The Ocean Is Everything

Mar 1 2018
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Parallel Sea

W hen people ask me about how I came to be who I am, or what inspired me as a kid, I usually tell them about the North Shore of Oahu.

First, though, I talk about my mom.

She surfs every day. Always has. When I was growing up, she was on the water any chance she got. And to this day, when she’s not working or surfing, my mom is at the skatepark. She loves skating almost as much as she loves surfing.

I remember these times when I was super young, like eight or so, and the waves were pretty big … and I was a little bit scared to go out on my board. My mom wouldn’t make me go, or pressure me, or anything like that. She’d just look at me and kind of shrug her shoulders and say, “O.K., well I’m going out.”

It was like … O.K., bye.

And I’d just kind of look at her like, Wait … what? You’re going out?

This is at Pipeline, mind you, right in front of our house on the beach on the North Shore. There are really big waves in the winter. Serious stuff. And, this is my mom.

Just ready to paddle out on her longboard and have fun and see what happens.

I could’ve stayed back, for sure.

But what was I gonna do … sit around on the beach and watch my mom surf? No way.

So I’d follow her out into the ocean.

And every single time I did that, I’d have so much fun. I never regretted it.

So, yeah, that’s my first inspiration. Definitely. My mom. She’s classic.

Free Surf Magazine

My life has revolved around the ocean since the beginning.

My mom also gave me the nickname John John — she’d first heard it used for JFK Jr. And she’s the one responsible for my love of the North Shore. She worked really hard so my two younger brothers and I could live right on the beach with her at Pipe.

This winter, after wrapping up the WSL season back home on the North Shore with the world title, I’ve been thinking a lot about what growing up here has meant to me over the years….

And how great it is to be from this place.

I love pretty much everything about it, but there are two main things that really define where I come from:

First, the ocean is everything here.

My life has revolved around the ocean since the beginning, and it’s like that with everyone in this community. The North Shore kind of has a small town feeling to it. Everyone knows everyone, and it seems like everybody here has something to do with the ocean.

That love for the ocean is just inside of you if you grow up here — whether you’re fishing, or surfing, or bodysurfing, or a million other things, you can always find something fun to do in the ocean. So it’s a really cool center point that we all have here.

Second, where I’m from everyone looks out for one another.

It’s like one big family here, for sure. And one of the things about being from Hawaii is that you grow up learning to respect your elders, and to have a lot of respect for other people around you. So that’s what this community is all about. The young kids respect the adults, and the adults are always looking out for the kids. Especially in the water. And that was a big deal for me, because I started surfing at Pipe when I was super young.

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Because of the sense of community that exists on the North Shore, I always felt like I was being watched over by a lot of the older guys when I was in the water. It was just a really, really cool feeling, for sure.

More experienced surfers would check on me all the time and just make sure everything was O.K. This one time when I was 12 or so, I remember things were getting pretty interesting, some big waves. I was way out in the channel at Pipe, and kind of out of nowhere Nathan Fletcher — who’s a great surfer and waterman — paddles by and says, “Hey, John! You all good?”

I’m just this little kid sitting out there on his board. I probably looked terrified to him at the time. But there we were, you know?

I was like, “Yeah … I’m doing good.”

It was like we were passing each other in the supermarket aisle.

And then right after I said that, I remember watching him pull into one of the biggest barrels I’ve ever seen. Just this massive barrel … right in front of me.

He checked on me, and then he locked in and got his wave.

Living right on the beach, and always being around the water, was such an amazing way to grow up. My brothers and I were super fortunate. I can’t imagine a better way to spend your childhood.

Another big influence was that my mom always encouraged us to explore and to interact with our surroundings. So she taught us to appreciate the ocean, and to recognize just how cool the natural environment was where we lived. From a young age, that really stuck with me.

My favorite time to be out on the beach or outside has always been at first light. For as long as I can remember, I’ve set alarms and forced myself out of bed and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes so I’d be able to take in that first light from a spot on the beach out in front of the house where we grew up.

When I’m out there early in the morning, I’m just blown away by the beauty of it all — the way the sun comes over the mountain and the clouds light up pink. It’s always been something I really enjoy, and my love for those moments goes all goes back to when I was a little kid.

It goes back to dawn patrol days.

When I was little my brothers and our friends would always get together and plan things to do outside. Dawn patrol was our favorite. It was basically just waking up super early to go to the beach before anyone else got out there. But to us, it was a huge deal — the most exciting thing in the entire world.

We’d meet up the afternoon before and plot everything out like we were on a secret mission or something. We’d be so stoked about it all.

It was like, O.K., tomorrow morning … let’s do it. Dawn patrol!

We were so into this. It’s crazy.

We’d wake up in the dark and run out in front of the house super quiet, like it was a big secret that no one else could know about. Then we’d watch the sun come up and the clouds turn pink, and surf the little sandbars at first light. It would just be us out there in the water. And those little adventures were so exciting for us….

