The increasingly upward trajectory of Australia's Jack RobinsonIn November of last year, after a week of scorching La Niña temperatures, the hills behind Margaret River were ablaze. From the Robinson’s rural property they could see the eastern glow of the approaching fire, and they’d heard it long before they saw it. Young Jack had time to grab just one earthly possession before they fled. For the best 14-year-old surfer in the world the decision was easy. He packed seven surfboards into a boardbag, threw them on the family Landcruiser, and with his Mom, Mersina, drove for the safety of the coast. In the car Jack reasoned that if the fire got to the beach they could paddle out to sea on them. Jack’s father, Trevor, stayed behind. “We had hundred-foot fireballs coming up the valley,” he recalls. “It was frightening.” Wearing wet overalls, he fought the fire with buckets of dam water and the house was saved, unlike 30 others in the area that were burned to the ground.
Three days later, Jack and Trev flew to Hawaii. Having hardly slept since the fires broke out, Trev shuffled down the jetway at Honolulu Airport like he’d just been to war. Jack was also hobbling, but when I enquired whether he’d done it escaping the fire he started laughing. “Nah, did it surfing,” he replied proudly. “There were white bits hanging out of it and everything!” The doctor who stitched him up told him not to surf for a week, but he’d surf Pipe two days later. Nothing gets between this kid and his waves.
I flashed back to Jack surfing on the North Shore the previous winter and how much he’d sprouted since then. A year ago, Jack was still the blond smurf with the Greenough haircut. I remember posting up on Taj Burrow’s balcony after the Pipe Masters finished and spending the entire afternoon watching Jack surf Backdoor. Taj— who lives just up the road from Jack back home in Western Australia—took great delight as the kid caught hundreds of waves. “How cool’s the little kangaroo paws he’s got going!” he laughed of Jack’s trademark style, forearms hanging at waist height like a little marsupial. He reminded us of one of those remote control surfing dolls—he simply couldn’t be knocked off his feet, pulling into stand-up 3-foot tubes before oscillating radically all the way to the beach. He surfed all afternoon. At dusk, we saw Trev walk down onto the beach to whistle his son in. The sun had long sunk behind Kaena Point and Jack had been out there six hours straight. Reluctantly, he caught one last wave. He’d later correct me that it was actually seven hours he’d been out there.
When you’re 14, a year seems like a lifetime, and the difference in Jack 12 months later is stark. He’s clearly been working on his handshake for a start, and he meets my hand in Honolulu with a solid engagement, all the crushing power his little paw can muster, and steely-yet-comical eye contact, one eye half-twitching as he cracks himself up. He’s starting to man-up. He’s a few inches taller than last year and 10 pounds heavier. The kid is growing up quick, and the trademark cuteness is wearing off. While in Hawaii he eats his own bodyweight in poké every day from the Kahuku Superette. He surfs big Pipeline, although admits to watching more than surfing. He surfs big Off The Wall on his step-up board, a 5’3” moontail. He fades Brett Simpson mercilessly on a set, but knows his days of getting away with that kind of thing are coming to an end.
The next time I catch up with the Robinsons, Jack has just surfed against the World Junior Champion in the world’s biggest junior contest at Burleigh Heads, and the best 14-year-old in the world has just been bullied by one of the world’s best 20-year-olds. Jack Freestone inflicted what was tantamount to grommet abuse upon Jack Robinson. Freestone surfed bigger, stronger, and more ruthless. Freestone surfed like a man, and reminded Jack Robinson that while the world might be in awe of his freakish grommet talents, he was now a small fish in a much bigger pond. Jack and Trev walked back up the hill after the loss and conducted the post mortem, which is a new thing for the Robinsons, as Jack has a tendency to not lose. Trev, whose roles include (but are not limited to) father, teacher, chef, chauffeur, caddy, manager, and surf buddy, also acts as Jack’s coach. He reckons that Jack didn’t back himself enough against his burlier opponent and that he had beaten himself mentally. They argue all the way up to their 10th-floor unit, where Jack uses some of his newfound beef to wrestle Trev to the carpet. It breaks the tension and they’re soon laughing about it. Jack, like all 14-year-old boys, likes to think he has the measure of his old man. On the chessboard he certainly does. “He beat me twice the other day,” says Jack, “but that’s the first time in a long while. You’re getting better though, aren’t you, Trev?”
“Horrible little man,” replies Trev with a grin.
