The photo above of Nathan Florence backdooring a green-lit cavern landed on Pg.1 of SURFER magazine’s newest issue. Staff photographer Ryan “Chachi” Craig captured it while on a hopeful strike mission to Panama with Florence, Billy Kemper and Eli Olson. While the colors and shape of the wave are enough to entrance anyone who picks up this glossy magazine, it’s Florence’s nonchalance in a particularly intense situation that makes the image pop. To celebrate his (second) cover-landing, we caught up with Florence to hear more about this wave and what keeps him returning to the Panamanian coastline time and time again.
First of all, congrats on getting the cover. How does it feel?
Thanks! So stoked—especially nowadays since magazines are becoming more and more rare. It was definitely a highlight for me.
This isn't your first SURFER cover. You also made Pg.1 back in 2001 as a little grom. I imagine this one feels a bit more exciting.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was my first big debut. I can appreciate this one a little more. That day I was pissed they made me stand in one spot for more than 10 seconds.
Anyways, back to this cover: that slabby nugget you chipped into looks insane. What do you remember about that wave?
That wave and especially that area is super, super unpredictable. The waves are so close together because the storms are so close. So it makes for really unpredictable sessions—all the conditions could be right on the charts but you can show up and there will be absolutely nothing. It defies logic.
We showed up that morning with no expectations, although we did have our hopes up a little because the charts said it would be really big and good. It wasn't super big but the conditions were as good as it gets. The color was trippy to me because we showed up first thing in the morning and there were these glowing green barrels. In Hawaii we only get backlit barrels in the evening—and even then it’s pretty rare for it to be that green.
I think I was the first one off the boat. I jumped in and paddled as fast as I could I was so psyched. The wave on the cover was literally the first wave I paddled into.
That's got to be one of the first stories I've heard where someone nails a cover shot on the first wave of their trip.
[Laughs} I know! It's such a wedgey, crazy wave. It's hard to predict. You really have to take off on the left and backdoor into it. The wave periods are so short—like 6 seconds so you drift over a little swell and this thing is just stepping up in front of you. It was so hard to be in the right spot but so worth it when you sneak in. This one just peaked up so wild and I got a chip in from the left, which made for that crazy photo. Chachi [SURFER staff photographer Ryan Craig] swam out and was like "I don't even know what to tell you—I have the sickest photo of that wave."
Do you spend a lot of time in Panama?
Only in the past two years or so. I've been 3 or 4 times in the last year.
What draws you to that coastline?
It's not too far away—it's an easy strike down there. And there's just a lot of different waves to choose from once you're there. That wave we surfed gets really gnarly and crazy and gets really big. We got a glimpse of it on our first trip there—it was probably 15 feet and it really shocked us in the power and the size. We didn’t even think it was paddleable so we left. We went back out the next day of that trip and it was gone—there were no waves.
So you do think maybe the wave's fickleness keeps you guys going back time and time again?
For sure.That was the hook. We went back two or three times and we never got to see that side of it again. We've had fun, smaller days, but the couple we saw were really crazy.
How does that slab compare to some of the waves you surf on the North Shore?
It's different in the fact that the take off zone is never a sure thing. It's really hard to place yourself in the lineup out there. Obviously the more you go, the better feel you get for it. Luke Davis has been going down there for a bit so he's got good positioning. But it's a total mind game too. Where you take off it looks like you’re pulling into a left that you’re not going to make. Some that you think will barrel just clamp on you. The whole thing makes for this diamond in the rough situation where you’re stoked when you get a wave without getting smashed.
On a scale from 1 to 10 what you say the quality of that wave is?
It's hard to say. You could get a 10 out there, but that 10 could also drive your face into the reef. It's so unpredictable. The wave's a 1 and a 10 at the same time. It's such a weird wave–but that's what I love about it. It kind of keeps people away.