Australia’s Forrest Gump Blake Johnston reveals shocking physical toll as well as a life-changing enlightenment from world record forty-hour, 707 wave surf, “I’d never experienced the state I was in!”

"As fucked as I felt, it was a highly unusual experience and I’m still processing it.” 

Almost two weeks since ultra-endurance athlete Blake Johnston emerged from the Pacific after surfing for forty hours straight and catching 707 waves at an astonishing rate of one every four minutes, a vein in his forearm is attached to an IV, our hero receiving a replenishing dose of vitamin C and magnesium. 

Been surfing much? I ask the holder of the world record for the longest surf by way of a joke, to which Johnston, missing the epic gag, details his four am start, the surf school and a wild foil run to wrap up the morning. 

Just cause he busted the old longest-surf record and raised $440,000 for practical mental health measures (“I don’t want to just start another ‘conversation’” he says) don’t mean he’s in the bean bag binge watching Love Island like his interlocutor. 

He tells me he’s still sore through the shoulders, a deep pain in his upper back and across the coat hanger but isn’t too worried about it yet. 

“If it’s still there in around in three months when the adrenalin wears off…well…”

Permanent physical damage is a fact of life for the ultra-endurance athlete. 

The night before he paddled out for the world record attempt, Johnston got a text from the man whose record he was gonna smash, South African Josh Elsin, who surfed for thirty hours, eleven minutes, with 455 waves eaten up in 2015.

“He said he felt responsible if anything were to happen to me. He’s a good dude, a legend. He told me goggles are the deal breaker. I told him, you didn’t wear ‘em in the videos and he said he didn’t want to look like a mad kook with his goggles on.”

Elsin told him he didn’t look after himself for three weeks after the feat and, eight years on, he’s still got injuries from it. 

“Think about runners on two-day runs,” says Johnston, “some people mess ‘emselves up running out of alignment for a long time, that bad form that comes when you’re tired. Same with paddling, same shit, for the upper body.”


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The hardest part of his marathon, says Johnston, who is forty, were the first six hours. The surf was a powerful east groundswell, with rips running hither and yon, and before first light it was calculated he’d duck-dived three hundred and fifty waves. 

“I got washed across the whole of North Cronulla, I’m four hours in and I’m weathered, my eyes are stinging and there were hundreds of these big brown jellyfish in the night. They’re dredging in the Hacking (Port Hacking estuary) and that’s where they live.  It was kinda comical, man. Five foot straight closeouts in the pitch black. It was so much further out than the lights we had. I had mates come out for water support as part of the insurance and safety procedures. Mates coming out for an hour getting washed around, pinballed, rips going from side to side in the channel. And I was still managing to catch twenty-five waves an hour. When the sun came out on the first day I didn’t expect my eyes to be that sore already, all the salt.”


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Johnston’s pal Graham Matheson, an emergency physician who holds a PHD in skin rejuvenation, told him that hydration of the face, tongue and mouth was everything. 

“I had a 3/2 Rip Curl steamer on a thirty-five degree day, I was catching, then, a wave every three minutes and fourteen seconds. I wasn’t sitting still and there was a lot of fucking sweat under the wetsuit. Obviously, hydration was massive.” 

Apart from the obvious physical horrors, the suffering put Johnston in a place that felt godly.

“I have never experienced the state I was in. It was like I’d lived through it before. As bad as I felt, as shit as my eyes felt, if I breathed through my nose and closed my eyes, I knew that when I opened ‘em a south swell would come because I’d lived it already. I trusted everything about it. As fucked as I felt, it was a highly unusual experience and I’m still processing it.” 


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Eleven hours in at around midday, Johnston’s pal the award-winning sports photographer Grant “Chucky” Trouville, padded out along with the local rugby league club, the Cronulla Sharks. 

And, in the clear green water, the pair watched as a large turtle swum past. 

