Two Weeks On The North Shore With Justin Jay
The beauty behind the North Shore scene, with photographer-to-the-stars, Justin Jay, featuring Kelly Slater, Lyndie Irons, Stephanie Gilmore, and all the surf world’s loveliest.
From the property lines, to the high-tide line in the sand, the North Shore is the most heavily photographed scene in all of surfing.
Rarely does a tube spit without an accompanying shutter’s click.
But if there’s one guy who has been able to earn the trust of most every surfer on the stretch, that man is Justin Jay, the bright-eyed, strong-jawed, Santa Barbara-born, New York-based lensman as comfortable shooting intimate profiles of Jay-Z or Kanye and Kim Kardashian, as he is kicking off his slippahs next to any doorstep on the North Shore.
The demands of his photography career, and his young, beautiful family in New York, don’t allow for the month’s long residencies Justin once enjoyed, crashing on floors, and even, as he admits, in Chris Cote’s closet during the Transworld days. But with this year marking his tenth covering the Hawaiian winter season, Justin wasn’t about to miss the World Title Race, and all the delicate and dramatic moments surrounding it.
While Justin will be releasing a retrospective anthology this year—documenting his decade-long love affair with the familiar faces and sprawling family that make the North Shore such a rich and romantic place—we were thrilled to see what he came back with from a two-week stint corresponding perfectly to one of the more dramatic World Title races and Pipe Masters final’s days in recent memory, as well as a flurry of career and personal milestones for many of competitive surfing’s old guard, and John John’s second crowning.
Scroll south for two weeks worth of North Shore magic, and make sure to follow @JustinJayPhoto or keep up on Justin’s previous and forthcoming projects here.
“It must be utterly nerve wracking as a pro surfer to have to wait for the outcome of a heat while your feet are touching the sand. With his WCT retirement looming, Pipeline was Bede’s Durbridge’s final WCT competition. After hearing his final wave score come up short against Mick Fanning, the reality suddenly set in that this would in fact be the final heat of his pro-tour career.”
“I can’t think of another sport where the fans have such intimate access to the athletes. Not only are the fans allowed to greet surfers at the water’s edge for a quick selfie or autograph, but the backstage area of the Pipe Masters doesn’t even really exist. The athletes don’t arrive in tinted-windowed sports cars and quickly drive into a restricted area out of the spectator’s sight. They show up to each heat on foot, either on the sand or on a very crowded pubic pathway. Imagine Lebron James running down Broadway on his way to the NBA finals. It makes the North Shore such a unique and special place. If you spend an entire afternoon on the bike path or at Foodland, you could easily meet half of the surfers on tour, and most of your heroes growing up.”
“Benji Weatherly’s laugh is infectious. He’s always been one of the handful of people that I can count on to help me manufacture shots on the North Shore, when the waves are average and nobody is around. He’s the mayor of the stretch. Getting to roll with him and be his “plus one” always yields photographic gold.
I met up with him and his fiancé, ordering crepes on the bike path behind the competitors area. ‘Cruise with me to Kelly’s house – we’re going to go swimming….’ The sun was shining and the waves at Ehukai Beach Park looked deceivingly inviting and playful. Benji invited our friend Travis’ son to go and play in the shore break with him. I have to admit that I underestimated the juice behind these seemingly mellow waves, and came a little too close to losing a very expensive camera body and lens when a monster set rolled up the sand. This kid got seriously tossed a few times but was totally unfazed by the experience. Moments later, I watched the 6-year-old jump off a second story roof into Kelly Slater’s pool. I guess when your first name is Cash, you learn to go big at an early age.”
“Late one December afternoon in 2015, Owen Wright paddled out at Pipe and immediately caught one of the best barrels of the day. While still giddy with adrenaline and wearing an ear to ear smile, he paddled in, and was greeted by his brother, Mikey, on the beach. It was one of those sessions that surfers dream of. The picture says it all. Just days after I took the photo that he’s holding, Owen suffered a traumatic head injury at the same break that gave him so much joy. Two years later, I was thrilled to get to meet up with Owen for the first time since his injury, give him a fist bump, and present him with a copy of this photo.”
“This was literally the only decent wave ridden on the entire North Shore this day. The winds were miserable, the competition was on hold until the 10am call. At 9am, I watched John John paddle out and find a needle in the haystack, while nobody else could be bothered to surf.
JJF had already advanced to round 3, and wouldn’t be surfing, but Medina and Dusty Payne were slated to compete as soon as the comp resumed. I wondered to myself if this messy session was some sort of tactic to goad the judges into running some heats in these crappy conditions. I could imagine Kelly doing something crafty like that, but was John that devious?
Later that night I ran into Ross Williams and he admitted, with a sly smirk, that it was his idea.”
