Photo: Todd Glaser Article: Evan Fontaine
If you don't know the name Johnny Maher, go ahead and commit it to memory right now. The relatively underground charger from La Jolla has done well to make a name for himself in big wave circles, traversing the globe in pursuit of giant surf.
Recently, though, the Tavarua boatman and Blacks lifeguard, Maher, was thrust onto center stage of the big wave scene with his Ride of the Year Entry in the 2009 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards - a cavernous and tantalizingly long Puerto Escondido tube that Maher stroked into. We caught up with the "Monster" in Hawaii, to talk to the emerging star about his XXL exploits, the paddle-in renaissance, Tavi, and what exactly he's going to do with that big ass check (literally) if he wins.
How's Hawaii? There's been a pretty decent run of swell for the last week. Any of the big wave spots come to life yet?
Hawaii is incredible. Lately, the North Shore has had perfect waves everywhere you look. Both Pipeline and selective outer reefs have been solid and pumping. It is really important to respect the locals and the waves in Hawaii, because they will both humble and pummel you if you slip up. But the vibe and aloha here is really special and unique.
How long are planning on staying?
I'm just playing it by ear right now. I ended up getting a flight really last minute and didn't have time to grab a bunch of boards, so I'm working on getting some over here right now. Might stay the season or head home for some good SD for a swell if the weather gets rough out here or something.
So your Ride of the Year Entry in the 2009 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards has made some noise. Is that the biggest you've surfed Puerto without having to tow? If not, talk about the biggest day you've surfed out there.
That day was absolutely perfect and bombing. It was my first trip there, and I really didn't know or expect it to handle the size so well. There were a lot of really big, unridden waves that day. They were moving so fast and hucking so wide, you had to have a big gun to get in. There have been some big days since that day, but none as perfect.
This was my first Puerto Escondido season ever. I spent three months there in two trips. I love the place and the locals are awesome and charge really hard too. Todd Glaser and Derek Dunfee kept telling me how much I would love it. They spend lots of time there and are always talking about it, so I had to go and I met up with them down there.
You paddled in, what size board were you riding? At what point, or at what size, do you say it's too big to paddle?
I caught that wave on a 9'0" Rusty that Rick Hammond shaped. It's the perfect, big Puerto board. You need a lot of foam to cover a lot of ground to hunt the waves down. I think you can Paddle it at any size if you are not afraid of taking the beating of your life and are on a big enough board, although I've never seen it psycho huge yet. There's a local gringo named Will Dillon who lives down there and will paddle as big as it gets.
You're a guy who makes his living chasing and riding the biggest surf in the world. I'm sure you get it a lot, but why do it? I mean, how does someone get into something like that?
I'm sure it's different for everyone. To me it's the best feeling in the world packing and making a big heavy wave. There's no drug or woman that I've met that's given me the sort of rush, fear, and crazy feeling that surfing a big wave does. It makes me realize how fortunate I've been. It's just so mental. Life is short, you know, and it's just what makes me feel good and alive.
Take us through what goes into chasing a giant swell.
Lots of money. I get crazy emotions like fear, sickness and excitement leading up to the day. I try to eat lots of food the couple days before the swell and sleep good so I have lots of energy in the water, but most of the time there's no time for that. You've got to get your gear together, fly or drive a long way to get there, prep the ski to get to Todos or wherever, and watch the weather and buoys really close; time the conditions.
In 2008, Greg Long essentially swept the XXL's and won the Mav's contest and did so without a big sponsor. How hard on the pocket book is it to circle the globe in pursuit of maxing surf? Do your sponsors foot the bill? If so, what percentage? If not, how do you afford to travel as often as you do?
Yeah, Greg Long is so gnarly, as is his brother Rusty. I think big wave surfers are severely underpaid. I think people write it off as an enjoyable lifestyle, and feel that should be enough. It is a lifestyle, but the energy put into surfng big waves seems under appreciated, especially when compared to the money given to the guys traveling every month on the WQS, hustling air reverses against each other in mostly poor conditions. It's really expensive to get where you need to be for the swell. Luckily I have good relationship and support with my main sponsor REEF, and Rusty Surfboards, Sector 9, Matuse Wetsuits and Nixon also help get me outfitted and contribute to where I need to be for the swell. I also Lifeguard at Blacks a couple months a year, which is good training and enables me to put some travel money together.
We always here about surfers hop-scotching from this big wave locale to that big wave locale to catch the swell. I think on this last bit that hit Northern California, Mark Healey and Dave Wassell came over from Hawaii, surfed Mav's, and then got back on a plane to go home to surf Waimea. What's the quickest turnaround you've had while chasing a swell, and how many places have you bounced back and forth between in search of giant waves?
Classic. I was supposed to pull it together to get on that same flight schedule but couldn't pull it off without going bankrupt. My travel and tow partner Derek Dunfee and I have done some crazy hops. Last year we got a last minute call to do the Nelscott Reef Tow Contest is central Oregon and had to power a non stop thirty hour drive with the ski on a trailer in the pouring rain and ice. We got a bunch of driving tickets and had some close calls just getting there. We surfed our heats, got robbed on our scores, and had to power back right after our second heat to surf Todos. It's not unusual to do the Hawaii to Cali hop.
