All photos by Ted Grambeau.
The plane doesn't look big enough. John Florence surveys the pile of surfboards 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—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. Hang onto your lunch.
I don't tell Florence 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 flames with no survivors. I do tell him, however, that if our pilot has a heart attack then he's flying this bird. Florence took flying lessons years ago, practicing mid-air stalls while dodging incoming airliners at Honolulu Airport. Those lessons and his low pulse rate might come in handy in the event of a slumped pilot and a nosediving plane.
We cross the coast over Point Impossible and fly out over Bass Strait. The ocean is whipped white, and the little plane jerks like a dancing puppet. Florence 's eyes don't leave the ocean below for the whole hour. The rest of us have white knuckles but Florence is monastically calm. He has an easy way of moving through the elements, be they air or water.
King Island is a clod of rural dirt sitting out in Bass Strait. It's 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, Florence has gone adventuring. He's here for the waves, but also here for the kind of solitude that only an hour spent being tossed around in a light plane can provide.
From the airport we drive straight to the island's bakery. Florence stands in line with a bunch of workers on their lunchbreak and it's immediately clear: Nobody knows him here. The island has only 1,600 residents and a just handful of local surfers. They don't get many visitors. Pancho Sullivan's board hangs on the wall from 15 years ago. Florence is immediately disarmed and takes off his hoodie. It's probably one of the only stretches of inhabited coast on god's green earth where he could go without being mobbed. If you're sick of the world talking about you, King Island is not a bad place to be.
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. Florence plays it safe with a spinach roll. He's not big on critters or pastry, which may result in him starving on King Island.
Dave Rastovich is sitting across the table, wearing a hand-knitted beanie and odd socks. Rastovich doesn't venture near the pie oven either—hasn't been near one in two decades—and instead slowly chews on some hot cross buns. Through some kind of cosmic alignment, he's also on King Island. It's the first time Rastovich and Florence have ever met. On the surface, the world champion and the environmental champion, the Golden Child and the Guru wouldn't appear to have much in common, but you strip the whole competitive spectacle out of the equation and think about them purely as surfers and as human beings, then Florence has more in common with Rastovich than he does with most of the crew he surfs with on Tour.
And then, of course, there are the bees.
Rastovich's neighbor back home in Byron Bay invented a revolutionary beehive that has made beekeeping a thing in certain circles. Florence has one in his backyard at home in Hawaii, set up ironically by a Rastafarian from Waianae who refuses to wear a bee suit. Rastovich and Florence talk bee life. They trade stories of being stung on the face and neck. "Don't wear black socks," they agree. "Bees love black socks." Florence tells about having to move the hive away from the house, but having to move it just six inches a day or the bees completely lose their bearings. Rastovich makes mead. Florence 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.
We check the surf after lunch. Driving down overgrown sand tracks on the northeast corner of the island we make our way down the beach at Marthas. 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. Florence has the binoculars and is scanning the beach for a makeable corner. Rastovich watches a set that slows just enough to maybe get into. "I'd paddle that," he says. The words aren't even out of Rastovich's mouth before Florence replies: "I'm in."
They paddle. The current is ferocious, but Florence puts his head down and somehow makes ground against it. Florence always paddles like he's got somewhere to be and he surfs preoccupied. Everyone else in the lineup is invisible. He and Rastovich are the only two surfers for hundreds of miles but for four hours they surf without a word.
On the way back to our farmhouse rental the pair get talking—about silence. Rastovich speaks on the subject with some authority, as for years he wouldn't speak on Tuesdays. He recommends Florence read a book called "Quiet," which examines the role of the introvert in an increasingly noisy society. Florence's filmer, Erik Knutson, the man whose job it is to get Florence to talk to the camera, chips in disapprovingly: "Don't encourage him!" Florence laughs and tells Erik he should read it himself, and then downloads the book onto his Kindle as soon as he gets back to the house.
Florence is an introvert — but, like most, a supremely self-aware and entirely comfortable introvert. It's not like he's 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. But there's an important distinction to make here between introversion and shyness. Shyness implies social anxiety. Florence is fine in the public eye, and in person he's one of the most easygoing and likable cats you'll ever meet. He's totally capable of dealing with it all, it's just that he'd rather not have to. He does his best work alone, usually in the ocean.
Florence is not the first person to struggle with the vicious cycle of sports stardom: Do what you love, get really good at it, then have the whole world intrude and try and screw up that relationship. No, Florence is not the first, but he might be the first to do it entirely on his terms. Florence makes few concessions to his stardom and places a high premium on his privacy and his space. The result is that he's arguably more underground today as a two-time world champ than he was an eight year old.