“You see fuck-all in Cronulla,” says Johnston, “and Chucky said, oh my god, that’s my fucking old boy, his dad who passed away five years ago. His ashes were put in a dissolving turtle shell and paddled out the back of the Alley. He was a big part of the local surf club and when he died he wanted to be put in the ocean and, then, five years later, his son paddles out at the same spot and the first thing he sees is a turtle. There was so much energy around this world record.” 

When Johnston finally wrapped his marathon session up after almost two days he was whisked away to the hospital where, he says, “I was pretty hysterical. I was emotional. I wanted to say thank you to everyone and I couldn’t. I was yelling, ‘Why the fuck am I not there? I want to shake their hands!” 

An important part of the feat, at least to Johnston, probs not so much to anyone else, was how authentic he made it. He had four Rip Curl jetties and five Chilli surfboards but, to keep it real, wore one suit, rode one board. 

“I wanted to do it properly, be vulnerable in front of everyone. I could have made it easier. I didn’t want to pull my wettie down in the water and go to the toilet so I’d run into the toilet, did that three or four times. I dug deeper than I needed to.”

The four-hundred plus gees he’s raised for the the Chumpy Pullin Foundation (Alex “Chumpy” Pullin was an Australian snowboarder and Olympian who died while spearfishing in 2020, aged thirty-two) is, in Johnston’s words, “being used for action. To get kids off their fucking phones, to challenge ‘emselves with ice baths and whatever, to help become more self-aware. I’m not spiritual but these are the practical tools we all have access to. We need to be able to handle life’s adversities. Let’s see what we can implement in our daily lives, let’s see if the power of gratitude can become part of their routines, help ‘em become emotionally more in control and resilient.” 

Johnston knows about suicide. His daddy Wayne took his own life and when he was a kid riding for Quiksilver one of that company’s most popular employees, Andrew Murphy, died at the hands of the black dog. 

“I think we’re always treading a fine line between feeling good and feeling unworthy of anything. I was an emotional kid. I care a lot about other people and to have that self-awareness helped me a lot through the dark points where I could say to myself, this is unhealthy, this isn’t good. 

“(Depression and suicide), those things are hereditary. My brothers have had their moments, haven’t fell great and worked through it. There’s not one solution to it, and it’s ongoing. It’s a constant wave of emotions we deal with through our whole lives.

“So many message came through from people, really positive ones, like you helped me open up a conversation with my kid, fucking heart warmers every day. My eight year old laid on me and asked, ‘Daddy, what is mental health?’ I was nearly in tears, mate. It’s about your being proud of yourself and feeling worthy to your family and friends around you. 

“Other people sent darker messages, people who were in similar situations to my Dad asking, ‘Can you help me?’ I’m a surf coach not a psychologist. I do what I can but it takes a toll on you, too. I wrote back to every single person. My wife was getting angry at me!”

How many messages? 


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Tall Man (left) versus the Bald Man. Photo: ASP
Tall Man (left) versus the Bald Man. Photo: ASP

Citizen surf journalist fingers ultimate plot twist for upcoming Rip Curl Pro Bells featuring Kelly Slater and Owen Wright: “Remember 2011’s Tall Man v Bald Man rivalry?”

Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.

Our very own Jen See wrote a stirring story, yesterday, about the exhumation of Surfer Magazine’s rotting corpse and the little robot that was inserted where brains once squished. It’s an ominous tale about the future of information, storytelling, historical documentation and one that should be deeply considered while read.

Are you worried?

Well, one corner that seems safe, for now, is the craft of citizen surf journalism and let us gather at the feet of @hillmatic who has just revealed the ultimate storyline ahead of the just-around-the-corner Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach.

Remember the 2011 Tall Man v Bald Man rivalry? Owen and Kelly faced off in 3 sequential finals- Tahiti, New York, and Lowers with O-Dog clipping the first and only NY event with the largest prize purse ever at the time and Lex Luther closing out his 30s by going 2/3 against the Big Fella and winning his 11th and final world title.

What if:

Owen rights himself long enough to knock the one and only Bobby Slater out of Bells and off tour. What a tormentor’s conflict for the judges and organization to toy with. Robert K. Slater’s perennial flame snuffed by the final swing by the Scarecrow.

