THE VORTEX SHAMAN
The tube is a mystical portal, a gateway to other worlds and secret knowledge that can’t be learned on the shoulder, on the beach, in the car park or anywhere in the mortal realm. To get deep, you need to get deep. Jack Robinson knows. Man, he knows.
SW: Tell us about the COVID break and getting time at home. It must have been like taking a big breath of fresh air after all those years travelling?
JR: Yeah, it was really good. I hadn’t spent a full autumn and winter at home since I was 11 or 12. And we had such a good run of waves. I stayed at home for four months, then went up to Gnaraloo for a bit, then to Exmouth. It was a good break. It felt healthy. I was surfing so much and there was a lot of space. No thinking about travelling. No thinking about contests. I started to occupy my time doing normal things again.
When you say normal, you’re talking about getting coned on 10-to-12 foot bone-crushing orbs in the North West desert, a 14-hour drive from civilisation, right?
[Laughs] Yeah that’s part of it. Up there you have the opportunity to totally switch off from all this invasive stuff that doesn’t mean anything. I found myself getting back to what it’s all about. That was the best thing about having this break because life moves so fast and you can find yourself not seeing things along the way. It’s good to slow down. Being up there brings you back to Earth and back into the moment. You’re fishing, you’re surfing, you’re hanging out, you’re there with people who are in that moment too and there’s very little contact with anything else. So you’re getting back to being your true self, really.
Do you reckon that’s the most connected to life out of the ocean you’ve felt in the past decade or so?
I reckon it would be, yeah. Having time to think about things without distraction, it feels so healthy for your mind and soul. I think we can all feel like the world is moving at insane speed, especially in cities or in places where it’s crowded. When you get up north, you catch every moment for what it is. It resets you and… it’s a big reset.
Tell us about your camp up there? It gets pretty crowded, have you got your zone wired?
It’s the sickest set-up. It’s a little rooftop tent with a view up to the stars and straight out into the ocean. I leave a ski down on the beach and that’s about it.
What sort of thoughts and questions run through your mind when you’re lying under the universe up there at night?
Well, I don’t think you’ll see a better night sky anywhere in the world. It has to be one of the biggest sky views anywhere. There’s no light pollution. There’s no mountains or headlands or anything. It’s just this enormous black sky with the brightest stars you’ve ever seen. So your mind does expand when you look into an unfiltered space like that. You end up thinking about pretty much everything.
What sort of affect does that you have on you spiritually? Do you find yourself wondering about… I don’t want to say God, but about the energy of the Earth? About the purpose of life? Why we’re here and that sort of thing?
I think you connect to a very unique energy up there for sure. You definitely don’t catch that same sort of feeling everywhere. You can try to, and you can want to feel it at many of the places you go to, but when you get up north you become much more conscious and aware of this aura of nature. I don’t know, maybe when we start out in life we’re more naturally connected to it, but then we move away from it for whatever reason. But because there’s nothing else up there you really catch the whole vibe of the place. I think it’s a connection to nature and that’s why it feels so healthy because it’s a relationship we all need to have to be happy.
There must be an incredible inner peace and contentment that comes with connecting to the land and the sea and the nature of a place like that?
I found that to be the case on my trip up there for sure. I think everyone’s the same. To understand a place and experience it for what it is… it gives you energy. I don’t know, it’s a different way of saying it, but in other places, really crowded places especially, it can feel like the energy is all taken up, or the place is sucking energy out of you. Up north it’s like energy is beaming straight into you from everywhere. It’s wild and it forces you to be in the moment.
And so many spiritual teachings are about achieving a state of mind that is present in the moment.
Yeah, we’re all trying to get there I think.
Do you find your best surfing happens when you’re in that flow state? Completely present and in the moment and in tune with every detail of what’s going on around you?
