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livin’ large

Back in July we reported on John John Florence and Kai Lenny sailing across Hawaii’s Kauai Channel on an 18-foot foiling beach cat. Gathering our intel by stalking social media accounts, details were understandably light but we were beyond stoked on the effort! As well as being one of the world’s best surfers and a 2-time World Champion, Florence is a passionate sailor.

From owning a Gunboat 48 and chasing surf around the Pacific with the likes of Jacques Vincent to very nearly winning the Sydney – Hobart overall and even giving it a go on an F50 with Tom Slingsby and the rest of the Aussie Sail GP crew, John John’s development as a sailor has been rapid and well documented. For Kai Lenny, perhaps the best all around waterman of our generation, if not ever, the World Championship caliber surfer, kiteboarder, windsurfer and paddler has developed an unparalleled proficiency with all things foiling. Infrequently finding his way onto various racing boats in Hawaii and abroad, Lenny was the perfect co-skipper for John’s ambitious journey across the channel.

Through John’s publicist, we managed to catch up with the 2-time World Surfing Champion John Florence to pick his brain about the adventure and work up this exclusive interview article. We’ve been sitting on this for a couple of weeks, but with the release of Florence and Lenny’s new film, ‘Crossings’ yesterday, the timing was right to share it with all the Anarchists out there.

After reading the article, make sure to check out ‘Crossings’; it’s an epic 22-minute film about the journey and truly one of the best sailing films we have seen in a very long time. Striking the fine balance between character development and the human element of the sport alongside amazing sailing footage, high-tech hardware, nature and adventure, the film is a thing of beauty. Big shout out to Director Spencer Klein and John’s longtime friend and lifelong sailor Eric Knutson who was the principal Director of Photography. Well done, boys. 

Sailing Anarchy: Aloha John! First off, how did this crazy journey even come together?

John John Florence: Having all of the time off this summer (due to COVID), has been an unexpected blessing. To just spend some time at home and enjoy Hawaii. I was talking to Kai one day and we said that it sounded cool to sail the Flying Phantom across a channel, to Kauai. So we decided to do it, but it was crazy how quickly it all happened from the moment that we said ‘let’s do it’. Kai flew over from Maui pretty much the next day and we spent a couple of days training in Kaneohe Bay and then went for it. 

SA: And how did the training go? I imagine there’s some revelations in training alongside a new crew for such a big journey.

JJF: Yeah for sure, learning to balance the boat is the key thing. It’s harder to do in the ocean, when you are adding ocean swells and big waves to the picture. Doing the trip with Kai is so cool because he has such a knowledge of the wind and from doing so many different sports, he picks things up so fast. He just understood it all, immediately. Within the first session, he was pointing out things that could be better, it was so cool to do that team work with him because he has that knowledge of the wind that surpasses my knowledge.

The first big leg was from Kaneohe to my house on the North Shore, which is about 15 miles or so. It was light wind and then we came around Kahuku Point and there was quite a lot of wind and we were eating shit a lot of the time (laughs). Trying to figure out how to balance the boat and foil downwind in those big chops is hard. With too much rake in the foil, the boat goes 20 knots and then pops out fo the water and then slams down really hard. We did a lot of that on the North Shore and it was really scary. 

SA: Any interesting moments in particular?

JJF: (laughs) Haha yeah, that first leg to the North Shore was the most frustrating part. There was one time where I just turned really quickly and then did a backflip off the boat of the boat and I was way off the boat. Kai had to turn the boat around and come back and rescue me. I just remember sitting in the ocean with my Camelback and all my gear on and just thinking, “this sucks man”, as the boat was disappearing (laughs). 

SA: Wow! That’s crazy! So how did the trip to Kauai go?

JJF: At the start was some of the best sailing of my life, we were just foiling along at 23 knots with the spinnaker up in perfect seas. You know, you have those unfortunate upwind sailing moments where you don’t know if you really like sailing, and then you have those moments where you just say “I love this!”. Foiling at high speed with the cleanest seas, from Oahu to Kauai, was certainly one of those moments. As we got into the middle though, it got frustrating because Kauai was dead downwind of us.

The Flying Phantom likes to reach around to be up on the foils, so we ended up doing 125 miles instead of 95 miles because of the big gybes that we had to do. It took us about 9 hours or so to get into Kauai, and we got there just before dark. It was a long day of sailing! (laughs) We had a few moments on the way there where we had full maximum ride height and then came crashing down, it’s a crazy feeling. Everything is just going down the wave so fast, and the foils pick up the power from the wave energy and it’s just an incredible feeling having that much power and trying to balance and manage it. 

SA: You sailed into Hanalei Bay, correct? That is truly a magical place to sail into. How was your time on Kauai?

JJF: Oh yeah, for sure, Hanalei Bay and Kauai are just awesome. We spent like 4 or 5 days in Kauai. We actually broke part of the housing where the foil goes in, right where the foil pops out of the bottom of the hull. We broke that one in half and had to make a new one on Kauai. We couldn’t remove the foil after that, but it worked fine for the whole trip home. 

SA: Wait, you sailed the boat BACK to Oahu from Kauai? That’s mostly upwind, that must be really intense on a small beach cat. Did you have a support vessel?

JJF: Yeah, we had a support boat for the channel crossing. And yeah, we sailed it back from Kauai. We waited a couple of days until the wind went a bit more northerly so that it wasn’t so much dead on the nose. Going back from Kauai really wasn’t so bad. It took the same amount of time just about. With the northerly wind, we had good reaching conditions and did 13 or 14 knots most of the time. It was actually some amazing foiling conditions, It felt really good with the foils, just hovering above the water on that wind angle.

SA: So what’s next for John John Florence, regarding sailing?

JJF: I think for me in the future, I have some big thoughts and dreams with doing some more big trips on the Gunboat. I especially like how it combines sailing with surfing. It’s the best platform to go find empty perfect waves, it’s everything I could imagine in a dream. That feeling of exploration is really cool to me, just pushing to where there’s no people. That feeling of going somewhere by your own means and you’re in the middle of nowhere, there’s something really special with that. I’m very inspired by the Vendée Globe and these guys sailing the giant foiling trimarans. I don’t know where I see myself in the racing side of it, but I would definitely love to be a part of some races in the next few years. I think the experience in the Hobart was invaluable. I love learning and gaining those experiences and getting inspired and being excited. I’m not sure where it’s going to take me. Especially in sailing, there’s so many different ways to go about it. You can be a hardcore racer or cruiser, or just go day sailing. I love it. 

SA: You mentioned the Vendée Globe… With your athletic abilities, sailing passion and mainstream celebrity status, you’re one of the very few Americans that could probably pull off a sponsor and give it a go. Any interest?

JJF: I’ve thought about it. That would be really cool to do one day. It’s such a crazy race, Alex Thomson and those guys. I just don’t know if I can go without sleep for that many days (laughs). 

SA: Fiji’s borders are open and with a negative COVID test, you could always sail your Gunboat down here and surf some world class waves! Thanks for the chat, we hope to see you down this way some time soon!

JJF: (Brief silent moment where John appears to be in deep thought.) Hmmm, that’s really interesting, I did not know that. I’ll have to think about that. Yeah for sure, thanks for the call!  – Ronnie Simpson.