus spinning his body clockwise in a 360-degree “alleyoop” rotation. About three-quarters of the way through the maneuver, the wind caught John’s board and caused it to flutter beneath his feet, leaving him in a position where he was likely to fall, or worse, injure himself. John then corralled the board with the tips of his toes and miraculously stuck the landing. Perhaps that extra layer of glass Pyzel added had something to do with it.
It could be argued that the alleyoop has become John’s signature maneuver. Some of his standout spins include: the one at the Oakley Pro Keramas in 2013; the one at Haleiwa in ‘Done’; the one in his other movie, ‘View From a Blue Moon’; the one at Backdoor in 2016; and now, this.
After absorbing what had just occurred, WSL commentators Kaipo Guerrero and Martin Potter debated the ride’s efficacy.
“One big maneuver for John John Florence, who’s in search of that 9.33,” Kaipo stated. “It’s… gonna be interesting.”
“No, it’s gonna be the score is what it’s gonna be,” Pottz retorted. “What do you mean? That was incredible!”
After a brief contemplation, the judges awarded John a near-perfect 9.97. The score was justified, and everybody knew it — even Mick Fanning.
“You’re a dickhead,” Mick joked with John in the locker room, post-heat. “I saw you sooo high in the air I was just like… if he makes this it’s a 10 for sure.”
And while it wasn’t quite a 10, that air got the job done in a dazzling fashion.
John went on to lose in the semifinals against his unlikely nemesis, Caio Ibelli, but not before dropping a couple more nines in the process. He finished this event with a heat average just above 17 points, and yes, if you’re wondering, it was all on that same magic Ghost.
July 12 – 23, 2017 at perfect Jeffrey’s Bay
John’s heat average is indomitable, but he is not…
Winnings OTG: 141,500
The Corona J-Bay Open offered CT competitors the most pristine conditions they’d see all season. Day after day, six-foot, wind-groomed lines graced the South African point, and day after day incredible surfing was delivered by the field.
While John’s performance at this event may have been overshadowed by Filipe’s win and double-’oop or Jordy’s “perfect” heat, this is not to say the Hawaiian’s surfing was anything short of spectacular. In fact, numerically speaking, John was the event’s premier waverider.
Everyone got great tubes and did amazing turns at J-Bay this year. Yet, when you could see him, John managed to set himself apart from the pack.
Due to the idyllic pointbreak conditions, most 10s in this event (and there were eight of them) were born from textbook rail-to-rail surfing and a few solid tubes. Not John’s. Instead of the controlled, metronomic rhythm found in most high-scoring waves at Jeffrey’s, the Hawaiian attacked his 10 like a rabid squirrel. By that I mean John was going way too fast, his decision-making was erratic, and I think at one point there was a little foam around his mouth — but you always knew he was gonna get his nut.
Sadly, this wave didn’t lead to a heat victory, which was sort of a theme for John’s season.
Despite winning only one event this year, John had the highest heat average at 6 of the 11 Championship Tour venues (Snapper, Margs, Bells, J-Bay, France, and Pipe). Which is to say, John lost several heats that, form-wise, he probably should have won. Nowhere was this more true than at Jeffrey’s Bay.
In his quarterfinal match against Frederico Morais, John dropped three nine-point rides for a total heat score of 18.67, but even this was no match for the Portuguese Hammer. By the end of the heat, Freddy had put John into combo with a 10 and a 9.77, though it’s debatable whether or not that really should have been the case. (Ehem, it shouldn’t.)
Nervertheless, across five total heats at J-Bay, John amassed his second-highest heat average for all of 2017: a remarkable 18 points out of 20.
By this point, I shouldn’t even have to tell you what board he was riding.
December 8 – 20, 2017 at a wave-starved and tense Pipeline Masters
John wins the war but loses his trusty sword.
Winnings OTG: ~769,954*
As any surf fan knows, the 2017 World Title race came down to the Pipeline Masters. Technically there were four surfers in contention — John Florence, Gabriel Medina, Jordy Smith, and Julian Wilson — but anyone with a calculator or halfa brain could tell you, this was really a two-horse race between the Hawaiian and the Brazilian.
According to math, John would need to place equal-to or better-than his Brazilian rival, Gabriel Medina, at the final event of the season to secure his second consecutive Title.
Pipeline wasn’t all glitz and glam this year, but John didn’t mind — he’s surfed this place in every possible condition, at least thrice, which gave him a huge advantage over the field. Here’s one of Backdoor’s finer moments from the waiting period.
