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Yeti and surfer John John Florence take social distancing to the middle of the ocean

What ‘Vela’ lacks in riding waves, it makes up for with adventure and some environmental exploration.

Yeti and surfer John John Florence take social distancing to the middle of the ocean

What happens when one of the world’s greatest surfers makes an adventure series with no surfing?

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The answer lies with a new video project called Vela by famed wave rider John John Florence and outdoor brand Yeti. It’s a four-part series documenting a monthlong, 2,500-mile Pacific sailing trip that Florence and his small crew took from Hawaii to the Line Islands. Named after the catamaran that took them across the open ocean and home again, it launched on April 11, but its third episode drops today on Earth Day, and appropriately, it’s the segment that revolves around a visit to the island of Palmyra, where The Nature Conservancy and fish and wildlife scientists are documenting and working to maintain its ecosystem and help it thrive.

If you watch enough surf films, a familiar pattern emerges. The camera is overwhelmingly trained on surfers riding waves, for obvious reasons. But often some of the more interesting and compelling aspects are the short segments between waves showing the context of where they are in the world—and how they got there. With Vela, that script is flipped, and the result is a fun travelogue, with some amazing footage from a part of the Pacific few of us will ever see with our own eyes.

So Vela isn’t a surf series, but rather a document of Florence’s first major ocean trip as a sailor, something he’s taken up in recent years and has been dropping into his surf projects, like last year’s series Twelve. It’s also been a way for Florence to pursue a new film project after rupturing his ACL last year in Brazil, at the time he held the World Surf League’s No. 1 ranking. He underwent surgery and has been on the long road to recovery ever since.

While it’s short on riding waves, Florence says that his goal here was both to learn more about environmental responsibility in the Pacific and inspire people to get out and explore. Part of that comes literally in the form of a monthlong sailing adventure, but it’s also a figurative message, illustrated by Florence openly talking about learning to sail, and sailing as a hobby.

“I’ve spent so much time surfing and thinking about surfing, and all the routines that go with it, like competing professionally,” says Florence, currently social distancing at his home on Oahu’s north shore. “At the same time, I even find myself getting stuck in this mode, ‘I’m a surfer, I compete, this is what I do.’ But it’s so amazing when you can take a step away from that and be able to go into these other things and realize, wow, I have these other opportunities to learn so many things I want to learn in my life. So to be able to sail in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to a place like Palmyra—which, if I was in my surfing routine, I may never get to see—sailing really opened that up.”

Florence has been a Yeti brand ambassador for about two years, but this is the first project of his where the brand has been a primary partner. True to its own roots and branded-content pedigree, the series does a good job of conveying a sense of adventure while also being incredibly inclusive. It’s not just for surfers who know Florence’s name, or hardcore sailing fans. “Even if we were surfing a lot more, the dynamic would’ve maybe been about exploring the world for waves, which is definitely a project I want to work on in the future,” says Florence. “So either way I think it would’ve fit Yeti really well.”

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Joining Florence on the trip was captain Jacques Vincent, Kona Johnson, filmmaker Erik Knutson, and his brother Nathan. Florence has always been his own creative director, collaborating on the filmmaking process with projects like 2015’s View from a Blue Moon. No surfing—and the limitations of a remote boat trip—changed his typical creative and production process considerably.

“We have this boat that only has a certain amount of space, so we’re really limited to what we can bring,” says Florence. “We also have only a limited amount of power. We’re completely off the grid. It was a monthlong trip with no refueling. We’re using all our renewables like solar and hydro generation on the boat. So power was a big one to think about. How many RED cameras can we bring? How many drones can we bring? Is it feasible to charge this one day, and this another? Being able to drop clips with the computer plugged in, all these things take tons of power, which you never realize when you’re doing it at home. As soon as you get on a boat, and you’re plugging all these things in, and you see your batteries start to drain, it’s like ohhhhh . . . . Before the trip, that was what we were anxious about. We knew we wanted the drones, and the water cinematography, and a camera on the boat always ready.”

With this series, Florence hopes it conveys both a sense of fun but also shows what we risk losing if we don’t embrace sustainable environmental responsibility. “If you can inspire people to get out there and explore the world, they’re going to see that too,” he says. “When you’re in the middle of the ocean, you can’t help but see how amazing the Earth is.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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