Pic: Ted Grambeau

The Quiet Messiah

John Florence and a world that won’t stop talking about him.

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The plane doesn’t look big enough. John Florence looks at the pile of boards on the tarmac being loaded inside and scratches his head. It’s going to be tight. The seven-seater Piper Navajo is sitting in the middle of a sheep paddock that moonlights twice a day as an airstrip. Tumbleweeds hustle past. The wind is blowing its tits off. There’s a 30-knot tailwind to negotiate but we need to get up in the air real soon because there’s a 50-knot change coming. The rough flight is customary. You only fly to King Island on the biggest swells, and with the swell comes the weather. Hold on to your lunch.

I don’t tell John that a light plane with five American golfers crashed on the way to King Island last year. Flew into an outlet mall on take off and burst into flame with no survivors. I do tell him, however, that if our pilot has a heart attack then he’s flying this bird. John can fly. He took flying lessons years ago, practising mid-air stalls while dodging incoming airliners at Honolulu Airport. Those lessons and his low pulse rate might come in handy in the advent of a slumped pilot and a nosediving plane.

We cross the coast over Point Impossible. The ocean in Bass Strait is whipped white, and the little plane jerks like a dancing puppet. I don’t know what he’s looking at down there, but John’s eyes don’t leave the ocean below for the whole hour. The rest of us have white knuckles, but John is monastically calm. He has an easy way of moving through the elements, be they air, water or even time.

King Island is a clod of rural dirt sitting out in Bass Strait, one of the last remaining traces of the old land bridge that connected Tasmania to the Australian mainland during the last ice age. With a free week between contests, John Florence has gone adventuring. He’s here for the waves, but he’s also here for the kind of solitude that only an hour tossed around in a light plane can provide.

From the airport we drive straight to the island’s bakery. John stands in line with workers on their lunchbreak and it’s immediately clear. Nobody knows him here. The island has only 1600 residents and just a handful of local surfers. They don’t get many visitors. Pancho Sullivan’s board hangs on the wall from 15 years ago. John is immediately disarmed and takes off his hoodie. It might well be the only place on god’s green earth he could possibly go without being mobbed. If you’re sick of the world talking about you, King Island is not a bad place to go.

The bakery menu is provincial. Pies, lots of them, but they’re nothing like the pies you’ll find on the mainland. There are lobster pies, wallaby pies, chicken and camembert pies. A menagerie of local critters all stuffed in a pastry sarcophagus. John plays it safe with a spinach roll. As John finishes and gets up to leave, a young kid in school uniform wanders in, takes one look at him and freezes. The familiar glazed eyes, gulping air like a dying goldfish, mesmerised. John knows the look. He’s been spotted. Dave Rastovich is sitting across the table, wearing a hand knitted beanie and odd socks. Dave doesn’t venture near the pie oven either, hasn’t been near one in two decades, and instead slow-chews some hot cross buns. Rasta. Through some kind of cosmic alignment he’s also on King Island. It’s the first time he and John have ever met. On the surface, the world champion and the environmental champion, the Golden Child and the Guru wouldn’t appear to have too much in common, but you strip the tour out of the equation and think about them purely as surfers and as human beings, then John has more in common with Dave than he does with most of the crew he surfs with on tour.

Bees. They both love bees.

The conversation flows like honey. Rasta’s neighbour back home in Byron invented a revolutionary beehive that has made beekeeping a thing. John has one in his backyard at home in Hawaii, set up ironically by a Rastafarian from Waianae who refuses to wear a bee suit. They talk bee life. They trade stories of being stung. Face. Neck. Don’t wear black socks. Bees love black socks. John tells about having to move the hive away from the house, but having to move it just six inches a day or the bees would completely lose their bearings. Dave makes mead. John talks of making honey wine. They talk for an hour, two of surfing’s most solitary creatures fascinated by one of nature’s most social. Having Rasta on the island has shifted the paradigm and has clearly got John thinking.

We check the surf after lunch. Driving down overgrown sand tracks on the north-east corner of the island we make our way down the beach at Martha’s. The swell is filling in, wrapping around the top of the island and rifling down the beach on dry sand. It looks like a poor man’s version of Skeleton Bay. John has the binoculars and is scanning the beach for a makeable corner. Rasta watches a set that slows just enough to maybe get into. “I’d paddle that.” The words aren’t even out of his mouth before John replies, “I’m in.” They paddle. The current is ferocious, but John puts his head down and somehow makes ground against it. John always paddles like he’s got somewhere to be. He and Rasta are the only two surfers for hundreds of miles, but for hours they surf without a word.