While they lasted.

The worst feeling in the world was the point when we realized we had to leave the beach. We’d be out in the water having fun and all of a sudden we’d realize, “We have to go to school!”

At that point, we’d try to push for more time.

Someone was always pushing it, like, “No … one more wave! Let’s get one more first!”

Ed Sloane/WSL

Then, when we couldn’t delay any longer, we’d throw on our T-shirts, grab our backpacks, and run across the street to school barefoot. (Our teachers were always so cool with it.) When school was over, I would do the reverse — run home barefoot and just go straight to the beach with my friends and my brothers. It didn’t matter if the waves were huge or small, we’d do that pretty much every day. And it was awesome.

We’d be bodysurfing in the shallow water, or bodyboarding, or whatever, and just dreaming of one day surfing big Pipeline. I distinctly remember turning to my brother Nathan constantly back then, when Pipeline was good, and just giving him this look like, Did you seeeeeeee that barrel?

It was an amazing way to grow up.

And because our hometown hosted the Pipe Masters contest at the end of each season, we got to see our heroes up close. It was pretty crazy. A lot of world titles come down to that last event, and as a little kid it was so cool to be able to watch guys like Kelly Slater and Andy Irons surf such incredible heats, and win championships right in our backyard.

Even though I was just a little kid, I felt like I was part of surfing history.

I think a lot of people assume surfing came easy for me. But that’s definitely not the case.

I started competing in events when I was really young. One result of that is you end up losing a lot.

At first, that was fine. As a super young kid, I loved traveling around to different islands for little surfing events because I met so many friends that way. It was just a fun way to spend your weekends. We’d all pack up and go to Kauai or Maui, and the contest would be on and you would just be hanging out with your friends all day.

Everything about that was fun.

But when I decided to compete in the Qualifying Series for a spot on the World Surf League Championship Tour, the losing part became, I don’t know … less fun.

I just kept losing and losing and losing. I was nowhere near qualifying. I’d make one heat, and then I would lose again. And it just continued like that for two or three years.

At one point I considered giving it up and doing something else.

I remember thinking to myself, What’s the plan here? Do I really want to keep doing this? Maybe it would be more fun to go in a different direction.

I was just too young. I’m glad, now, that I did jump in at a young age. But it was rough.

Paralell Sea

Right around the time when I was thinking about taking another path is when I broke my back surfing at Pipe.

I was 18, and it was the type of wave I’d ridden a million times. But the ocean is unpredictable, especially at Pipeline … and for whatever reason this wave decided that, instead of barreling, it was going to rise up and then slam down right on my back.

I was out for four months, which was brutal.

But because of that injury, my whole mindset shifted. I was so excited to get back in the water and surf again, and within a year I qualified for the Championship Tour.

At that point I sort of realized what had been holding me back for so long in competitions.

It was all about my approach.

Basically, what I love most about surfing is being out on the ocean with my friends. Just laughing and having fun and enjoying whatever the waves bring our way.

Even in rough times, you know, it’s still fun. You can be getting just completely beat up by the ocean, and when you’re out there with your friends or your brothers, and everyone’s in it together, all of a sudden you find yourself laughing and joking with each other and being like, “That was so sick.” Something that would be scary, somehow … it’s funny. And if you love surfing, you enjoy doing it every chance you get. My brother Nathan and I have had days when it’s really big and really bad and really messy, and we’re just like, “O.K., let’s just see if we can get out there and get one wave in.” It would be super easy to just pack it in and do something else. But we don’t want to do something else, you know? We want to surf … just for the love of it.

And there’s something, I don’t know … not competitive … about that. Surfing, for me, has always been this grounded-in-the-moment, fun thing that is so far from “competition” — just being out on the water with your friends, a million miles away from everyone, enjoying that moment and that place. You’re just looking to have fun and laugh and free surf and … just sort of go with it.   

Which, of course … is not how you do well in competitions.

Laurent Masurel/WSL

So, yeah, a few years ago I realized that I’d basically been free surfing during events since I started competing. And that had been fine when I was younger and not trying to qualify.

But after all that losing, and after I broke my back, I came to a realization that competitions are actually a really unique opportunity to get to know yourself better, because you have all of these ups and downs and you have to figure out how to deal with those emotions.

I started to see competitions as a chance to learn about myself. And that’s when I really started improving. Now, as weird as it is to say, I almost think that competitions are more mentally gratifying for me than free-surfing sessions.

I love the challenge of it. You have to find that space you find when you’re free surfing with maybe another friend in the water and no one else around … but you have to find it with a few thousand people watching and announcers and pressure and all of these other factors.

I feel like I’ve been learning a lot about how to find that space, and about myself, and that’s made competitions something that I really, really look forward to.

I just needed to dig in and make it about learning.

After that, everything changed for me. And not just with surfing.

