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John John Florence: The surfing sailor

When surfing superstar John John Florence took his Gunboat 48 on a 2,500 mile cruise to remote Pacific islands he found a thriving ecosystem that may give us all cause for hope. Toby Hodges reports

Some folk seem to have it all. At 28, John John Florence has already enjoyed a career as one of the world’s most talented professional surfers. He lives on the north shore of Oahu, opposite the famous Pipeline wave which he is renowned for dominating. And when he’s not touring the world competing on the World Surf League (WSL) tour he’s surfing optimum waves with his younger brothers.

Born and raised in Hawaii, John John Florence recently married Australian model Lauryn Cribb and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics representing the USA surfing team. So what does someone who seemingly has it all do when not surfing? He sails.

‘JJ’ began sailing on a Hobie and a J/35 but has progressed to a foiling Phantom 18 and a Gunboat 48. He is also in the business of inspiring dreams, thanks in part to his production company, Parallel Seas, which documents his water exploits in video – including his recent cruising in the Pacific.

In 2019 John John Florence tore his anterior cruciate ligament while competing in Brazil, an injury that forced him out of surfing for a few months, but gave him a rare break to sail his Gunboat to some isolated Pacific islands.

It also unlocked a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stay on the protected atoll of Palmyra, giving Florence and his crew the chance to witness the unique conservation work happening there.

Vela’s Pacific voyage involved a month-long return trip from Hawaii to the northern Line Islands. Photo: Parallel Seas

The trip made for a beautifully shot travelogue-style video series named after his Gunboat 48 Vela and it has turbocharged Florence’s cruising experience. I spoke with him in March after he landed in Sydney for the 2021 Australian leg of the WSL tour, where he was able to describe their cruise in detail from his COVID quarantine.

Hawaiian explorers

For Florence’s first big cruise on Vela after a year and a half of ownership, he and his regular crewmates brother Nathan, close friend Kona Johnson and photographer Erik Knutson were joined by French pro skipper and multihull sailing veteran Jacques Vincent, on a month-long voyage to the Line Islands.

“I had been competing on the road and the way our tour system works with surfing, it doesn’t really allow a lot of time for doing bigger trips like this,” Florence explains. “Getting injured kind of gave me that silver lining to go sailing and do this dream trip I’ve been wanting to do.”

As one of the closest Pacific islands to Hawaii, and one with renowned waves, Fanning Island, some 1,200 miles south, seemed like the logical destination. The Line Islands chain stretches across the equator, in the midst of the Pacific wilderness.

“When I started looking into the chain and Palmyra, and seeing what they were doing down there through The Nature Conservancy, I was pretty amazed. It falls right into a lot of the stuff that I like to support in my life, just growing up in and around the ocean and naturally wanting to protect it.” He contacted the scientists on Palmyra and managed to arrange a stopover to learn more about the conservation underway there.

Vela departed Honolulu in the Hawaiian summer of 2019. Planning was one of the biggest challenges, says Florence: “It felt particularly hard because it was going to be a month long… there’s no fuel down there, no food that you’re picking up for the most part. And five grown men eat a lot of food!”

“It just never feels like you’re ready to go. Yet the moment we left the harbour and raised the main you just settle in and all of a sudden it feels incredible – like you’re more than ready to do this.

A mix of wind and doldrums for Vela’s John and Nathan Florence and Kona Johnson on passage to the Line Islands. Photo: Parallel Seas

“Sailing for days and days like that, it’s pretty cool how your world just shrinks down so small, to what’s there in the moment around you.”

As well as the more regular passage routines such as changing sails, reading books, fishing and cooking, the videos show the Vela crew ‘exercising’ too. This entailed somersaulting off the bows, towing themselves behind trailing lines, paddling around the boat, holding onto rudders or daggerboards in lulls, and ‘surfing’ on the trampolines in swells.

John John Florence found the wave patterns in the doldrums of the deep ocean fascinating after being so familiar with surfing swells that come from one direction. “It was just this really weird looking movement of the water that I’ve never really seen.”

