How John John and Jon Pyzel teamed up with a Ghost to slay the field.
It’s circa 1997 and Jon Pyzel is living on the North Shore of Oahu and working for the iconic Hawaiian label, Country Surfboards. A talented surfer in his own right, Pyzel had relocated from Santa Barbara to Oahu to chase waves and work on his craft. At this point in time he is shaping a few boards, fixing dings and surfing hard. One day a car pulls up when John happens to be at work and and a mother gets out trailed by her trio of blonde surflings. Alex Florence asks Jon Pyzel if he can make her eldest son, John John, a board. “I was just like, ‘Sure I’ll do it, just pay for the blank,’” Pyzel reflected in a Tracks article some twenty years later.
“I’m not sure how she knew to come there or why she came to me,” he stated, pondering the hand that fate had dealt him.
Pyzel made five-year-old John John a 4’6” (he still has the board) and begun one of the most fruitful and long-standing shaping relationships in pro surfing history. Soon after ordering that board John John emerged as a surfing wunderkind, figuring out how to get Pipe barrels at an age when most grommets were still happy with head-dips in a shorey. Things went a little quiet media-wise in his mid-teens, but by the time John John matured he was the complete act – a tube-riding maestro with a dynamic air game and an affinity for the rail.
Not surprisingly there were many shapers eager to have the Hawaiian prodigy riding their boards. While Pyzel insists he has always given John John the freedom to ride other boards if he felt they would better serve his needs, he recalls a classic moment from a surfing trade show in California when the poachers were circling. After a few drinks, Pyzel found himself surrounded by several of the shapers and reps attempting to convince John John to jump ship. He didn’t miss his chance to make a cutting quip. “I said, I’m just the guy with the really hot girlfriend and you’re all trying to f$%k her.”
As it stands John John and Jon Pyzel are still a tight-nit team. While they have experimented and refined several boards over the years it is the ‘Ghost’ model that has emerged as John John’s favourite and the one most synonymous with his two world title victories.
According to Pyzel the Ghost model had its origins as a board he was making for the Hawaiian lifeguards and a few lesser-known pros. It’s defining characteristic was the wider, high-volume nose juxtaposed by the significantly narrower, knifier tail. J.D. Irons (Bruce and Andy’s cousin) was an early advocate and had ridden it with success in Tahiti. “It was a tube riding board,” recalls Jon Pyzel, over the phone. “It had an even wider nose originally, and I started trimming the nose down to a certain degree – but it was still wide.
Eventually, Pyzel had refined the shape enough to drop one off to John John and see if he was into it. John John had won his 2016 world title riding his Pyzel Bastard model almost exclusively and according to Pyzel it was always a challenge to get John to experiment with something different. “He just stuck to his boards so much that it was kind of out of his little world… I didn’t really push it on him so much as suggest that this might be fun… my thought was instead of riding a narrow-nosed 6’4” at Backdoor try this 6’2”. It’ll paddle great and feel a little of different.” The board was 6’2” x 18.75 x 2.50 x 29.20 litres.
That was the Hawaiian winter of 2016/2017 and the first hint of the Ghost’s potential came when Pyzel saw an Insta clip of John John alley-ooping over Rainbows at Backdoor. He hadn’t even been aware that John John had elected to give the board a shot.
Below: One of John John’s first waves on the Ghost
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After making the semis in the first event on the Gold Coast aboard a Voayger model, John John unsheathed the Ghost at Margarets. It was still the very first version of the board Pyzel had made him, the one he’d experimented with in the latter stages of the Hawaiian Winter.
At Margarets the synergy between John John and the Ghost were immediately apparent. On finals day John John produced an inspired display that is still considered by many to be one of the best ever performances in a contest jersey. In chunky, but open-faced eight-to-ten foot conditions that had a Hawaiian feel, John John carved giant arcs that seemed to combined impossible precision with raw power. It was like watching an ice-skater splice perfect figure-eights in a rink after a whip in by a V8.
The Ghost’s pronounced forward volume gave John confidence as he entered turns while the thinned out tail with the knife-edge allowed him to throw all of his 80kg rig at the rail. The lines were just different from anything anyone had seen before and had the commentary team was left reaching for new superlatives to describe the action. “Wow, I don’t know if there’s anybody else on tour that can do a turn quite like that,” commented Pottz as John John unleashed on the Main Break Rights. Poor Jack Freestone (semis) and Kolohe Andino (finals) were made to look pedestrian as John John posted consecutive heat totals North of 19 points. At Bells the same 6’2” Ghost was back to haunt the opposition. In round four John John threw a giant, lofted Alley-Oop where the board was so high it fluttered beneath his feet like a butterfly’s wing.
In an interview with Tracks after the Australian leg Jon Pyzel discussed some of the nuances of the design that helped John John take his surfing to another place.
“The nose was almost a quarter inch thicker than the tail,” explained Pyzel. Those kinds of proportions were not common in performance shortboards at the time. “The Ghost has a very refined rail for its thickness,” continued Pyzel. A finer rail will allow you to cut through bumpy water without as much push back, allowing you to hold the rail without getting bucked off.”
For the remainder of 2017 year John John rode the Ghost almost exclusively. After two semi-finals finishes in Trestles and France he sealed the title in Hawaii with a second-place finish in the Pipe Masters. Forward volume and width in boards had been given new validation by John John’s victory. As Jon Pyzel humbly put it. “I’m pretty sure there are plenty of boards similar to that before mine, but it does take someone like John John to bring it to a broader viewpoint.”
Returning from an injury-plagued 2018, John John won two of the first four events (giant Bells and chunky Margarets) of 2019 on the Ghost, before again injuring his knee. Italo’s 2019 world title win was well-deserved, but it may have been a much tougher title to claim if a fit John John was there to challenge on his Ghost.