“Herbie Fletcher helped pioneer several of the breaks on the North Shore and he’s not shy to tell you so. At 69, he still paddles out and snags waves at Off The Wall. He’s got an amazing memory for North Shore stories and he’s brilliantly insightful about surfing history. He’s garrulous, zen and warmhearted, but with a tough veneer that can be a little intimidating. He loves to take photos, so I can always relate to him on that level. There are very few families that have had the impact on surfing that the Fletchers have.”
“Nathan Fletcher is the Steve McQueen of surfing. A rugged and stoic man’s man, that lets his actions speak louder than his words. I’ve gotten to shoot with him on many occasions, and I’m always surprised when he suddenly turns on the charisma switch and mugs for the camera. He and I both have children around the same age, so our conversation naturally segued onto the topic of family and kids. The irony was certainly not lost on me that I was having an intimate conversation about the trials and tribulations of raising a toddler with one of the gnarliest chargers on the planet.”
“Fame and notoriety are very curious things. Some people don’t handle it all that well. Others seem to possess the ability to recognize it as the fleeting and insignificant product of actually doing something worthwhile and important. John John simply loves to surf. Sure, the money is great, but it seems to have had little affect on his passion for actually surfing. In the past few years, JJF went from being the beloved towheaded local that everybody waved to on the bike path as he rode by, to the object of throngs of people actually running down the beach to greet him and snap photos. That’s a lot to deal with, and a lot to ask of a young man. He has handled it with a remarkable amount of maturity and class.”
“It’s become such cliche for people to ask why teachers or scientists aren’t regarded as role models, rather than musicians or movie stars or athletes. But it’s refreshing to see how much John John is looked up to on the North Shore. He conducts himself in a manner that deserves every bit of the respect and adoration that he receives. His success is a testament to the fact that dedication, focus, community and humility can help you achieve any goal that you set your sights on. I can’t think of a better role model for the next generation on the North Shore. Apparently the teachers at Sunset Elementary school agreed—the entire 6th grade class was let out of school early to watch John John surf on the final day of Pipe.”
“Every year when I’ve come over to the North Shore, I’ve stayed in a different spot. The house you sleep in really determines the vibe of your trip.
One season I spent two weeks sleeping on the floor of Chris Cote’s closet, at Log Cabins. I was a few years younger then, and I relished in the mayhem that the
crew delivered. At this point however, as soon as the daylight is finished, I’m usually in for the night. This year, Jim Russi and his family hosted me. It was wonderful having a surrogate family to come home to every night and eat a home cooked dinner with. These two groms kept me constantly smiling with their endless stoke and laughter. It was such a pleasure getting to hang with Kaden and Kona and getting to imagine all of the adventures that they still have ahead of them.”
Do you think these brave and dedicated servicemen had to pry this broken pro-board souvenir from the trembling hands of a frothing young fan at the water’s edge? Thank you for your service, Gents! That’s the cost of freedom, grom!
“Despite the intense rivalries that exist amongst the competitors on the World Tour, when all’s said and done, these athletes have the unique camaraderie of being members of the most elite group of surfers on the planet. You can see the respect in Gabe’s eyes as he congratulates John John after his back to back world title win.”
“It’s fascinating to witness the generational changes and the torch passing that occurs on the North Shore. Both Jamie O’Brien and Kelly Slater have literarily witnessed John John grow up and dominate the sport from their front yards. Seeing them both show up to celebrate John John’s title win was a pretty poetic moment. Although it would be convenient to the narrative to write off these two as the fading surf icons of yesteryear, I watched JOB paddle out at dusk just a few hours after this photo was taken with a light mounted to his board (see below). He snagged what would have easily been a high 9-point-ride in near pitch dark conditions. Meanwhile, Kelly is such a competitive beast with a scholar’s worth of wave knowledge, my guess is that he will continue to be relevant at Pipe for quite some time.”
“The Rip Curl house where Gabe Medina stays is one of the furthest team houses away from the competitors check-in area. Although it’s only perhaps 1/4 of mile, that can be a distracting haul when you’re about to compete in one of the most important heats of your career. This is the first time I’ve actually seen a surfer escorted on a golf cart. Usually Gabe either walks back to the house with his step-dad Charlie, or rides a bike to go pick up his jersey. But things happen on Island Time on the North Shore—former world champion or not, people were not very quick or receptive to move to the side of the path and allow the cart to pass. I don’t see this becoming a trend during future Pipe Masters”
“As the father of a young son, I cringe at the thought of my kid someday growing up to be jaded and unappreciative of the sacrifices that a parent makes in order to ensure opportunity and success for their children. Alex Florence raised three boys on the North Shore as a single parent and did a remarkable job—their family bond is iron clad. John John ended his podium speech after winning the World Title with an endearing and heartfelt thank you to his mom for taking him on surf trips and instilling in him his intense love for the ocean. It was a truly beautiful moment to witness.”
