John John Florence And Surfing's Hawaiian Homecoming

Surfing means something special in Hawaii, even as it has become a big global business. That's why it means so much that native son John John Florence is currently dominating the sport.
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The Banzai Pipeline is a beautiful and horrific confluence of oceanographic features, the sum of which is one of the most dangerous waves on the planet. Considered unsurfable until the 1960s, the wave has killed dozens of surfers and photographers and injured countless more. The size of the average wave is scary enough—it’s about the height of a basketball hoop and wide enough to park a small car into, if you’re wondering—but even more intimidating is its steep drop, which makes the initial takeoff a split-second, do-or-die decision. If you make it, you have to snake around the rolling crowds of bodies duck-diving around you and the all-too-common surfboard shrapnel—boards ditched by their owners in a moment of fight-or-flight instinct—that can shoot out at you like flying fiberglass guillotines as they crash down the lip of the wave. If you don’t make the drop, you get slammed into the three feet of water between you and lava rock reef. All this for the chance at a few moments of getting barreled.

Pipe has been and still is considered the ultimate proving ground for surfers, professional and amateur alike. For decades, local and international gnar-dogs have flocked to its peak winter swells to test their mettle against one of the most respected and feared waves on Earth.

John John Florence started surfing it when he was eight years old.

Now, 16 years later, the Haleiwa son who grew up a yawn and a stretch away from Pipe is the Men’s World Surf League champion. He’s the fourth person from Hawaii to claim that title, and the first one since the late Andy Irons did it in 2004. These have been 12 long years for fans from the birthplace of surfing. It was also in 2004 when Bruce Irons, Andy’s brother, became the last Hawaii-born surfer to win The Eddie, the invite-only big wave competition that’s as important to the world of surfing as its namesake Eddie Aikau is to modern Hawaiian history. That is, 2004 was the last time a Hawaii-born surfer won it until John John did it in February of 2016.  

It’s been a banner year for Florence, who was surfing oceanic monsters alongside salt-dried veterans as a professional by the time he was 13. At the same age most regular humans are toeing the depths of pubescent hormones, all 4 feet and 11 inches of John John was navigating both international competitions and waves three or four times taller than him. If Florence’s freakish, ridiculous talent hasn’t registered by this point, it’s not really your fault or mine. It’s impossible to deny in the moment, but a difficult thing to understand in the abstract.

There’s more to this story than appreciating an insanely talented athlete or witnessing the spectacular and completely on-schedule fulfillment of his Olympian potential. This is surfing, arguably the most visually iconic and enduring aspect of traditional Hawaiian life. Surfing is the only professional arena in which Hawaii remains distinct from the country that unilaterally and illegally absorbed it. This is ours.

Given how important surfing is to the soul and identity of the islands, it’s strange that the sporting side of it has been dominated by Australians, Californians, and a single Floridian named Kelly Slater. Peel back the layers, though, and it starts to make a little more sense.

California and Australia have produced noticeably different styles of surfing than Hawaii. Theirs is defined by fast, aggressive cuts on the face of the wave and tighter bottom turns that allow them to boost up and out of the water for aerial maneuvers more easily. The style is grounded not so much in being a part of the wave as it is in subjugating it.

This type of surfing is partially a result of simple numbers: there are just more humans per surfable break in both California and Australia than there are in Hawaii. Anyone who has surfed in a crowded lineup understands the competitive mentality required to actually catch a wave. Beyond that, Californians and Australians drove much of the technological advancement of surfboards, adding stabilizing fins, shortening the boards and hollowing them out to make them lighter and more maneuverable. They also changed the board materials from wooden planks to plastics, and then to fiberglass, polyurethane, and polystyrene foams. New types of boards caused surfers to crouch into lower, more aggressive stances while crowded lineups forged a mindset that transferred naturally to surf competition, where positioning provides distinct advantages for wave selection and points are awarded for how much you can do on the wave. Simply put, it’s a style that allows surfers to do more in the same amount of time, which naturally plays into the scoring criteria of modern surf competitions.

Hawaiian surfing is different. It’s marked by slower, wider turns, resulting in fewer cuts and a tendency to stay on top of the water as opposed to launching out of it. Visually, it’s less professional and more casual, a way of blending into the wave as opposed to dominating it. Though it’s rare to see now, traditional Hawaiian surfers often stood with their backs to the shore, bowing to the face of the wave in a show of respect to the power of the ocean. These notions of respect and humility are embedded into the broader cultural mindset of Hawaii, and surfing is no exception. The patient aesthetics of Hawaiian-style surfing lends itself to a purist mentality.

While the same innovations were used in Hawaiian breaks, they weren’t met with the same enthusiasm. In the 1970s, when Australians first started paddling into North Shore lineups, they were brash and boastful. They had reason to be. They were pushing the limits of surfing, and they knew it. Unbeknownst to them, though, the 1970s would also see a resurgence of traditional Hawaiian culture known as the Second Hawaiian Renaissance; the first had come about 100 years prior. While these surfers saw themselves as athletic revolutionaries busting down the doors of surfing’s old guard, it wasn’t happening in a sporting vacuum. It was a slap in the face of a culture that was just starting to find footing as a newly annexed American state. Violence between local and Australian surfers erupted on the North Shore, and only the aforementioned Aikau was able to broker a peace treaty.

The tension between what surfing long was and the very different thing that it has become is obvious. It has grown from an essential part of Hawaii’s cultural identity into a multi-billion dollar industry, and today it simultaneously exists in both worlds. In a way that isn’t true of any other major sport, the professionalization of surfing is innately tangled and conflicted; it just doesn’t fit cleanly into the spaces we make for pro sports.

All of which is to say that it means something for John John Florence to win the world title, to Hawaii and also in a broader way. That victory comes at a time when Native Hawaiian identity is once again at a crossroads, most notably through the ongoing protests against the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, a mountain that is both sacred to Native Hawaiians and significant to the scientific community.

According to the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, Mauna Kea is the child of the sky father Wākea and Earth mother Papahānaumoku. It is the temple of the creator Akua, the connection between the natural world and the realm of the gods. It also happens to be one of the best spots on the planet to observe the universe. There are already 13 telescopes on the mountain, but the Thirty Meter Telescope is set to be the biggest and most advanced one. There’s more to the situation, of course, but suffice to say this project is the most vital and visible conflict between traditional Hawaiian culture and modern American life to come along since, well, surfing became a business.

We can assume that issues like this don’t enter John John’s thoughts while he’s surfing, and it most certainly is not what he’s surfing for. But for those of us who can get no closer to John John than the shore, and no closer to Mauna Kea than a Facebook status, that localized reality is what he represents.

John John has already clinched the World Title on points, but there’s still one major competition left on the schedule, one that has not been won by a Hawaii-born surfer since Andy Irons won it in 2006. Fittingly for Florence, it’s the Pipeline Masters.

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