Durban’s surfer’s extraordinary journey to find his true north

From his young days spent in Durban waters as a bodysurfer, to the thundering tubes of Hawaii and the wild waves of Mozambique and Namibia, ocean child John McCarthy has explored countless exotic destinations on his unique salt-water journey to find the perfect wave.

Known for his extraordinary connection to mother-nature and his mission to pioneer some of the greenest surfboards in the world, John is heating up South Africa’s writing scene with his new book, The Sexy Ugly Beautifuls – dubbed a rock ‘n’ roll collection of ocean-infused adventures, based on three decades of surfing all over the world.

Naturally unassuming, John is a handsome, dapper, middle-aged man of few words, but when he does speak, he is an incredible storyteller and his message powerful. He wears his travels and totems proudly around his neck and on his fingers as a constant reminder of his involvement in surfing and the deeply personal ways in which it has shaped his life.

“Fifteen years ago I found my journal – a collaboration of poems I’d written on my travels – that triggered all these memories, so I started writing out the stories relating to each poem. In the end, I had 150 000 words in front of me which, with the help of an editor, I managed to cut down to 90 000 for a cleaner, easier read. What it is really is more than a decade of blood, sweat and tears condensed into a book that is not only for surfers, but for those who love an adventure. I received a note from a reader recently thanking me for helping to liberate her own free spirit by sharing my story. This was just the kind of feedback I was hoping to get.”


It’s a collection of 51 chapters, short stories or anecdotes, if you will, each of which tells a different story, so they can be read separately at random, but if read together, it becomes one synchronized tale of a life spent surfing, diving and exploring unusual places and adventuring with colourful characters.

A former competitive surfer, John is the founder of the Swim Free Confidence Underwater Course and OCEAN CHILD Mindful Adventure. Through these, he specialises in ocean recreation and safety, surfing, yoga, free dive, hiking and open water swims in remote wilderness areas. He is also the pioneer of The Greener Surfer and is heavily involved in research and development of environmentally friendly surfboards. His approach to surfing relates to his deep reverence for the natural life.

“We are the only species on the planet that has chosen to live outside of nature, and that is not good for nature or for us.”

Chapter 1 in the book speaks of John’s first encounter with the ocean and how his love for the sea and its energy blossomed in his youth growing up in the rock pools of Sheffield beach. As a boarder at school inland, he couldn’t wait for the holidays to get down to the sea to surf.

“When it was time for university, I still had no clue where I was headed in life. I just knew I wanted to surf and avoid the army, so I went to UCT, got a BA in Social Anthropology, with senior courses in English and Economic History and then joined the professional surfing circuit.”

With help from SA surf legend, Shaun Tomson, John headed for the epic tubes of Hawaii’s North Shore where he fell in love with the waves, the people and the geography of the area. When he eventually realized his love of surfing was bigger than his love for competing, he left the circuit and hung around in Hawaii for two years before returning to Durban and enjoying the rewards of marriage and fatherhood.

“It has never really was about the finding the biggest wave for me. I love riding all sizes and kinds of waves. It was more about the experience. It was about being isolated, having the sea all to myself, finding a wave and working with it and my board to turn the ride into something amazing – an incredible journey of its own.”

While his list of memorable waves is extensive, two of the biggest he ever rode were at Hout Bay’s Dungeons and at Waimea Bay, a legendary destination for big wave surfing in Hawaii, and as John describes it, “simply a magical place.”

“The most profound wave I ever surfed was in Namibia. I was alone in the desert and pretty much lost when I came across a 2km stretch of ocean boasting one impressive wave after the other. It was flawless, violent and intense and blew my mind! It was only in the later stages of John’s life that he began focusing on trying to leave the world in a better state. “I learnt a lot from the Hawaiian people and have always been fascinated by the way Hawaiian’s connect with the environment, and how this can be experienced directly through the practice of surfing.”

The Turtle became John’s totem after spotting one following a big wipe out and being washed out to sea in Hawaii. It was thanks to the turtle that he was able to figure out his rescue plan, and today he maintains that the turtle teaches us to take a break from our busy lives, to walk our path in peace – whether it’s to cultivate peace of mind or a peaceful relationship with our environment – and stick to it with determination and serenity.

“My greener journey began when I became fascinated by the idea of learning to ride the original Hawaiian surfboard called the Alaia. It’s basically just a piece of wood, with a beautifully simple yet consistent design principle, but it takes a lot of skill to ride it. It opened my mind to what was possible. After this, I realized just how toxic my own regular surfboards were for me and for the sea, so I made it my mission to reshape my life and inspire others to do the same.”

On his journey, John has also owned a number of different surf publications and it was through these that he rubbed shoulders with many celebs, who shared his vision and gave him the encouragement he needed to pursue his dream of ‘The Greener Surfer’. He was the subject of a short film entitled, Sea Change, which won several Loeries in SA, and the best environmental film at the Art and Tur Film Festival in Lisbon. It was also shown at the Santa Cruz Film festival in California in 2017.

“I was on a mission to find the perfect wave to ride, and on the way I met some amazing people, explored some of the most untouched places, had all kinds of experiences and I’ve come out a better person. I’ve nearly drowned, almost tore my ear off and had some harrowing, but also some beautifully unforgettable experiences, ones that have made everything worth it. Now I’m on a mission to find environmentally responsible solutions, while playing in the ocean, and I make surfboards greener by using wood, 100% recycled EPS foam and environmentally sensitive materials, like hemp and flax instead of fibreglass. Technically, we are pioneering some of the greenest boards in the world right here in Durban. This makes me extremely proud.”

“Surfing is the most blissful experience you can have on this planet, a taste of heaven. What I do connects me with nature. To a make a living by helping others to get into the best surf on the best boards, with the least crowds, and in the most beautiful places to create memorable experiences… that’s what I call a great life. For the rest, nature calls the shots; we just get to play the hand.”

The Sexy Ugly Beautifuls is available at a cost of R250 and can be ordered from the website