Ernie Johnson doesn’t exactly look like the type of guy you’d have a serious discussion with about kettle-bell workout recovery. Tatted up, with long wisps of salt and pepper into locks of blond, the ripped and wiry, laid-back 47-year-old Starboard team racer is full of surprises. Talking at once about how to simply live “a chill life, and keep it mellow,” Johnson changes his tone when analyzing a typical training session: “It’s a race, you don’t want to fall behind your training partner—it’s on, all the time.” It’s the type of Big Stick Diplomacy that would make Teddy Roosevelt proud, paired with an “obsessive” race ethic that’s helped Johnson leave his mark on standup paddle racing’s elite circuit as a perennial podium contender. The contrast of style and substance makes a fitting label for his sought-after, custom Johnson Big Stick paddles. Now with a workshop set up in Dana Point, Calif., E.J. is ramping up production between finishing local carpentry contracts and a packed schedule of race dates around the globe. – DS
The first time I did standup I was just using one of those oars that come with a dingy, and I said I need to go home and make something cool. Since I’m a woodworker, it was right up my alley. I fired off some wood paddles, busted the first three that I made and had to start changing the designs. That was probably six years ago.
It changed when I got a really good board from Brian Szymanski of North County Paddleboards—cutting edge displacement paddleboard, a style from traditional [prone] paddleboarding. It was ‘08 when I got on a fast board. Then ‘09, I started really doing well in the stock class here in California.
I’ve just got to stay on top of my training now. You have an obligation to be pretty fast. And we’ve got some youngsters stepping in from a canoe background that are killing us. Couple guys, Danny Ching and Will Reichenstein, especially.
I was just a skateboarder [in high school], a heavy metal drummer. I was a varsity tennis player—long hair, kinda modeled myself after [Bjorn] Borg with the headbands and stuff.
I was a marching band drummer too, got heckled for that through school, then started playing in rock bands. The last band I was in was with the brothers from Raygun Tattoo, called the Thing with Two Heads, metal-reggae-punk fusion.
The first tattoo I got was 25 years ago, some fishy thing that’s been molded over. Now I only have four tattoos, all molded into one. It’s addicting once you start.
I’ve been called Iggy Pop, Kid Rock. You just gotta stay true to yourself. I got my own style. I’m the last of the hair farmers.
I don’t like paddling in the harbor too much, I go straight out. It’s a blessing to be out in the open ocean to get away. It’s Zen-like, not just grind, grind, grind. You have your days when it’s hard and can go 60-70 percent just to put in the miles, so you’re not gasping for air—save that for the races.
[SUP] is so unique. We’ve done tours off Catalina where we put drybags on our boards, go out for 4-5 nights on the leeside of the island, stayed at the boat-in campgrounds … I’ll continue to do it as long as I’m able to stand and paddle.
I paddle with a girl 90 percent of the time—my Starboard teammate Brandi [Baksic, with whom E.J. set a new 12’6” stock-class record in the 40-mile, 2010 Catalina Challenge]. She’s, in my opinion, the fastest girl out there in the world.
Maybe I’m obsessive a little bit. If you’re going to do something, do it right, man. Be whole-hearted and represent yourself. Fly your own flag.
Johnson Big Stick paddles are built in an array of wood blends and composite-enhanced options. Johnson’s Signature model, pictured, features 28 pieces of wood in seven varieties intricately built into a solid 30-ounce stick with a black walnut shaft and a 15-degree bend. The stylish blade with a subtle dihedral shape comes reinforced with 4-ounce fiberglass ($350, johnsonbigstick.com).