WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY BY RAELEY JONES
From powerful and progressive turns in competitions through to pushing her backhand barrel riding at The Box in Margaret River, it is no wonder West Aussie shredder, Willow Hardy, is forging a path of success. We managed to catch up with the talented goofy footer while she was back in the west for a hot minute, to get a deeper look at what drives her in and out of the water.
Congrats on your finals finish at the Gold Coast Pro Junior, can you tell us about that experience?
Thank you so much! I flew over to the Goldy to do a Pro Junior, and the finals were at Snapper Rocks but up until then the event was being held at Tallebudgera, which is a tiny beach break. When I rocked up, I had a free surf and actually sprained my ankle, so I went out for my heat feeling less than confident. I ended up getting through my first heat and just built-up momentum from there and made it to the finals. It was still quite small, but it was amazing to be able to surf Snapper with just a couple of other girls out.
Did you score any good free-surf sessions anywhere?
After the comp, on my last day, it was raining and stormy, so it was hard to get up, but we said, “let’s just do it!”. I got one really nice one – probably my best ever back-hand barrel, from the very top all the way down to past Greeney [Green Mount].
How do you compare the waves over east to back home?
It’s definitely a lot more powerful here, I think you kind of forget. But I think the waves are equally as good; I’m so lucky I get to experience both.
Tell us about the equipment you’re using over there compared to the equipment you’re using here.
All of my boards are DHD, but over there I use Epoxy’s and Utopia’s. You can get away with riding a lot smaller boards over east when it’s bigger because there’s not as much power. And over here I’m on a lot of step-ups and pin tails. For example, my step-up has a bit more length but it’s narrower. It has more foam though, so it paddles and knifes better, and it doesn’t catch on the sucky waves. And I wear a Gath helmet here sometimes too.
I’m trying to do bigger turns and be a little more progressive, like doing blow tails. I’m also working on my back hand barrel riding – it’s something I’ve really tried to push myself with this year and I feel like I’m starting to see improvement. I’m still not quite where I want to be but I’m starting to feel a lot more confident in taking off and pig-dogging.
Well speaking of pushing yourself – it was great to see you surf at The Box. How did you find it?
I found it pretty intimidating. It was my first time surfing it in two or three years and I think the whole backdoor factor, and the way the wave draws off the reef as you’re taking off…. the water was so clear you could fully see the reef. But after a couple I started to feel more comfortable. It’s such a sic wave, even just watching some of the empty ones, it was an amazing experience just to be out there.
You found yourself some nice ones, can you tell us about some of your favourite rides out there?
I think my favourite wave was my third or fourth one. I was paddling for it, and it started to jack up and I knew it was too late to pull back so I kind of air dropped pig-dog. That one was pretty scary because I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. It got my heart racing, but I was so stoked to get a nice line and make it.
The Box is renowned for being a ‘scary’ wave – how do you prepare yourself for that mentally and physically?
Physically I think it was good for me to be on the Gold Coast and get comfortable with my pig-dog on a sand bottom because there’s no risk. And I think mentally, wearing a Gath is pretty good because it makes me feel a lot safer. When I first got out there, especially after our jet-ski disaster [Editor’s note: more on that later], my anxiety was quite high, but you just have to try deep breathing and think, “what’s the worst that could happen?”, and realise it’s not that bad, and try and push yourself.
It was just you and your dad surfing at The Box for the first hour, what was it like to share the line-up solely with him?
It was so cool! It’s probably something he’s always dreamed about. He used to be one of the first people to charge The Box back when he was on the lid, so he knew the take-off spot and he was pretty excited to share the wave with me. It was an amazing day!
He was yelling to paddle hard and get under it. This is kind of why it’s such a mental wave in a way – because when it comes in you have to paddle deeper but there’s so much wall. So, you want to paddle wide but if you’re wide then you’re going to be taking off where the barrel is, and you’ll have to pin drop every time. So, I think it’s like battle with yourself to paddle deep so you can come in behind the peek and backdoor it.
How does backdoor barrel riding at Snapper compare to The Box?
Snapper is so much more perfect and easier but the battle with the crowd makes it challenging. But then at The Box you’re scratching in, airdropping, there’s bubbles popping up everywhere, there’s bits of reef sticking out and the chandeliering lip is so unpredictable. And then if the wave’s coming in too much from a south swell it’s going to shut down, so I think it’s the unpredictability which is the biggest difference, but it keeps it exciting!
You mentioned the infamous jet-ski incident earlier, do you want to tell us about that?