Yeah, I think so. It’s pretty interesting because like I was saying, the energy up there is very pure. There’s nothing there, it’s untouched, no one’s made an impact on it, people haven’t left their footprint on it. It’s untouched energy and I feel like I’m tapping right into it and as a result my surfing feels really good. There are big dynamic forces at play when the surf is pumping, but even smaller waves there have their own energy. You just have to try a little harder to tap into it.
That’s interesting mate because the one thing everyone has been talking about this year is your energy and enthusiasm in smaller surf.
It’s always been there, but I’m able to channel it much easier now. You have to have your senses really sharp to tap into it. It becomes harder to find when there’s not as much power or movement, but it’s still there and if you can carry it and actually be at one with it you can get the same feelings from small waves as you do in bigger surf.
How do you manifest excitement for smaller waves?
You have to flick a mental switch. If you look for opportunities they’ll be there. It’s also important not to be consumed with other thoughts. Know what to take in and what to leave out.
We’re starting to talk about surfing heats in small waves here, right? I think it’s fair to say your confidence has never looked stronger in sub-par waves.
I think confidence is a really tricky thing to manage. When you’re working on yourself you obviously want to always be humble, but sometimes the humility weighs you down. You don’t let the confidence grow above it. In the past year though I’ve felt much more confident to show my work, to really put it out there. To not be afraid of anything. I think that’s what it is. I never wanted to be cocky, but I wanted to reach and hold onto that feeling of confidence and that’s been a big difference with my surfing. I’m not really backing down from anyone. I’m just being confident within myself.
Most athletes will tell you that confidence and momentum are the keys to success. Using other motivations, like anger or ambition for example, that energy will work against you in the long run.
That’s right. When you feel confident because you’ve put in the work you can let the good come to you.
And speaking of good things coming to you, you got married last year. What sort of impact has Julia [Muniz] had on your life?
Sometimes everything just flows like it’s meant to. Julia is incredible. She’s my best mate and I don’t feel any boundaries with her. I find that being married gives me a better perspective about things, it pulls me out of my own world and helps me see things I may have missed. It makes more sense moving forward, and with decision making. She offers another point of view that’s coming from a place of genuine care.
You’re clearly a thinker and a guy who also is affected by the energy around you and right now you’re in a fantastic place in your life; in love, getting pitted off ya melon and with your career about to take off. Is this what happiness looks like to you?
Yeah, that’s a good question, because I was thinking about it the other day. Like, if you keep chasing something and it’s a big thing, like it may be surfing, it might be winning, it might be an adrenaline rush…. once you get to the end of that achievement or that moment, will you be happy? I get addicted to surfing so much. I get addicted to big waves. I constantly want to get better in other areas of my surfing and in my life also. And then when it ends, it’s like… I’m trying to figure out a way to explain it… it’s like you have no feelings for the thing you’re actually doing because you’re constantly looking to get better and better. Do you know what I mean?
You get lost in chasing what you think will bring happiness rather than appreciating that you’re living it in the moment?
Exactly. Obviously, that doesn’t mean you should stop. You can never give up. You’ve always got to make an effort to create happiness too. It’s not just going to fall in your hands. Surfing obviously makes me happy, it’s just that sometimes I focus too much on wanting to be better. I’m on a constant climb for it. And sometimes when you take your mind off it and you go do something else for a bit, and then you go back to it, that’s when you appreciate how good it is. That’s how I’ve been doing things and why I never get bored of it. That brings happiness, not just to my surfing but to the other things I’m doing too.
Having that awareness is pretty impressive, mate. I don’t think I realised any of that until I was about 44. And I only turned 44 last week.
It’s not always there. I have to remind myself constantly not to get lost in surfing. That’s why being married is the best.
What makes you uncomfortable? Is there anything that gets under your skin and just doesn’t sit well with you?
