The tree groans as the boys climb. For years they've scampered up its branches for a view of the surf, snowy little monkey heads emerging from the canopy as each set rolls through. The kids even built a crow's nest from some old timber to improve the vista. But the kids aren't kids anymore. They're all spidery limbs and teenage beef, and the tree is struggling to hold them. The branches no longer grow toward the sun, they've been trained Earthward by a million pounds of grommet. The crow's nest has developed a distinct lean. Alex Florence sees her three sons standing in its branches, staring down the beach straight into the barrel at Pipeline. She shakes her head. "That poor tree."
The Florences are going snowboarding in Mammoth. It's almost Christmas, and they're in the process of packing up their tiny, whitewashed beach house at Ehukai to vacation rent while they're in the snow. John John, Nathan, and Ivan Florence roam the house, cell phones in hand. Their friends wander in and out. The house feels communal. Up until recently all three boys shared the one bedroom, but John John, now 18, has recently moved out onto the guest bed in the sunroom. The house appears to be shrinking. The timbers creak in protest as the boys walk around. The Florences could always move somewhere bigger, but where they live is who they are. They moved in here seven years ago from the house two doors up and are unlikely to move again.
"We just walked our stuff down the little dirt road here which was pretty cool," recalls Alex. Amid the chaos the kitchen table is the eye of the storm, and Alex Florence sits, nursing a cup of tea. "You definitely caught us on a mellower morning."
Alex Florence moved from the Mainland to Hawaii on a whim at 16. "I saw this movie Beyond Blazing Boards. I used to watch it all the time when I was a teenager and I was like, 'I'm going there! I'm going to be one of those girls on the beach.'" She married early, had boys, three. The marriage soured. "I'd just go to the beach with my boys all day to escape it. Surfing was an escape for me and it made me happy, and I brought the boys with me into the water because I just wanted their lives to be happy. My kids are close to me; we've been through a lot together." The inevitable divorce followed--John John was 5 at the time--and the split remains raw. Alex cocooned herself around her boys. Team Florence was born. "My kids have always been my best friends. We have all kind of grown up together in our own little world here on the beach."
"They've been through these hardships. They haven't had an easy ride," said family friend and the Florence's old neighbor, Pete Johnson. "Looking in from the outside it might seem like this perfect life here on the beach at Pipeline, but it's been hard for them. They've had to struggle to make ends meet and get bills paid. That black truck in the driveway now is the first big shiny thing they've ever bought, and there's been a lot of old beaters in that driveway before it. She's been a great mother, Alex, a loving mother. Raising three boys on the North Shore as a single mother is not easy. There is a lot of trouble kids can find here."
Alex rides a longboard. She rides it well. John John followed her into the ocean when he was two and paddled out at Pipe when he was five. "I just remember seeing him out there at Pipe thinking, 'God, he's f–king young, he's going to get drilled,'" recalls the previous tenant of the Florence's beach house, Jamie O'Brien. "His mom was on the beach yelling, 'Get out there! Get out there!' And I remember surfing Pupukea and Petey Johnson pushed John John into this wave, and he air-dropped from top to bottom and got so lit up. I paddled straight over there to rescue his ass. His board was tombstoning and I thought I was going to have to pull him up by his leash. This kid was 6 years old taking off on a 6-footer. I was like, holy shit." He laughs. "That was funny though, when he was younger I'm not sure he knew what he wanted, but I'm pretty sure everyone else did, you know."
I tell Alex I'd heard a rumor she wouldn't let John John surf Waimea until he was at least 12 years old. "That's not true," she clarifies, "I probably encouraged him to surf it before then. I was probably like, 'C'mon, let's go!' He was surfing Pinballs inside Waimea when he was 7. When he was little, we went everywhere together. I was their Mom and they were my little buddies and we'd just pull up somewhere and go, 'It looks pretty good, let's get out there.' I didn't really ever put any limitations on him because he was young. I was like, I think he's strong enough to handle it."
Alex does, however, admit to freaking out a bunch of times when he paddled out as a kid. "Mainly at big Pipe and Phantoms where you can't see him. But the Bay, I never really freaked out about him being out there. Kids grow up quick here on the North Shore."