What’s maybe been most cool about that shift in my approach to competitions is that it’s bled over into a bunch of other parts of my life.

I began really applying that frame of mind to all sorts of things I enjoy — whether it’s flying airplanes, or photography, or learning everything I can about native Hawaiian plants, or reading about the origins of the universe, or … beekeeping.

At this point, I really just want to learn as much as I can about all sorts of things. And that works out great … because I’m one of those people who find it hard to stop doing things. I’m not big on sitting still.

I’m always the one asking … “So what are we doing today?”

Lately it’s been a lot of sailing.

Three or four years ago, a friend of mine got my brothers and me out on the water for a sail, and literally two days later I was like, “I gotta have a boat.” I started out with a small one, then went a little bit bigger, and, I mean, I’m sure you can see where this is going.

I eventually decided I wanted to be able to go to other islands, so I got a 35-foot monohull J35 and started really learning how to sail.

It’s been amazing. I’ve sailed to Kauai, Maui and Lanai with my brothers and friends, as well as to a bunch of little islands. Hawaii has some of the roughest waters in the world, and you’re constantly dealing with condition changes, so you can’t be distracted out there. And that’s one of the things I love most about sailing.

You’re forced to be in the moment. You have to be focused and tuned in. It really simplifies life. You’re not worried about your phone, or social media, or thinking about a lot beyond where you are and what you’re doing.

I love that.

Parallel Sea

I have to say, bees are interesting little creatures. I didn’t really know how cool bees were before, but they’re way more complex than we think.

And speaking of hobbies where you have to be completely focused on what you’re doing and not get distracted … I guess let’s talk about the beekeeping thing.

I want to put it out there right up front that I’m no beekeeping expert. Not even close. I get stung every time we open up the hive.

It’s like I go in each time thinking, Hey, maybe this time I won’t get stung. Maybe this time is going to be different … like the bees will know me or something … and they won’t sting me. And then….

The bees sting me.

I still love it, though.

I’m not trying to be a professional beekeeper or anything like that, but it’s really interesting to learn about and try to understand — and get better — when I have some free time.

We have some friends on the island who know all about bees, and they come out and help us with the hive. Every time we open up the hive and check things out and make sure all the bees are doing well, I’m learning. I learn about the bugs we’re trying to keep out, and diseases, and what a healthy hive looks like. I’m on the lookout for hive beetles and watching out for ants.

And I have to say, bees are interesting little creatures. I didn’t really know how cool bees were before, but they’re way more complex than we think.

We just got our first little honey harvest a couple weeks ago and that was super exciting. It was honey on everything after that, pretty much. We had so much honey! I was constantly drinking tea with honey, and then it was just like … honey on toast, honey in oatmeal, honey on … everything!

I’m pretty sure 2018 is going to be the year of honey on everything.

Aside from lots and lots of honey, I can’t really say for certain what this year will bring.

I’m still sort of unwinding from this past season, and it really hasn’t fully sunk in that I won my second world title. It all happened so fast.

You put a lot of hard work into it throughout the year, and you’re so committed and so focused on each event that you kind of lose track of where you are in the year. Not in the standings … like on the calendar, in the actual year.

And then, all of a sudden, you’re at the end and it’s like, “Oh wow, I’m coming into Pipe, the last competition of the year, and I’m leading this thing right now.”

Before you know it, the whole thing is over, and you’re trying to think about what next season might be like.

Steve Sherman/WSL

One thing I know for sure is that, as much as things have changed for me over the past two years, so much of what I’m all about has remained the same. And I don’t see it being any different in 2018.

When I’m home after the season, I really love jumping back into the North Shore community and seeing so many friendly faces, and just enjoying everything that makes this place special.

It’s always really fun to see the next generation of kids out here doing the same things I was doing when I was young. It’s so crazy to realize that now I’m that older guy out there checking on the kids in the channel like Nathan Fletcher did with me. And to see all these little kids running across the street from my old elementary school and heading down to the beach to make sandcastles or play in the water is just the coolest thing ever.

Because, really, those little kids remind me of myself, and of how fun it was to grow up on the North Shore. We have so much in common, and so many shared experiences, and we all have the same love and respect for the ocean. In a lot of ways, those little kids are me.

And I can tell you for sure that I still feel like I’m them.

Parallel Sea

I’m just looking to have as much fun as I can, and spend time with my friends, and experience new things, and go on adventures, and live every day to the fullest.

I love being in the water. And I just really love to surf. I love everything about it. I’d surf all day, every day if I could, and some of my best memories are the ones I’ve made with my friends down at the beach — whether we were scoring some waves somewhere, or it was the worst day of the year and we were just having fun messing around out in front of the house.

I feel the same today as I did when I was that little kid going on dawn patrol missions and surfing the small sandbars at Pipe.

I feel like that same little kid all the time, and … I kind of think that’s pretty cool.

I honestly hope I feel that way forever.