“Santa Barbara had a very tough couple of weeks. The Thomas Fire was still not fully under control, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property had been destroyed. It was profoundly uplifting to watch someone from my hometown surf with such style, determination and class in the Pipe Masters, while proudly representing a community that has lost so much. Conner Coffin studies the lineup before his heat with coach Micro Hall, and eventually gets a victory embrace from his mom.”
“Greyson Fletcher skated up to the Banzai Skatepark with two Coors tallboys, took a long swig, and then dropped in wearing flip flops. His casual flow and perfect style is mesmerizing to watch. He is the undeniable star of the park. But rather than monopolizing time and taking more runs than others, I actually found myself wanting to see him skate more. Instead, he seemed to relish in the social aspect of the scene. I watched him roam from corner to corner of the park, cracking jokes, laughing, talking to groms and girls like a celebrity working the room of a Hollywood restaurant.
After finishing his Coors, he wiped his sun-bleached, overgrown beard, and cracked open another. He stood quizzically, with his movie star smile, and wondered aloud to nobody in particular why more people weren’t drinking beer.
It was as if we all were at his private party and he was genuinely concerned that some people might not be having enough fun. Everybody certainly was.”
“Competitive surfing is a very unique sport. Sometimes the conditions simply don’t cooperate. Sometimes the most talented athlete doesn’t actually win. What other sport is that a thing? Sure, athletes can underperform relative to their abilities, but in other sports, the actual playing field is consistent and universal for all competitors. The basketball net doesn’t spontaneously get higher. The yards on the football field don’t suddenly elongate when your team has the ball. But in surfing, the waves can simply turn off. It happens all the time. Zeke Lau recounts his difficult heat to teammate Jermey Flores on the Quiksilver lawn.”
“Lyndie Irons is stunningly beautiful. She embodies all of the glamour, allure and tragedy of the Irons legacy. Forever inextricably linked to an iconic cultural figure, she is the Jackie Kennedy of the surf world.”
“In most sports, when you suffer an agonizing loss, you and your opponents go your separate ways. Perhaps you might share a brief handshake in the name of good sportsmanship, but ultimately you retreat to your own respective private spaces. You don’t share a locker room. You don’t walk side by side to the same press conference. At the Pipe Masters however, the winners and losers of each heat are all corralled into the same athlete’s area. The loser of the heat must awkwardly take off his wet competitor’s jersey and return it to the judge, all in full view of throngs of fans. Meanwhile just a few feet away, the surfer that just bested them gets to gleefully recount the details of their win with the lovely Rosy Hodge. It is a very public arena to have to decompress after a loss. The expressions can be very transparent (as seen on Jordy Smith’s and Filipe Toledo, above).”
“John John Florence was leading in the Pipe Masters’ Finals. His friends, family, coach, fans, and the entire 6th grade class of Sunset Elementary school were all wearing red Go John John hats, cheering for him in waist deep water as they waited for the clock to run out.
With just seconds left, Jeremy Flores squashed their hopes.
Earlier that afternoon, Flores had put an abrupt end to Gabe Medina’s hopes for a second world title. Jeremy addressed their devastating disappointment in one of the classiest podium speeches I’ve ever heard. ‘It should be a showdown between John and Gabriel,’ Jeremy said. ‘Those guys are next level. When I beat Gabriel I felt so bad. To see the emotion on his face… I hate doing this… Surfing is not supposed to do stuff like that. It’s supposed to be pure good vibes.'”
“I happened to drop by the Rothman compound, just as Jeremy Flores was packing up some boards, saying goodbye, and preparing to head out of town. Some local groms were on hand to take in the moment.
As with most elite athletes, the career span of a competitive surfer is relatively short. These kids will be soon be inheriting the torch. Reverence for your elders and the importance of sharing insight to the next generation is a valued and integral aspect of the Hawaiian ethos.
The groms listened intently as Makua explained an important lesson. ‘It’s not just about being the best and getting the biggest waves. It’s very important that you take care and look out for each other in the water. You might be focused on just getting the biggest wave, and not notice that your friend is in trouble. You have to stick together and make sure that everyone comes home safe – then you can look at them in the eye and say that you’re the best.’
They all stood silently and absorbed the sage and heartfelt advice from the Big Wave World Champion.”
“It was late afternoon and I was on Kelly Slater’s porch with just a few people. There was one woman who I didn’t recognize holding a rectangular plastic box about the size of a loaf of bread. She asked Kelly if he had a knife or a screwdriver. When he returned, she began carefully unscrewing the end of the blue box. She explained to me what was inside, smiled sheepishly, and asked if I would help her by holding open a large ziplock bag. She delicately proceeded to dump the contents of the box into the plastic bag. Despite her best efforts to contain it, tiny wisps of the chunky, light-grey powder blew away in the salty Hawaiian wind. I was holding the ashes of legendary surfer Michael Peterson who died in 2012. The ashes were placed into a small satchel and Kelly paddled out at dusk amidst a spectacular amber sunset to spread them in the ocean.”
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