Jeff Johnson is a California surfer/writer/photographer who stars in Woodshed Films’ 180° South – A trip that mirrors the legendary journey of Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins. An accomplished writer, his works have appeared in Surfer’s Journal, Surfer, and Alpinist. We spent some time with Jeff to learn more.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Danville, California in the East Bay San Francisco. Lots of open space in my neighborhood—very few fences. Grassy, rolling hills. Oak trees and walnut orchards. The girls rode horses. The guys rode motorbikes.
When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I quit all the team sports, got a haircut and a skateboard, and was immediately at odds with all the jocks, parents and teachers. Suddenly, I had a new, small group of disenchanted friends who all felt the same about our surroundings. We wanted out.
In the 80’s, surfing still had an outlaw/counterculture vibe. I was naturally attracted to it. I started surfing when I was old enough drive to the coast. It took over my life. It’s all I wanted to do. I moved to Hawaii just after high school graduation in 1987. I was back and fourth till I moved permanently to the North Shore of Oahu in 1990. This was my home base for about 15 years.
When did you get your first surfboard?
There was a guy named Jimmy Olson who lived on my block when I was a kid. He was about four to five years older than me. The guy was like a god to me. He and his buddies were the only surfers in Danville. They looked different and acted different. He built surfboards in his garage, start to finish. When I was about 15, he took me to a remote pointbreak north of Santa Cruz. He told me it was a “secret spot” and we were “kooks” from inland. I took this as a warning: Secret spot, good. Kooks, bad. I caught my first wave that day, but it didn’t really get me till a year or so later. Then, he sold me a used board. I think it was a 6’0” thruster with shallow rocker, full rails, wide tail—full-on 80’s board.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
It was an overwhelming sensation—all this water moving beneath me. I felt weightless watching the water pass by the rails. It making me kinda dizzy. I couldn’t believe this sensory overload taking place in only a few seconds. These seconds I played over and over in my head as I lay in bed that night. The bug. I remember not wanting to rinse off the salt the ocean left on my body—laying there with salty hair dreaming of the next wave.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young boy?
My dad has always been my biggest hero. He was once a ski patrol, an excellent skier. Still is! He had me snow skiing when I was four years old. He’d wake me up at four in the morning to drive to Tahoe. I’d sleep on the floorboards of the truck and would wake up with the first light at Donner Pass. It was so great to watch him move over snow—so graceful and fluid. I’d try my hardest to emulate him. Those early years had a huge impact on me. I still love waking up long before the sun and going on crazy missions. You eventually become your parents, you know. I’ve become my dad in many ways.
I was skating in the era of Christian Hosoi and all the Bones Brigade guys, but I was into learning about Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta. I’d search for all those old Stecyk articles and Friedman photos. I’d learn their old tricks and mixed it up with the new ones.
As I got into surfing, I didn’t care who won the world title—you’d think I’d be into Potts or Curren or whoever was hot at the time. But, I was into reading about Miki Dora and Pat Curren, Mead Hall and the North Shore in the 50’s and 60’s.
As a climber, it was Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins and Yosemite’s Camp 4 in the 60’s.
All these guys were way before my time, but they were the ones I looked up to and still do.
What inspired you to become a storyteller?
My Dad is a great storyteller. His stories are so good that I often tell them myself. Even now, he’ll say, “Have I ever told you about … ?” And I will say “no” just so I can hear the story again.
I didn’t start reading till after high school—then I continued incessantly. Authors like Charles Bukowski, Cormac McCarthy, James Salter, John Fante have inspired me to write and share stories.
What was it about Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins that inspired you to create 180 South?
Around 10 years ago, my friend Amy Kumler handed me a dusty old videocassette tape. She worked for Patagonia and said she found it locked up in a vault. She had to sneak it out of there because no one outside the office was supposed to see it. “Mountain of Storms” was written on it. Chris Malloy and I popped it in the VCR one evening. It blew our minds. In 1968, Doug and Yvon and friends drove a van from Ventura, California to Patagonia, Chile to climb Mount Fitzroy. They surfed the way down there, climbed live volcanoes and basically goofed off. They filmed the entire thing. But it was what these two men later became. Yvon would come home and name his clothing company Patagonia. Doug, who had already started and sold The North Face, would create the clothing company Esprit with his wife.