Pic: Ted Grambeau

On the way back to our farmhouse rental the pair get talking. They talk about silence. Rasta speaks on the subject with some authority, as for years he wouldn’t speak on Tuesdays. He recommends John read a book called Quiet, which examines the role of the introvert in a world that won’t shut up. John’s filmer, Erik Knutson, the man whose job it is to get John to talk to the camera, chips in disapprovingly. “Don’t encourage him!” John tells Erik he should read the book himself. John downloads the book onto his Kindle as soon as he gets back to the house.

John is an introvert, a supremely self-aware and entirely comfortable introvert. He’s not a lighthouse keeper, he just likes to keep unnecessary human interaction to a minimum, which is hard work when you’re the best surfer in the world and a figure of universal adoration. It kind of comes with the territory. Depending on how you define it, a third of the world’s population are introverts, people who think more than they talk, but there’s an important distinction to make here between introversion and shyness. Shyness implies some kind of social anxiety. John’s fine in the public eye, and in person he’s one of the most easy going cats you’ll ever meet. He’s totally capable of dealing with it all… it’s just that, like all introverts, he’d rather not have to. He does his best work alone, usually in the ocean.

John’s not the first person to struggle with the vicious circle of sports stardom. Do what you love, get really good at it, then have the whole world intrude on that relationship. No, John’s not the first surfer to deal with it, but he might be the first to do it entirely on his terms. John makes few concessions to stardom, and there’s a high premium on his privacy and space. The result is that he’s arguably more underground today than he was an eight-year-old.

It’s been fascinating to watch it play out over the past few years. To start, John moved out of the family home at Pipeline and bought a beachfront property down the quiet end of the strip at Log Cabins. When that gets too much, he simply sails off in his boat or jumps a plane somewhere quiet. His circle of trust is small. He’s got his family, a core group of surf friends on the North Shore and a core group he works with on his own projects. He’s managed tightly, and it’s almost impossible to get a formal interview with him. His personal social media accounts gather dust.

When he won the world title at Pipeline last year, John was watching on nearby from Pete Johnson’s backyard. The gate was shut and the WSL cameras couldn’t get in to capture the moment. John won the world title in private, in front of a group of close friends, and the closest the broadcast could get was a drone shot from 200 feet up in the air. Reading between the lines, the cameras were kept out to symbolically redraw the line between where the sport stops and John starts. And the reason he does it is simple: because he can. John is the highest paid surfer ever and is bordering on being bigger than the tour itself. It’s not a power trip, however. It’s John living the life he wants to live. It’s John pushing back against a world that just demands more and more of him.

John had flown in to King Island direct from Coolangatta, the most densely populated surfing postcode in the world. The tour for now remains an inevitability in his life that needs to be managed, and while he’s clearly made huge strides in surfing heats, he’s open about having trouble dealing with the crowds and the energy around events. The Pipe crowd he’s dealt with all his life, but the ego and the energy and the noise around tour contests is something else again. He even flew out from Hawaii a month before Snapper started, to tune up without the rest of the field there. When the contest rolled around, however, he lost to wildcard Mikey Wright, who shadowed John heavily during the heat, in the process creating a blueprint to beat him. The ocean rarely beats John, but a bit of confrontation might.

Back on King Island, I decide early on not to ask John for an interview. The suggestion itself kills the groove and I figure there’s far more value in using these few days to observe him, unobserved. He’s got a whole island to himself here, 50 miles from end to end, and I figure there’s more anthropological worth in just sitting back and watching him in the wild. John carries binoculars and a film camera with him the whole time like most 25-year-olds carry their phones. John’s phone, meanwhile, well he barely touches it. His one concession to the digital age comes back at the farmhouse where he loses himself in the footage from that day. He sits a foot away from the screen, staring for an hour. His singular obsessiveness makes him completely anti-millennial. Whether it’s his photography, sailing, beekeeping or surfing, everything is a deep immersion. He quietly loses himself in them for hours. A generation or two ago this wasn’t classed as being introverted. It was called life.

We’re up before dawn the following morning and driving out to Martha’s in the dark. When we arrive, we find the swell has switched completely overnight. Instead of wrapping around the top of the island, forming a racing left, the swell is now coming from below the island, forming the sand bottom peaks the island is famous for, stretching as far as we can see to the south without another living soul in the frame.

We round a corner on the sand track, however, and run headlong into a four-car convoy parked overlooking the cleanest peak. It’s a crew from the mainland who’ve chased the same swell. Steph Gilmore is there. Zeke Lau is there, just a week before he and John will surf their infamous heat at Bells. The cameras are everywhere. John is in the lead car and it burns off, straight past and keeps driving for another mile, as far as the road goes. John gets out of the car and runs. I’m not sure where he’s running to, or why he’s running at all, but he’s taken off in the direction of the waves. It’s noteworthy because I can’t recall ever having seen him run before. Ever. He’s the most unhurried guy you’ll ever meet, but here he is, boots sinking in the sand as he follows the wallaby tracks over the dunes and into the sunrise.

