Alex Florence with surfboard in Hawaii
Alex Florence, mom to John John (named after the son of the US prez), Nathan and Ivan. How smart's this gal? She ploughed through a degree in English literature and used her student loans to fund her and her boys' beach lifestyles. 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."

The remarkable voyage of Mom John Florence

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.


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.

Brenden Newton paddling over big wave by Ray Collins

Opinion: Surfers are low-talent, no-etiquette kooks

And, now, it is the hard-charging bodyboarder who is the noble god of the ocean… 

I remember telling a joke sometime during the mid-90s that I thought was hilarious. It went: 

“What’s the hardest part of learning to bodyboard?”

“Telling your parents you’re gay.”

Twenty years later, the world has gone through some changes. First off, well, that’s a terribly homophobic joke, and even in a sport as unforgivably homophobic as surfing I’d like to think we’ve come far enough to recognise that type of thoughtless hatefulness is unacceptable. I give myself a pass for saying that, and worse, because I was an idiot teenager who could think of nothing worse in the world than others believing I might want to touch a wiener. And I like to think that holding oneself responsible for past misjudgment is uncomfortable enough to justify some small amount of hypocritical self indulgence.

Ironically enough, I spent countless hours during those years with my sweaty palm wrapped firmly around a tumescent member, and almost none in the company of the fairer sex.

But, anyway, I think we all understand the point of the joke. Bodyboarding is for lame-os, it isn’t challenging in the slightest, and it only attracts the no-talent fools who are too scared, or lazy, to try and stand.

From an 80s-mid 90s perspective that was a reasonably fair estimation. Not to say there weren’t rippers in those days. In fact, bodyboarders during that era were regularly riding deadly waves that stand up surfers have only recently begun approaching.  But the crux of the matter was that bodyboarding offered an affordable, low-risk entry into wave riding paired with a difficulty curve far shallower than that of traditional surfing. The average Joe could pick up a Mach 7/7 at Sports Chalet and be blissfully riding waves within minutes of hitting the water.

It’s an old man’s observation to make, but, back in the bad old days, the notion of a beginner board didn’t really exist. You were forced to flail your way upright on expert-level equipment, a frustrating and demanding endeavour. Understandably, a huge portion of people chose a more welcoming approach to the ocean, and made the decision to ride prone.

I remember a dozen occasions when I left the water quaking with fury and frustration after being repeatedly burned by some sunburned middle-aged dolt who’d spent his entire session ruining my waves. Blithely dropping in and riding straight to the beach, both hands white knuckling the nose of his sponge, limp, varicose legs flopping limply in the whitewater. It made my hormonal body burn with rage to even consider those existence of the dirty bastards.

Then a funny thing happened. Board builders started making surfboards which were easy to ride. Once a novelty, the type of mid-length longboard long touted by East Coast legend Peter Pan eventually grew to dominate the lineup and, years later, the SUP followed for those who found even that user-friendly design inaccessibly difficult. Our high-performance short-boards grew thicker and wider and flatter, with buoyancy, rather than responsiveness, coming to dominate marketing rhetoric.

Meanwhile, a few people kept riding bodyboards. Their industry collapsed, sponsorships dried up, and a once thriving sport dwindled into obscurity.

But it never died. While it certainly diminished in fame the lunatics with their little foam squares kept seeking out the shallowest, thickest hell waves the ocean had to offer. While hard board surfers were struggling to learn the smallest of airs, “spongers” were blasting huge rotating aerials over razor sharp reef. And all the terrible barneys, the type who gave bodyboarding a bad name? They went out and bought surfboards.

After decades of derision, after mocking them for dragging dicks, for riding on their knees, for not standing like the noble gods we fancy ourselves to be, it’s time we took a long, hard look in the mirror and considered what we’ve become.

The vast majority of surfers are low-talent, no-etiquette halfwits who spend more time endangering those around them than they do riding waves. And as much as I wish we could put them back on bodyboards, I just don’t think it will happen.  Bodyboarding doesn’t have the money to sell itself as “cool” anymore, and, anyway, it just wouldn’t be fair.

They were fortunate enough to have their ranks purged. If any group can lay claim to being free of corporate conformity, of being nothing more or less than a group of like minded individuals dedicated to fun and freedom and self expression, it is them.

It may hurt to hear it, and I’ve little doubt that the vast majority of surfers will deny it with every fibre of their being, but the facts are clear as crystal:

We’re the kooks now.


Be your own radical hero!

If you were worth over a billion dollars would you put your surfing on a billboard?

GoPro founder Nick Woodman grew up in the val but went to UC San Diego so naturally he likes the shred. The very idea of GoPro came, in fact, from a shred vacation to Indonesia. There, he became frustrated that he could not capture images of his very rad surfing. And so he came home and developed a system which has since evolved into the GoPro we know and love. A micro camera that shoots HD video and puts us all inside the barrel. Or shoots radical stills of totally wicked cutbacks.

