All Images By Richard Kotch

WILKO WINS FIJI A WEEK BEFORE IT STARTS

Sitting around the breakfast table on Namotu Island, we watch on as the islands pet Labrador, Banjo sleeps on the deck nearby, his jowls twitching and his paws in synchronised flight. “He must be having some crazy ass dream,” chuckles Matt Wilkinson. “It’s raining sticks.”

Wilko tells us about the dream he had the previous night. He’d been involved in some kind of kitesurfing enduro race, his subconscious having mashed up his first attempt at kitesurfing the previous day with the fact his brother was currently involved in a motocross race in the Australian desert. The race inside Wilko’s head went all night. He looked exhausted. “That was too much,” he whines as he jams vegemite toast into his mouth. 

Wilko had already lived a dream, three weeks earlier in the Maldives. While on a downtime holiday with childhood mate, Owen Wright, the pair had scored a Southern Atoll lefthander to themselves, all day. The wave was spitting and slithering for a hundred yards down the reef, overhead, equatorially hot, the pair trading waves for a whole day without another mortal soul in sight. Their only reference points for hours on end was their surfing, the waves, and each other. Time melted. They melted. The dream weighed heavy. “It was too much,” said Wilko. Words could ruin it; break the spell, so the pair was reduced to simply sitting there between waves laughing at their good fortune.

It’s been a wild ride for the old friends. Wilko led the tour for most of last year, while Owen was holed up in a dark room, recovering from a brain injury suffered at Pipe. At that point the pair might never have surfed together again and yet here they were sitting alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean on a Tuesday afternoon with nothing to do but surf.

Once he got to Fiji, there was little doubt Wilko would win the contest. When he took the dawn boat out to Cloudbreak on the first morning and surveyed the geometry of the lineup and saw a long, loping left run down the reef he knew he’d seen that wave before, somewhere at sometime, a whole day of them.

Wilko gettin’ all edgy on his pre-event warmup. (Kotch)

SW: The champion of Fiji has a nice ring to it.
MW: Feels niiiice. I guess as a goofyfooter, the event to win has to be here. Chopes is obviously one you want to win so everyone thinks you’re a lord in big waves. Here is the one that has barrels and turns and everything.

It’s a bit of an ocean man contest this one. You have to be one with the reef out there to win it.
I spoke with Micro about that a lot before this contest. We were talking about how everyone who is good out there has put in a lot of years and it’s a contest that historically doesn’t favour rookies. It’s about putting time out Cloudbreak and knowing what it’s doing out there. There are good waves in different forms out there so experience means a lot.

You hadn’t been home long from the Maldives – you, Owen and your girls – and you had a full day on a perfect left, just you and Owen. How much did that day contribute to the win in Fiji?
A lot I reckon. It’s pretty rare for us to get to surf a left in the contest, and the Maldives trip… having Owen there was pretty amazing. You’d catch one and think you were ripping then turn around and see him ripping way harder and you’re like, “alright, next one I’m stepping it up.” Then he keeps trumping you! Having no one else out there was pretty crazy.

It must have been overwhelming.
It was almost too much. We didn’t know what to do. We’d caught a hundred waves each and we’re sitting out the back sweating because the water was like 31 degrees and we looked at each other and said, “Should we go in?” Owen replied, “We should… but can we? Naaaaaah, we can’t go in!” It was pretty weird. We eventually went in, drank about a litre of water each, watched a set and said, “We need to get back out there. We can’t not do this.” Eventually one American guy paddled out. Totally ruined it! [Laughing]

How did the Maldives trip happen?
I had been to the Maldives a few times about eight years ago but only for contests with 300 other professional surfers, so it made the surf not really seem as dreamy as it is in reality. I knew how beautiful the place was but I’d never really gone there to relax. I spoke to Edwin who owns Clearwater Surf Travel in Portugal last year, and he mentioned the Maldives and I said I was definitely keen. Then I pretty much forgot about it until right before the trip happened when he emailed us to ask about travel dates.

Owen and Wilko trading these for a week straight in the Maldives with no one out? Ya kidding! (Kotch)

It was originally meant to just be you and Anna, but you ended up sneaking Owen, Kita and Vali onto the trip.
I hit up Owen, not really expecting him to say yes because he has a really young baby. He ended up being really psyched to have a bit of a holiday after all the stress he’s been dealing with. It’s pretty weird because we’ve never actually done this together. We’ve travelled the world for 20 years, but this was our first proper holiday. We packed a board bag just in case there were fun waves, then we went on full vacay mode – laying on beaches drinking cocktails and fully relaxing with Vali and our girlfriends. Then it turned out that the waves were too good not to surf! It was pretty amazing to have the holiday vibes as well as pumping waves.

You guys earned it after last year.
It was really nice to see him with his family too; to get to hang out as friends on a holiday is pretty rare. We see each other a lot at home and we might have dinner or a surf but to have a holiday like that with no contest, nothing going on, and once you’re in the water you’re still trying to surf better than each other. We were cruising though. It was so good just to have Owen back after last year and to see the dynamics of him and his girl and his grom. He seems like he’s calmed down. When we were growing up he was intense… not intense, but surfing wise he was always super into that and now it seems his number one priority is his little family and it’s sick to see him completely calm and the rest of his life is sorted. When he goes surfing, it’s surfing, just surfing. It’s pretty cool to see.

He’s in a good groove with the jump into fatherhood.
After such a crazy year, coming back, I was like scared to see how intense it would be but it seems like he’s figured his life out and Vali is the cruisiest grom, which is a blessing. It makes me want to have a grom for the first time ever!

The big O making it rain. (Kotch)

Do you remember when you and Owen first met?
I think we met at the Surfing World Grom Bash contest when I was 11 and he would have been 9 or 10. We were all in the under-12s and that was the first time we ever hung out. It was pretty funny. We were at the natural pools, holding onto the rope and laughing while we were getting absolutely smashed by waves. We’ve been competing against each other and travelling together ever since.

What are your memories of travelling together as groms?
When we were really young, both of our dads had buses so we’d always end up parked next to each other and camping. Once we started doing the ‘QS we travelled to most events together. He brought his dad to a lot of them so it would usually be me, Owen and his dad, and then once his sister started the ‘QS that became our little crew. We’ve both always been with Rip Curl so we’ve been doing Search events and trips and that kind of travel for a while now. Then on tour he had a few years where he was on his own program and taking things pretty seriously but we were still good mates. He’s also had quite a few injuries throughout his career that have meant he’s taken a lot of time off, but he’s always seemed to come back stronger than when he left…

Get the full story in Surfing World Issue #388 on sale July 6, 2017.

Special thanks to ClearWater Surf Travel for providing Wilko and Owen’s Maldives surf trip: clearwatersurftravel.com

Sean Doherty