The Man, The Myth, The Legend

An Interview with the King of the North Shore


Editorial & Opinion : Interviews By Photo by Chase Pellerin
From Issue Four of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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In a shrub-lined front yard overlooking the Log Cabins surf break on Oahu’s North Shore, John John Florence sat, sun-baked and salt-washed, watching the waves curl into perfect hollow barrels. “Have they been like that all day?” he asked, eyes wide with yearning. They had been. All of the North Shore’s biggest names were out in the lineup, taking turns getting shacked on some of the best waves in the world.

At 24, Florence is already a veteran of the professional surfing world, and, more importantly, the hometown hero of Oahu’s North Shore. He grew up and went to school across the street from the world-famous Banzai Pipeline surf break; he surfed Pipeline for the first time when he was eight years old. (He surfed his first professional competition, the Vans Triple Crown, at 13.) Today, spray-painted stencils of his face line the Kamehameha Highway accompanied by signs reading “Congrats John John,” “The Champ!” and “We Love You John John.” His WSL World Title in 2016 marked the first time an islander had won since 2004, when another North Shore local and surf legend, Andy Irons, won it three years in a row.

Many call the North Shore surfing’s capital; if that’s true, call Florence the sport’s crown prince. We spent a morning enjoying his humble domain, and learning about a life spent mastering the waves.

Q:
Some of the best surfers in the world have come from the North Shore. In recent times, we’ve seen Bruce and Andy Irons, Jamie O’Brien, yourself and a handful more. Is there something in the water here?
A:
The North Shore is a place where there is almost every single type of wave. You can come here over the winter, stay for three months, and surf every single wave there is to surf. Whether it’s a long right or a big barrel or a huge wave or a tiny wave, we have it here. And everything is pretty accessible. There are so many waves in such a short distance. I still get just as amped as I did when I was twelve years old. It’s so hard for me, because if it’s real big, I want to go surf, and if it’s only one-foot waves, I want to go surf. I just want to surf every single day, and I get so tired.

Q:
What was it like to see all of the love and support that the local community has shown for you since you won the world title?
A:
It’s awesome. It’s such a small community. I grew up going to the school right here. I see all of the kids growing up going to school there, surfing across the street every day when the sandbars are fun. It’s just what I did when I was young, and everyone kind of knows everyone.

So when I came home from my world title, it was awesome to see all of the support like that from family and friends and people that I grew up with, and from people I have looked up to since I was really young. That was what made it really feel real.

Q:
What makes Oahu different than some of the other islands?
A:
All of the islands are different in their own way. Oahu is pretty based around the North Shore, Honolulu and Waikiki. We have a lot more people than the other islands have. It’s more chaotic, and it’s essentially the center of the surf world in the wintertime. So you get all of these different types of surfers coming here.

John John’s Watch of Choice

When Florence is out in the lineup at competition time, he has a Nixon Comp surf watch strapped to his wrist. It’s ultra-thin, which allows it to be worn underneath a wetsuit and also includes a lockout feature — so that once you set your chrono or countdown, it won’t be interrupted by an inadvertant bump of the wrist.

Case Size: 38mm
Thickness: 8mm
Water Rating: 100m / 10ATM
Case Material: PMMA

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Q:
When you aren’t surfing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
A:
I love sailing. We have a Hobie Cat, a Laser, and we have a big thirty-five-foot boat that’s really fun too. In the summertime, the water goes completely flat, and there’s a lot of wind. It’s so relaxing.

Q:
I’ve heard that photography is a big passion of yours. How’d you first get into it?
A:
Just from traveling. It’s my passion when I’m on the road. It’s the second thing that I do next to surfing. My mom was really into it when I was young, so she kind of got me into it. I wanted to take pictures of all the places we were going. Through that I got more and more into the cameras. Then I got into filming — so it’s just been this ladder that never really stops.

Q:
What’s your favorite camera?
A:
Probably my still camera. It’s a Leica M7. Such a fun little camera. I take that thing everywhere with me. I bought it maybe six years ago.

Q:
What does the future of competitive surfing look like? What’s the next step?
A:
I think it’s going to get to the point where guys are doing combos more. It won’t just be a ten for a big air. It’ll be like, take off, do a turn, do a backflip, into another turn and finish with another air. I think the ability for a lot of the guys is there, and with a lot of the waves, it’s very possible. So I think guys are going to be pushing airs to the point where they get to that next thing, and you’re going to have to do two backflips on a wave or whatever it is. Moving more into skating, and a skating run.

Read More in Gear Patrol Magazine

A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Four, 320 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography across America. Now available. Subscribe Now: $39