Jem Johnson On Big Wave Water Safety In South Africa…
Jeremy Johnson has been riding big waves since… pretty much as long as we can remember. The Cape Town surfer is one of the hardest charging goofyfoots around and when he’s not surfing, he’s towing in some of the world’s most daring big wave riders. For someone who is forever pushing the limits in the water, Jem has had his fair share of unforgiving crunches. We speak to Jem about near-death experiences, the importance of preparation, big wave water safety in South Africa and why you should probably rather take up golf…
ZIGZAG: You’ve definitely had your fair share of scares and gnarly wipeouts out there. That being said, what has been your experience with professional water safety? Is it needed?
Jem Johnson: Yes it is 100% needed but people must realize that at the end of the day you only have yourself to count on and you must be as ready as possible, the water safety is a luxury. Greg Long once said to me that you need to focus as much as possible on all the stuff that is in your control, like ones fitness, boards, leashes etc to better prepare you for when things which are out of your control happen.
Safety is never 100% guaranteed and one must always try and be as ready and prepared as possible when attempting to surf bigger waves. Most of the the time there will not be enough water safety to deal with every person that is surfing. Sure if someone is really in trouble the guys will go and do what needs to be done to save him but this is never guaranteed.
What are the most common injuries or traumas experienced by big wave surfers?
I am no expert but from what I can remember and my own experiences I would have to say dislocated shoulders, twisted knees, burst eardrums and near drownings.
Have you had some close calls or are you made of steel?
I have been attempting to surf bigger waves for nearly ten years now, I have had some close calls, a few bumps and bruises, torn knee ligaments and a few cuts but nothing to really make me sit back and take a long hard look at my self in the mirror. Sure every now and again you get a solid beating, see or hear of a friend nearly drowning but I guess I always brushed it off or thought that it would never happen to me.
But it did? Tell us about your near-blackout at Dungeons?
Famous last words… myself and Tom King got out to Dungeons first and I was so amped I just wanted to surf so I went by myself, I went on the first wave of the set, not a good idea, and half way down I hit a bump and fell in the worst spot. Next thing I knew I was getting sucked up and over the falls and had the second wave of the set land straight on my head. It pushed me so deep so fast and then bang – my right eardrum went. I was rolling around in the kelp at the bottom not knowing which way was up or down. I tried to pull my vest but pulled the zip of my suit open instead. It was full on panic-mode but some how I managed to calm down, focus and slowly I found the cord and pulled it. As I came up another one broke on me and I went straight back down. I knew I had flotation now but was very close to blacking out. Eventually I broke the surface to a full white out, took a few more small waves of white water and was in the channel. I remember lying on the sled and thinking ‘that’s it, I am never doing this again’. My ear was throbbing and I had lost my board.
How did this experience prompt you to focus your energy on big wave water safety?
I gave it a lot of thought and realised that if I had drowned no one would have really known what to do or who to call. If I drowned, I was dead. Game over. But for Tom or my family and friends they would have had to live with that for the rest of their lives. If you do things that are dangerous I feel that you need to take responsibility and be prepared as much as possible so that you do not leave a mess for someone else to clean up and deal with.
How are you and the NSRI getting involved in the future safety of big wave surfing?
So I contacted Mike Schlebach (Chairman of the Cape Big Wave Trust), Lyall Pringle (Station Commander of NSRI Hout Bay) and Ian Klopper (Station Commander of NSRI Kommetjie). We had a meeting and came up with some exit strategies for both Dungeons and Sunset and set up a Whatsapp group so that the NSRI always know when and where we are surfing, how many people are surfing, the conditions, what water safety is on hand ect.
We are also planning a practical safety day to empower the surfers to deal with a situation as it happens and what best to do to either save someone or get them stable and ready for when the NSRI do arrive. As mentioned I hope that this brings a positive out of my whole experience and at the end of the day makes it safer for everyone surfing Dungeons and Sunset.
How are competitions like The Striped Horse Challenge and Rebel Sessions enhancing big wave surfing in SA?
They are definitely giving guys, especially the younger guys, an incentive to give it a bash. This comes with its own pros and cons as there are no shortcuts in big wave surfing and the older more experienced guys are normally the ones left helping out and dealing with the inexperienced guys in the lineup. I am not complaint though and at the end of the day if anyone wants to try and surf Dungeons or Sunset I respect that and all the best to them but I have learnt that the waves themselves have a way of always having the final say.
What has been your big wave highlight of the year so far?
I would have to say a wave that I caught at Sunset after my bad experience at Dungeons. I had not surfed for nearly two months and was very skittish to say the least. I was super nervous then this big set came through and I was in the perfect position. I committed and next thing I knew I was dodging boards on the inside as guys were bailing, I grabbed my rail and made it to the channel. I was super stoked and remember paddling back out and Andy Marr then saying to me “back on the horse hey Jem!” Guys were calling it the biggest wave of the day but I didn’t care, I was just happy to be back on the horse.
The biggest lesson you’ve learnt?
I know its been said a million times but life’s short, so make the most of it. You never know why things happen or what is around the next corner. Surfing big waves has helped me to overcome a lot of things. I do believe in karma and that everything happens for a reason and that one should always try and see the bigger picture. Nowadays I try my best to surround myself with positive people that have my back and I consider myself very lucky to share surfing big waves with a lot of them.
And your wisest safety tip?
Take up golf [laughs].
Interview has been edited for brevity / clarity.
Lead Image: Jeremy Johnson at Sunset © Alan van Gysen
All Images By: Alan van Gysen (unless otherwise credited)