In late June, Julian Wilson found himself bobbing around in the South Pacific. He wasn’t quite sure where he was, but he knew where he wasn’t. He wasn’t in Brazil with the rest of the pro tour. After a decade, he’d walked away from that life last year. Instead, he was sitting off the back ledge at Cloudbreak with just two other guys, sitting on an 8’6” on a dead glass sea, waiting for a 15-foot set to appear from the south with his name on it. He’d never surfed Cloudbreak’s mythical back ledge before, but lately he’s been making a thing of walking into the unknown. It’s a long way from the castaway kid with the puka shell necklace, surfing his longboard at Noosa, the marketing department’s dream. He’s long shaken the Golden Child tag to prove himself in serious surf, winning Pipeline and Tahiti. More importantly, he’s shaken the Golden Child curse that’s befallen Australian surfing for generations. Julian Wilson sits off the back ledge at Cloudbreak, content. Up the reef, a set rumbles his way. – Interview by Sean Doherty
SW It still blows my mind when you see Cloudbreak doing that. How a big wave can actually be more perfect than a small wave.
JW I haven’t really sat in the water with waves that tall, that long and that perfect before. But it was strange the way that the day sort of all unfolded. We showed up in the morning with Tevita [Gukilau], and it was light onshore. There were three guys sitting out in the middle of freaking nowhere. I was like, “Is that where the waves actually break?” And then these boats are coming past going, “Five minutes ago there was a 20-foot set that was top-to-bottom and just ate up the whole reef!” I was just like, “What? They’re sitting so far out. They’re getting caught inside?” About half an hour went by and nothing else really broke. There was a few just washing over the inside ledge, but nothing of substance. Tevita was like, “I’m keen to just get out there and have a paddle.” He had a nine-footer and just lives for those days. We sort of eased into it. I paddled out on the eight-footer that I’ve had for four years. I got JS to make me a Cloudbreak board and it’s sat in my garage for four years. I finally waxed it up and went out. It probably took me maybe two, two-and-a-half hours before I caught a wave. It was so inconsistent and then it was still crumbling onshore. But then after about three hours, the tide got low enough and it started to get more consistent, the wind just stopped, and it turned into this swimming pool. I caught my second wave and broke my board. I had a back-up 8’6” that I’d picked up from a surf shop – from Slimes on the Central Coast – the day before I went over. Tevita was talking 9’0”s and stuff and I was like, “I better try and track something down”, so I and went and paid $1400 for an 8’6” from Slimes just out of desperation to not be under-gunned. They told me what fins to use and legropes. It was like the full experience. I walked out of the shop just going, “Fuck, did I really just buy this thing? Am I actually taking this thing with me?” Anyway, I jumped on it and went back out and the window just opened up where these incredible waves started rifling along the reef. I don’t know how big – 12-foot, 12-foot plus – some guys on the skis and just, me, Tevita and our Fijian mate, Che Bula. We’re kind of just looking at each other, going, “Is this really happening?” Billy Kemper and Koa [Rothman] were there, but they were surfing Restaurants, which was offshore and six foot and perfect as well, but we just sort of camped out and when that window opened, it was just a few of us sitting out there looking at each other, going, “Holy shit. We might get the best wave of our life here.”
SW How did you feel when that first big one kind of swept in and you knew you had
JW The guys on the ski were like, “The black ones are coming!” They could see them first. There was nothing except for the sets and when the sets would stand up, they were like, dark green. There was just like this different colour, and it was just spooky, dark green. Things would just lurch up and start to… not like Chopes or something where it sucks back – but it just comes and mows down the reef.
SW How confident were you that you were actually in the spot?
JW You don’t really get a gauge on it until it stands up. And it’s a tricky wave in that sense, where there’s nothing to gauge off in between. But on those big boards, it felt like if you got the indicator early enough from up the reef that there was a really big one coming, you had a really good chance of positioning yourself right.
SW Surfing Cloudbreak on the inside ledge at six-to-eight foot, you get that sensation of that wave stretching out in front of you forever. What were you seeing on 15-footers out the back?