Doug sold his share of Esprit in the late 80s. He put all his money into creating the world’s biggest privately-owned land conservation project down in Patagonia. Yvon’s environmental efforts with his company, Patagonia, would set a standard on the outdoor industry and have an effect on the way business is done worldwide. We knew right away that this forgotten film we were watching was the beginning of a journey for these two men. It was the trip that changed their lives.
Chris had made some successful surf films already. We were inspired to do a similar trip (either following in their footsteps or something in the same spirit) and make a film about it. In 2006, it all started to come together as 180 South … a dream come true.
How are surfing and climbing similar?
They are both about working with nature rather than trying to control it. This kind of effort attracts a certain individual—one who is open and creative. So, it’s not as much the actual acts that are similar. It’s the culture.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I would have to say Rapa Nui/Easter Island. I sailed through there on my way to Chile while filming 180 South. I had always wanted to go there. I’ve been all over Polynesia and going to the furthest corner intrigued me—the most remote habitable piece of land on Earth. It has the most interesting history, too. The island is in a really good place right now.
I found some fun surf there, too. There’s no perfect set-ups, mostly peaky, ledgy reefs. Small waves and some big wave spots. You can surf alone if you want.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
I’m really stoked right now. If I had done something differently, my life right now might be totally different. So, I guess I have no regrets. You can always look back and see how you could have done something better. But that’s how life is. It would suck if you did everything perfectly; it’d be boring.
What are you most proud of?
Following my heart, sticking to my guns, like my heroes have taught me.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
When I was heavily into skating, I was kinda going down a crooked path—spending time in The City, doing drugs, getting arrested and so on. Then, surfing came along and demanded a healthier lifestyle. I wasn’t gonna show up at the beach in my leather jacket all f*cked up. Not to say surfing kept me out of trouble … just a different kind of trouble.
I knew surfing could be a long life for me. Do it till you die. I watch what I eat. I stay fit. Do a little yoga here and there. I still skate, but surfing became a lifestyle for me. The addiction forced me to work odd jobs. It led me to Hawaii, sent me around the world, introduced me to so many people, friends, culture. Without it, I’d be a totally different person.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
This might sound cliché but … freedom.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
I have no idea.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
Right now I’m riding this board Fletcher Chouinard made for me. It’s a 5’8” quad, wide like a fish, shallow rocker … super fast. I rode his on our last trip to Indonesia and was freaking out on it, so I had him make me one. You can glide through flat sections like on a fish, but then you can turn it on a dime too. It works really well in slow, mushy crap and it performs in overhead surf as well. The board is a variation of the Quark model, so he calls it the Fark.
As far as my favorite surf spot? That’s a tough one. Though I never really dedicated myself to it while living on the North Shore for all those years, but I’d have to say Backdoor. I got some of the best waves of my life there. Nothing compares. Living in California now, I’d say its right-hand pointbreaks. Even my friends in Hawaii froth over the pointbreaks here when they’re on.
What’s your favorite meal?
When you’ve been surfing all day, you’re starving, and you’re in the middle of nowhere and your buddy hands you a sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwich? I’d say that is the best meal ever. My favorite.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I’ve been tripping on these freaks from Malibu lately—a guy named Blake Mills, and a band called Daws. They both used to be in a band called Simon Daws—way ahead of their time. The White Buffalo, Ugly Cassanova, Wilco, Metallica’s first three albums—out of control good. Mason Jennings, Todd Hannigan, White Stripes. Local band here in Ventura called Rey Fresco—killing it. Mozart when I read or write. X is always in there—one of my all-time favorite bands. A little Devo here and there. Driving back from Yosemite the other day, I listened to Neil Young for four hours; all this bootleg live stuff with a small audience. What a legend! Still making relevant music after all these years.
What are you most grateful for?
Another cliché …having the best friends in the world and a supportive family.
What’s next for Jeff Johnson?
I have no idea. First, I’m gonna get up and out of this chair.