A Different High – John Florence and Sailing

Gra Murdoch
Talking Heads

When the pros were quarantined in Sydders, you’d have thought pinning ‘em down for an interview would be a walk in the park.

Not the case with John Florence – a lot of people want a slice of old mate.

Nonetheless, after working our way along a chain of helpful humans - thanks Mick, Pat, and Brittany! - we finally we got to yak less than 24 hours before the gang were released from incarceration. Seems to be rare one, does John – unaffected by the personality pitfalls of fame, success, and universal adoration. A credit to his friends and family no doubt, and an ornament to the sport.

John John Florence, 28, Sailing for nine years

I was 19 when I got hooked on sailing. It was summertime on the North Shore and my friend, Erik Knutson, had a tiny little sailboat. My brother and I jumped in one day and we sailed from Ehukai down to Waimea. And it was just so much fun. 

The next week, another friend of ours was selling a similar little sailing boat – a Laser 2 – so I bought it from him and started learning on that. The Lasers are so small and lightweight, you can just push them up the beach when you’re done.

John and brother Nathan in his Laser 2 summertime sailing off the North Shore

From the start, there was something about the challenge of getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’, that was really engaging – it was one of those things that just clicked for me, with my own little boat, sailing around in the North Shore summertime tradewinds. You can fully surf the wind chop out the back.

What makes sailing so interesting is the ability to go upwind, downwind, pretty much anywhere for the most part. There’s always something to adjust or refine. You can always go a little bit faster, or be a little more efficient. 

The efficiency side of it, it’s pretty amazing to me. Especially on some of the new boats, like watching the America’s Cup – those boats are going five times the wind speed – so in 10 knots of wind they're doing 50 knots. It's phenomenal.

Although I really love the technology of those things, personally I'm more interested in the open ocean. You have things like the Volvo Ocean Race and the Vendée Globe, which is a non-stop, solo race around the world. I don't know if I'll ever compete in those things, but if I was ever going to go in a racing direction, that would be it. 

There's so much freedom in sailing – just being able to pick anywhere in the world and go there on your own terms. There's something special about that, and it's the way people have been traveling for thousands of years.

Sailing’s an amazing mix of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. Boats are incredibly efficient now – the boat I have now, ‘Vela’ can sail at five knots in five knots of wind – which is practically no wind at all. You don't really need your engines for the most part.

Vela is a Gunboat 48 – a super lightweight carbon-fibre 48 foot catamaran. She’s made for what you could call a fast kind of cruising.

The biggest voyage I’ve made was to the Palmyra Atoll couple of years ago now – a thousand miles south of Hawaii. We stayed there for a month. 

As well as my brother and a few friends, we had Jacques Vincent, who's a professional sailor. Jacques is just so knowledgeable and I wanted to learn all that I could. When you’re 500 miles from land, it's pretty important to know all you can about the weather, to be as safe as possible.

We have sat phones and can download the weather charts and everything like that, but I think it's always good to know you can get by without those, ‘cause things break pretty quickly on boats!  So, understanding the way the weather works – wherever you are in the world, at that particular time of year – having a general idea and understanding, I think, really helps. You don't want to rely solely on being able to download a weather chart.

John's 48-foot catamaran 'Vela'

Everything that we're usually distracted by at home, or work, or whatever we're doing, you lose all that when you’re on a voyage! You're only accessing the internet to download those weather charts, you're not talking to people the whole time or on Instagram or anything. Instead you’re checking if the lines are chafing, or the steering system is still looking good, all these different things. You find what’s broken, put it away to fix it on a calmer day. I really like this part of sailing a lot. The way you have to be present, always tending to the journey.

Sailing at night is pretty special. Your eyesight gets pretty good in the dark, especially with no lights on. You can use radar to spot boats and weather systems, but you have to be vigilant and mindful of the sail plan you have up, especially with big tropical squalls that can double the windspeed – depending what side of the squall you’re on. So you use the radar to position yourself best, weaving through the weather. 

You get those really sublime moments. Like, you're sailing for five or six days straight to get somewhere, you’ve got really nice weather, where you're sailing 12 knots, the ocean’s flat, the boats really stable, and it's just fun sailing, it's sunny, it's beautiful. And you’re thousands of miles from land in either direction, it's a special feeling when you look around and there's just nothing. 

I remember when we got to the doldrums once. It’s where the northern hemisphere tradewinds and the southern hemisphere tradewinds converge and create this really unique area of ocean. 

There can be lots of swells in there. We had a couple of days and evenings that were just as glassy as it could get, and the ocean moves in a way that I've never seen before. Because you're in the middle of the Pacific, you're getting swell from every different direction you could imagine, and it's all just passing through each other. So it creates this sea that’s really wobbly, but smooth. 