JW Yeah, same as on the first ledge. The best waves are the ones that look the straightest, looked like you’ve got the least chance of making them. They’re the best ones. And it was the same thing out the back, but almost more perfect. They must be a football field apart, those two reefs, but they both marry up in the same shape somehow. It’s incredible. I don’t think there’s any ceiling on how big that back ledge could handle.
SW When that 2012 swell hit and I spoke to Ian Walsh, he described it as “Twenty-foot Macaronis.” It was sectionless, and it seemed like it got more perfect the bigger it got.
JW Yeah, that’s what I felt. Even from having a bit of experience on the first ledge, to going to that back ledge for the first time, it was almost like, “Holy shit, these are the sickest looking waves I’ve ever seen, but they’re 12 foot, or 15 foot.” On the first ledge, you probably take a lot more chances and there’s a lot more rubbish in between to find those gems. Whereas out the back it stands up and presents itself and you can really identify it as an epic wave.
SW What took you over to Fiji? After quitting the Tour, is this your new life?
Yes and no. I’ve definitely had that on my radar for a long time. We looked at that swell two weeks out and me and Tevita were both like, “Oh, it’s kind of just that in-between size.” I think that’s what kept a lot of the big wave guys from going. But then five days out it upgraded. The period got two seconds longer and the height got another foot bigger, and it just sort of opened up that opportunity for that back ledge.
SW Has it recalibrated your thinking at all about what the next few years might look like? It feels like a fairly significant session in terms of your surfing.
JW It does a little bit. It definitely felt like this semi-euphoric moment where the overwhelming sort of decision of stepping back from the Tour and giving up my spot and going through all those emotions of, “Have I made the right decision? What am I going to do going forward?” were put to rest. Just going and experiencing that for a week was kind of like, “Holy shit. Surfing is just the most incredible thing that I get to do.”
SW So, you haven’t given it up for golf yet.
JW Haven’t given it up for golf. I have a great relationship with Billy [Kemper] and he pulled up in the boat as I got that good wave, and he was just so pumped, so excited for me. “Fuck, do you even know how barrelled you just got on that fucking wave?” And I was like, “I kind of do… but I don’t. I was too terrified to take it in.” I was quizzing him about his fins and his boards and definitely, if the opportunity presents itself, I’d love to go and check out Shipsterns on a good swell and I would love to go back to Cloudbreak and have another opportunity. It was definitely a really cool experience. And even my quiver of boards that I travelled over there with – from a 5’11” quad to an 8’6” – I rode pretty much everything in my quiver. I took 10 boards and rode 10 different boards in six days, surfing two to three times a day.
SW Was there a moment where you knew you were done with the Tour? Was there a moment where it became clear that you needed to step off the train?
JW There wasn’t, and it was the furthest thing from my mind, but going through the hotel quaran-tines and signing up for three-and-a-half months away from the family to go to Hawaii, California, Europe, that changed my thinking. There were just moments of heartache about leaving my wife to look after our two kids in lockdown back in Australia. I was leaving so much responsibility with my wife. I was also shitscared of getting Covid on the road, which would then put me in isolation, which would stop me from being able to do my job, that I was sacrificing time with my family to go and do. I was going to places like El Salvador and Third World countries where isolation was a concrete box. It was just a really daunting experience to go through when you have two young ones at home. I had to get off the train. I was at the mercy of wherever the Tour was going, and they didn’t really know where it was going at that point. And for my own wellbeing. It wasn’t like, I don’t like competing and I don’t feel like I can compete for contest wins and compete for a World Title. It wasn’t that. I love competing. I still love competing, but it was just more my own emotional wellbeing, and at the end of the day my biggest responsibility is being a dad and a husband. I just couldn’t see a way for me to be competing for a world title – which was my only desire for being on the tour – and also being there for my family in a way that made sense.
SW Once you made the call public, was there a lightness to it?
JW I mean, the decision was really tough. I was definitely walking into the unknown. I was trusting my gut, but it was a scary experience for sure. Just to announce it and accept it. Probably the hardest thing was after the Olympics. I’d announced it before the Olympics, then on the way home from the Olympics I was in hotel quarantine when the Tour was off in Mexico. I was in there for two weeks on my own, watching Mexico and it was right in front of my face, the reality of my decision, and obviously dealing with it while I was in hotel quarantine, that was tough.