GoPro went public this past July. Kelly Slater sold 60,000 shares and made a million dollars off the initial public offering. Nick Woodman made over a billion. He has another few billion in stocks and the future is super bright. Forbes says, “Investors are riding higher and higher multiples on GoPro, clearly anticipating major growth for the company.”

Nick Woodman is worth so much money that he rented an entire Los Angeles building and put, not Kelly Slater’s, but his own totally wicked cutback on its side. Now his rad surfing can be seen by everyone. If you were worth over a billion dollars would you do that? Me neither. I would “Be a Hero” in slightly less embarrassing ways.

Jamie Mitchell surfs world's biggest wave at Belharra in St Jean du Luz in France
"It was the biggest waves I've seen paddling for sure," says Shane Dorian of this session. Jamie Mitchell, pictured here, didn't make the wave but says it was the wave behind that shook his nerves. “I couldn’t see anything because of the spray but when it cleared all I could see was a massive wall of water. It was at least 70 feet, blocked out the sky and was about to break directly on my head. I’d never seen anything like that from that angle before.” | Photo: Timo Jarvinen


It's the loneliest feeling in the world, say Jamie Mitchell and Grant "Twiggy" Baker…

Feel this most dreamy scenario. You and two pals sit atop a clear and very blue sea two miles off the romantically named town of St Jean de Luz in France. It’s January 7, 2014. Winter, sure, but it’s one of those gorgeous Bay of Biscay days where the air is clear and sharp. With the right wind, you can smell bread baking and coffee brewing within the bakeries and cafes that inflate its medieval streets. Today, is one of those days.

Friend one, positioned 50 yards out to sea, paddles for a wave. You detect his inability to connect and proceed to paddle shoreward.

Friend three, positioned 50 yards shoreward, hoots encouragement just as the wave grabs the tail of your board and proceeds to project you forward.

Ok. Now, stop, right, here.

A quick change in the variables reveals thus. Friend one is Shane Dorian. Friend two, Grant “Twiggy” Baker. And you are Jamie Mitchell.

Between the three of you is 30-plus feet of fibreglass and more volume than most have in their entire quiver.

And you, my friend, is about to eat shit.

“We got up that morning and the swell was so big it had sunk our jet-ski which we had waiting in the harbour,” recalls Mitchell of the day that would further catapult him to absolute godliness. “It freaked us out a bit, but we managed to jag a lift on a boat and met up with Shane O and a few of the guys who were busy waxing up.”

The trio are about to paddle out to the deep-water break named Belharra.

Mitchell, once only a mythical character in lifeguarding and paddle-boarding circles, partially inflates the Patagonia inflatable vest he’s wearing beneath a Quiksilver-issue steamer and takes a moment before plunging into the cold ocean and paddling towards the peak.

Somewhere amid the hubbub, videographer Vincent Kardasik mounts the back of a jet-ski and heads off in the same direction.

Dorian, Mitchell and Baker position themselves amid the vast line-up and begin an anxious wait for the tell-tale signs of bumps on the horizon and the ignition of jet-skis way out the back. As each wave passes, the plumes of whitewater being blown off the back shower down golf ball-sized pellets onto the backs of our three heroes.

“That shit hurts,” says Mitchell of the droplets. “But, we were all talking to each other and keeping one eye out to sea at the same time. Talking, but real nervous at the same time. And then I saw Shane O make a move and start paddling for one and I thought to myself, ‘Righto, here we go.’”

Mitchell senses Dorian’s inability to connect with the wave and digs his heels in, swings his 10’6″ around and begins to paddle shoreward as the wave starts to jack.

Further in and to the left a little, Kardasik subconsciously manoeuvres a gloved thumb towards the record button.

“We had been waiting for that wave all morning,” recalls Twiggy. “As soon as I saw that wave, I knew Jamie was in the perfect spot to catch it, so I paddled as hard as I could to get out of his line and get myself over the back safely. All the while I was just screaming at him to ‘Go, go, go'”.

The tail engages and as Mitchell feels the familiar sensation of lift, he recalls hearing Twig’s encouragement, but turns his attention to the task at hand. “The thing with waves of that size is, you get a bit of time to ready yourself for the drop, and I felt like I had a real good stance, everything felt sweet,” says Mitchell. “But I got a bit down the face and just started to bunny hop.”

Twiggy is gifted a remarkable view. “I was worried about what was behind that wave, but at the same time I was so mesmerised by it,” he says. “I was front and centre for one of the greatest surfing moments ever and all I could think about was how incredible it looked and how badly I wanted Jamie to catch it.”

Twiggy, at this point, is paddling skywards just as Mitchell dismounts his board and begins to skim in the opposite direction. “I had a bit of time to think about things and then I just made sure to pull my arms and legs in and braced for impact,” says Mitchell.