It's hard to explain, but you can watch one swell go through another swell, go through another swell. One swell's going one way, another swell’s going another way and it's just incredibly glassy. All these mounds of water going up and down

And then at night, there’s the phosphorescence, so it feels like stars beneath the boat. The stars above – you can imagine how clear the skies can get – reflect in the sheet glass ocean. And you’ve got the phosphorescence. If you’ve seen that movie Life of Pi, there’s a scene where everything’s lit up. It's bizarre, and pretty awesome. You feel like you’re in outer space.

On that trip to Palmyra, we caught a big Ono (Wahoo) on the first day, then we pulled in the lines. You don’t need any more fish once you get a big fish like that. We eat that until we're done with it. Soon as you need another fish, you start fishing again – you just take what you need.

We have two desalinators on board. A small backup and a main one that makes up to 18 gallons an hour. They’re so efficient on power, like we can be making water with the solar going and the wind generators running, easy.

At the other end of the scale, I’ve had some awesome times on this little catamaran. It's got a foil so you lift up above the water, lose all drag and resistance, and you just start absolutely FLYING! It's such a cool feeling.

I did a trip with Kai Lenny – the first part we did was like a 50 mile run. That was hard, ‘cause there was a lot of chop – you're going about 30 miles an hour and you’ll rocket ship out of the water off a wave. You're 15 feet in the air and just holding onto the side, going “Oh no! This is bad!” But we got into this rhythm of steering between the chops while we were at full speed. It feels like you're in an off-road car or something, like “Left! Right! Left! Right!” Trying to look for the track between the chops. It was a really fun learning experience to do with Kai. He's SO knowledgeable about the wind from all the sports he's grown up doing. More than I could ever know by far. I don't think Kai actually does that much sailing, but he can just look at the sails and go, “Okay, this is what we need.”  He just knows right away.

John gets his smaller cat up on a foil

A big part of sailing that cat is trimming the mainsail, ‘cause that balances the boat. You can think of it like you’re on a yoga ball – it's wanting to go forward, back, left, right. It's wanting to go all around. And Kai’s just constantly adjusting: in, out, in, out, out – with his hands making those adjustments to the mainsail – from miniscule changes, like barely an inch, to big changes, like a foot at a time.

From that first leg, we then did the crossing from Oahu to Kauai. The beginning of it was like the best sailing ever – we were foiling at 24 knots or so –  but then when we realized that Kauai was a little more downwind than we had hoped – no boats really love it directly downwind – we slowed down a lot. And it took a lot longer than we anticipated, but it was interesting, with little bonus moments like flipping in the middle of the channel, getting the thing back over!

Surfing and sailing, I feel like they're connected in multiple different ways. There’s the idea of being able to explore anywhere, find the best waves in the world, go surfing by yourself and with your friends and have that adventure along the way. That's one side of the connection: the other side is when you're sailing downwind through the channels of Hawaii, where we get a lot of wind and a lot of wave action in those channels. It's an incredible feeling, you're riding a 50 foot boat along the top of these eight-foot windswells and then dropping down them in the boat, getting up to about 23 knots, in that big of a boat. You're really feeling the speed as you're dropping in – you come up a bit, wait for the next one, and drop-in again – doing that over and over again. There's something about it that’s just one of the coolest feelings in the world.

If you’re interested to get into sailing: I think the main thing to keep in mind is don't be afraid to make mistakes. Looking back on my own learning experience – I haven't even been doing it for that long – some of the best times I've had were those moments of making mistakes. You learn so much from them. 

It depends how you look at things when they don’t go to plan. They can be really fun, you’re with your friends, just sailing those little boats, and flipping ‘em, and not being stressed out about it. Just go with it and learn.

// JOHN FLORENCE (as told to GRA MURDOCH)

Comments

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 1:02pm

Inspiring, informative and interesting.

Best thing I’ve read in ages. Cheers.

kieranol's picture
kieranol's picture
kieranol Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 6:00pm

I agree.
Such a unique life he leads being in touch with the ocean and nature yet so talented and humble. I am envious.

spiggy topes's picture
spiggy topes's picture
spiggy topes Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 2:04pm

This read was like a profound echo for me. JJ has the ocean dialed in like few others on the planet. Not only has he got the best backhand cutty since M Peterson but he now has a grip on the oldest transport, sailing. I was six when I started so surfing came a little later but now I have an eyesight deficit, a busy line up is a real challenge that setting sail does not. I count myself extremely blessed being able to build boats in timber as well. It is the natural extension and partnership for surfing. The way JJ expresses the joy of what sailing does for your head is totally on the money. He's knowledge is deep, and wide, and his pure, simple joy is a lesson for us all. Great work Gra, just let a true talent talk.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 2:05pm

Everything he said. I haven't sailed for a long time and I started pretty much like he did, Mirror dinghys, Hobies, Nacra's and then to bigger boats, good size mono's and cats. I would never say I'm an expert and it's one of those things that you never stop learning. The thing that appeals to me is that you never stop, there's always something to do. I'd love to get back into it.

