How the Newcastle surfer overcame a family tragedy to claim a spot on surfing’s biggest stage.
Back in 2016 things were looking promising for Jackson Baker. This was a pre-COVID world when international travel was taken for granted and roaming the globe in search of adventure was the birthright of every young man and woman.
Jackson was on a trip to the Mentawai region in Indonesia alongside a group of professional surfers who were there to make a surf movie and shoot photos. The Mentawai chain is frequently referred to as ‘Disneyland for surfers’. The region plays host to hundreds of different waves and every kind of ride imaginable. Several of the breaks in the Mentawai are rated among the best in the world. Jackson and the crew travelled from wave to wave aboard the Mangalui, a storied yacht that has been performing charters around the islands for over two decades. Aboard the Mangalui, the only interruptions to the long sessions in the surf were the elaborate meals prepared by the ship’s Indonesian cook who had a talent for performing culinary miracles in the small galley below deck.
BEST OF THE BEST
The trip was blessed with an abundance of swell and the crew scored hollow, tubing waves at a handful of breaks – Greenbush, Macaroni’s, Hollow Trees and the ominously named Meat Locker. When the talented posse of surfers lucked into a swell at a roping left-hander that tubed and walled for hundreds of metres, it was Jackson who claimed the wave of the trip. On a lurching, green wall that was double-overhead he dropped in late, hanging onto the board by his toenails as the wave bent violently over the shallow reef below. Jackson barely made it under the curling lip, which dropped like a guillotine from above. For the next hundred or so metres he was encased in a green tomb, the wave’s internal foam ball nipping at his heels, doing its best to buck him off. However, Jacko held on, and emerged from the spitting barrel in a hail of spray and glory, the photographer and filmer cheering his heroic effort.
The single wave capped off an amazing trip and Jackson arrived home on a high. He’d secured great footage and photos, while professionally he was on track to qualify for surfing’s Championship Tour – the elite ranks where 34 surfers compete in the best waves in the world.
HIGHS AND LOWS
Unfortunately the triumph was soon followed by tragedy.
Shortly after Jackson returned home his mother passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. As it transpired, Jackson’s heroic ride on the recent trip was selected as the cover shot for surfing magazine Tracks, a prestigious accolade for any surfer. However, it was difficult to enjoy the fanfare in light of his mother’s death.
While Jackson’s mum had been ill for some time, he readily concedes her passing made it hard to stay focused on competing.
“I struggled with it for a long time, especially those first few years on the QS (second-tier Qualifying Series),” he revealed.
Jackson initially tried to channel the emotional turmoil directly into competition.
“I would bottle my emotion up and think that I could use that emotion in heats and that it would help, and it just wouldn’t. And when things wouldn’t go your way then all that emotion would come out after a loss and it just wasn’t a nice feeling…I felt I was just pushing myself down.”
It wasn’t until he figured out how to frame his motivation that his results started to improve.
“I really figured out why I was doing it,” remembered Jackson, “and who I’m actually doing it for. I’m doing it for me, but in memory of my mum. Like, I think for a long time there, I really think I thought I was doing it for her. But I just don’t think you can do sport or professional sport for someone else. It’s got to be for you. And you’ve got to want it.”
With his refreshed mental approach, Jackson began to peg his way back to top form, and by the end of 2021 he was in contention to qualify for the elite Championship Tour. It came right down to the wire as he entered the final event of the year at Haleiwa in Hawaii. In order to qualify, Jackson needed to finish the year ranked in the top 10 of the Qualifying Series. At the end of each season the top 10 surfers from the Qualifying Series replace the bottom ten surfers on the elite CT tour.
Going into the event at Haleiwa there weredozens of surfers in contention to claim a top 10 finish on the Qualifying Series. Jackson needed a good result if he wanted to earn enough points to guarantee his slot on the Championship Tour. The Hawaiian waves can be treacherous and fickle and the local competitors are notoriously tough on travelling surfers. It didn’t quite go to plan. Jackson made a couple of bad decisions in a heat and was bundled out of the event in the early rounds. Subsequently his qualification hinged on the failings of other surfers. There was little he could do but sit back and hope the other contenders for a top slot also lost their heats.
With dozens of scenarios in play Jacko was forced to spend the next couple of days in limbo while he waited around for other CT hopefuls to get knocked out.