The waves at this end of the beach aren’t geometric peaks but dinky little wedges. Swell lines from below the island travel up the beach until they meet a swell line from above the island, at which point they turn into sand slabs. John says it reminds him of Tamae on Moorea. He says he likes weird waves. For John, it becomes a game. He surfs all day, toying with it. He gets tubed a hundred ways till Sunday. He soul arches. He low crouches with spirit hands. He masters the forehand layback. He gets tubed sitting down. After five hours the wind finally shifts onshore and John and Dave come in. They sit on the beach alone and with an economy of words describe the euphoric feeling of not leaving a wave unsurfed. They’ve juiced it. The pair is soon examining something in the dunes. It’s a tiny plant, clinging to life in the sand, being blown by the wind and describing a perfectly concentric circular pattern in the sand. They’re studying its gentle beauty without saying a word, before pointing out to me that I’m standing on its neighbour.

Our final night on the island is spent at the King Island Club, an old wood-panelled town hall with a bar and a bistro in the island’s main town, Currie. It’s a big night on the island. The locals are rallying against a giant aquaculture company who are planning to farm three million Atlantic salmon right where we’d surfed that day. If it went ahead, the place would be awash with fish shit. John walks into the club wearing a “No Fish Farms Here” badge on his jumper, given to him by Rastovich who is on the island in support of the campaign. Florence sits down to dinner with the locals leading the fight. None of them surf, or even know who he is, but over a dinner of wallaby shanks and scallops, Florence is locked in animated conversation with them. He’s asking about the fish farm, what it’ll do to the beach, what it’ll do the ocean and where the campaign’s at. He’s completely engaged. More in touch with the saltwater hemispheres than maybe any man alive and with a loyal following of millions, if he put his mind to it, he’d be an ocean defender without peer. You could see those wheels turning in Florence’s head. His time with Rastovich has been an eye opener. Before they left the island the pair was already planning their next surf trip.

Bets are already being placed about how long Florence will last in the fishbowl of the Tour. Twice on the island while he’s speaking with Rastovich, I hear the phrase, “When I’m done with the Tour,” once in reference to a big Polynesian sail and once to some serious time up in the Arctic Circle. Despite the twin world titles and the way he’s almost cruised to them, you’re still not entirely convinced the Tour is his natural environment. He’s learned to love the game, but it’s unlikely he’ll still be there at, say, 46 years of age. He and Kelly might be close, but they’re hardwired in very different ways. Kelly is the classic extrovert, drawing energy from the Tour to the point that walking away from it has become almost impossible.

So what does Florence do beyond the Tour? He’s the best surfer in the world right now and the most important surfer of his generation, a fact the Tour, the fans and his contract all recognise. But what’s his lasting imprint on surfing going to be beyond the trophies and a transcendent highlight reel? What’s his lasting contribution to the great song line of surf culture? We’re seeing Slater’s big vision for surfing playing out right now, a big concrete and chlorine legacy project, so what will Florence leave us? A revolution in surf film? A skull and crossbones crusade to save the ocean? An ingenious new beehive? Does he try and change surfing like Slater, or try and change the world like Rastovich? Or does he just climb aboard his 48-foot ocean cat one day and sail off into the vast constellation of the Pacific, drop anchor off an island in the Tuamotus or the Marquesas, find a wave out front, then pass his days contentedly as the world goes Searching for John Florence?

One thing’s for sure: Florence cares far less about this right now than we do. No surfer since Kelly Slater has had the platform he has, but no surfer has probably wanted it less. The problem for Florence is that like Brian, the more he tells us he’s not the messiah, the more people are going to follow him. The Reluctant Messiah is a recurring and central character in surfing, and you could argue that they’ve had a greater influence on the surfing life than those who actually set out with the intention to influence it. Curren, Greenough, Lynch, Peterson and more recently Dane Reynolds were all guys who just wanted to be left alone with their surfing but were too damn good for that to ever happen. That excruciating tension, playing out publicly, eventually created profound cultural shift. Surfing can be sublimely contrary like that. While society makes stars of the people who want it most, surfing has a way of doing the very opposite. Sailing away from it all one day might be the most influential move Florence could ever make.

Back at the farmhouse, we’re about to leave and Dave and John are sitting on opposite sides of the lounge room, silent as monks. It’s like they’re sitting for a sketch artist. Dave is on an old wooden chair, legs crossed, staring out the window at a broken clothesline spinning in the wind. John, meanwhile, sits at a small dining table and looks out the window on the other side of the room. A shaft of weak afternoon light illuminates the scene. There’s a map of the island’s shipwrecks on the wall. It’s a Tuesday. The world might never be quiet, but for now there’s nothing that needs to be said.

Get more of photographer Ted Grambeau’s beautiful images in his latest book, Adventures in Light. 

Sean Doherty