Alex Florence is the mother every surfing teenager wishes they had, although they're unlikely to admit the fact till a few years later. At 18, your Mom can never be truly cool, even when she is. Alex surfs, she skates. She jokingly refers to herself as Mom-John. She is still the beach girl she dreamt of being at 16; lithe, tanned, long blond hair. She's walked the line between fun-loving big sister and hardass mom for years. She's a little Bohemian, a dreamer, an idealist. "Alex never let them have a TV, and the three brothers begged me their whole young lives to get them one," recalls Pete Johnson. "One Christmas me and John John overrode Alex and went out and bought a 26-inch TV. She freaked out on us...but the TV stayed." The Florences have always done things a little differently. The television would sit gathering dust for long periods of time when Alex took the all-surfing, all-skating Florences on the road.
"I think it was May, and I had just finished my classes at UH," recalls Alex, "so I packed the family up and went to Bali. John was 8, Nathan 5, and Ivan was only 3 and had a broken leg. Seriously, I showed up in Bali with three little kids, one with a broken leg, hardly any money, and I was just like, 'I think we'll go to Bingin.' I'd gone there as a teenager and knew a local family there. So we headed to Bingin and stayed at the warung right on the beach for four months at two bucks a night. I'd carried Ivan down all those stairs with a broken leg and I looked back up the cliff and I was like, 'Well, I guess we're staying a while.' When we got there it was really funny, because at the time John was starring on this little video game where you could make him surf the wave. Well, we get there and the local guys are all like, 'John John! John John!' He's climbing down the cliffs at Uluwatu and the locals are just screaming at him. He was kind of well known over there. He was already big in Bali."
John John Florence was the original prepubescent superstar, the most famous surfer in the world under 4 feet tall. His career trajectory was steep. At age 13, he made his debut in the Triple Crown, his first heat at maxing Haleiwa; a blond smurf on a big red board, the waves six times overhead. He stood 4’11” and weighed 85 pounds. He surfed in the Pipe Masters the same year. John John soon became the chief breadwinner of the Florence house, the breadwinner still boarding the school bus every day.
"Kahuku High School has seen a lot of surfers before," says Alex, and they were pretty cool with John missing a little bit of school and taking work on the road with us." Alex would chaperone John John on all his surf trips overseas. The Florence family's wanderings continued.
"The trip to Puerto was a nightmare," remembers Alex. "John broke his ankle and the other two contracted this flesh-eating bacteria on their legs playing in stormwater. We stayed in Puerto for four months. John was pretty bummed with his ankle. We weren't sure whether it was broken or not so we took him to this sketchy doctor in Puerto and the guy looks at his ankle and says, 'I think we have to amputate.' I was like, 'Oh my God! I think I'll go and get a second opinion on that.' We ended up at this local faith healer, a witchdoctor. John John's ankle was all purple and swollen, and the Indian healer started chanting and then took the ankle and just cracked it. We stayed another three weeks. I was towing John John around behind me in a little toy wagon the whole time."
At this point John John sits down at the kitchen table and joins the conversation. He yawns. It's the middle of the Hawaiian winter and he's been surfing a lot, even for him. He's a quiet kid, but few 18-year-olds are too candid with their mom sitting opposite. Alex has seen a lot with her kids, but realizes there's a lot more she probably hasn't seen. The pair has been through so much together--Alex having devoted her past 10 years to John's career--but the relationship seems no different than that of any mother and her teenage son. John doesn't say a whole lot when asked about his upbringing, his surfing as a kid, his mom. He's been through it all a million times. He is very keen, however, to talk about The Now. About Pipeline. Dane. Busted jet skis. The Tour. Fighting with his brothers.
"Yeah, me and my brothers used to fight all the time," laughs John John, "but not so much these days. Me and Ivan used to get in a lot of fights. One time in Indo we were flying to Padang and I was messing around with his magazine. I kept slapping it in his face, and he goes, 'If you do that again I'm going to hit you.' I did it again and he hit me, just opened me up."
"Yeah, like, boom! Just nailed him," says Alex. "We were on a plane on the way to Jakarta."
"It was Padang," snaps John John with a hint of irritation.
"Okay, so it was Padang. It's like a plane full of Indonesians and John has got blood on him yelling, 'I'm going to kill him!' It was horrible."
I ask John if he got payback.