“I just felt like I’d let the dream slip through my fingers,” reflects Jacko. “I thought at that point it was over.”
However, as the event progressed the equation became more optimistic for the affable Novocastrian natural footer.
“Every day it kind of got better and better. And people just started dropping off like flies. And I just thought, ‘Holy hell! I’ve never seen this before. And then yeah, I think my mum was definitely looking over me and definitely helping me out somehow. That was a weird feeling. Things kind of just kept going my way.”
When the Haleiwa event finished the points revealed Jackson had done just enough to make the Championship Tour.
ON THE MARK
In the end it had been the result of several years of hard work, overcoming setbacks, psychological adjustments and physical conditioning.
While Jackson was obviously ecstatic when his position on the Championship Tour was confirmed, it really hit home when he bumped into fellow Novocastrian Mark Richards back in Australia. Richards won the world title four times (1979-1981) and is still the most successful male surfer ever after Kelly Slater.
“There’d been a little wave out the front of MR’s (Mark Richards) house and I actually ran into him,” explained Jacko. “We had a little chat and he said congratulations and that he was super proud of me. He said that when I lost (at Haleiwa) he thought I was kinda done. And then when finals day came around he looked at the results and he realised I was on. He called my old boy straightaway…”
When surfers reach the Championship Tour they are invited to select the number they wear on their competition jersey. Jackson wasted little time coming up with his digits. To honour the memory of his mum and the impact she had on his life, Jacko chose to wear the number 61 on his jersey when he competes on the CT. “Mum was born in ’61 and funnily enough it’s how old she would have been this year,” explained Jacko, enjoying the sentimental symmetry of his chosen number. “I think I’ve got a bit of her fire in me. I feel like she’s with me all the time. That’s a really cool feeling.”
When we spoke to Jacko he was determined to solidify his position on the Championship Tour and carve out a career that sets him up for life.
“It’s exciting that I’ve achieved the goal and only a minority get to say they’ve qualified for the CT. But I don’t want to be that oneyear guy. I want to be there for a long time. There’ll be a lot of learning this year with my training and my eating and vitamins and stuff like that. So I’m going to try a couple of new things to really make sure that I’m on top of my health and really taking advantage of the opportunity that I’ve made for myself.”
Jacko is taking plenty of inspiration from fellow Newcastle-based surfer Morgan Cibilic, who surprised everyone last year by finishing number five in the world in his rookie season on tour. He’ll also be surfing alongside another Novocastrian, Ryan Callinan, who has several years of experience on the Championship Tour.
“Ryan and I are both on tour together and we’re competitors, but he’s been really helpful, giving me tips about how to get ready for stuff,” explained Jacko. “That’s been really cool, and then I’ve been on the phone to Morgs (Morga Cibilic) and stuff. It is an individual sport, but the boys do get around each other and we do have such a good community that everyone’s there to help.”
In order to preserve his position in the elite ranks Jackson will first have to survive the mid-year cut off, which has been reintroduced by the WSL. After five events the number of surfers on tour for the back end of the year will be reduced from 34 to 22.
“I mean, I try not to think about the cut off,” stated Jacko. “I don’t have that as an emphasis. I want to be there for the whole year. I want to plan for the whole year.”
At the time of writing, after two events – Pipeline and Sunset – Jackson is sitting at number 27, which means he is in the danger zone. In his first event at Pipeline he was matched against John John Florence, the former world champion widely regarded as the best surfer in the world at Pipe and who lives right on the fabled wave. It was a big moment for Jackson, who performed admirably, but was ultimately overpowered by the more favoured opposition.
Jackson will have to perform well in the remaining three events before the mid-year cut off kicks in. However, he is confident he can get the job done whatever the scenario.
“If I have to come out at Margies (the last event before the cut off) and have to think about getting a result there, or if I’m in a good spot, I’ll be ready regardless.”
Fans at home are crossing their fingers that Jacko survives a ruthless WSL system that doesn’t even guarantee competitors a full year on the Championship Tour. There is certainly something quintessentially Australian and endearing about the stocky, blonde surfer with the bushy moustache. However, even if he does fall victim to the mid-year cut, he has still made a hero’s journey, overcoming family tragedy and adversity to climb into the elite ranks of an incredibly competitive individual sport.
We can all take a little bit of inspiration from Jacko.