Leisure Boating gains insights into big wave surfer Jeremy Johnson about that monster wave that put him on the global surfing map, his new-formed affiliation with Yamaha and the future of jetski fishing in Cape Town.
Big wave surfing hellman, jetski fisherman and all-round watersport enthusiast Jeremy “Jem” Johnson is a Cape Town local who obtained fame after a video of him ripping up a 50 to 60-ft swell off the coast of Ireland went viral on the internet.
Jeremy’s reputation as a ballsy big wave surfer grew strong, and today, he’s a big wave veteran, having surfed global big wave hot spots like Mexico, Hawaii, Mavericks and the notorious Dungeons at Hout Bay.
Born and bred in Llandudno, a seaside suburb south of Cape Town, Jeremy spent the better part of his life in and around the water, either as a lifesaver, surfer, sailor, diver or avid angler. Today, he’s an ambassador for Yamaha Marine and promotes jetski fishing in the Cape, and even has his sights set on taming a 100 kg tuna off his jetski.
In this interview, Jeremy shares some hair-raising tales about his surfing around the globe; including surfing “that” monster wave in Europe’s freezing waters with a 40-knot squall at his back.
Jeremy also raises his opinion in defense of jetskis with regards to the alleged threat it poses to the environment. Jeremy uses jetskis not only for fishing but also for big wave surfing and informs us that, was it not for jetskis, he might have drowned on more than one occasion during his career. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: Where did your love for the water come from?
JJ: As a youngster, I grew up on the beach in Llandudno, Cape Town. My grandparents owned one of the first houses built on the beach, and my grandfather owned the original Live Saving Club. As long as I can remember, I was either surfing, life saving, diving or fishing. I also did a lot of sailing when I was younger, and represented South Africa when I was 14 years old. So my love for the ocean definitely comes from my family and my upbringing. I guess I’ve always been a water baby.
Q: Run us through that famous ‘Irish Mavericks’ big wave surf session that put you on the global surfing map?
JJ: After surfing a few winter seasons and going after the big waves in Hawaii, Mexico and California, I decided to try my luck with surfing in Europe. I spent a week with family and friends in the United Kingdom, and after a week I heard of a massive swell heading for Ireland. I jumped onto a plane and arrived in the middle of the night. The wind was blowing at around 40 knots and it was raining and freezing outside. The next morning I went out with my friend Barry on his jetski and got towed into the biggest wave ever surfed in Europe at the time. The next day, photos and videos of my big wave surf were loaded onto surfing websites around the world, on the front page of international newspapers as well as on BBC and other news channels. I was just happy to have survived it (laughs!). It was a great start to my UK visit.
Q: Any other memorable places you’ve surfed?
JJ: Obviously Ireland will always stand out for me but I would have to say Hawaii as well. The whole vibe of the place is unbelievable and to be able to surf huge, perfect waves in only your boardshorts is amazing! The chain of islands is literally in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from the main land. Mexico is also beautiful and the waves there are awesome.
Q: One often notices jetskis being used during big wave sessions at Dungeons for instance. How important are jetskis to this kind of surfing?
JJ: Jetski are very important for two particular reasons: The first reason is that when the waves are too big or too dangerous to paddle into, we use jetskis to get towed into them. This means that you can catch much bigger waves which is what we are always trying to do. The second and most important reason is safety. Jetskis, when used properly, are without a doubt the most effective water safety craft we have. I could have drowned on at least two occasions if it was not for my friends on jetskis saving me!
Q: Tell me more about the partnership between yourself and Yamaha?
JJ: I approached Greg Bennett from Yamaha about a year ago and he helped me with a jetski. At first, we were looking at it from a big wave surfing angle but after taking my jetski fishing a couple of times I realised that there was huge potential for jetski fishing here in the Cape. The response I’ve received from people has been fantastic and I am really looking forward to the future of jetski fishing. All I can see is the sport going from strength to strength here in Cape Town!
Q: What is your take on the alleged “environmental threat” that jetskis are so closely associated with? Are the threats legitimate or are jetskis being used as a scapegoat?
JJ: All the legislation and so-called ‘environmental threats that have tarnished the reputation of jetskis in South Africa are all outdated and incorrect. Legally, SAMSA [The South African Maritime Safety Authority] certify jetskis as a PWC [Personal Watercraft] and in modern times, all PWC have 4-Stroke motors and all are over three metres in length – meaning they’re classified as vessels. Therefore, they require a DTC number (issued by SAMSA) to carry all the necessary safety equipment just like a boat. Bearing in mind, all PWC skippers must have a dated skipper’s licence with them and the PWC has to comply with the same rules on the water as a boat does. It has been proven that the ‘environmental threat’ a PWC poses is far less than any boat with an outboard engine, due to emission regulations.
Q: Have you had any serious injuries while surfing or jetskiing?
JJ: I’ve had some injuries over the years, but never from a jetski. I twisted my knee and tore some ligaments while surfing in Mexico. I had to fly back home for an operation. When I was in Spain last year, I went over to the Falls on a big wave and landed on the rocks. I couldn’t walk for a week, and ended up in hospital, twice!
Q: What do you do when you’re not surfing? JJ: When I am not surfing, you will find me on my jetski fishing or on a boat catching tuna. Other than that I try to keep fit and spend time with family and friends. My girlfriend Caitlin is very supportive of me and surfs big waves herself, which is great. She even came and caught some snoek with us once, which was funny until she caught the biggest fish (laughs). My other sports include trail running, mountain biking, snowboarding and diving.
Q: You talked about catching a 100 kg Tuna off your jetski one day. How would you manage that?
JJ: It is something I have wanted to do for a while now. I am still figuring it all out but I am confident that I will get it right when the fish is running and the conditions are just right. Watch this space!
Q: Do you think jetski fishing would enjoy the same popularity in the Cape as it has in KwaZulu-Natal?
JJ: Yes, I definitely see a future for the sport here in the Cape. We are lucky in the fact that we have two different oceans close together and a huge peninsula separating them. This means that we have a vast range of fish species from bottomfish to large concentrations of gamefish that can be caught at any time of the year. The Peninsula makes it safe and easy to fish, whatever the weather/sea conditions. What’s more, we have plenty of slipways and fishing clubs dotted all over our coastline, as well as active and efficient NSRI bases at most launch sites.