Do I get pissed off? Definitely. I get super pissed off with things sometimes. I used to get so bummed with people saying shit about me when they had no idea about anything in my life but it got to a point where I was like, “Okay, how do I deal with this situation?” I came to realise people have their own baggage. I can’t be responsible for the things they say, or their behaviour but I do have a choice about how to react to it. I looked at it like this; say someone has written a book full of aggressive opinions about you and they wrap it up and give it to you as a gift. If you choose to read it you’re actually giving them what they want. You’re giving them the gift. But if you just leave it on the doorstep and don’t even open it, then they get nothing.
Ha ha! That’s a great analogy, mate. Shove ya shitty book!
Yeah, so now I just put that stuff aside and go quietly about my work and focus on doing my thing.
The public scrutiny is a result of being in the spotlight for so long. You were a surf star at 11. Is your childhood one you look back on with gratitude and positivity?
Do you think you had the coping mechanisms to deal with everything that came with that attention and potential?
Dealing with a lot of people probably primed me for the future. There were times when people wanted this, or people wanted that, but I was on my own timetable. You can never really can live up to every single thing that people want for you. You’ve just got to run in your own time. I think I was very luckyt. I was lucky to be travelling the world at a young age and surfing so many great waves. I’ll always look back on that and be grateful. Not many kids get that sort of opportunity. I also hung out with a lot of older people when I was young. That helped me deal with the extra attention. I didn’t always have a childish approach to things. I had a bit more of a broader view, maybe, than some other kids do at a young age. To tell you the truth I never thought too much about the attention until later. I was just too busy surfing. So when I think about it I had a good childhood and a fun time growing up.
You were home schooled too, right?
I was but I had a lot of friends too. It was a different upbringing; not being in the school playground with everyone locked in on set times. I was always doing something different. It was sick.
Your folks clearly wanted that freedom for you. Your Dad, Trevor has very strong views on society and the influence of government and media and he’s obviously been a powerful force in your life, not just as a parent but as a coach, a mentor, a mate and a travel buddy. How have his values influenced you now that you’re older and finding your own way in the world?
Well, it’s kind of like that with parents, and obviously no one’s ever going to be perfect. Kids can go in many different ways with the extremes being they can either follow in the exact direction of their parents or they can rebel and go the complete opposite way. I’m in the middle. There is a lot that Dad taught me that has made me who I am and I think one of the most important and useful tools that comes with that is being confident to go out and search for information and form my own views about things, whatever it may be, even if it’s at odds with his beliefs. Knowing where your information is coming from and what’s behind it is important. No one will ever give you information straight up, you’ve always got to find a way to search for it. He always taught me not to be complacent with information. I’m grateful for that.
I’ve always liked that about your dad. I like that he questions the status quo.
He’ll always challenge or have a question about what’s going on for sure, no matter if it pisses people off. He’ll just be straight up. He doesn’t have a filter.
You and your dad were inseparable for much of your life. It’s now been a couple of years since he stopped travelling with you. Was there a big period of adjustment for you in not having him around?
Yeah, I was with him every single step of the way. I felt his absence at the first event I went to for sure. It was funny because I went to the event six hours before my heat to prepare. Just to make sure everything was perfect. When you’ve been travelling with someone for so long it takes a while just to settle in and find your feet. But by that stage I knew which way I was going. And I needed a better understanding of who I was so that growth was good and necessary. I remember thinking, “Well, he’s not here, so I’ll manage.”
I’ve just realised this is your version of leaving home. That’s why birds leave the nest, man. We’ve all got to do it, otherwise we’d end up just kicking our parents out of it ourselves.
[Laughing] Yeah, that’s true.
I mean, we love them but sometimes you want to…
…rip their head off.
Ha ha! It’s a difficult age and time to navigate, hey?
You don’t really want to rip their head off, more like have a wrestle, or just… get that space. You’re with them every second. That’s the thing, everyone’s growing and learning to let go is a difficult thing.
Where do you feel like you’re at with your surfing right now? Is it the best it’s ever been? Is it the most fun it’s ever been?
