Blake Johnston: Lessons From A Forty Hour Session
Two weeks after he called time on a record-breaking 40 hour surf session, Blake Johnston sits down with Swellnet for a chat. Sunburnt and sore, Blake swaps a cup of tea for an intravenous drip.
Swellnet: How are you doing, Blake?
Blake Johnston: Good, you?
Yeah. Not as busy as you, I'll bet.
I can't say that. I'm sitting and getting an IV drip right now. Just as you called then I was sticking a needle in my arm.
Ah, okay. But otherwise, you've been a man in demand.
Yes. Surf school's been busy since. Also, we jumped straight into a three day surf wellness camp for a local high school. Took them down the South Coast. On these camps we do a bush walk on sunrise, jump off the rocks, have four surf sessions plus ice baths and a few breath work sessions. At night we have a gratitude talk, get the kids away from their phones. It's amazing.
During your 40 hour session, many people commented along the lines of, "He's going to have to sleep for a week once this is over." But how many days was it after you paddled in that you went down to this camp?
Well, it was a Monday, so it was two days later.
Two days later. And you're up doing all those things that you just mentioned. You're a machine, mate.
Yeah. I've always had this thing, I don't know what it is, but say, when I ran my barefoot marathon: no shoes, no food, no water. My goal was to do that, but then run again the next day.
I did it, and it was the hardest run I've ever had, but it was a pivotal moment for me. I realised that I can always take it further. There's no theory behind why I'm doing it. It's just what my stubbornness leads to.
But also, although it doesn't come from a very deep thought process, I think that if you say you're going to do something then you just do it. That's just about integrity. That's simply what it comes down to.
You just mentioned thought processes, so I'm going to pivot for a moment and start talking about the world's longest surf session. Considering the task at hand, I thought you'd be conserving energy, cruising horizontally across waves, sliding off the back, yet you were ripping it up, cutting back, even milking waves to shore. Why did you do that?
I guess it comes back down to making it an authentic surf. You know what I mean? It was a promise I made to myself. I was just like, 'I want to make it authentic as I possibly can because I'm a surfer.'
My wife was saying, "Get some boardies on. It's 35 degrees." I'm like, "No, one wetsuit, one board." That's going to show that it truly is one surf. I had to come in for hydration and medical checks, but you wouldn't have survived 40 hours without having the hydration. You couldn't do it. Not in five foot closeouts for the first ten hours.
But the conditions weren't too bad..?
Everyone goes, "Oh, you got great conditions." We didn't do the stats on the number of duckdives, but I reckon I duckdived 350 times before the sun came up on the first morning. So by the time the sun came up, my eyes were cooked. I couldn't see.
Guys had to guide me out because it wasn't a casual dry air paddle out, let me tell you.
Leading up to it, I was wondering if perhaps you'd get a bomb swell that smashes the coast, or the opposite where it's tiny and you're scraping your fins on the sand.
We were wondering too.
Looked at that way, and putting aside the relentless duckdiving, you got pretty good conditions.
I did. I think the first guy did it in Florida on a mini mal. Got 29 hours or something. I'm glad it was how it was for me. It wasn't easy. Ideal would be two foot peaks near the shore. Something like Waikiki, can you imagine?
But I don't know. I definitely earned it. It wasn't a 10-metre paddle out. There was big paddle outs and rips pulling us everywhere. Some of my good mates who rip, paddled out and I didn't see them. They were getting washed around in that session, but I still managed 25 waves an hour in those first four hours.
And you ended up with 707 waves all up, is that right?
No, there was a little right rip bowl. It was really cool to be out amongst the dying swell, the changing tides, and just pay that much attention to the changing conditions.
That was really cool, to go from five-foot gnarly swell lines, the odd peeling left, to a two-foot rip bowl in the afternoon, to overnight a perfect little peak, and then the left rip bowl reappeared on a Sunday afternoon. That was a really cool experience, just to sort of gradually see the changes. Noticing the sets getting more inconsistent, the first sign of the swell dropping off.
I spend a lot of time down the beach. More than anyone I know, as I have the surf school and then I also surf for myself. So I see a lot, but this was something else. You know, just being out there for that long, just feeling the energy die away, and then occasionally pulse. That was really cool.
What about the night hours? How did you cope? Sure, you had the floodlights, but they're not natural. Things are so much harder.
I think that's what nobody realises. It's not easy. It's cool to night surf for an hour or two, but doing it for the first night...I think it was six hours and 50 minutes before it got light. Six, seven hours before the sun came up properly.
That first night, the surf was so big that I was pretty far out the back of the Alley, and it was really, really dark out there. The floodlights didn't go that far; you couldn't see the waves. I had to move in closer just so I could see the medium size waves. The big sets would break further out. They were easily five foot.
Sitting a bit inside helped me position myself to surf properly, not just ride whitewater and get numbers on the board.
So you had to change your strategy according to the conditions?
Yeah, totally. I wasn't expecting it to be that big, nor that consistent. There was so many waves in the sets - like ten wave sets.