Jack, as you might have noticed, calls has father Trev, not Dad. It’s an intriguing father-son dynamic, forged by the challenges thrust upon the Robinsons by Jack’s prodigious abilities on a surfboard. Trev has become what you’d call “hands-on” with Jack’s career. Jack is an only child, and Trevor Robinson has foregone full-time work to shepherd his son through the minefield of professional surfing. Trev homeschools Jack. He coaches Jack. He chaperones Jack on most of his surf trips, and (along with a management team) makes all the big decisions on Jack’s budding career. It might all seem a little suffocating until you see it in action. Trev subscribes to a philosophy of “less is more.” In an age of pre-pubescent superstars being fast-tracked onto the Tour, Trev is doing his best to ensure Jack has room to sprout organically. Instead of being hothoused, Jack is growing up free-range.
The family property is well out of town and a long way from the glare of professional surfing, and that’s just the way they like it. Their days at home start with a surf check at Margaret River, followed by a surf, a study session, another surf, more studying, and then maybe going fishing for skippies before Trev loses a 10th game of chess to the boy. It’s a simple, uncluttered way of life. It’s the space Jack won’t get later in his career. Trev wants Jack’s surfing—and Jack himself—to “self-develop,” free of undue external influence. Trev is famously new age, and approaches the surf industry circling his son with a degree of healthy caution. Jack competes in only a handful of contests a year. They shun most interviews. Trev keeps the number of voices in Jack’s head to a minimum. He’s trying to keep everything low-key. He doesn’t want Jack buying into the hype and expectation and bullshit that his surfing talent is already generating.
Fifteen years earlier, before Jack was even a twinkle in Trev’s eye, another child prodigy who lives just up the road from the Robinson’s place faced similar challenges. When that prodigy qualified for the World Tour at 17 years of age, he knocked back his spot, seeing it as too much, too soon. “I was 17,” remembers Taj Burrow, “and at the time that was really young to be on the World Tour. I just felt a bit intimidated and felt my surfing wasn’t at the level of the Tour. It was actually suggested to me by Maurice Cole, and I kinda liked the sound of another year finding my feet traveling the world before I went to the big league. It was a pretty big decision and I don’t think anyone would do it these days because it’s such a hard job to qualify. But I was 17 and cocky and confident that if I did the ’QS again I knew I could qualify.”
Given the current trajectory of Jack’s career, and the fact that 17-year-olds are not only doing the Tour, but also winning contests, the Robinsons might face a similar decision in the near future. Technically, it’s clear Jack will be ready sooner rather than later. “For me it seems that surfing has mirrored skateboarding in that a 14-year-old now has the moves to win contests,” offers Taj. “At that age, they pick up the technical skills so quickly and you see that with Jack. I remember clearly the first time he really impressed me. It was at Injidup car park and there were just perfect little 3-foot barrels, and suddenly the wind went southerly which is the perfect wind for airs. I saw this tiny blonde kid flying out of these little barrels then doing these huge airs at the drop of a hat. He was 11.” But when pressed on how far Jack might go, Taj proceeds cautiously. “He has potential to go as far as he likes, but he’s still got a lot of work to do. He’s got that natural ability, but he’s still got to perfect certain things about his surfing. And it’s more the surfing foundation that needs work, more his carves and roundhouses and big turns at the lip. He’s gotten so good at his airs and everything above the lip. He’s so good at all that already. At 14, he still has a lot of growing to do, but I think with surfing it’s a lot better laying a base of solid power surfing first and then progressing to the aerials. Where he is right now, he’s a lot better at airs than he is with his conventional surfing, and that’s what he needs to work on. He’s one of the most innovative kids out there, but the conventional stuff, the big turns, they’re the base of everything you do.”
Being technically ready for the World Tour is one thing, being emotionally ready is another. Knowing exactly where that point is, and the best way to get there, is an inexact science. “The eras are so different and it’s far more complicated now, and the stakes are so much higher,” offers Taj, “but Jack’s upbringing is the opposite of mine. My parents were a lot less involved than Trevor is; he’s quite involved, whereas my parents were happy for me to just do my own thing. They just wanted to make sure I finished high school before I traveled, that was all. They were really easygoing with it, which worked out really well for me.” Taj credits his measured entry onto the World Tour for the fact that 14 years later he’s still there, his surfing’s still growing, and he’s still having the time of his life.
“We’ll know in 10 years,” laughs Trev when asked whether they’re doing the right thing, but he’s clear he’s raising a son first, and a surfer second. He doesn’t need a roll call of broken child prodigies from the past 20 years to remind him of that. But maybe the best gauge on how they’re going is the kid himself. “That’s the thing I love about him,” says Taj of Jack, “is that he’s incredibly down to earth and he’s a good kid. I like him a lot. He’s fun to be around and he loves to joke around like any 14-year-old, but he’s respectful at the same time. And the main thing with his surfing is that he’s enjoying it, which is probably why he’s doing so well.”