On Surfing

Jeff Johnson

Illustration by Matt Titone

Jeff Johnson’s eyes have come to trace the edges of just what the outdoors in America look like, as a photographer, filmmaker, and an essential voice at outdoor brands such as Roark Revival and Patagonia.

Can you describe one of the most challenging aspects of surfing to you?

The most challenging thing for me is crowds. If you’re not getting waves, you’re not surfing.  And I don’t really care how I surf––how good or how bad—just as long as I’m surfing.  

What’s one of the most redemptive or rewarding parts of surfing?

The life that surfing has given me is the most rewarding––the lifestyle. It has put me in what I consider the most beautiful places in the world and among some of the most interesting people in the world. I can’t really picture what my life would be without it.  

Has surfing afforded you anything in life? If so, what?

Healthy mind and healthy body.  

How long can you go without surfing?

Longer than I thought… I lived in Hawaii for about 15 years, and if I went 4-5 days without surfing, it felt like it had been months. Then, I moved to Santa Barbara. I’ve gone over 2 months here not surfing and didn’t bat and eyelash. You get used to it in Santa Barbara, because it rarely gets good swell. So, I really got into rock climbing. This didn’t replace the feeling I get from surfing––so different––but it satiated me to the point where I didn’t really care about surfing anymore. Now, I live back in Hawaii and I freak out if I go a couple days without surfing.   

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

I grew up skateboarding, and the guy who inspired me to skate started surfing––an older guy from my neighborhood. When I was about 15, he brought me to what used to be a secret spot north of Santa Cruz. After struggling all day, I rode my first wave––actually went down the line––and it blew my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about it––the drive north, the hike across through the artichoke fields, the cold wind, the sun on my face, the sea otters playing in the kelp, the color of the ocean. I could not stop thinking about it, but it was a couple years before I really got into it. I was so into skating, and I needed to get my drivers license.  

What’s one of your pre/post-surf rituals you hold dear?

I don’t really have a ritual besides warming up my stiff shoulders on the beach. I just love checking it, the wind, the swell, the direction––mind surfing impossible sections––visually getting in the flow before going out, and shooting the shit with whoever is checking it, too. 

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On Surfing is generously supported by our friends at McTavish

Michael Adno

Michael is a writer and photographer born in Florida as a first-generation American to Austrian and South African parents. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, and The Surfer’s Journal among other magazines.

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