When I texted Jojo Roper to see if he was at home in San Diego and could link up for an interview last week, I gave it poor odds the answer would be yes. After all, if you follow the San Diego big-wave surfer on Instagram, it seems like he's perpetually on the road, chasing Mavericks monsters or looking ant-like on the oversized faces of Nazare. But I caught Jojo amid a rare break between swells (he'd just gotten home from Oregon, where he won the Nelscott Reef Pro, and Mavericks, where he'd tempted fate on the left side of the peak) and between shifts glassing and sanding at his dad's factory, Joe Roper’s Surfboard Repair. Shortly thereafter we were sitting on a bench overlooking the water in La Jolla, not far from the waves Jojo grew up surfing, to talk about his recent big-wave event win and why chasing swells is all the sweeter after some long hours grinding out boards.
So tell me about the Nelscott event. You guys split the prize money and then all the surfers voted for the winner, right? That seems like a pretty interesting way to do it.
Yeah, so the night before in the competitor's meeting, the event organizers essentially allowed the surfers to pick how they wanted it to be judged, which is obviously a lot different from the events we're used to surfing. Everyone ended up surfing together at the same time, and then reviewing all the waves at the end and voting for the winner. It's a cool way to do it, because everyone is really opinionated and sometimes there's controversy when it comes to big-wave judging, so it allowed everyone to actually have a hand in making the final decision.
Sometimes there's controversy? You mean there isn't always?
[Laughs.] Yeah, more like every time.
And I'm sure I don't know the half of it. For every big-wave competitor who publicly criticizes a judging decision, there's probably a dozen share the sentiment but don't say anything.
Yeah, I'd definitely fall into the second category. I'm not going to argue with WSL judges, because I'm not some big-wave champion who has earned the right to speak out on that stuff. Or at least that's the way I see it.
So what did that feel like to win an event decided by a jury of your peers?
To be honest, it didn't feel like a true win—I'm actually curious about who voted for me [laughs.] But when I was surfing that day, I knew I got a couple good waves and figured there was a chance that I'd end up winning this thing. So that felt good, for sure.
How do you square the mental aspect of big-wave competition? It seems like there's such a difference between the way you'd approach freesurfing big waves, and the way you approach surfing them in a contest format.
It's funny, because they are completely different. Normally, when you're surfing big waves, you go sit in the zone where you expect a certain kind of wave to break, and then you just wait for that wave to come to you. In contests, you can't really wait, you have to chase anything and everything. It's fun, it's just different. You really have to find your competitive nature to do well in those situations, and, honestly, I'm not sure that I've found mine yet. That's what I really want to focus on now, is getting better at contest surfing and competitive strategy. I can find those waves in a heat, but getting really competitive with the other surfers is tougher for me. Maybe I'm too nice and I give other surfers too many opportunities in heats. It's a matter of telling myself, "I'm going to win this heat," rather than, "I'm going to make this heat."
You come from a blue-collar background and you still work at the factory with your dad. How does that color your view of the whole professional big-wave surf scene and what you want to get out of that pursuit?
I still work at the shop today and I think my background just makes me want to work harder to get those opportunities–and to really appreciate them. Lucky for me, I'll always be able to make money working at the shop, so I'm fortunate in that I can have that peace of mind when I'm spending all this time chasing swells. For the past 10 years of my life, it's all been about working as hard as I can when I'm home so that I can pay for more trips to chase more waves. When you're finishing work at 8 p.m. on Monday and flying out at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, it makes that trip a bigger deal than if your sponsor was just paying all your bills. For a while, I felt like every time I was on a trip I had to whip around on a crazy one or take these risks because I had to make it worth it, but I try to be a bit more calculated about it now. When I'm home, I'm glassing boards, sanding, doing whatever needs to get done, so surfing it always going to feel like a reward for me and not a job.
Do you feel like an underdog showing up at contests after working all week at the factory? I feel like there are certain guys on the Big Wave Tour who seem like they just stepped out of a hyperbaric chamber and are putting on a jersey.
There are definitely guys who have a lot more hours in the day to train and spend preparing for events, and that's definitely an advantage for them. But good for them, you know? They've dedicated themselves to this thing and that's awesome that they've found the support that they have. And Hurley does help me out with a lot of things, so I'm not complaining by any means.
From the outside looking in, this seems like the craziest time to be a big-wave surfer, just in terms of the evolution that's happening on all fronts: bigger paddle ins, guys exploring tow surfing again, people packing lefts at Mavericks—the speed of that evolution has just gotten nuts, right?
It has, absolutely. I actually had a tow board shaped for me by Rusty 6 years ago, but I didn't glass it, because I thought, "When am I actually going to use this?" But after last season I had to glass it, because it ended up being the Year of the Tow and we all saw what these other guys were doing and realized that in certain situations, that's the best approach. I was kicking myself for not having it before that big Fiji swell [where Ramon Novarro towed into this beast.] And then the left at Mavericks is so gnarly. But whether you're going left or right, if you're anywhere near the vortex of the bowl, it doesn't matter–either way if you fall, you're going to be in adventure world down there for a very long time. It's so heavy regardless. A couple of guys have gotten barreled on the left, and that's the dream, obviously, but going backside out there is pretty hard. I've had six or eight lefts this year, and when you take off, there's this big lump that you have to go over. It's such an uneasy feeling. But it's exhilarating, and there's a lot to accomplish going left out there, which is cool.
It must be wild, because you probably start the year with certain goal posts, but then you end up moving them after practically every swell.
Yeah, 100 percent. At the start of the season, I wanted to just get a left at Mavs, and then it changed to trying to get barreled on one. Or like last year, I wanted to come from behind the Jaws bowl, and now you have to get a crazy barrel at Jaws or it doesn't count [laughs.] The bar is so high, and it pushes you to think about things differently. It changes the way you think about boards, too, because now the big-wave boards we order have to be able to put you in parts of the wave that you weren't even looking at before. I spend quite a few hours with Rusty, just sitting with him on the computer, seeing how we can tweak all my big-wave boards. Everything is getting so much more fine-tuned. My Mavs board is different than my Jaws board, which is different than my Nazare board, and then my Puerto boards are a foot smaller than all the rest—I've ended up with a lot of surfboards, but it helps that I'm glassing them [laughs.] It's an exciting time to be surfing big waves, for sure. Pretty soon people are going to be surfing huge waves on smaller boards, doing things that you never would have even thought of just a few years ago.