SW Why aren’t I in Mexico right now!?
JW Yeah, exactly. It was like, “Yeah, I could be in Mexico.” But then that goes on to Tahiti and then Tahiti’s another two weeks away from home. It just…
SW Where does it all end?
JW It doesn’t end. And what the future of it all looked like, was still very much up in the air as well. Just with the restrictions and everything. So yeah, it wasn’t an easy decision, and it hasn’t been. But it’s definitely felt like the right decision for me personally. Just that feeling of the pressure being taken off and my schedule opening right up and me being there for my family, that felt right. And where things go from here, I’m not entirely sure, but I definitely enjoyed going to Fiji and still love surfing any chance I get, but it’s different. I mean, for six, seven months after I stepped off tour, I didn’t surf my high performance shortboard. I was just over it.
SW I was going to ask you about this. What were you surfing instead?
JW I rode a lot of twin fins, experimented a lot with JS Big Barons that he’s doing, from like a 7’0” all the way down to a 5’9” and was loving that. Really enjoyed surfing those up at the points at Noosa for some swells and actually did a couple of trips to Crescent. That was pretty cool because that was our favourite family holiday as kids, going to Crescent for the mal comp.
SW I was going to ask you whether you dusted the log off?
JW Yeah, definitely. I’ve been really enjoying that. It’s so nice to reconnect and not be feeling like I’m taking time away from trying to improve on my shortboard for the next event. It’s just like I can go and ride a mal for five days straight at Crescent and the waves can be ankle high to shoulder high and be so enjoyable to surf, just in a different way.
SW You’ve never lost a love for it?
JW No, never. I used to longboard a lot more in between events when I’d come back to the Sunshine Coast and my dad was still longboarding. That was our thing we did together every time I’d come home. But he hasn’t been surfing now for three to four years, so I stopped riding the longboard too. But now since having the time and being able to go to places like Crescent and enjoy the points at Noosa on a longboard, it’s nice. My eldest kid is four. She’s not quite taken to surfing, but definitely, if the time comes, I’d be so stoked to introduce her to surfing through longboarding the same way I was… just put her on the nose.
SW Have you always kept one eye on the longboarding scene? It feels like it’s really gone somewhere in the last few years.
JW I’ve always watched it. And I always reconnect with Harry [Roach] and Zye [Norris] and the boys at Noosa, they’re some of the best in the world. So, I’m always around it and always keep tabs on it. And from the Duct Tape events to the WSL now having events, I love watching good longboarding.
SW We first saw you on the longboard as this little snowy Ewok. When did you first realise you were actually a well-known surfer?
JW It happened pretty young. The Noosa mal comp, I think I won it five years in a row from when I was 11 or 12. When I competed against kids my own age, I always felt like I had an advantage because the bar was always almost unachievable with my brothers being really good surfers. They were sponsored, and I was the token little brother. There’s five years between me and my middle brother [Seb] and seven between me and the eldest [Bart], and I think I probably would’ve been 12 or 13 when I started beating my brothers. I think it sort of set me up to start winning those events from an early age. I won the under-18 Aussie Title when I was 14 down at Middleton in South Australia.
SW In this mag we’ve got a big piece on Shane Herring, and it obviously Australian surfing doesn’t have a great track record with child prodigies. You were really the Golden Child of your generation, but you’ve come through the other side of it, thriving. How was that experience for you, of having that notoriety at such a young age?
JW Well, I have my brothers to thank massively for getting me to a point where people recognised that I could surf at a young age. And then on the flipside of that, they also kept me in check every step of the way. My brothers were always keeping me in check which I think was a huge blessing. I got my first sponsorship when I was nine with O’Neill. I went to a photo shoot because my brothers were sponsored by O’Neill and they just kind of went, “Oh, we’ll take the token little brother, too.” But that escalated really quickly, going to Switzerland to do catalogue shoots, and travelling around the world when I was nine and 10. It happened quite quick. Then when I was probably 11 or 12, guys like Jeremy and Jordy started coming to Australia, and they were just like these red hot shortboarders with all the sponsors. Jeremy was already in movies and these guys were so developed, and their techniques were unbelievable. I tried surfing against them at D-Bah when I was 13 and just get absolutely towelled up. It was super humbling and it also felt like, whatever attention I got in Australia, it didn’t really mean anything because I knew that these guys were so far ahead. Jordy at 13 was surfing as good as an 18-year-old. And Jeremy was just technically like the next Kelly Slater. So, I think being exposed to those guys at that young age when I was starting to get a little bit of attention, was really humbling, and kept me very much in my lane. But yeah, I think just my brothers, first and foremost always kept me in check and have always been there for me. They’ve been instrumental for my career from then till now.