Which story strums the heartstrings the loudest?

Oooooooooh. Absolutely delectable. Something a machine could never conjure. But do you think World Surf League’s twin chiefs Erik Logan and Jessi Miley-Dyer recall that 2011 campaign? I certainly do. I was even in New York at the time and though I left before the Quiksilver Pro got underway, I did stay at The Standard, which was hosting, and had black and red “Quiksilver Pro” coasters and door hangers.

Very chic.

Anyhow, Logan is absolutely clueless and has a head stuffed with images of Oprah Winfrey from that year but Miley-Dyer was there, I think, and might she be tweaking the judges for a favorable outcome?

Which heartstring will get plucked?

Second season of HBO’s award-winning 100 Foot Wave set to release featuring Nazare “overrun with kooks trying to shred, making the waters even more treacherous for those looking to break McNamara’s record!”

Revenge of the Nerds.

The sleeper surf hit, last year, was certainly HBO’s 100 Foot Wave. But who amongst us, here, imagined that a seemingly well-trodden re-telling about the discovery etc. of Portuguese mutant Nazaré featuring the never-camera-shy Garrett McNamara would absolutely delight? Critics and grumpy locals, alike, were warmed by the truth, honesty and homespun goodness of the whole business.

Even more, though, who would have dreamed that a second season would be greenlit? Wasn’t every depth plumbed that first time around?

But no and season two threatens to even outshine the first offering.

Per Yahoo! Life, “After the first season of the Emmy-winning HBO docuseries 100 Foot Wave, which told of McNamara’s legendary ride, locals have lost the beach. The once elusive destination is overrun with kooks trying to shred, making the waters even more treacherous for those looking to break McNamara’s record—including McNamara. So in the trailer for the second season of 100 Foot Wave—somehow not called 200 Foot Wave, but whatever—the blue crush is deadlier than ever, and we’re not even talking about the massive swells.”


Revenge of the Nerds!

Oh that Box to Box films, which brings us Make or Break, which spotlights life on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, would have followed a similar path and featuring a front office “overrun with kooks.” Imagine a steely lens focused on twin chiefs Erik Logan and Jessi Miley-Dyer as they circle the globe, celebrating themselves for massive successes, groundbreaking equalities, record-smashing revenues.


Instead, Make or Break season two features Owen Wright getting cut from tour. Season three will likely feature his triumphant return to Bells for retirement parties in community room basements, starring stale coffee, and book readings.


Well, revel in McNamara here.

Surfer magazine, pre-zombie dystopia.

Historic Surfer magazine returns as dystopian zombie site, “Train the AI on old Surfer stories and generate fresh, trending news. No matter how low-quality they’ll get the VIP treatment from search engines due to the site’s status as an expert source”

We are all dumb now.

Back in December, the Arena Group purchased a portfolio of magazine titles for $28.5 million. The self-described “tech-powered media company” owns more than 240 brands including Sports Illustrated.

Still not clear who the Arena Group is? Let’s turn to the press release.

“The Arena Group creates robust digital destinations that delight consumers with powerful journalism and news about the things they love.”

I did not make that up, but an AI bot probably did. More on that, in a moment.

The sale included the tattered remains of Surfer Magazine. By December 2022, Surfer had dwindled to a zombie publication maintained by a single editor. Gone were the heady days of the 1980s and 1990s, when cash from the surfwear brands flowed like water and the magazine set the narrative — for better and often worse — of surfing culture.

How many teenaged surfers read the magazine and dreamed of stardom — or of hot girls and getting barreled somewhere beautiful and tropical? Far too many, probably. But there are worse dreams to have, after all.

Honestly, I had mostly forgotten about Surfer’s fate and the Arena Group. I think that might have been the best outcome, in fact. In the current era, publishing is depressing and terrible most of the time, and thinking about all the dead publications we used to love is not that fun.

As it turned out, Surfer was not gone forever.