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He was hungry to absorb knowledge during the passage and studied the weather and routing. Sailing in strong and gusty winds in Hawaii gave him a good grounding. “Once we got away from the islands, it became relatively easy. The wind gets a lot more consistent and you can kind of just tell what the weather’s going to do more easily. So I just became so much more comfortable sailing the boat.”

“Another thing I learned was just having the appropriate sailplans that you can comfortably sleep at night with no stress when you’re off watch.”

A conservative amount of canvas suited the crew’s experience level and the squally weather. “The first couple of nights we had 20 to 25 knots of wind, with big squalls coming through pushing up into the mid 30s. And so it was about having a sailplan set up for that at night, just so you can bear off and be totally fine without having to race out and put a reef in.”

Florence is using his voice to help effect environmental change. Photo: Parallel Seas

Sailing sensibly is probably not something that comes naturally to someone known for making riding Hawaii’s most notorious waves look effortless. “We definitely still went through some things breaking, which happens every time you go sailing,” Florence admits.

This included breaking the storm jib soon after leaving Honolulu and discovering a bent rudder pin, which meant they had to sail on one rudder for a few days until a repair was fashioned.

Palmyra: the island of hope

As land came into focus the crew was rewarded with the sight of a sheer abundance of seabirds, the first sign that life is thriving on Palmyra. From the plush, dense green vegetation, to the transparent waters, teeming with marine life and blooming corals, it’s unlike anything Florence and his crew had ever seen. Thanks to their photography, it’s something we can bear witness to too.

“It’s a very, very protected little piece of land on earth – but it wasn’t always that way,” Florence comments.

“In World War II the military pretty much decimated the entire island.” The Nature Conservancy bought Palmyra in 2000 with the aim of protecting endangered marine wilderness and setting up a base for conservation science. The military’s deforestation, combined with copra farming and an infestation of black rats, had left the island virtually barren. The Conservancy says its rainforest restoration project aims to restore the ecological balance.

“It’s unbelievable to see how it can come back,” enthuses Florence. The Vela crew spent a week living ashore with the scientists, learning about the work they are doing, snorkelling over the reefs and filming some breathtaking footage that helps highlight what can happen if the circle of life is allowed to flourish.

A surf pitstop at remote Washington Island. Photo: Parallel Seas

In the video series, the Conservancy’s Chad Wiggins explains how it operates within the Hawaii Chapter, in all 50 states and in 72 countries. “Here we take care of an innovative research station focused on climate adaptation and resilience.”

Kydd Pollock, another conservationist living there, thinks Palmyra can become an international baseline to show what a tropical ecosystem is supposed to look like when all its links are intact.

The footage shows us in HD quality how the coral reefs are restoring themselves quicker than anywhere else because nature’s chain, including plankton, fish, seabirds, trees and soil, has been restored to balance.

“Palmyra has all the links,” comments Florence’s brother Nathan. “A lot of places are missing those links or have too much of one. If you can just click them back together, then nature will do the rest”.

“It taught me how nature can heal itself a lot quicker just from being in such a healthy state,” John Florence tells me. “It also opened my eyes up to the rest of the world and changing things without too much change, if you know what I mean.”

He is referring to the idea that introducing small local measures can allow nature to regenerate. Near his Oahu home, for instance, an area was sectioned off to encourage seabirds to return. “It started really small. And over the past year or two, it’s pretty amazing how many big seabirds are now coming back to nest in that area.”

Secluded waves

After an enlightening week on Palmyra, the Vela crew stopped at Washington Island to sample some stunning untouched waves before pushing on to Fanning for another 10 days of surfing and exploring the reefs.

Having spent three quarters of my life addicted to surfing, I can safely say that anyone who sails and surfs will always dream of doing a trip to a remote island with perfect empty waves on tap. So how hard was it for John John Florence, strapped in a knee brace at the time, to have reached such a destination and have to watch his brother and best mate surf?

“Yeah, that was a little bit of a nightmare at times,” he laughs. But belly surfing, riding a paddleboard and just swimming in the waves proved replenishing enough. “I remember this one afternoon when there was no wind and the waves were really fun – I went out by myself and I was just riding waves on my stomach and just have never felt better.

