For a moment, it looked like it was going to be a short day. An hour earlier Matt ‘Wilko’ Wilkinson, Byron Bay local and one of the world’s best surfers, arrived at my hotel in his Holden Colorado Crew Cab. With coffee and towels in the cab and surfboards and wetsuits in the tray, the plan was to spend the day touring some of, Wilko’s favourite local breaks. In the water, he would teach me how to get up on a board; in the car I’d get a sense of the man. I learn something about Wilko five minutes in, when he says he’s “psyched” to spend the day with me, a rank surf-beginner and complete stranger. The funny thing is that it appears he means it. I don’t think Wilko has too many bad days.
“Conditions don’t look great at Seven (Mile Beach), but we have the time, we might as well hit it up,” he says. As we drive through the hinterland, I ask Wilko the biographical staples. He replies in, a slow but thoughtful drawl. He grew up in Sydney’s West, and there he and his brother rode motorbikes competitively until their parents split and financial pressure meant his father couldn’t keep his boys on bikes anymore.
Wilko Sr figured surfing would be a cheaper pastime, so he moved the boys to the central coast. Wilko Jr remembers ritually trudging to Avoca Beach as the sun rose each morning, his father pushing him into the breaking waves on a banged-up old Ziegler board that had the fins missing.
“The love started there,” he says with a laugh. When we arrive at Seven Mile Beach the swell is too choppy and unpredictable to surf. As this is one of the few beaches around here where we can drive on the sand, we decide to get down and dirty, ploughing through the surf in the Colorado. As we power through the shallow water Wilko mentions that not only does Chris Hemsworth own a house we can see on the horizon, but that Thor and his brothers are very stylish surfers. This praise gains some weight when the styles of a few other celebrities who have come to Byron to surf with Wilko are not so generously described.
The tide rises, the rain comes down and, from nowhere, a giant wave crashes behind Wilko’s truck. As the swell rises up over the wheels and threatens the doors of the truck, onlookers look on in astonishment, probably wondering if we’re okay.
As I said, it looked like it might be a short day. Thankfully, when the wave recedes into the roiling brine, the Colorado’s sunken tyres take purchase and Wilko drives the vehicle to safe sand.
“Bit of fun!” Wilko says, poking his head out of the driver’s window, his breezy demeanour in stark contrast to those around him. We drive on and I learn more about Wilko’s life. After long stints back in Sydney, in both the east and west of the city, and shorter sojourns in more than a dozen countries Wilko, who is not even 30, says he‘s found a permanent home in Byron.
“The pace of life here suits me,” he says. On the way to the next beach we drive past the site where Wilko plans to set up a bed-and breakfast (his father will be employed as the caretaker). Then we take in the golf course where Wilko increasingly finds himself teeing off in what you suspect could become a full-blown addiction once his surfing career is over.
“I probably play three or four times a week,” he says quietly, as though he’s describing an affection for something taboo. Later Wilko mentions even more quietly that he recently bought a brand new buggy. “I said if I won a comp this year, I’d buy one.” After nearly dropping out of the tour three years ago, Wilko has had the two strongest years of his career and comes into the current tour ranked fifth in the world and in red-hot form. I asked what changed. There’s a long pause.
“Pulled my finger out.” We pull up at one of the luxury bungalows at Elements Resort and, with two of Wilko’s boards under our arms, walk over the dunes separating Belongil Beach and the resort. Here the surf conditions are ‘goldilocks’ – clean and big enough for Wilko to be interested but not so big that a novice such as myself will be blown off the beach.
As we paddle toward shore Wilko picks out waves for me. Soon I’m cresting them and rushing toward the beach, Wilko yelling at me to stand up. The exhilaration in the moment is total. I ask Wilko if he’d like a turn. It feels as though the words have barely escaped my lips before he’s destroying a left hander out the back. I paddle out a few more times but mostly just watch Wilko tear it up from the best seat in the ocean.
Back in the Colorado, with the heat on and Migos playing I ask Wilko about that fingerpulling that changed his fortunes. “I guess I just took everything more seriously,” he says. “I used to see competing as just going for a surf, but now I think about the competition and who I’m up against and where we are in the draw. I was thinking about that last week a lot.” Last week was an Australian Institute of Sport camp for the Australian surfers most likely to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“It’s probably going to be in a wave pool, so that’s going to be something different.” We pull up at Wategos Beach, get a coffee and watch the waves roll in. I ask about the tension between surfing as a sport and as something more meditative – a conversation with an element. I can imagine the tension also exists in Wilko himself.
He ponders the question and says he reckons surfing can be both, and also that perhaps that’s unique among sports. “When I come back from a tournament, the thing I like to do in my downtime is surf,” he says. A large set comes into the beach and Wilko starts to get antsy in the driver’s seat. “I mean, I can’t imagine Usain Bolt relaxes by running as fast as he can.”