Island of the Mind
Far from the pressure and fanfare of the World Tour, John Florence discovers perfect surf and unlikely kinship with Dave Rastovich on King Island
The plane doesn’t look big enough. John Florence surveys the pile of surfboards on the tarmac being loaded inside and scratches his head. It’s going to be tight. The seven-seater Piper Navajo is sitting in the middle of a sheep paddock that moonlights twice a day as an airstrip. Tumbleweeds hustle past. The wind is blowing its tits off. There’s a 30-knot tailwind to negotiate, but we need to get up in the air real soon—there’s a 50-knot change coming. The rough flight is customary. You only fly to King Island on the biggest swells, and with the swell comes the weather. Hang onto your lunch.
I don’t tell Florence that a light plane with five American golfers crashed on the way to King Island last year—flew into an outlet mall on take off and burst into flames with no survivors. I do tell him, however, that if our pilot has a heart attack then he’s flying this bird. Florence took flying lessons years ago, practicing mid-air stalls while dodging incoming airliners at Honolulu Airport. Those lessons and his low pulse rate might come in handy in the event of a slumped pilot and a nosediving plane.
We cross the coast over Point Impossible and fly out over Bass Strait. The ocean is whipped white, and the little plane jerks like a dancing puppet. Florence ’s eyes don’t leave the ocean below for the whole hour. The rest of us have white knuckles but Florence is monastically calm. He has an easy way of moving through the elements, be they air or water.
King Island is a clod of rural dirt sitting out in Bass Strait. It’s one of the last remaining traces of the old land bridge that connected Tasmania to the Australian mainland during the last Ice Age. With a free week between contests, Florence has gone adventuring. He’s here for the waves, but also here for the kind of solitude that only an hour spent being tossed around in a light plane can provide.
From the airport we drive straight to the island’s bakery. Florence stands in line with a bunch of workers on their lunchbreak and it’s immediately clear: Nobody knows him here. The island has only 1,600 residents and a just handful of local surfers. They don’t get many visitors. Pancho Sullivan’s board hangs on the wall from 15 years ago. Florence is immediately disarmed and takes off his hoodie. It’s probably one of the only stretches of inhabited coast on god’s green earth where he could go without being mobbed. If you’re sick of the world talking about you, King Island is not a bad place to be.
The bakery menu is provincial. Pies, lots of them, but they’re nothing like the pies you’ll find on the mainland. There are lobster pies, wallaby pies, chicken and Camembert pies—a menagerie of local critters all stuffed in a pastry sarcophagus. Florence plays it safe with a spinach roll. He’s not big on critters or pastry, which may result in him starving on King Island.
Dave Rastovich is sitting across the table, wearing a hand-knitted beanie and odd socks. Rastovich doesn’t venture near the pie oven either—hasn’t been near one in two decades—and instead slowly chews on some hot cross buns. Through some kind of cosmic alignment, he’s also on King Island. It’s the first time Rastovich and Florence have ever met. On the surface, the world champion and the environmental champion, the Golden Child and the Guru wouldn’t appear to have much in common, but you strip the whole competitive spectacle out of the equation and think about them purely as surfers and as human beings, then Florence has more in common with Rastovich than he does with most of the crew he surfs with on Tour.
And then, of course, there are the bees.
(Left) World-class tube whisperers John Florence, Dan Ross and Dave Rastovich.(This page) Florence has the otherworldly ability to look stylish even when wrestling an unwieldy foamball.