This Is What An Exclusive Interview With John Florence Looks Like
A shitty satellite phone call after a month at sea.
Last week, John Florence’s PR manager—an efficient and easy-to-deal with Texan named Brittany—emailed wondering if I still wanted to do an interview with John John. She went on to explain that John was nearly finished with a month-long sail to Washington Island and once there, we could connect via satellite phone.
I knew nothing about Washington Island. A quick google search took me north. I was perplexed. He’d sailed to Wisconsin? How’d he get there? To the Great Lakes, via the Atlantic? Did John sail his boat through the Suez canal?
How on earth did he choose there as his final destination? I asked Britt over email.
No, no, she said. Washington Island. As in the Kiribati's. As in the Pacific. 1000 miles from Hawaii.
Uh huh, makes sense.
She set up the call and said John would be calling from a satellite phone. After a few days of missed calls, frantic texts, I’d finally landed John. For all of our breakthroughs in technology, the satellite phone reception is not keeping pace.
As some background, the media-trained John Florence knows that a life well-lived is to minimize the distance between two points. Don’t rock the boat, get back to the best life he can with a minimum of fuss. I wanted to ask John what he thinks of Gabe, how often he is asked about the world title, what it feels like to have a brother whose star is burning brighter than his and what the bank balance of the highest-paid pro surfer in history reads when he goes to the ATM. Recently, we’ve been rethinking how we do our interviews and have been trying to share the questions prior to getting together to allow our subjects to frame and articulate their thoughts ahead of time. You might think this reeks of a lack of journalistic integrity and maybe you’re right but as a modern media company, we have to evaluate the risk for reward strategy.
Anyways, I shared an early cut of questions, received with little friction and we were all set.
“Hi, Sam…” says John. “It’s been super sick. We’d been planning on doing this sail to Tahiti so obviously that didn’t work it out. Especially since I was injured, it's been cool to see some Hawaiian islands and check out.”
This year John had been planning to sail the 4000+ kilometer sail from Oahu to Tahiti for this year’s Tahiti Pro. He’d been working on getting his crew and boat ready and then he went to Brazil for the Oi Pro. In the event he went for a frontside air, tore his ACL and gave himself a break on tour for most of the year, yet again. We’d known about the sailing trip but never reported on it because it was news John wanted to share on his own. This was another of those risk v reward arguments we’re forever weighing up. John was our target for Stab in the Dark this year and planning this meant working around his schedule and this journey. For our aspirational properties to evolve, we avoid the clicky sugar highs, occasionally.
A quick detour here: This year, Stab had made some rules around securing talent for our projects. No middle management. Going straight to the source. Too many projects arrive dead on arrival when a manager can’t deflect questions or understand the thinking behind a project. Plus, if you spend any time around these big-name surfers, they’re constantly being asked to help here, donate to this or give their time here. The deflection is instinctual.
John had changed his number and I knew I needed to get face time (not the app) to secure him for Stab in the Dark. Over the years I’ve bumped into John in the lineup and he’s asked: What are you doing here?
Surfing, I’d say.
Which was true. From OTW to Cloudbreak, I’d bump into him completely organically. Last winter, however, the intention was less pure. I’d rented a place a few doors down from him in Hawaii. I wasn’t going to chase him into the surf or show up at his place but rather just bump into him as if by accident. Which meant I had to do a lot of hours in the surf so he would bump into…me. If this sounds sycophantic, highly pretentious or plain pathetic, trust your instinct. And, it mostly worked. Until it didn’t.
But, back to the Palmyra islands. John assembled the same crew who were supposed to be headed to Tahiti with him. His brother Nathan, Kona Johnson, Jacques Vincent, an experienced French sailor, along with cinematographer, Eric Knutson.
The reason for the trip? According to John, he wanted to learn. About what?
“The area is protected by a nature conservancy. The coral habitat and natural habitat has really come back to life after World War II, after the military decimated it. I wanted to learn about how and why it had come back to life.”
During World War II the atoll’s central lagoon and joined islets were used as airstrips. It was declared a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge in 2001, after its purchase by a private conservation group.
“The ecosystem here is the complete cycle, running like a perfectly running engine. I think you can compare here to other ecosystems, look at the circle of life and see what pieces are missing. A lot of people talk about doom and gloom, but there are ways to live in Hawaii—and to live around the world—with nature around us for a better existence. There’s so much to learn from here.”
I ask John about the delicate balance of being a celebrity, his potential influence as a change agent for environmental causes, and concerns about his opinions or positions being politicized, or being called hypocritical considering the fact that he travels the world on a jet chewing up oil.
“Sorry, this line sucks,” he says…
I ask about whether this trip aligns with small changes he’s made influencing local restaurants in Hawaii to ditch single-use plastics.
I get the same answer. “I’m only getting about 30 percent of what you’re saying.”
Okay, angle change.
"You’re the most famous and you’re the boat owner. Does that mean you don’t have to sit nightwatch?"
“No, I’m on the 4.45am shift.”
“That’s the best shift!” I counter. “Just an early morning.”
“Eric’s is the worst,” says John. “He starts at 2.30am.”
It turns out, they’ve found some waves, also.
“The waves have been literally pumping for a week straight,” he says. “I was like Oh My GOSH, I thought there were gonna be waves but I didn’t know how good it was gonna be. I’ve been bellyboarding a perfect left-hand point, almost like a version of Macaronis, peeling along this coral reef.”
I ask whether sailing feels like his life before fame. No social media, no autographs, no commitments. John laughs, and only slightly deflects the question.
“I think I know what you said. We are like little kids. We get in the dinghy and we are freaking out, we can’t even contain ourselves.”
Not taking the bait, but I appreciated it all the same. The line was getting worse and the to and fro was painful, so I rapid-fired some questions so we could both go back to our lives.
When was the last time you saw a world tour heat?
The heat following mine, as I hobbled up the beach in Brazil.
When was the last time someone asked you about your injury?
Probably when I left [over four weeks ago]. I am doing exercises on the boat as well, so there’s a little talk about that.
When was the last time you talked about the World Title race?
We talked about it the other day. Kolohe texted Eric on his little SAT phone thing. “I miss you guys, I wish you guys were here surfing in France with us.”
Eric wrote back: “France? What are you doing in France?”
We didn’t even know the wave pool event had happened yet. Then we heard Gabe won.
Are you going to be able to surf this winter in Hawaii?
I think f’sure I’ll be able to surf. There’s still a chance I can maybe surf Pipe. There’s no chance of a World Title for me, so I just want to make sure my leg is super strong before I start competing again.
Is there an upside to these injuries?
The last few years have been really interesting. It’s been a blessing. It’s been a really fun time of my life to do the things I really wanted to do when I didn’t have the time.
Now, I suddenly have the time.
Would you change your style to avoid injuries? (As in lose the tucked knee to have your knee over your ankle like in a squat? It might not be pretty but it will work.)
I don’t plan on it. I plan on coming back strong and placing my knee where I want to.
We riff some more on how this trip will be documented and we talk about it landing on his YouTube channel.
The line is horrific; any gags are lost. I ask about his brother Nate being the larger personality, how Hawaii is Ground Zero for the surf vlog, and how a slap on the wrist from his sponsors now have him posting more frequently on various social platforms.
It’s all lost on the shitty line; we labour back and forth.
In front of him sits five days on the Pacific Ocean before he’s headed home*. In front of me sits two hours on a freeway in traffic. Less than thirty minutes after we’d started, we say goodbye and go back to very different lives.
*John is back at home now, however, this interview was conducted and the story was written before Mr. Florence made landfall.