Despite the waves never truly cooperating in the event, John did what he had to do to survive. His best heat came against Julian Wilson in the quarters, where the Hawaiian commanded victory by squeezing through two tricky Backdoor pits — just what Pyzel had in mind when he designed the Ghost.
And then in the very next heat, Gabriel lost his quarterfinal match to Jeremy Flores. All of Hawaii cheered as it was announced, officially, that John John Florence was the 2017 World Champion.
After a brief celebration, Florence headed into his semifinal clash with the Title gorilla off his back. Unfortunately for John, there was another smaller, slightly more annoying primate who just couldn’t be loosed from his broad posterior.
You see, for the better part of a decade, Florence has been considered one of, if not the best Pipeline surfer in the world — but he’s also never validated that theory with a Pipeline Masters victory. So despite a second Title still cooling in his back pocket, John had every intention of winning this heat. And most importantly, the one after that.
But then disaster struck. With 6:40 remaining in a low-scoring affair against Ian Gouveia, John swung late on a crumbly Pipe wave, hoping to get the 5.3 he required for advancement. Instead, John skipped out on the drop and landed butt-first on his craft — an uncharacteristic mistake for the champ — and was subsequently swallowed by a wall of white.
As we watched John emerge from the water and wade helplessly in the turbulence, WSL commentators Ronnie Blakey and Peter Mel broke the dreadful news.
“As we see John John Florence, it looks like he’s busted his stick here,” Ronnie explained to the online audience.
“Nooooo, the magic stick,” Peter squealed.
“The magic board,” confirmed Ronnie.
And just like that, the Ghost was pronounced, well… dead.
But can we take a moment to consider the symbolism of this board’s untimely expiration? Because maybe it wasn’t untimely after all. Maybe, if we could look at this in an optimistic light, we’d realize how terribly fitting it is that this board, John’s magic board, lived just long enough to see him reach his true goal — a second world title — before passing into the next dimension.
However rose-or-shit-tinted your glasses may be, the fact remained that Ghost was finished. Kaput. But when the beach announcer hinted at a broken board from the newly-minted World Champ, my shock quickly turned to awe as I was able to witness one of the greatest-ever feats of human determination and athleticism.
Basically what happened was, this little kid (pictured below) was walking down the beach as heard the broken-board announcement. He immediately stopped in his tracks, scanned the waves and, upon locating the discharged piece of foam, sprinted headfirst into the ocean’s fury. Then, in spite of his stature, the little tank managed to outswim a horde of kids and adults (many of whom had a solid head-start) to win the historic prize — John John’s severed stick. And look at the joy it brought him!
They say that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but in the case of this kid, I really must disagree. Keep reading.
But this would not be another Jamie O’Brien/Tom Carroll (success) story.
As Ross Williams told Stab: “I basically had to pry that board away from a grom’s hands. John ended up giving him some shwag in return, but the kid was a little distraught he couldn’t keep the board.”
Who wouldn’t be?
Despite feeling bad for reclaiming the broken nose, Ross knew he had no other choice in the matter. They had to get this board back to Pyzel, for posterity’s sake.
“The board is that special,” Ross continued. “Pyzel will display that thing on his shop wall for eternity.”
And Ross is right, but interestingly enough, we found that John was unfazed by the breaking of his magic stick.
“In my mind, boards are meant to be ridden until they’re fully done,” John explained. “I don’t like putting boards away until they’re either dead or broken, and that board just happened to break.”
“But what about next year?” I asked. “To continue this Title streak, surely you’ll need another magic stick under-foot.”
“I think we’ll always remember that Ghost,” John admitted, “but really, we’re only trying to build better boards from here on out. So it’s great to have that one as our base, but I believethat we’ll have something even better for 2018.”
After a heroic comeback against Ian Gouveia in the Pipe Masters semis, John advanced to final round but lost, cruelly, in the dying seconds against Jeremy Flores.
I can’t help but think that if John had ridden his magic Ghost in the final — like, even if it was just duct-taped back together — that John would have won his first Pipe Masters title.
Such is the power of a magic board — both on the rider and anyone who happens to be watching.
*This number was adjusted to reflect John’s $1 million world title bonus, which, when prorated for the 6 of 11 events John used the Ghost, translates to $545,454. Then if we add John’s $224,500 from direct contest earnings while riding the Ghost, we arrive at the number $769,954. Not a bad payout for a single piece of fiberglass and foam.
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