Like most YouTube videos posted by Nathan Florence, a 29-year-old surfer known for riding the world’s scariest waves, the clip posted on April 12, 2019, leads with cuteness.
Titled “Full Day of Surfing with My Brothers and John Gives Me a Board to Try!!! || Nate’s Big Adventure,” it opens mid-frame like a raw home movie. You see Florence barefoot and giggling in surf trunks on green grass, shaggy brown hair cut in a DIY-looking mullet. Then he’s snuggling a fluffy cat and whispering, “Tell the viewers hello. Show them your pretty blue eyes.”
Unlike most of Florence’s videos, this one hints at the elephant in the room of Florence’s life, and also at the brilliant solution that has made him the unlikely breakout star of surfing’s most surprising new generation: the high-performance YouTubers creating an entirely new category of pro surfer.
The first clue comes in the video’s title. “John” is Nathan’s eldest brother, John John Florence, the two-time World Champion, the reigning king of American surfing. The second clue comes in a small-wave action montage that skips from Nathan surfing with enviable power and flow to John John surfing so much faster and better than Nathan—and pretty much everyone else on earth—that it’s almost embarrassing.
Back at his house on Oahu’s North Shore, Nathan turns to the camera and recalls the session in that montage, how he sat on his board and innocently told his brother that he was seeing air sections here and there. Nathan then slips into a different voice, channeling somebody harder and tougher—like maybe (and this is just a guess) John John. “ ‘Yeah. There is. Maybe I’m going to, like … go for one.’ ” Two waves later, Nathan says with the eternal outrage of an upstaged younger brother, John John launched a huge 360 air, stuck the landing, carved a turn, and then boosted another—truly elite, competition-winning stuff, tossed off in a casual surf.
Florence, now performing his own disgusted rage at the very sight of this, says, “I’m just like, You know what?’” Then he bursts out laughing and says, “You know what? I’m outta here!”
Outta the whole game, that is—outta the entire lose-lose proposition of competing head-on with his gifted brother, and instead into a game of his own invention, one he’s already winning.
“I grew up on the North Shore,” Florence told me on a recent Zoom call. “My mom was just a classic New Jersey surf girl—16, 17, ‘I’m running away. I want to live in Hawaii.’ And that’s what she did.” Florence’s mother, Alex, and father, John Sr., met while working on cruise ships, had three kids in quick succession—John John in 1992, Nathan in ’94, Ivan in ’96—and split up soon after, leaving Alex to raise the kids on her own.
Florence’s mother eventually found them a home on the sand at Pipeline, surfing’s ultimate proving ground. With superstars like Kelly Slater competing out front, the Florence boys dreamed of going pro.
“John was ultracompetitive, and he was winning contests from early on,” Florence says. “And I was not. I just sucked in events.”
Back then the only other path to pro sponsorship was that of the so-called free surfer. To succeed with this whimsical-sounding career, surfers had to show up at high-profile breaks whenever the cameras were rolling, surf well enough to get photos in magazines, and release occasional feature-length videos. Guys—and they were always male, like Dave Rastovich, Donavon Frankenreiter, and later Rob Machado—made a decent living this way in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“By the time Nathan came into his own, that world had already changed,” says Kai Lenny, a big-wave surfer from Maui. The free-surfer model had fallen apart—mainly because Facebook and Google devoured the global ad business, killing off most of the surf mags in the process, and because free YouTube content destroyed the market for surf videos.
John John survived—and thrived—by going the conventional route, winning the Championship Tour of the World Surf League in 2016 and 2017. Nathan needed a different strategy. He’d always been good in giant surf, so he tried competing on the WSL’s less lucrative Big Wave Tour—racking up good contest results at Mexico’s Puerto Escondido, in Portugal, and back in Hawaii. In 2019, the WSL canceled the tour outright, in favor of what the league called a “big wave platform” that no longer crowned a world champion.
