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The remarkable voyage of Mom John Florence

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

If you want to really know John John, y'better meet his mama…

How about we start at the beginning? Back in 1986, when Alex Florence, from Ocean Grove, a Christian seaside community, in New Jersey (yeah, the not-so-glam part of New York) and the sweetest of sixteens, told her parents she was going to the North Shore and asked if they’d, like, mind, driving her to La Guardia airport.

The surfing thing had been in her head ever since she was 12 and she was soaking her brain every day in surf movies like Beyond Blazing Boards and riding skateboards all over town and surfing in oversized wetsuits.

One day Alex was sitting in the room of one of her pals watching surf vids on the portable television set with the giant video cassette recorder hooked up and said: “I’m going to be one of those girls!”

With a backpack and a skateboard and a couple of c-notes in her purse, the lil blonde teenager landed in Honolulu, walked out to the Nitmiz and just stuck out her thumb. She stepped off in Haleiwa where another gal, who was 19 but seemed so worldly, picked her up and said,

“Say, girl, do you need a job?”

Uh, yeah. 

Well, we’re filming this movie, North Shore and…”

Do what I did and download the movie and check out the Halloween party scene 20 minutes in. Sure is a scene. Laird Hamilton is in lycra pants and his bare torso is painted in purple and lime zinc. A bearded Gerry Lopez is the Hui leader Vince, sullen, supping beers and looking evilly serene in a red bomber jacket and yellow tee. And, there, but don’t blink, is Mom John squeezing past the female lead Kiani and the Arizona wave pool champ Rick Kane. Yep, that shoulder length tangle of permed blond hair in the leopard skin lycra is the same gal who, five years, later would birth the first of three remarkable kids.

But, this is 1986, and, man alive, ain’t there some partying to do! The set of North Shore, which also starred eighties surf star Rob Page and perennial icon Mark Occhilupo, is a 21-day bender.

Three weeks ends too fast and Alex needs a place to crash and a job. She scoops up a room at Velzyland, just south of Sunset, and the most Hawaiian of the North Shore’s beachfront neighbourhoods. Fifty bucks a month for her room and Alex becomes one of five gals on the North Shore that actually surfs

And, yeah, V-Land is tough but the heavies take a liking to this tiny blonde thing, this little sister from the mainland. Back then, the gnarliest cat was a guy called Junior Boy Moepono, 150-plus kilos of Polynesian threat. And, for whatever reason, Junior kept a protective arm around Alex.

Later, Alex’d move to Kauai for a year, setting up at Hanalei Bay, right where the Irons kids grew up and then she’d take off to Bali for six months. Australian surfers taught her how to ride a motorbike in Poppies Lane. She hopped a boat to Lombok for a while and then did the 24-hour bemo-ferry run to G-Land where she got so lit up by malaria she had to call her parents to get flown home.

But, do you think little Alex can live in Ocean Grove?

Chasing money and more adventure, Alex grabbed  a cruise shop waitress gig with a gal pal who happened to a beauty who’d just won the Miss San Antonia beauty pageant. Her friend brought along her boyfriend and together they cruised the Caribbean.

Soon, more adventure. This time Europe as a backpacker. The couple had split back on the cruise ship and Alex and the guy travelled to Europe, strictly as pals. Separate beds. Totally on the level.

But, then, one night in Austria.

A few drinks.

Laughter.

Stumbling into the cold night.

One night.

One night in 1990 and the creation of John John Florence, named after the American president’s little boy, the kid who bravely saluted his Dad’s coffin in front of millions of Americans. Yeah, that’s a name that  has strength, that has courage.

The partnership didn’t work. How could it? Three little boys. Ain’t a lot of cash in the house they rented at Rocky Point. Dad soon disappeared into the penal system.

Alex remembers driving in her ancient Valiant, the ex-husband gone, John, five, Nathan, three, Ivan, a baby at one-and-a-half, looking over at her little boys and saying: “What do you guys want to do? We don’t have to do anything or be anywhere? We can stay out til 10:30! We can go to thrift stores!”

Alex took her kids everywhere and despite what y’might call a massive hand break, felt this sudden freedom. A total freedom. She took them everywhere. And that summer after the Dad split Alex packed up the house and with her three little ducklings that followed her everywhere, flew to Bingin in Bali where she knew a local family who’d let ’em stay in their warung, cheap.

Sure, she didn’t have much money, but here they were living on 10 dollars a day, and they stretched out their resources ($1200) for a sublime four months. Little Ivan, who was just over two then, had broken his leg on the trampoline before they’d split but Alex was cool, she just carried her kid everywhere.

Back on the Shore, Herbie Fletcher, a pioneer of jetskis in the surf, was towing John John into bombs when he was seven. Here they were, back at Rocky Point, just one house back from the sand, funded by taking in up to 10 boarders at a time, squeezing ’em into three bedrooms. Alex’d let floorspace for $250 a month. Whatever it took.

They built a half-pipe in the yard. Magazines British Vogue, US Vogue and Elle couldn’t help themselves when they heard about this gorgeous solo surf mom and her shaggy haired boys. Alex felt like she had a guardian angel. No money, but she was on the beach, was feeding her three boys and, well, you tell me that this ain’t the life.

Meanwhile, Alex was studying for her degree in English literature at the University of Honolulu. And, this is where it gets real good. Alex says that if you saw the size of her student loans, which she’s only just paid off, you’d think she was the “gnarliest surgeon ever.”

But, her gig was using her loans to support the family, to raise the kids. She didn’t want to leave her kids with just anybody. So she went to school at nights and took in boarders. Yeah, sometimes dinner was corn flakes, but  the kids were playing outside in the sun and were getting pushed (or towed) into waves by a role call of surfing icons including Nathan Fletcher, Danny Fuller, Kala and Kamalei Alexander, Herbie Fletcher and Pete Johnson.

Jamie O’Brien, too, but he was always a little crazy and’d sometimes throw dog shit at the kids. But, he also got John into contests and pushed into waves during his first-ever heat, aged four.

And, it wasn’t all surf. Nathan, a smart kid, would gobble up whatever lit books Alex threw at him, from Bukowski to Tom Wolfe. He’d mow through a thousand-page volume in one day.

Still, these were, are, ballsy little kids. Alex has lost count of how many times she’s thrown a bleeding kid in the car and hot-dogged it to emergency. John’s broken “almost everything”, his neck, his back, legs, wrists, arms, ankles. Ivan earned 55 stitches in his  face (rogue fin) after he paddled into a 25-footer that would later be nominated for the Billabong XXL wave of the year.

Eventually, they were squeezed out of the house by a sale, an owner moving back, whatever it was, Alex can’t remember.

So Alex and John John, now 10 but mature beyond his years, ’cause he’s seen some shit out there on the Shore and he knows what it’s like to live on nothing, were walking down the street that runs parallel to the beach and talking about the situation, saying stuff like, “Oh man, what are we going to do now?”

And, as they’re walking, there’s this little beach house, just on the corner of where they live now, and Alex, being Alex, sees this car in the driveway, looks at John, who nods, and they walk right up to the owner, their brown faces break into gazillion watt smiles, and they say, “How about it?”

And, suddenly, they’re at Pipe.

And, the rest, y’might say, is the first day of the rest of their life.