“But at the same time, getting to explore those places are all big parts of what I want to do in my life. So I felt pretty filled-up from just being able to check out the other sides of Fanning and take the tender and go through all the reefs – and even just sailing there in general. Those are all really big challenges and they made it really, really enjoyable.”

Florence was taken with the sense of exploration and inspired by the locals. “People on these islands are catching the majority of their own food, are completely off the grid – living their lives in the moment. They are always thinking about what they can do today.”

He also enjoyed learning more about the independence sailing brings and the energy management of his boat.

Stunning drone footage from Fanning Island. Photo: Parallel Seas

“We had a Watt&Sea [hydrogenerator] on the back as well as the solar on top. And I was amazed that we didn’t have to charge our batteries from the engine once while we were sailing – that’s pretty incredible.

“You’re running the fridges, the autopilot, the lights, computers, cameras, everything. And the RED cameras [we use] have real big batteries that take a lot of power.”

There are 8x145W and 2x140W of flexible Solbian panels on Vela’s coachroof. “It’s amazing how much power the solar gives, especially somewhere like Fanning, where it’s just sun for days and days.”

The price for the pleasure of the voyage finally came with a six-day beat back home in 20-knot plus winds. However, Florence is pragmatic about how all these sea miles have helped fill him with confidence both to do more cruising and to two-hand the boat with his wife (Space X is a short film documenting the couple’s first full tour around Oahu).

Recovery from a cruciate ligament injury meant John John Florence could only watch as his crewmates made the most of the surf opportunities. Photo: Parallel Seas

“The more I sail, the less of a time schedule I want with it,” he muses. “I think that’s the ultimate dream – all of a sudden you have access to be able to surf these amazing waves in parts of the world that people can’t get to without a boat.”

Stimulating dreams is a key part of what Florence does. “That [Line Islands] trip really made me realise that if you can inspire people to get outside and go sailing or be in the ocean, they will get a feel of how great it is… which makes [them] want to protect it. I think when people feel it for themselves, it has so much more of a bigger impact.”

Many of us may not feel ready to try and aspire to such an adventure. “One of the biggest lessons I learned was that you’re never going to be as ready as you want to be… so at a certain point, you kind of just have to go. And I think if you take it slow and easy, it’s pretty doable to do these bigger ocean crossings.

“Once you’re on the boat and you get in that rhythm, it’s pretty incredible the way the world opens up.”

John John Florence

The 2020 Pipe Master is modest about his sailing, but the footage I’ve seen of him helming his foiling Phantom show he’s clearly skilled. He has sailed since he was a teenager, starting on a friend’s Hobie monohull dinghy. “I bought a Laser 2 then started sailing around on that, flipping it and breaking things.”

John John Florence took his first big sailing step with buying and cruising a J/35, which he loved: “There’s a lot of learning to do, especially in Hawaii with so much wind… so learning by doing is I guess how that went.”He describes how sailing became the natural way to explore. “It’s this mixture of exploration and the challenge of getting somewhere. I’ve always just been interested in the way it works”.

Despite his elite sporting success, Florence comes across as grounded and eager to keep learning. He met snowboarder Travis Rice in Tahiti where he was introduced to sailing Rice’s Gunboat 48 Falcor. “We started talking about passing the torch and the timing just kind of worked out,” Florence explains. Once Rice had sailed to Hawaii, Florence bought the boat and rebranded it Vela “after the Southern Hemisphere star constellation”.

He admits it was a leap moving up to a near 50ft performance catamaran, but Florence befriended Jacques Vincent, a former crewmember of Hydroptère, who was able to share some of his experience.
“Jacques essentially just showed me how to go slow,” he chuckles, “which is a good thing because when I first got the boat I just wanted to push it, I wanted to go fast.

“When you don’t have that knowledge or the right crew, then pushing a boat like that can be just dangerous. But that’s the amazing thing about these light multihulls: you can go pretty quick with a pretty small and safe sailplan.”


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