That left the Billabong XXL Awards, an annual competition with prize money based on footage from the prior year. Florence dutifully flew around the world, charging watery mountains and sending in clips that made him a solid contender in 2020 and 2021—just in time for Billabong, in 2022, to shelve the XXL Awards.
Cue Jamie O’Brien, former contest pro and North Shore local, a childhood friend of the Florences who is 11 years older than Nathan. As surfing’s first successful YouTuber, O’Brien was—and still is—pumping out two videos a week, blending famous-surfer cameos and zany high jinks like riding Pipeline in an inflatable dinosaur costume.
“He actually came to me,” Florence says of O’Brien, “and was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You’re blowing it. You’re killing it on Instagram, but you need to get on YouTube.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God, 100 percent.’ ”
His body went from bent forward in a safety position to flexed backward like a bow. “I felt the snap and was like, I think I broke my back.”
Florence soon discovered two things about himself: a talent for being on camera, and a genuine interest in the social media analytics that would allow him to discern what viewers like. And in Florence’s case, the data said that people wanted to watch him surf huge waves.
Which is how Florence broke his back earlier this year at a spot on Maui called Jaws. He had just popped to his feet at the top of a wave, he says, when the entire wall went concave. “I just see 30 feet drop out below me, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” he says.
Florence plummeted through space, skipped like a stone down the lower portion of the face, then got sucked back into the curl. When he landed a second time, he says, his body went from bent forward in a safety position to flexed backward like a bow. “I felt the snap and was like, I think I broke my back.”
Scans later revealed a compressed vertebra, but Florence expects to make a full recovery. In the meantime, he’s still cranking out videos—watching the Eddie Aikau Invitational big-wave contest from shore, answering viewer questions with his wife, even doing standard influencer fare such as unboxing packages from sponsors like C4 Energy, GoPro, and Vans. Holding a bottle of CBD body oil, for example, Florence says into the camera, “Speaking of body oil, guess who started an OnlyFans? It’s a lot of XX-clusive content.” Florence launched his channel on the subscription service widely known for pornography in July 2021. But, he adds, “It’s not what you think. We’re doing tips and tricks … how to stay fit on land for the water.”
Florence isn’t the only pro making content, of course. Ben Graeff, a scraggly-haired New Jersey surfer who goes by Ben Gravy, does pretty well with videos of himself riding novelty waves like tidal bores, boat wakes, and Great Lakes dribblers. More to the point, a whole clutch of Florence’s Hawaiian peers are helping pioneer this new business model with content of their own. Koa Rothman, for example, another North Shore standout and childhood friend of the Florences, has a successful YouTube series called This Is Livin’. (Florence and Rothman also do the Nate and Koa Podcast together.) Kai Lenny, with production support from his sponsor Red Bull, puts out an infrequent but slickly produced video series called Life of Kai. Then of course there’s O’Brien—still at it, with more YouTube subscribers than any other surfer, 897,000 at last count.
Yet with more than 139 million total views and nearly a billion impressions in 2022 alone, there’s a case to be made that Florence now leads the pack. (He also has nearly double the subscriber count of his more talented brother.) Florence is cagey about exactly how much money he earns but calls it “compound growth.” As he explains: “YouTube starts to pay you from the ad revenue, you go on more surf trips because you’re getting money to travel, and you put out more content and bring more value to your brands. It’s a snowball effect.”
Florence adds that he’s already doing better than contest pros ranked in the top 20 on the World Tour. “Some of those guys don’t have a main sponsor,” he says. “How gnarly is that? You’re one of the 20 best surfers in the world. But a brand looks at you and goes, ‘You don’t have eyes on you. How can we get you to sell our product?’ ”
Meanwhile, Florence doesn’t have to worry about contest results or injuries suddenly derailing his entire career; he just has to be himself.
“So many people are a different person on social media,” he says, “they change their personality. I’m never going to do that. I’m going to be myself. I’m a weird dude. I’m a dork. I don’t mind putting it out there.”