Surfer

ISLAND   OF THE   MIND

The plane doesn’t look big enough. John Florence surveys the pile of surfboards on the tarmac being loaded inside and scratches his head. It’s going to be tight. The seven-seater Piper Navajo is sitting in the middle of a sheep paddock that moonlights twice a day as an airstrip. Tumbleweeds hustle past. The wind is blowing its tits off. There’s a 30-knot tailwind to negotiate, but we need to get up in the air real soon—there’s a 50-knot change coming. The rough flight is customary. You only fly to King Island on the biggest swells, and with the swell comes the weather. Hang onto your lunch.

I don’t tell Florence that a light plane with five American golfers crashed on the way to King Island last year—flew into an outlet mall on take off and burst into flames with no survivors. I do tell him, however, that if our pilot has a heart attack then he’s flying this bird. Florence took flying lessons years ago, practicing mid-air stalls while dodging incoming airliners at Honolulu Airport. Those lessons and his low pulse rate might come in handy in the event of a slumped pilot and a nosediving plane.

We cross the coast over Point Impossible and fly out over Bass Strait. The ocean is whipped white, and the little plane jerks like a dancing puppet. Florence’s eyes don’t leave the ocean below for the whole hour. The rest of us have white knuckles but Florence is monastically calm. He has an easy way of moving through the elements, be they air or water.

King Island is a clod of rural dirt sitting out in Bass Strait. It’s one of the last remaining traces of the old land bridge that connected Tasmania to the Australian mainland during the last Ice Age. With a free week between contests, Florence has gone adventuring. He’s here for

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