Attempting The World's Longest Surf Session With Blake Johnston
Once a precocious grom himself, Blake Johnston now herds, coaches, and praises precocious groms, both at home - he's the father of two boys - and for a living with his Cronulla Surf Academy.
Having been witness to personal turmoil, around five years back ol' Blakey undertook a complete overhaul of his life. Stripped it down, built it back up. Now the fella is a machine, up for any challenge, always keeping himself moving. But all that effort is a necessity not an indulgence.
Recently, Blakey saw a way to combine his boundless energy with the issues he holds dear to his heart.
Swellnet chatted to him about the upcoming world's longest surf session.
Swellnet: Before we get into the motivations for the world's longest surf session, let's talk about inspiration. Where did you first get the idea to attempt it?
Blake: Okay, so when the wave pool first opened down in Melbourne, they had a corporate day and one of my coaches, his wife is a mortgage broker and she got invited to it. There was no way she was going, so she said to her husband take Blake with you and go do the corporate day down there with the Barefoot Investor.
I was like, "Shit I'm on. We'll go try out this wave pool." It was like the fifth day it had been opened.
So we went down and it was a cool new experience. They had the pool booked for the day, yet by the third or fourth hour everyone was getting pretty cooked - it's pretty tiring in there. I ended up just staying in the water for seven hours. I got out maybe once in that time, so almost seven whole sessions, and by the last part I was catching two waves in a set and I thought, 'If I do this for the next two hours, I'll catch a hundred waves!'
Afterwards I googled 'What is the world's longest surf session', and that got me thinking. That was a few years ago.
Yeah right, and so it stands at 30 hours, is that correct?
Yeah, 30 hours, 11 minutes.
So you're going to go longer than 30 hours...?
Which presents a few logistical hurdles - such as nighttime.
Yep, for sure. We've got lights that we're hiring for the event that'll be down there. And look, it's not about high performance surfing; it's going to be about the endurance, the mental battle, and just proving that you can do hard things and get through the waves of emotions. Those things teach you a lot about yourself.
How do you plan to attack it? 30 hours is a signicant session.
Look, we don't really have a plan yet. We can't. Everyone's asking me, 'What are you going to do? And what about the surf?' Our strategy is going to depend on the conditions and we'll work it out from there. I do that every day at the surf school, and we also do that as surfers. It may come down to survival if the surf's really challenging. The wave count won't be as important then.
The wave count..?
Yeah. I want to try and catch 500 waves if the conditions allow. And if they don't, it'll be about surviving the time out there in the water and keeping active and moving the whole time. So we've got to be paddling to or from a wave every five minutes...
Why's that? You're going to be moving every five minutes?
Yeah, yeah. So we're not allowed to sit still for long amounts of time. So I've got to be moving a lot. You'll be able to obviously sit there at times, but every five minutes paddling to or from a wave. Yeah there's a few grey areas there but I just want it to be as authentic as I can to a normal surf. I'm going to try and ride the one board the whole time, but if it breaks then just like a normal surf, I'll get out and swap boards.
I'll do whatever I have to. I'll have five boards on the beach and do whatever I have to get it done, you know what I mean?
Are you going to do any practice marathon sessions before?:
With work permitting, I'm hoping to do a sun up to sundown surf next Friday. Just do a 12 to 14 hour session next week to test it, not to do it too close to the end. And then probably a couple of endurance challenges, a run or a SUP something before then too, just to get the mind calm and ready to go through long lonely hours.
Have you ever done much ocean swimming, say long distance ocean swimming?
Not long distance ocean swimming. I've done long distance SUPs, but not swims.
Because strange things can happen when you're in saltwater for long periods of time. I'm sure you're aware of this.
I know I'm fit enough to do it. I've done enough endurance events, sleepless nights to know that I can get through that pain and that hurt. But it's the unknowns...what happens to the the skin, the eyes, the ears. The last guy that got the world record said: "Good luck to whoever's going to do it next." His eyes were shot, he was almost partially blind in his right eye by the end of it.
So yeah, I'm not underestimating the challenge at all. I'm respecting it. I know what it's like being down the beach all day long. As a surf coach I'm conditioned for it; I've been exposed to it more than most people so it feels like it's the right challenge.
So far we've only spoken about the physical aspect, yet your motivation runs a bit deeper than that. Can you tell us about it?
There's a couple of reasons why I'm doing it. This year marks ten years since my dad's death. He took his own life. Since then, I've become an ambassador for mental health and we...that is, the surf school, support a lot of charities and help out where we can.
I thought the nature of this challenge is something that can bring the community together - community is an important part of feeling valued. So we can have an impact there, plus we can have an impact through raising money for youth mental health. We're working with the Chumpy Pullin Foundation.
But also, it's a personal challenge for me. About five or six years ago I made some lifestyle changes that have been beneficial for me - they helped me with anxiety and helped me through life - and I want to share them with people. They're mostly simple things like breathwork and meditation, simple mindfulness stuff that we can teach our kids to help them cope with life's challenges.
I'm always working with kids. I'm down the beach every day working with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of kids and I've been doing it for the last fifteen years. I'm very passionate about it, and I take that responsibility seriously. So if I can make a difference with this then that's enough reason to do it.
Now, you're known for setting marathon challenges, whether it be paddling, SUPs, runs, whatever. Is that in reaction to personal issues or is it just something that you like to do?
It was never my plan to do marathons, but I got a taste of challenging myself and feeling better and I just kept on going. I guess that's a part of wellness, just trying to improve and be the best person you can be day to day. That's where growth comes from.
I'm 40 now, I know what I need in my life to make it better, and they're all practical things that everyone has access to. It's not as complicated as it's made out online. We can all look after ourselves better, we can be a better part of the community, and it spreads on to a happier world really.
There's a sentence on your website that's quite powerful, where you say that "you're not nice to yourself". You're giving voice to your darker thoughts there?
So how often does this thought arise and how can you silence it?
It's just through the stresses of life; being a dad and husband who wants to make his wife and kids proud. It all amounts to pressure. Add in running a small business with its challenges through COVID, running a surf school through through La Nina....all these things, they ruminate. And if I'm not taking really good care of myself, then they'll come into play.
So I use the practical solutions like I mentioned before: simple breathwork and other health routines, plus being as fit as I can be. They're accessible to everyone.
One last thing Blake, you've run Cronulla Surf Academy for many years now. I always assumed that it was focused on competition and results, yet you seem invested in other aspects of surfing. Are they lessons you impart on the kids?
Yeah, definitely. Surfing is more than just riding the wave - there's a lifestyle, a natural, outdoors-based lifestyle. Kids are doing something physical, they're learning something new, and that's what's needed to thrive in life. That's what the surf school is.
So yeah, it's not just about surfing better, but it's about being a better person. Surfing can help you do that. That's the role we play in the community.
Well that's fantastic, Blakey. So the world's longest surf session, it's scheduled for the 16th and 17th of March.
Yep. 2AM on the 16th to 6PM the 17th.
Right. Well, you've been saying it's a community event, and I'm sure there's lots of people up there in Cronulla getting behind you, but can people just paddle out and wish you well?
Of course. That's how we're raising money. We're doing blocks with sponsorships and groups that are going to paddle out during their alotted time. So we're going to have a schedule where they come out and be a part of it. Bring the community together.
Oh mate, it sounds so good.
Just bringing everyone together is what it's all about. Enjoying the outdoors, the ocean...yeah, it'll be awesome.