The young Wilkinson would watch his dad for hours, paying close attention to how he paddled out, where he lined up, and which waves he chose. “I remember him always waiting for the biggest waves,” says Wilkinson. “Sometimes he’d paddle out and patiently sit and wait for one big wave, ride it, and come in; that would be his session. “Other than Simon Anderson, there weren’t a lot of other people I saw that rode waves as big as Ben’s dad did,” says filmmaker Andrew Kidman, who moved to the area when he was nine years old. “His old man was a bit of a mystery.
Mavericks stalwart Ryan Seelbach stayed with Wilkinson on the North Shore in 2012 and saw exactly what big-wave camaraderie means to Wilkinson. “It was big and Ben took me to surf an outer-reef spot that I’d never surfed before,” recalls Seelbach. “We get out there and it’s just us and one other surfer.
While Wilkinson was reveling in the large surf of the North Shore and slowly making a name for himself there, he also started feeling the pull of a certain Northern California giant that had captured his imagination since boyhood. “Me and my dad would watch videos of Mavericks religiously to learn about the spot,” Wilkinson says. “So when I finally went there, I felt like I already knew the place.
Chilean big-wave surfer Ramón Navarro saw Wilkinson put his theories to the test last season when he visited Navarro’s home break of Punta de Lobos. “Ben was doing things at Lobos that I didn’t think were even possible in big surf,” says Navarro. “He was hitting the lip on 25-foot faces, going completely vertical.
Perhaps more than the feeling he gets from riding giant waves, Wilkinson appreciates the brotherhood of big-wave surfing and feels a strong desire to connect with those who share his passion for oversized surf.
Wilkinson uses his physicality to large advantage, throwing his mass into carving turns, bending his 10-foot boards at will to go where he wants. “My dream is to be able to surf big waves the way we surf small waves,” he says. “I think we’re getting closer and closer to that with the advances in equipment.
Watching Wilkinson in the water, it’s clear that he’s committed to pushing himself in ways seldom seen in big-wave surfing, but drawing different lines in massive surf comes at a cost.
I watched him take off late on a particularly steep wave and weave gracefully through a number of hollow sections before laying into a hard backside bottom turn and hooking a tight arc in the pocket with equal parts nimbleness and power. “It’s the best feeling when you come hard off the bottom and you kind of have to go hard off the top,” says Wilkinson. “It’s hard on a big board, which is why I’m experimenting with asymmetrical designs that allow a looser heel-side turn.
Due to the size and lack of visibility, there weren’t a lot of takers that day, and before Wilkinson could even figure out where to line up, he got caught inside. “I basically got smashed by a giant wave that broke right on top of me, broke my leash, and I had to swim in,” he recalls. “I had never been rejected like that by a surf spot.
He walked in his wetsuit from the parking lot to Mavericks Surf Shop, which was located about a half mile away in Princeton-by-the-Sea, and bought a new big-wave leash from Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark himself. “He was looking at me when I walked in, like, ‘Who is this guy? ’” laughs Wilkinson. “But then he just sort of smiled and said, ‘Keep the change.
It was a beautiful moment, marked by a level of poise and control seldom seen in big-wave surfing, but it was cut short when the wave threw a clamping, 50-yard section in front of him, leaving Wilkinson little choice but to hop off his board feet-first directly into the maw.
His arrival was quiet at first, but slowly people began noticing him in serious conditions. “He’s pretty hard to miss, this big Aussie guy,” says local charger Aaron Gold, who became one of Wilkinson’s close friends and surfing partners. “I saw him one day at Waimea, and he took off super late and deep on a couple of really big waves and just stuck them.
Read more here: Surfer Mag