You're a boatman in Tavi. How did you come into that?
I got into the Boatmans bure when I was 12 years old through my good family friends who work and own the island. Jon Roseman, who is like a godfather to me, and Rusty talked with my parents to get me out there that first trip, and I have gone back every year for multiple stints ever since. Started taking boats on my own when I was big enough to save people.
How much time do you spend there a year?
It depends. I try to do a couple different stints for a total time on the island of around a quarter of the year.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?
I love my Fijian family and awesome friends who work there with me. The surf is the best on the planet. It's so mental. It's also the most beautiful place in the world. My least favorite part of the job is getting stuck on the live coral reef chasing boards after broken leashes or heavy wipeouts. It's all good though.
Is there a time when you made a rescue that sticks out more than the others?
One that stands out is a guy who got slammed on the reef at medium tide by a big, dirty west swell. There was enough water on the reef to blow him over the big reef into the deep channel on the other side. I had to put myself in the impact zone and get worked to get to the same place as him. He was in bad shape in a sharky area and the current was heavy. We train really hard on safety there, though, and do a good job.
Most surfers won't ever surf Tavarua, the place is a dream. Talk a little about your most memorable day surfing Tavarua.
I've had some of my best sessions with huge, draining, perfect, freight train barrels and only my close friends and I out. I've been lucky enough to kick out of the wave of my life and watch my friend get a 15-second barrel right after.
Your tow partner is Derek Dunfee. Take me through how that relationship began, what the dynamic between you two is and how important it is to have a solid working relationship with your partner.
Derek is so gnarly. He is an incredible surfer and friend. We've known each other and grew up surfing together since we were little kids. He rushes so hard, is on every bomb swell, and I trust him to save my life in any situation. We also work together in Tavarua. We push each other and get stoked for each other when one or the other is doing good.
Do you guys train together? And what exactly do you do as far as training?
Yes and no. We always talk about what training we do and what works best. He's really good at Jiu Jitsu and got me into a yoga routine as an injury prevention program. We both swim and are active and surf all day everyday, but not always together. Derek's brother Shane is a personal trainer at Function Fitness in La Jolla, and gets us in surfing shape because he knows what exercises are best for surfer because he is one.
You've taken some amazing photos with a nose camera mounted to your board. What prompted the branching out into photography?
I was in Puerto and my friend and photographer Ben DeCamp had some of these awesome little cameras from GoPro and he gave me one to play with and the photos came out good. I love those little things. They're light and small, aren't dangerous and have good quality.
It seems like it would affect your surfing. Can you feel the weight difference in the nose? How did you mount it to the nose of your board?
Not at all, you can bust airs with the thing on your nose. I can't even feel the difference in the weight. GoPro did a good job with those cameras.
Where'd you grow up surfing?
I was born and raised in La Jolla at Windansea beach. My grandpa raised my Mom there and my Dad grew up there also. My Dad took me surfing my first time at Little Point.
Which do you prefer, towing or paddling?
Paddling for sure. It's so heavy having to sit in the zone and paddle into bombs. You can get cleaned up or get caught in the lip. I think it's way gnarlier than towing. It's so much more roots too. I don't get as pumped after packing a good wave when I'm towing. Paddling is the rush. Towing is great for waves that are too big or heavy to paddle into. I don't like jet skis, but they're great rescue devices and they save lives.
Are you more a quad or a thruster guy?
Rick Hammond at Rusty just shaped me a 9'9" quad Gun that I have opened up a couple times and it is the best board I've ever ridden. They both work well but I prefer the tri fin on backside ripable waves because it pivot well, but the quads are faster and smooth.
What's the closest you've come to death in all your big wave exploits?
I had a terrible wipeout on December 5th last year at Todos. It ripped my wetsuit open and down to my wrists and buckeled my 10'0" and I hit my board underwater. It was just a disaster. I came up cross-eyed and limp. It took me out for a couple days. Pipe is so heavy too. I had a bad one there once, where I got stuck at gums sandbar after a bad wipeout with triple ups over and over on the head. When I was a grom, I also had my leash snag on the reef in Fiji and almost drown me as I bashed off the reef. That was heavy.
What direction would you like to see big-wave surfing go in the next five years?
Just get bigger and deeper paddle-in barrels. Only paddle unless it's too big or heavy, then tow.
Take us through that barrel at Puerto, from start to finish. You were pretty deep, was there ever a point you thought you weren't going to make it?
I pulled into a heavy one earlier that day and traveled for a long time. I was tripping. I had to make one after that. I just happened to be off the main spot a little and got this wide one and couldn't tell what it was going to do, so I just pulled in and had this crazy vision and the foam ball picked my tail up and carried me through until I saw the thing about to let me out. It's so loud, but feels like slow motion in there. I was so stoked. I almost got clipped by one of the biggest waves of the day when I paddled back out. That barrel was one of the highlights of my life so far.
What are you going to do with that fat check if you win the XXL Ride of the Year?
I can't even think about that right now. I'm focusing on getting another wave nominated to back it up.
Surfline San Diego