In March, the Arena Group hired Emily Morgan, a Tennessee-based writer to generate trending news for the website. It was alive! The zombie publication had returned to life and it was coming for our brains. Quite literally, it seemed.

Certainly, the Emily Morgan phenomenon confounded us.

The stories published under her byline read like the games that by now we’ve all played with ChatGPT. They sounded almost human, but not quite. Was it a human writer using AI tools? Or pure robot? It was impossible to tell, for sure.

And then, there was the whole Tennessee question.

If the publisher had created a fake writer bio, why wasn’t it a bro from San Clemente? Surely, that would have sounded more authentic and have earned a higher ranking from the search engines, which used to care about expert knowledge. Maybe we’ve moved on from that stage, to a new, shittier stage of search engine optimizing. I must have missed the memo.

On March 9, Emily’s stories suddenly stopped. Just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone.

Whatever experiment Arena was running with Surfer’s website had apparently ended, leaving us to wonder exactly what had happened.

By all indications, Emily is a real person. And to me, that might be the most depressing element of this whole dystopian tale.

Imagine you went to college for four years, worked at your student newspaper, and got your degree. Imagine you got straight A’s in your major, because you believed that would make you successful in the future. Imagine you wanted to work in media when you grew up, maybe as a reporter at a newspaper.

Or better yet, you were going to write features for magazines. Long ones about important people. Maybe you once read Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” or Joan Didion’s “Why I Write” and felt a bolt of recognition. This, this was what you wanted to do with your life.

Then you get a job at Surfer Magazine. You’ve never been surfing, but it looks so cool. If you work for the magazine long enough, hopefully you’ll get to go to California someday and try it out.

You picture yourself in Hawaii watching beautifully tanned surfers ride giant blue waves. You see yourself at San Onofre, where you’ve somehow instantly become a graceful and accomplished longboarder.

Instead, your job looks nothing like any of these things. Using AI tools, you scrape social media for trending news. Then using another tool, trained on Surfer’s legacy digital content, you produce a story. You do that many times each day.

You never talk to another person, never go anywhere, never learn to noseride at San-O. Your job is to punch the buttons to create the content that feeds the search engine bots that crawl the internet all day, every day. Eventually, it would have to start to feel like you were becoming one of the bots, yourself.

I should tell you, that I have written trending news stories. Quick-turn and driven by social media trends, these things are not profound journalism, by any means. But at the time I did them, I could actually write them using my dumb human brain.

And occasionally, I was allowed to make them funny. My editor at the time had a dry Midwestern sense of humor and liked taking subtle digs at famous people. Within the confines of the format, we had fun.

My stories were syndicated out over channels such as Apple News and fed to the bots over at Google. The publication earned from pageviews and display ads and from the syndication channels. I got a check in the mail. It was not a bad way to spend a morning at the coffee shop, and keep the lights on, while I pitched the stories I wanted to do.

In February, Arena Group announced new strategic partnerships with two AI firms, Jasper and Nota.
“While AI will never replace journalism, reporting, or crafting and editing a story, rapidly improving AI technologies can create enterprise value for our brands and partners,” says Ross Levinsohn, Chairman and CEO of The Arena Group, in a story for Business Wire.

An AI-driven copywriter, Jasper promises to “streamline your workflow” and help you “breakthrough your writer’s block.” Jasper can generate 1000 words at a time — which amusingly, it refers to as “longform” — and promises clever captions for all your Instagram posts. Nota, meanwhile, is an AI engine designed for video content.

And they didn’t just invest in these tools.

According to Business Wire, Arena ran a pilot program focused on Men’s Journal, and specifically its archive of fitness content. They used the publication’s archive to train the AI. Then human editors directed the bot to generate new stories based on the information the AI bot had absorbed.

This process “increased workflow efficiencies by more than 10 times,” says Business Wire.

Weirdly, it turns out that the machines write faster than humans like me. If you knew how many times Derek has nagged me for this story, you would not be at all be surprised by this news.

Back in December when the Arena Group bought Surfer, many of my friends in media scratched their heads. Why would anyone pay that much money for a collection of websites generally valued at next-to-nothing? It seemed like the weirdest of all possible plays.