"Not then...later." A demonic chuckle escapes. In glorious detail he recounts stories of sibling punch-ups in Australia, South Africa, on the slopes of Mammoth. The Florences on the road. "Ivan and Nathan had a gnarly one in South Africa. And I filmed it! I have the footage somewhere. It was so cool."
Alex disapproves. "John, it was not cool."
The Florence boys' brawling tendencies don't spill outside the brotherhood, however. "Growing up on the North Shore usually breeds a real tough guy," says Pete Johnson, "but I really like how John and his brothers haven't bought into that. I've never seen John John get mad at anybody in the water. All three of them rely on their talent to get by and don't rely on playing the localism card. They get by on a smile and obeying the rules. I think they've been traveling so much since they were really young that it's leveled a lot of that out. John John's a good kid--a nice, polite, likeable kid. He's not stuck up or cocky. He's almost the opposite of that."
This past Hawaiian winter saw John John Florence become simply John. Every mention of him in the media was qualified with the fact that the superfluous John was now gone. Little John John was all grown up. At 18 years of age and 6 feet tall, it hardly seemed right for him to be sporting a kid's name. A kid named John John doesn't surf Pipeline the way he does. A kid named John John, it turns out, didn't really care. "It's no big deal to me. It's a bigger deal for everyone else by the sounds of it. All my friends still call me John John." The semantics of one John or two might not mean a whole lot to John (John) himself, but for those who've followed the career of this child prodigy it signals a coming of age. He's been a kid forever. He's not a kid anymore.
The scene: The SURFER Magazine house, Pupukea, 2 a.m. A mildly torched gathering of pro surfers and wheezy mag hacks enter into a spirited hour-long debate, the proposition being that John Florence might just be the best surfer in the world right now. A career Kiss of Death, surely, but John has lived with expectation all his short life. However bold as the call might be, there is little doubt that John's surfing has gone to new and astounding places recently; in small waves, big waves, at Pipeline. He looked odds-on favorite to win the Sunset contest this year.
"It was Sunset Point as long as I've seen it," recalls John, who used a quarter-mile of it as his own personal half pipe. Three air-reverses on one wave, each one melting into the next. He's had the chops for years, but now has the meat on his bones to make them count. The blond avatar of a kid has been test-driving this new, bigger body of his for the past couple of years, and now the thing works fluidly, doing exactly what it's told. He only lost at Sunset when his leash snagged fast on the reef at Boneyards during his semifinal, forcing him to swim. His surfing screamed snow and skate, the cross-pollination having begun up the road skating Cholo's Bowl and continuing now at the skate park opposite Rockpiles.
"Yeah, the park has a lot of big hips in it and they're so good for doing airs off," he says. "It's almost the same thing as surfing; you do an air off it and you're looking down at where you're going to land. Just trying to stay over your board really helps out a lot. You can't do throwaway airs on concrete."
John surfed the biggest day of the season at Mavericks last year. "That place is gnarly. It's like big, brown water, huge barrels, and full suits." He's incredibly comfortable in big surf. Pete Johnson recounts a story of John at Phantoms, taking off on a 20-footer and laughing as he spots his shaper, John Pyzel, in the flats about to cop said wave on the head. "I've never seen anyone laughing themselves to tears on a 20-foot wave before," recalls Pete.
John's got a ski that had been read its last rites by the mechanic the day before we talk. "Him and Kiron Jabor," laughs Pete, "you could have made a classic documentary following those two and their ski. No one took them under their wing and said, 'This is how you tow,' they just kind of went for it and made every possible mistake in the book. The highlight of the documentary would be them driving home from one of their first tow-sessions, going 40 miles an hour, and their ski comes off the trailer and passes them. They looked at each other and went, 'Was that our ski?' It went flying into the bush. And the first person to drive by was Derrick Doerner, who was the last guy you want to see you in a situation like that. He's going to give it to you."
But it's at Pipeline, unsurprisingly, where John looks most at home. "When I'm here, I surf it every day. It's like anything else: you do it often enough, you're going to get it down." He spends the next 15 minutes talking fluent Pipeline--classic days and horrid drubbings, the nuances of swell direction and tube philosophy. He talks about how he's gone from being a novelty out there as a pup to being accepted in his own right today by the older Pipe guys. "They definitely don't help me out too much anymore," he laughs, "but I've had way more waves in the past couple of years than I ever have before." Last year, he scored a perfect 10 in the Pipe Masters and made the top 16 in the event. This year he was barely defeated by Kelly Slater, who said later it's only a matter of time before John wins out there. "Pipe would be a dream to win," says John from the end of the kitchen table. "Jamie's won, like, five events out there, and then there's Andy and Kelly. The winner's board at Pipe goes Andy, Kelly, Andy, Kelly."