It's been fascinating to watch it play out over the past few years. To start, Florence moved out of the family home at Pipeline and bought a beachfront property down the quiet end of the strip at Log Cabins. When even that gets too much, he'll duck into the darkroom he set up in the house to process film. He rarely sets foot in Foodland or Lei Leis, and when the North Shore itself gets too much, he simply sails off in his boat or jumps on a plane to 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, Florence 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. Florence 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. It drove the WSL nuts. They missed the money shot, the culmination of the whole season. Reading between the lines, the cameras were kept out to redraw the line between where the sport stops and Florence starts.
And the reason he does it is simple: because he can. Florence 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 Florence simply living the life he wants to live, pushing back against a world that demands more and more. For the league, having their most marketable asset occasionally going missing must cause headaches, but from the fans' point of view, they're behind Florence all the way. They know him, even without tell-all interviews and platitudinal posts. They get that he's this blonde Mowgli kid raised by surfing in Hawaii who's happiest just doing his thing. He doesn't talk a lot but his surfing speaks eloquently. He presents as genuine, respectful and modest. He's also, with the possible exception of Steph Gilmore, the least polarizing figure surfing has ever seen, which in this era of public figures being drawn and quartered online daily is quite an achievement.
Florence had flown in to King Island direct from Coolangatta: the most densely populated surfing postcode in the world. At home, he's dealt with the Pipe crowd all his life, but the ego and the energy and the rooster scratching around Tour contests is something else. He's found ways to deal with it. He vanishes on laydays, and for Snapper he even flew out from Hawaii a month before the event to tune up without the rest of the field there. When the contest rolled around, however, he lost to wildcard Mikey Wright, who shadowed Florence heavily during the heat, in the process creating a blueprint to beat him that's been used ever since. The ocean won't beat him, but a guy with a Mohawk right up in his grill might.
Back on King Island, I decide early on not to ask Florence for an interview. The suggestion itself kills the groove and I figure there's 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 perhaps there's more anthropological worth in just sitting back and just watching him in the wild.
Florence carries binoculars and a film camera with him the whole time like most 25 year olds carry their phones. Florence's phone, meanwhile, barely leaves his pocket. His one concession to the digital age comes back at the farmhouse where Florence 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. Whatever he happens to be working on occupies long stretches of time and his attention span doesn't fragment. 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 Marthas 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 sandbottom peaks the island is famous for, stretching as far as we can see to the south without another living soul.
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 his now infamous heat with Florence at Bells. Cameras are everywhere. Florence is in the lead car and it peels off, straight past, and keeps driving for another mile, as far as the road goes. Florence 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—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. Florence says it reminds him of Tamae on Moorea. He says he likes weird waves. For Florence, it becomes a game. He surfs all day, toying with it. He gets tubed a hundred ways till Sunday. He soul arches. He Dukes. He low crouches with spirit hands. He forehand laybacks. He even gets tubed sitting down on his ass.
After five hours the wind finally shifts onshore and Florence and Rastovich 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. They've been slammed so hard into the sand they'll be sore for days.
Back at the farmhouse, Rastovich and Florence are sitting on opposite sides of the lounge room, flamed from the waves, silent as monks. It's like they're sitting for a sketch artist. Rastovich is on an old wooden chair, legs crossed, staring out the window at a broken clothesline spinning in the wind. Florence meanwhile sits at a small dining table and looks out the window on the other side of the room. He seems contemplative, although he could simply be watching the chickens roam the yard. A shaft of weak afternoon light illuminates the scene. There's flotsam hung artistically and 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.
Our final night on the island is spent at the King Island Club, an old wood-paneled 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 that's planning to farm three million Atlantic salmon right where Florence had been getting tubed that day. If it went ahead the place would be awash with fish shit.
Florence walks into the club wearing a "No Fish Farms Here" badge on his sweater, 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 on 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 Slater might be close, but they're hardwired in very different ways. Slater 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 recognize. But all of that's ephemeral. What's his lasting imprint on surfing going to be beyond some trophies and a transcendent highlight reel? What's his lasting contribution to the great song line of surf culture going to be? 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 cross bones 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 Slater has had the platform that Florence has, but no surfer has probably wanted it less. The problem for Florence is that like the titular character in "Monty Python's Life of 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 shifts.
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.
[This article originally appeared in the August issue, 59.4. Subscribe to the print or digital versions here.]