Now, the answer looks more clear. Surfer’s website has a deep digital archive of expert knowledge about surfing. For a brand invested in AI, that digital archive is worth gold.

Train the AI on old Surfer Magazine stories, and generate fresh, trending news. And the site’s status as an expert source helps ensure that those new stories, no matter how low-quality get VIP treatment from the search engines.

And better yet, those stories will appear ten-times faster than the old way, where easily distracted humans like me sat in front of our keyboards, scrolled through Instagram, wrote 50 words, made another espresso, wrote 50 more words — well, maybe that’s just me. I’m sure other writers just like, get on with it, and put words on the screen.

Over the weekend, David Roth published an essay at Defector, “The Limits of the Billionaire Imagination are Everyone’s Problem.”

Roth’s piece is a scathing account of how the whims of the contemporary billionaire class and their near-boundless efforts to extract value are steadily smashing the creativity out of well, just about everything.

“That this class doesn’t make or do anything is… everyone’s problem, because those idle demands made on high arrive downhill, and onto the rest of us as an avalanche,” Roth writes. “Or less metaphorically, as layoffs, austerity, and ever more optimized and anti-human efficiencies, and a claustrophobic and airless culture squashed flat by their algorithms and incuriosity.”

As humans, story-telling is one of our most ancient traditions. We drew on cave walls, wrote on papyrus rolls, and scribbled illegibly on parchments and yellow legal pads. Now we tap out our Instagram captions and text messages. The medium doesn’t matter that much.

It feels like the deepest cut to replace this profoundly human process with a machine trained on the work of so many human writers. Who are we, if not our stories? And who do we become in their absence? What’s lost in this dystopian world of trained robots and hyper-efficient editors? Certainly what’s left starts to feel a lot like Roth’s “claustrophobic and airless culture.”

Surfing is nothing without its stories.

At times, it can feel like the stories are as important as the thing itself. Sitting around campfires and hanging out in parking lots, we talk of that one perfect day, that probably wasn’t all that perfect at all. But we were there, we experienced it, and we’ve come here to tell of it.

There is then, something beautifully, magically, and fundamentally human about telling stories. Dumb stories, true stories, completely fake and made-up stories — what matters is that they belong to us. In the telling, we spin another thread and add to the ties that connect us to one another.

And isn’t that elusive connection what we’re all here to find?

Harrowing scenes at Jaws as Mark Zuckerberg’s one-time BFF Kai Lenny uses a helicopter to rescue marooned rescue craft after grisly wipeout, “Sometimes you can’t out-run the monster waves and your jet ski gets destroyed on the rocks!”

"Before I knew it I was flying past the jet ski and we were sent into oblivion.”

The American big-wave prodigy Kai Lenny, who nearly didn’t live to see his thirtieth birthday after he and tow buddy Lucas Chianca came close to being killed at Nazaré last winter, has posted a harrowing video of his jet ski being pulled off the Jaws rocks by a helicopter.

The strikingly unique Maui native, an awesome oddity that no woman or man can resist with skin, eyes and hair the same rich, ripe, radiant apricot, describes the scene.

“(My tow partner) came in for the rescue. It was going to be a really tight pick-up. The foam was really deep and as soon as I was on the sled I heard the engine screaming and no traction going through the impeller. That wave was creeping up on us and I was going to hold on and hope it shot us out but before I knew it I was flying past the jet ski and we were sent into oblivion.”

Two back-up safety skis picked up the pair, depositing Lenny on the rock-strewn shore.

Lenny’s attempt to refloat the jet ski came to naught, however, when he hit a rock, dislodging the engine from its mount, and forcing the wildly well-connected, and loved, surfer to call in a chopper to scoop it up and take it home.

“Big wave surfing has consequences,” he says. “Sometimes you can’t out run the monster waves and your Jet Ski gets destroyed on the rocks. Fortunately there are amazing helicopter pilots who can retrieve the carnage.”