Great article.

surfstarved's picture
surfstarved's picture
surfstarved Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 2:41pm

Great interview! You've obviously got a way with people Gra, to get that much information out of such a notorious introvert. Probably helped that you were talking about something he's passionate about, other than surfing.

kidkaos's picture
kidkaos's picture
kidkaos Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 2:48pm

Hey Gra. You do realise in the eyes of die hard trad sailors that multi hulled sail craft are akin to long railed twin fin surfboards don’t you? I know it’s John John and all but sheesh. WTF....

Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch's picture
Gra Murdoch Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 3:02pm

Oh god, it's a hall of mirrors!

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 3:42pm

Haha!

nick.minor's picture
nick.minor's picture
nick.minor Saturday, 27 Mar 2021 at 1:47pm

Yeah filthy fucking catamarans. Got training wheels

gsco's picture
gsco's picture
gsco Saturday, 27 Mar 2021 at 6:35pm

John John doing well to be foiling

Pops's picture
Pops's picture
Pops Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 3:31pm

Bloke seems to have a pretty decent life, hey.

Plasticspastic's picture
Plasticspastic's picture
Plasticspastic Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 5:12pm

epic to read, I helped a mate sail back from Sydney to BNE last year on a 40 ft tri hull and it was one of the best things, I have ever done... have done a few more trips and sailing up north over easter.. sooo good.

I agree, getting the boat up, and humming down a wave, sail out with a 15-20knot wind pushing you up above 20knots, is pretty epic.. like flying...

Although sailing into port, with no engine in the middle of squall at night was character building....

upnorth's picture
upnorth's picture
upnorth Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 6:46pm

Be good to see JJF tackle the Vendee Globe. The ultimate challenge in sailing, reckon it'll be hard to resist.

billie's picture
billie's picture
billie Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 7:57pm

Amazing. I have been promising my wife and kids that I will learn how to sail for wonderful family holidays. This article has further inspired me.

I love going for long ocean paddles, point A to point B, lying prone, on an old SUP. Get fit, no one around, sublime moments. This will have to do until I get a little Laser!

tubeshooter's picture
tubeshooter's picture
tubeshooter Friday, 26 Mar 2021 at 8:36pm

'A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor'

groovie's picture
groovie's picture
groovie Saturday, 27 Mar 2021 at 6:04am

Been sailing a few times & really enjoyed the experience. There is something innate about being driven along by the wind & waves that really made me feel a certain calmness & being a part of nature. When you glide along in fairly calm conditions & all you can sense is the flurry of the sails it is something magical & addictive. Reading this article by John John has reignited my desire to get back into sailing & enjoy the ride!

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog Saturday, 27 Mar 2021 at 9:45am

So good that such a talented surfer who also competes at a high level has such a pure interest in the ocean and another passion at a tangent from competing. He seems way happier in his life than most pros and wanna be pros. An inspiration to all.

NDC's picture
NDC's picture
NDC Saturday, 27 Mar 2021 at 11:04pm

Sailed my dads 30’ cruising yacht from Pittwater to syd harbour a few years back - with just one other mate who had never sailed -

It was the first sailing I had done for years and by the time we got to syd heads we both looked at each other and felt like we could just say ‘fuck it’, turn 270 degree left instead of 90 right, aim for Fiji and leave it all behind...

We didn’t ...but the freedom and exhilaration of the day was palpable ... perhaps another day

Revelator's picture
Revelator's picture
Revelator Sunday, 28 Mar 2021 at 10:33pm

Cheers Gra for an excellent piece- I love how you draw JJ’s enthusiasm and humility out; someone we are used to seeing as the absolute master of the ocean now a student in a different realm.

And kinda poetic to see him sailing catamarans, the Polynesian invention used by these remarkable people to explore and settle 10 million square miles of the Pacific (including Hawaii), hundreds of years before Europeans could even cross the equator.

Redmond Clement's picture
Redmond Clement's picture
Redmond Clement Monday, 29 Mar 2021 at 10:51pm

I went sailing today. No motor noise, bliss. Tried singing that Rod Stewart song and was made to walk the plank!

andy-mac's picture
andy-mac's picture
andy-mac Tuesday, 30 Mar 2021 at 8:08am

Great read.
Wish I sailed.... JJF incredible human being. Wishing him the best, true love of the ocean...

dangerouskook2000's picture
dangerouskook2000's picture
dangerouskook2000 Thursday, 1 Apr 2021 at 8:22pm

Hey Gra, what about an upcoming "A different high" article on someone who does fishing? That'd be cool