And as Mitchell is plummeted downwards, Twiggy is once again gifted a view so few will ever know. “I came over the top of Jamie’s wave and must have air-dropped about 10 feet off the back,” he says. “I couldn’t see anything because of the spray but when it cleared all I could see was a massive wall of water. It was at least 70 feet, blocked out the sky and was about to break directly on my head. I’d never seen anything like that from that angle before.”

Two friends, a long way from home, deep, deep underwater.

“It’s up there with the worst hold-downs I’ve ever had,” says Mitchell. “It gave me a real good work over, but the one after it, that’s the one that really got me.”

Mitchell surfaces just in time to be confronted with the same wave that’d dealt Twiggy a firm hiding. “It the loneliest feeling in the world,” says Mitchell. “I popped up and had a couple seconds to look towards the channel and I could just see no one was coming, no one could get to me. I looked towards the wave and it was just a massive wall of whitewater. I recall not being able to distinguish where the wave ended and the sky started.”

Mitchell takes a couple deep breaths and plunges as deep as his inflated vest will allow. “I actually don’t like going too deep under big waves because I find you get pushed along and out of the way of the wave behind and you’re less likely to have a two wave hold down,” he says. “And this thing must have dragged me a couple hundred metres, easy.”

Mitchell is eventually flushed into the deep-water channel still unaware of the enormity of the two waves he’d just dealt with. “I honestly didn’t think they were as big as they were. Then Shane O dragged me over to the boat to look at the footage,” he says.

“That wave, for sure, is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ever attempted as a paddle in,” says Shane O.

Loneliness and exhilaration, what strange bedfellows.

(And how about that photo! If you like Timo Jarvinen’s work you can buy his prints just by clicking here.)

Matahi Drollet at Teahupoo
Matahi Drollet, the 17-year-old Tahitian kid who stole the show during filming for Point Break II at Teahupoo. | Photo: Chris Bryan

Screw You GoPro! Jetskis are coming to eat you alive!

Sometimes the best photo angle isn't POV or shooting from a boat. Put a jet ski at the front of a 15-footer and you have unique. Sketchy? Well, yes!

See this wave pictured? Pretty ain’t she. Oowee. But it was nearly filmer Chris Bryan’s last.

Chris is the High-Def gun for hire, a 37-year-old from Cronulla, Australia, for whom the phone tolls every time a studio wants the finest in surf-cinematic vision. And when Warner Brothers were hot for a remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cheeseball surf-drama Point Break and needed vision of big waves, they called on Chris (as well as every other big-name surf shooter in the game. Hello Don King!).

But this wave, on this day, it was neither the stunt doubles for the film’s protagonists Bohdi (Dylan Longbottom) or Johnny Utah (Bruce Irons, called in after Laurie Towner busted his jaw on the reef), who scooped the waves of the day. It was the kid-brother of Manoa Drollet, 17-year-old Matahi.

And Chris, whose brief was to film Bohdi and Utah on the same wave, found himself soaring down a 15-footer behind Matahi.

“I was yelling at the driver to go and he was saying, ‘No! No! Not this one!’ And I was yelling at him to go. Because we hesitated we went late and because we were deeper than the other skis, to get the tracking shot, we had to bounce over their wake. And so we’re coming down this vertical face, trying to get down, I’m looking through the eye-piece, there’s no footstraps (which Chris had asked to be custom-fitted) or life jacket or helmet and because I’m holding the big heavy movie camera I can’t hold onto the seat. As we got to the bottom of the wave the transition was a right angle. And as we hit it, the ski start to nose dive and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god! We’re going to flip!’ But I kept my eye on the eye-piece and as we pulled out of the dive I saw this little kid completely disappear and then there was this huge blow out. I was thinking,’Oh god, the kid might’ve died.’ But then he came flying out. All the boats were scratching over the west bowl and we couldn’t even get near to the channel. It was the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen. It was so big and we went straight into the lagoon where it was knee deep, watching for big coral heads.”

Chris is fond of this angle because of the perspective it gives. GoPros’ll make the tube smaller, the boat angle you’ve seen, but the ski, he says, gives a true indication of the wave’s size.

“It’s the difference between looking at skyscraper from a plane or standing on the ground looking up,” he says. “This angle puts the wave in its proper perspective.”

It’s the truth!

And this morning, Chris is buckling in for another ride to French Polynesia. Along with Dylan Longbottom, Bruce Irons and various other Point Break contractors he’s flying back to Teahupoo to greet another swell.

Can Hollywood fuck it up? Maybe. But there’ll be enough big-wave juice in it (they’ve already shot big Jaws on Maui), to scrape us into cinemas.

Point Break‘s hitting multiplexes and suburban joints late July, 2015.

(In the meantime, here’s Chris’ showreel.)

WWW.CHRISBRYANFILMS.COM 2014 Phantom Reel from Chris Bryan on Vimeo.