China’s backside tuberiding prowess at Kirra in the early 90s was really something... and his frontside out there was pretty damned impressive too. (Aitionn)

Why China’s Switch Funnel At Kirra

In the late-80s to mid-90s there was that crop of really hot Cooly kids looking to make it in contests, and China (Jason O’Connor) was right up there amongst them. I think he was with Kirra Boardriders originally and then maybe he went to Snapper Boardriders for a while… either way, he was a super hot talent in his teens, but he’d actually been ripping from as early as 12.

In those early years, China had this rivalry going on with Jason Buttenshaw. Butto, of course, went on to do really well. He got good contest results and that fed into a profile explosion at a very young age. He featured in Billabong movies like Surf Into Summer as this little platinum headed pipsqueak getting barrelled off his head at perfect Kirra and shredding the nuts off D’bah. Other than Nicky Wood, he was probably the most famous grommet in the world.

Although China was right on Butto’s heels, for whatever reason his talent didn’t translate into contest success. Either the waves didn’t turn up or he’d kook it in a heat or something else would go wrong for him.

The thing is, on any day at Snapper, Greenmount, or D’bah, China was unstoppable. His surfing wasn’t just radical but completely ahead of its time. He was the first person I ever saw do an air-reverse, and I’m talking early 90s, long before rotations were even considered as the next step for aerials. A few years after that I saw him do an air-reverse, completely clear of the lip, on a 7’4” mini-mal. Haha, he was a freak!

“I was watching this wave exploding down the line and thinking, ‘Oh no, too deep,’ until out of nowhere China gets blown into the sunlight… riding natural footed!”

China O’Connor (MTVz)

But for me it was China’s backside tube-riding that made him a real standout and incredible surfer to watch. There was a period in the early 90s – either March 91 or 92 – when backside tube-riding at Kirra really made some big leaps and China was one of the guys leading the charge. He had this ability to control his speed, to slow down and speed up in perfect sync with the wave. And he was one of the first guys I saw really weave inside the barrel on his backhand, which is pretty common now when you watch John John or Mick Fanning at Teahupoo. Best of all, he surfed with heaps of personality; big soul arches, look backs, heaps of amazing body jingo. There was one thing he did in particular that really blew my mind and that to this day I’m yet to see someone do better.

I remember walking around the point on a classic six foot Kirra day and seeing China take off up at Butter Box. He’s picked off a bomb but he’s super deep so he hits the gas and starts flying down the line at a million miles an hour. As it comes down the point, the wave starts getting super slabby, hitting the sandbar, sucking all this sand up the face and turning that classic turquoise Kirra water into this surging funnel of brown thunder. China’s still looking too deep but he does this skittling Formula One highline that slingshots him into the base of the wave just as it starts to turn inside out. He somehow holds his line off the bottom and then, without grabbing his rail (which is gnarly on your backhand out there), he pulls in as the freight-training slab eats him alive. I was watching this wave exploding down the line and thinking, “Oh no, too deep,” until out of nowhere China gets blown into the sunlight… riding natural footed! I nearly fell over. Not only had he gotten the most psycho tube but somewhere in there he’d decided to switch stance. I don’t know if I was laughing or screaming or what was going on but it was absolutely amazing.

The other thing is, he didn’t just do it once, he did it heaps. You can actually watch some old videos of his switchfoot tubes on the Internet. I think Justin Gane shot a whole section of him for one of his Pulse films. They were pumping days. Those swells were beautifully clean, solid five-to-six foot and about as heavy as Kirra gets. I thought I was getting deep on a few, but this guy was switchfooting on the foamball. So good.

China was a bit of an enigma. An MP protégé always on his own trip, doing his own thing. He was quite focused on making a go of it but at some stage he stopped. I don’t even know if he’s around the area now. He’d be 42 or 43 probably. As I said, there were a lot of kids from that era looking to make it big and a lot of them didn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact they were doing some magic surfing a lot of locals will never forget.

Neal Purchase Jnr