SW How did you go with the weight of expectations as time went on?
JW The first time I really felt the weight of pressure was very early on people would say, “He’s got the looks, the blonde hair, brown skin, he’s so marketable.” I’ve been hearing that from such a young age and even back then, that gave me the shits so bad. That’s all people saw me as. It provided an incredible opportunity from a young age, sure, but I always felt like I wanted my surfing to be who I was. And the more I’d hear somebody say, “Oh, it’s just he’s got the looks. Of course, he’s got the sponsors” sort of thing, that was always such a big driving force to surf as hard as I possibly could. I feel I’ve used it throughout my career to prove to myself that I earned every cent of any contract I got because my results and my movie sections all added up. I badly wanted to prove that I could surf.
SW Does that explain a little bit too, about why, when you look down your list of wins, you’ve won all the big ones like Pipe and Tahiti? The ones that really count.
JW Snapper was one that I guess, getting a wildcard there and beating Slater at a really young age, I always felt like that was one that maybe one day I could win. Which sort of changed my perspective on how I approached that event and sometimes created too much pressure. I made a couple of finals there and had a win at epic Kirra which ended up being such a highlight. But all the other events, it was just, I guess that experience of being very open to admitting to myself, “Okay, I don’t have this wave wired. This isn’t a wave that I know inside-out at all. But on any given day, can I perform well enough to beat the one other person that’s in the water?” I felt like I worked really hard to get to a place where I upped my percentages enough to back myself in any heat at Pipe and at Chopes. It comes from very humbling experiences to get to that place. But I think, a desire to prove that I could do it for my family, too. That I could do it for Australia was always a big thing too for me. I think when there’s a purpose and an underlying story that’s driving me, I’ve definitely surprised myself.
SW You’ve definitely won the good ones.
JW They’re not the ones I probably would’ve picked, if you asked me at the start of my career that I thought I was going to win.
SW The shark. Do you still carry any of that with you psychologically? I still look back at that now of Mick being buzzed in the J-Bay final and can scarcely believe it happened. You were in the water at the time and famously paddled over to him. How much of that day do you still carry with you today?
JW Ever since then, I’ve been more sensitive to spooky situations, for sure. But the moment itself? I think still to this day, I wouldn’t be able to go, “Oh, you know, if that happens again tomorrow, I’d do exactly the same thing. I’m going to react the same way.” It isn’t something inside me that goes, “Oh, when this situation happens, you’ll just go and fight for your good friend.” I still don’t even understand why I did it. I’d like to think I’d do the same thing again tomorrow, but I also understand maybe I wouldn’t, or couldn’t. I’m definitely proud that I did react that way though, and now I have kids and one day I can tell them the story. And the fact that Mick was fine. It’s a moment, I guess, and I’m thankful for the way I reacted because I had no control over that. I could have just paddled straight to the rocks and just got myself out of the water, which I think my wife truly wishes I did at that moment when she was watching. It’s a moment you’ll never truly forget. Or truly understand.
SW It’s still amazing today that you both survived.
JW There’s no doubt about that. But, I mean, I also get frustrated sometimes if I think about that moment, because whoever was going to win that final was going to take the yellow jersey onto the second half of the year. And they never gave us the points that were on offer in that final, and I had a shitload of momentum at the time. That annoys me. Definitely. Adriano went on to win the world title that year.
SW Not you.
JW Not me.
SW And you’ve gone out and started your own business. [Julian has launched a sportswear label, Rivvia]. How nice is it to be independent, to be doing your own thing after a couple of decades surfing for big brands?