I think, at the start there was a little bit of frustration, like, 'Wow, I'm really going to have to earn this. This is going to be harder than I thought.' When I'd been surfing for five hours, like about 6:00 AM in the morning, I'd duckdived so much, my eyes were so sore, I'd expelled a lot of energy and I knew that this was going to test me.
But you know what? There was never a doubt that I wasn't going to get it done. It was a crazy feeling, and I've never experienced it before, just how I believed in myself like I never had before.
I knew that, no matter how bad it was going to get, that I was going to have people at the end there for me. My family was going to be there. So I'm going to do it. So it was really cool in that sense.
How come you didn't wear sunglasses?
I did. I wore goggles. You see, I spoke to Josh Enslin the day before my session. He's the previous record holder and he's a lovely bloke. He was such a legend. At first he sent me a message saying, "Is it cool to call you?" And then we had a 40-minute conversation.
He's like, "Man, I wanted to speak to you. Let you know a couple of things." He said "Goggles are a deal breaker. You have to wear goggles."
I said, "But I saw all your footage. You were ripping and you looked great." Then it kind of twigged and I said, "So you didn't put the goggles part in just so you didn't look like a kook?
And Josh said, "That's exactly what I did. I didn't want to look like a gumby so I didn't put that footage in."
So he sent me some photos and videos of him wearing the hat with sunnies and it was pretty funny. He said "Yeah, I would've felt bad if you didn't take the goggle thing seriously and you came out blind or something," because he said he got arc eye. He got blind in one eye, had to have his mates call him into waves.
Josh also told me that I had to look after myself for six weeks to three months after the surf as that's when you start to get nerve issues. It took him a long time for overuse injuries to come into play and I'm glad he warned me.
Let's talk about people being there for you, because on Friday evening it was a carnival atmosphere at North Cronulla. Sun going down, lights going on, kids on the beach, and a bunch of surfers out there with you. Did that lift you?
It did. I was more stoked for people surfing with me. I planned for water support. That was more for my mates to get out there and have a surf with me at night. So it was really cool to have their support.
But then the wider community saw that there was an opportunity to surf next to the bank and paddled over. I mean, at one point there was 150 people in the water. It got pretty dangerous. We didn't expect that turnout. Even later, 11:00 at night, there's 80 dudes in the water. But at that stage, mate, I was 22 hours deep into a surf.
The previous record was just over 30 hours. When you passed that record I wondered if you'd keep going.
You dont know me well enough, Stu.
No, I said 40 hours and I was going to do it. Otherwise they were going to have to drag my body out of there unconscious. I brought people on this journey with me. You see, I've done a few raw adventures, run a hundred miles on my own, things like that. But this one had more people involved. It was bigger than me so it was really important that I stuck to my word.
It was was amazing in that regard. I'm blown away by everyone's care and support, and how it brought so many people together. It was amazing just to see that. People weren't sleeping. They were coming down to check it out.
I have a feeling it's going to go down in Cronulla folklore.
Yeah, well look, it's nearly 20 years on from the riots, right?
It feels like the opposite to that. It's a Blake happy riot! Cronulla's an awesome place. No matter how many buildings get put up or how busy it gets, there's still that core sense of community that keeps it special.
I know a lot of places have it, but Cronulla in particular, has still got it amongst all the development. There's still people that care about one another and that's what makes a community. That's what makes a happier place, and better for everyone's mental health. To feel a part of something.
I'm glad I can contribute to that.
Well, you certainly did that at the local level. Yet you also did it at the broader level because when you paddled out, the money raised was about $90,000. It's now over $400,000.
Five times the amount. Did you ever think about how much you may raise?
No, but I did believe in it. I believed in the idea of bringing people together. I thought if I put myself out there, show some vulnerability in front of the kids, in front of the whole community, then they'd back the cause.
It was very hard and I'm still processing it really. There's a lot of lessons there that we hear about in wellness and mental health. But I've lived through two days with this experience where other people around me were having cool experiences as well. It was really, really powerful.
Now that the adrenalin has worn off and the fanfare has died down, what are some of the lessons you've learnt?
Well firstly, they're definitely things I've thought about before, but maybe the message is more powerful now, but...and I don't want to sound too deep here - I want it to be practical. But I feel that no matter what you're going through in your life, I think you're exactly where you're meant to be.
I don't want to sound like a self-help book, but I think everyone deserves....actually, everyone owes it to themselves to be the best versions of themselves. That opens up a huge well of possibility.
That's what I've learned. I had everyone I'd ever loved, my best mates surfing the Alley with me. I had my whole family, my brothers, since my dad passed away, the broader community, all in the same place screaming my name. I don't think many people get to experience that in their lives. I think I tapped into something that everyone is worthy of.
That's awesome, Blake. Last question: What board were you riding?
I rode a Chilli BV2.
That your usual go to board?
Yeah. I normally ride step down-ish boards. I like the flatness through the waves we have at Cronulla, and that board was perfect for it. There was a little bit more volume than the board I'd ridden previously, but it only took me about three waves to get used to it.
It also got the world's longest board test record there, too. I think.
You give it a thumbs up?
Yeah, man. I went in and just went, "That board's sick." I've got to try it a bit smaller next time.
You can do the same for the length of your next session. That's all Blake. Congratulations on a great effort.