"For years," says John, "Kelly would try and wrestle me and my brothers and pretty much just ragdoll us. But this year we've gotten a lot bigger, so I think we can finally take him. I actually saw him out in the lineup a few days ago and asked him about it. He said that his shoulder was sore and came up with a few excuses."
"It was funny," says Jamie O'Brien, "yesterday there was just me, Kelly, and John John in the lineup at Pipe, and we were all out there calling each other into waves. I took a good one off John John, snaked him, and I come out of the barrel and turn around and he'd gotten a better one. I was like, 'You little shithead!' It's been classic--ever since he found his place at Pipe it's always been like me and John John hassling each other at Backdoor, like, 'Brah, I'm going right!' He's even faded me a couple of times out there. But every morning he's out there. It's pretty cool, you know." He laughs. "I even give him some waves now. He was charging out there when he was younger, but there comes a point where you can charge but you don't have the muscle to control it. He's got some muscle, and it takes some muscle to surf Pipe. You can't be 13 years old and slaying Pipe. You've got to be strong. You've got to be a man." The extra pounds are proving a confidence pill against the best.
"He's helped me out a lot over the years out there," says John of Jamie, the parallels between their surfing becoming more obvious daily. "Telling me to stand up more in the barrel, telling me to stall more. If you watch him, he wants to stay in the barrel; he doesn't want to come out. He's able to control his speed and stay in there when he wants and come out when he wants. That's the ultimate goal out there at Pipe. If you can do that in a barrel, you can win anything at Pipe."
Three weeks after we talk at the kitchen table, John paddles out at Pipe on the final day of the Backdoor Shootout. He's sick. He'd been running a fever of 105 the previous night, and his Mom is pouring Gatorade and Tylenol down his throat. His head and stomach are warzones. He grabs his contest shirt and sprints into the water with a Code Brown emergency. He paddles out. It's 10- to 12-foot Pipe, and he's facing all the best Hawaiian Pipe guys, all the guys he's grown up idolizing. With everyone else surfing Pipe, John paddles over to Backdoor and scores an 11. The prophecy is fulfilled. His win at Pipeline has come sooner than even he expected.
John's going to travel the world next year. Mom's going to stay at home. She's apprehensive. She let him fly without her to Indonesia last year only for him to land in Padang two hours after an earthquake had flattened the hotel he was booked into. John wants to make the Tour. John wants to make movies, even buying a remote control helicopter to mount a camera on. "I think he's going to be at the top of the roster on the Tour," predicts Jamie. "Give him a couple of years to get some meat on his bones and he's going to be killing it. And if he gets frustrated on the Tour, he can always come and join me...then shit's really going to hit the fan!"
What John Florence might become is anyone's guess. He might yet become the best surfer in the world, but the prospect isn't keeping him awake at night. "I try not think about it," he says of the expectation heaped upon him. "I just go surfing and live my life." His star will get bigger and Mom will have her work cut out for her. "You know, it's just so country out here," says Alex. "The fame doesn't even seem like anything out here. The girls are a little out of control though."
"I don't think so," counters John. "I don't mind it."
"I'm kind of weirded out by it actually," laughs Alex. "It's just weird when there are women approaching him. It's like, whoa, he's 18 and you're in your 30s. Beat it!"
I ask John and Alex whether they've talked about him moving out. That sunroom doesn't afford much privacy.
"Every time when we get into a fight!" cackles John. "'I'm moving out!'"
"He wants to go party and I'm like, 'No!' and he's like, 'That's it, I'm out of here!' I'm like, 'Okay, well I'm moving out with you!"
"I think about it occasionally," says John, "but I don't want to leave this spot we've got here. When Pipe is on, I'm out in the tree in the backyard looking straight into the barrel. It doesn't get much better than that. And I kind of imagine when the waves are good, having to drive down here and trying to find a parking spot. I think I might just stay here."