JW Just for me, personally starting up something I’ve never done before in my life and having that experience, having worked with great brands, it feels like an incredible advantage to be able to do this. It’s fun to be starting a small brand and be able to be creative with it.
SW Obviously, you’ve looked at what Craig and Dane have done with Former, and John John and Kelly with their side hustles. Have you spoken to any of those guys about it, about striking out on their own?
JW I spoke to John probably the most, but I hadn’t told him what my plans were at the time. I just was quizzing him on how his experience had been. And yeah, it feels like now that I’ve just launched and have products out there, I definitely can relate to the positives and the challenges that he was talking about. I think the biggest thing is, there’s probably never been a cooler sticker to put on your board than one you’ve created yourself. Just after doing it for so long and stickering up boards for so long, to put on a sticker that’s wholly and solely your blood, sweat, and tears going into it, it’s pretty special. Lots to be proud of. I’m good friends with Craig and I know it’s been a long road for those guys, and they’re doing really well now… but it’s been a long road. But from the outside looking in, I’ve always looked at Former and thought… you know, Dane’s been my favourite surfer ever since I met him on the first Young Guns trip. I always thought Former was just such a genuine approach to keep doing what they love doing. They weren’t competing, but they’re making movie projects and they’re editing them them-selves. And they’re presenting something that they’re collectively super proud of and passionate about. And I think that says a lot, I think, just as a fan of those guys.
SW It does reflect them, totally.
JW It does. And now John’s doing the same thing, and Kelly the same. Their labels are very much reflections of their personalities and what they’re about. I respect that and appreciate that. But yeah, super proud to be starting something myself.
SW Life as a Novocastrian. It’s obviously a bit grittier than life on the Sunshine Coast, but you’ve been down there a while now. How have you fitted into the groove of the city?
JW It’s a big change from the Sunshine Coast. Moving to Newcastle four-and-a-half years ago, it was a shock, and it was like, shit man, this is an intense place to surf. Everyone really wants it. And everyone’s coming from a different angle with a different purpose, to get their waves. But since settling in there and understanding the way the traffic goes in the surf, it’s become very enjoyable because there’s a shitload of waves there. Once you learn the ropes, it’s a great place to live. I really love Newcastle itself. Learnt where to go when swells pop up, where I can get some waves that aren’t as crowded. I think Ryan [Callinan] and Craig [Anderson] and those guys really have that wired. When the waves pump, you very rarely see those boys at Merewether or Newcastle because they know about 50 other spots an hour north or an hour south that are 10 times better on the day. And one of the coolest things is the national parks they have on the beach. I mountain bike a lot and there’s all these national parks on the beach, that have proper trails, which is insane on flat days. And then some of the beaches inside those national parks have some of the sickest waves. So, from the grungy, steel city, Newcastle vibe to the national parks sprawling onto the beach with epic sandbars, it’s got a pretty cool balance.
SW And you moved there primarily for the kids. You’re a few years into fatherhood now, how do you feel it’s changed you?
JW I feel awfully responsible. That was a huge thing about surfing some of the waves in Fiji, was like letting that responsible parent side of me disappear, to have a crack. But it gives me incredible purpose and I think the biggest thing is, kids just want your time. It’s just figuring out a way to be present in their lives and present in their moment. It’s a beautiful yet testing experience, but it’s probably what’s changed me the most. Just enjoying and understanding what’s happening here and now, what I appreciate, and where I want to put my attention. And yeah, a lot less wasting energy and time on the unknown and things that are out of my hands.
SW You had a fairly idyllic childhood, growing up as a kid where you did, in the surf with your family. What parts of your childhood do you want your kids to have?
JW My childhood, I feel extremely thankful for. My dad busted his butt just so Mum could be a stay-at-home mum and be with us. Dad was a tiler. Never had two bob, but Mum would throw us in the van and take us to the beach any chance she got, and really raised us on the beach. That was always a huge thing for us. It was not until I started to make a bit of money myself that that financial pressure eased a bit. My dad wasn’t around a whole lot growing up, he was busting his arse six days a week, laying tiles. I feel incredibly lucky to be in the position now where I can be around for my kids all the time. And my wife was brought up at the beach as well with her dad being a keen surfer, so we just want them to grow up going to the beach and being able to have room to be kids.