Surf Safari: Kelly Slater and Jack Johnson's Big Wave Adventure

Even as he travels from one perfect wave to the next, competing on pro surfing’s world tour, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater makes sure to keep his eye on a handful of far-flung, secret spots — places where the wind and swell almost never come together, but when they do, erupt into ridiculous, drop-everything- and-go conditions. One of those spots is a remote reef break in the Marshall Islands, some 2,600 miles from Slater’s home in Hawaii, about halfway to the Philippines. There, when conditions are just right, open-ocean freight trains collide with a shelf about a quarter-mile offshore, creating perfect right-handed tubes that peel for hundreds of yards. And because the locals don’t surf, it’s just one empty wave after another after another. “Wind’s really critical, because it’s generally not right for that place and the swell can be blocked by a number of different islands,” Slater says. “It’s a very small window where it works.”

One evening in early March, the window opened. Weather models showed a huge north swell steamrollering toward his spot — and it looked like a rare offshore wind would be there to meet it.

One of Slater’s first moves: to text Jack Johnson to see if he wanted to join. Johnson, the pro surfer turned musician, has grown accustomed to these “Wanna go?” messages from Slater, one of his closest friends. In fact, he pretty much counts on receiving two or three invites a year to put his life on hold and jet to some exotic lineup. “Every once in a while there’s a strike mission I can do,” says Johnson. But thanks to the demands of recording, touring, and raising three kids, he is usually forced to decline. It always pains Johnson to watch footage from a trip he had to skip, knowing it could have been him in, say, a peeling barrel halfway across the world. “You know you’re going to miss good surf as soon as you say you can’t make it,” he says.

But in March, Slater was persistent: “Of all the times I’ve told you,” he wrote, “this one you should really make happen.” The timing was not great. They’d have to leave the following day. Johnson was working on a new album and was scheduled to perform in a few days at an event for the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, an environmental education nonprofit he and his wife founded. It was a gig he absolutely could not miss. “I’m a long shot, but lemme check,” Johnson replied. He pondered Slater’s last sentence. When he learned that the event wasn’t for four days, he told Slater that he was in. “It was cool because I didn’t have time to overthink it or find reasons why I couldn’t do it,” Johnson says.

Slater, 45, and Johnson, 42, have been close since they were teenagers, when Slater began stashing his boards under the Johnson family home on the North Shore of Oahu. A few years later, when Johnson left for college in California, Slater moved into Johnson’s room. In their twenties, they traveled to Europe and Asia, journeys documented in a pair of surf films, Thicker Than Water and The September Sessions. For the latter, in 1999, Slater and Johnson — who shot the entire movie on 16mm film — spent two weeks riding perfect waves in the Mentawai Islands, off the coast of Indonesia. “Those early trips felt like such a dream come true,” Johnson recalls.

With the Marshall Islands swell on its way, the two packed quickly, stuffing surf trunks, T-shirts, sunscreen, and a first-aid kit into their backpacks and selecting a quiver of boards (two for Johnson, four for Slater). The next morning, they jumped in a plane to a South Pacific island they would prefer not to name. From there, they chartered a plane to another unnamed island, and boarded a boat, which took them to a modest fishing and diving resort owned by one of Slater’s friends. The resort was occupied by a group of kiteboarders, so Slater and Johnson stayed on a small powerboat anchored just offshore. As night fell, they passed Johnson’s cigar-box ukulele back and forth and caught up on life, reveling in how removed they felt. “Not many places in the world are that far from a main landmass,” Slater says. “You feel so small out in the big ocean.”

The next morning, Slater and Johnson paddled out to find the gaping barrels they’d hoped for, some of them three times overhead. Unfortunately, a stiff onshore wind had rendered the waves almost impossible to ride, in some cases dangerously so. Slater’s heart sank. Had his prediction been wrong?

Then a squall blew through and the choppy water turned to glass. When the wind kicked up again, it was blowing offshore. The perfect conditions had materialized after all. Astonished, the two friends started catching as many waves as they could. “We didn’t know if it would last for a few minutes, but it lasted for seven hours,” says Johnson, who compared the waves with his beloved Backdoor Pipeline, only longer. To Slater, it evoked Australia’s Kirra Beach, except with clearer water — “probably the best visibility you’ll ever see,” he says.

The duo traded turquoise tunnels for much of the day, until Johnson pulled into a tube as big as a train and never made it out. His hip slammed the reef so hard that his first thought, as he flailed beneath the froth, was, “Am I paralyzed?” When Johnson surfaced, his leg was throbbing. He managed to paddle to a dinghy where photographer Todd Glaser was shooting. Then he collapsed on the boat, sure his day was over. He watched Slater pull into cavern after cavern, bummed that he couldn’t join him.

Slater was nearly as disappointed. Surfing with his friend, he says, helps him let go of the pressures of life on the pro circuit and instead tap into the enthusiasm he felt all those decades ago when he and Johnson would spend hours in the water for the pure joy of it. “He gives me a clean perspective about enjoying time in the water and riding waves for just what it is,” Slater says.

Soon, Johnson was hoarse from hooting for his friend and more than a little bit concerned about the purple mess his thigh would become. But he felt the moment tugging at him. The following day, he would fly home, just in time for the gig at his nonprofit, returning to a life of responsibility and schedules, with a six-month tour looming. After an hour of watching, he couldn’t help himself. “I’d peek over the railing and watch Kelly get completely barreled across this reef, and my leg would hurt a little less,” he says. “Then I’d watch him catch another one, and my leg would hurt a little less. Then it still hurt, but I stood up and tried to put weight on it. I didn’t think I could, but then he got really barreled again — the best one I’d seen. All of a sudden I was, like, the waves are perfect, there’s nobody out, I gotta do this.”

Johnson jumped in and surfed for two more hours, swapping waves and smiles with his friend of nearly 30 years, neither of them wanting it to end. “The next day, I could barely walk,” says Johnson. “But it was one of the most memorable sessions of my life.”