Matt Wilkinson, Corona Open J-Bay 2017. Photo: Moran
Matt Wilkinson, Corona Open J-Bay 2017. Photo: Moran

In The Hot Seat: Matt Wilkinson

Catching up with the current World No.1 after his fifth-place finish at Jeffreys Bay

After a few years of finishing in the middle of the ‘CT pack, flashing brilliance but never quite showing it consistently, Matt Wilkinson started 2016 with back-to-back ‘CT wins at Snapper and Bells. But after his final in Fiji last year, the wheels fell off, and Wilko spent the rest of the season racking up 13ths and 25ths, and by the time Portugal rolled around in October he was all but out of the World Title race. This year, Wilko has once again bottled that 2016 magic, making two finals (winning in Fiji), a semi, and a quarter, which has him once again on top of the pack and wearing the yellow jersey at the mid-year mark. When we caught up with Wilko to get his thoughts on J-Bay and the rest of 2017, he was en route from South Africa to his Byron Bay home, where he'll only spend a few hours before jetting back to the airport and flying straight to Tahiti.

J-Bay had a bit of everything. And there's been a lot of hyperbole surrounding the event, with quite a few people claiming it was one of the best ever on Tour. What are your thoughts?

It has to be up there with one of the best ever. You don't see that many good waves left behind in a waiting period, not to mention the level of surfing during the whole event, and the excitement of sharks and boats and guys getting eight 10s or something like that. It was pretty f–king awesome.

You can't talk about J-Bay and not talk about sharks. You actually spotted the one that came up the point during Mick's heat as the water patrol was clearing the lineup. Was that on your mind as far as preparing for your quarterfinal against Julian Wilson?

For sure. That one, I kinda got excited, because it was such a crazy thing to see. But as soon as it cleared the area and they restarted Mick's heat, my mindset switched, and I was like, 'Shit, I actually have to go out there now.' [Laughs] But you know they're always there. To see them makes them a lot more real, but deep down, you know you're always going to be dealing with that, and the stats say you're not going to get eaten by a shark. Where I live [Byron Bay], there's a lot of shark action, and I've learned to be comfortable in thinking that the chances of dying while doing anything else are way higher, so I might as well enjoy doing what I love to do.

I've been cage-diving before ,and it made me realize they're not just trying to attack something as soon as they see it. They're pretty much just cruising. Even when there were fish heads dangling around, they'd swim past, have a close look, and then, if they wanted too, they'd hit it hard. But when they're just slowly cruising like that one was in the lineup, I don't think they give a shit about who or what's around. At least, that's what I like to tell myself [Laughs].

Talk about surfing a perfect 6-footer at J-Bay backside. Is it difficult to read the wave?

I've never gotten to surf it on my forehand, so I don’t know what that's like [Laughs]. I actually just saw a clip of Mick [Fanning] reversed, surfing J-Bay as a left, and it really made me want to surf it on my forehand. But yeah, it's tricky backside. When you're free-surfing out there, it's one of the most fun waves in the world because you’re going so fast, speeding past sections, doing big carves—it's all about drawing whatever lines you wanna draw. But when you get put out there in a heat, you need to fit enough major turns along the wave to get a score, so it makes the surf a lot more difficult. On your backside, you really have to time it so that you hit it early and can get out of there with enough speed to not get caught behind. The first few days free-surfing, I'd find myself trying big turns and getting left behind wave after wave. But that's kind of the fun of it, too. When you do hit a big section proper and then highline into another one, it's one of the most fun things in the world.

As far as the ratings go, you're in an identical position now as you were this time last year. What's different this time around?

Last year, I shot out into the lead and it was a massive surprise for me. I went to J-Bay and I was really psyched to get a big result, and then the waves were tiny, and I had some really wobbly waves and fell off a bunch of times. I don’t know if it was nerves or pressure, but I definitely didn't perform how I wanted. I was definitely caught up thinking I needed to make enough heats just to keep my spot on top. This year, I went to J-Bay feeling calmer, but with the mindset that I was gonna win the event. Hopefully I can keep that mentality the rest of the year and keep pushing through the back half.

Do you and Glenn Hall [Wilko's coach] reference last year much, or are you taking a totally different approach?

A little bit, but we also both agree that, last year, I didn't necessarily make too many mistakes during the back half. I just had a few weird little things that didn't go my way, and a couple mistakes that lost me out of events. So I think we're following a similar plan, but with experience in this kind of situation now. I definitely feel more comfortable.

You just arrived home to Oz and you're turning around in a few hours to head to Tahiti. How's the forecast looking?

There's a little mid-range swell, and I'm just going to get some waves, really. If you go right before the event starts, everyone is there, and you don’t have time to try boards, and you're never really on the best ones because there's so many people surfing. So I'm going to try and do my prep now. That way, all I have do before the event is show up and beat the jetlag [Laughs].

Speaking of the pre-event freesurfs and all the crowds and riffraff, is there any chance the WSL will ever close those freesurfs to the public?

We bring that up at every surfers meeting, but I think it's tough for those guys to get it done. At waves like Chopes, it's not too big of a deal, but coming into waves like Trestles and Snapper, those are the worst of them all as far as getting practice and trying out boards. You're basically just sitting out there hassling, and when you finally get a wave, you end up dodging people. Getting a few hours per day the few days before the event would be massive, but, then again, the locals figure we have enough time at their waves [Laughs]. So who knows. I'm not sure what we should do about that.

Well, good luck going forward. With yourself, John, Jordy and Owen all within a couple hundred points of one another, it should be a fun battle for the rest of the year.

It's going to be so fun. I'm really excited for these next five comps.

[Featured Image: Matt Wilkinso, Corona Ope J-Bay 2017. Photo by Moran]