I’ve had moments this year where I’ve felt like I’ve been doing the best surfing of my life, but what’s been really fun is the pace with which I’m figuring things out. I’m learning at such a fast rate compared to any other time in my surfing. I’m processing things faster than ever. I think the big difference is I’m putting my head down and making a conscious effort to improve the way I surf, the way I compete and who I am, and that’s really having a positive effect and making surfing so much fun for me right now.
Forgive me for stating the obvious here, but that is a frightening proposition for your peers on tour.
People are always trying to place you on your career arc. I don’t like that because it sets you up to be limited at your prime, like, you reach a high point and that’s it. But look at Kelly. He’s always adapted and he’s always getting better. People have an opinion about when his best era was but if you look at the way he’s able to adapt and keep learning you have to say that now this is the most incredible time of his career because he’s still at the highest level. He learns at such a fast pace that he’s able to keep having fun. If you’re getting better then you’re having more fun.
That’s amazing, mate and very true. Although it’s also the case that you learn your biggest lessons from mistakes, which aren’t always so fun.
Yeah. It’s how you process mistakes that matters.
Do you make many mistakes in huge surf? In all those swells you scored over winter, did you ever find yourself in a bad position thinking “Oh… no…” like the rest of us?
Oh yeah. I get a few touch-ups here and there, but I do try and avoid that kind of situation. You never want to wipeout on a good wave but it depends, because the only way to get better is to push yourself and the heavier the situation the less room there is for mistakes. I’m at a point of just trying to be smart about it, but I go through stages where I’ll have a run of getting pretty smoked. That happened up north for sure.
Can you take us into your mind at the moment something goes wrong on a huge one at Tombies or Teahupoo? I’m curious to know what you’re thinking underwater? Are you in survival mode or is your brain already processing how the wipeout happened, what went wrong?
The mistake is obvious right as it happens, as you’re making it. When you do something wrong, you have a split second realisation in your mind, and you know immediately what should have happened. Once that moment is gone though your mind is pretty blank except for the sensation of what you’re going through. You’re bracing yourself because you don’t want to fucking get smoked on the reef. But then straight after you come up you’ll know; it’ll be locked away for the next one. It depends how bad the wipeout is. But usually I do know what went wrong. It’s in the back in my mind. If you have a really bad one you’ll always remember it.
Which brings us to barrel riding. What looks impossible to everyone else you’re able to negotiate with such ease. Is there anyone on Earth you can speak to about tube riding who understands what you experience and see in tubes?
My take on it is you have to be on the same wavelength as someone to explain it. Everyone sees things differently. It’s not an easy thing to articulate.
Have you had conversations with John John or Mike Stewart or Kelly about tube riding, or is it more like you see those guys and nod your head and they nod back and you all understand that you’re operating as vortex shamans of the highest order?
Like, we don’t speak we just use telepathy? No.
Come on man, that sort of tuberiding is totally supernatural.
Now we’re getting real deep [laughs]. Okay, how do I explain this… let’s take John for example. I’ll have a chat to him about certain things, not about barrel riding necessarily, but say he’s in West Oz and he’s working on a new manoeuvre or a new variation on something, his understanding of what he’s looking for can’t be articulated, but if you know what he wants to do you automatically get the way he has to hit something, what sort of set-up he’ll need to properly link everything up.
Give us an example of what that conversation sounds like.
I’d say something like “Hey, just watch this little boil on this swell direction, because it will come at you a little quicker than you’re used to.”
And that’s all he needs.
He already gets it, yeah. He just knows waves so well that he can translate that tiny bit of information straight into his performance. You don’t have to say anything else; he’ll know exactly what that means. It’s pretty cool. Those conversations happen with different surfers everywhere.
How will you look back on 2020?
It was a big year for the world. There was a lot of negativity and sadness, but it was also a year of opportunity. We all had an opportunity to take a step back from our regular lives and look at what’s important. I’ve grown a lot. I’ll look back on 2020 as a period of real growth.