Normally we’re pretty good with the ski, but this was our first time taking it out for a while. We were trying to put the anchor down but there were bombs coming through and we got distracted watching the waves. We were mind surfing them and frothing so hard (laughs), then suddenly, I was holding the rope and my hand got pulled under water and I thought “oh no!”. The engine cut out and we realised the jet ski had sucked up all our rope. Luckily, we had Perry (Hatchett) from Water Patrol Australia out there and he was so good. He saved us, honestly. Perry had to drag the ski all the way onto the beach, then we had to flip it over, get the pliers, and carefully untangle all the rope out of the engine. After that we just left the ski on the beach and went back out to surf and luckily when we came back in it started again.
I just saw you ripping at Left Handers this morning, is that a favourite wave of yours?
It is but I go through stages with it because it’s sometimes quite fickle and it can get crowded, but I’ve had some good sessions out there since I’ve been home so it’s one of my favourite waves at the moment (laughs). It was also my first surf on my new board which I really wanted to ride over east, but it just never got big enough. And I was so excited to ride it because it’s so pretty and it went well so I’m happy.
Tell us about this new board.
I’ve been working pretty closely with Darren [Handley] this year and he’s been amazing. He watches all my footage and says, “I think you need this and this”, and we get really into it. This one’s a 5’7 and-a-half and it’s going to be my Krui board. My normal board is a 5’5 and-a-half to a 5’6 so it’s a step-up and it’s got a rounded pin tail. I felt like it paddled nicely, and it felt good.
What were you riding at The Box?
At the Box I was on a 5’6 and-a-half. It’s one of my favourite boards. I had one which was the exact same that I rode all last year in World’s [ISA World Junior Championships], at Kandui [Mentawais], I rode it everywhere, and it was kind of on its last legs and Darren said: “I’ll make you another one, but I reckon I can make it a little bit better.” He hasn’t told me what he’s done to it (laughs) but this one does go better. It’s kind of like a normal short board but I do like riding a little step-up and it’s another pintail. I only ride pintails (laughs). I feel like they just suit my surfing.
How would you describe your surfing style?
I guess carving, and powerful in a way and hopefully nice to watch. That’s all I want. When people say I have nice style and they love watching me surf, that’s the biggest compliment.
Can you tell us a bit about your health and training regime?
Over Summer I was surfing a lot and going to the gym. I also did a lot of heat practice drills with Dad and video analysis. And I’m always trying to eat healthy and look after my body by stretching. It is hard on the road travelling and having a routine, I’ve struggled with that a bit and it’s one of my goals for this year to get a good fitness and health routine because at the moment it’s a bit ‘go with the flow’.
What advice would you give to young surfers who want to push themselves?
I think going out when it scares you but not having high expectations. Just go out there and know the next time you go it’s going to feel easier. And a lot of the best waves I’ve had when it’s been big is when I’ve been sitting out there for a couple of hours feeling unsure and then thinking, “okay I’ve got this”. You’ve just got to give it time and even if you don’t get a sic one just know that even being out there is a big step up and you’ve done well just to paddle out.
Let’s talk about what’s next for you, what’s coming up?
I’ve got a pretty exciting year ahead. I’m off to Krui now to compete in the QS 5000 again. I went last year and got one of my best results and the wave was just so perfect so I’m excited to get back. And straight from there I’m going over east again because it’s my last year to compete in the grom comps. It’s like a circuit now and you can gather points and qualify to go to Worlds. And this time last year I was over in El Salvador competing in the Worlds and that was amazing, so I want to get back there so badly. And then there’s some more Pro Juniors.
What’s the wave at Krui like?
It’s just a big left, kind of like Lefties but quite long and shallow and it can hold a bigger swell. It’s such a fun wave. I was pretty sick when I was there, so I don’t remember much but the wave was pumping.
So you were sick at the QS event last year and you still finished second?
Last time I was there, we flew straight from El Salvador which was over 20 hours of flying. We got to Krui and it was massive so we had a surf. So, I’m in Indo loving life and then I wake up around 11pm not feeling well and the comp’s on the next day. I started vomiting so my friend went to get my Dad. So she’s running to get him but then she starts vomiting. Luckily, we had two rest days but because we were so sick the doctor came and saw us and said we had Typhoid, which is really gnarly. I paddled out for my first heat and I got two 8 point rides. I ended up with a ninth in the QS 5000 and a second in the Pro Junior. I was just sleeping all day and then Dad would wake me up with my rashie and I would paddle out coughing and feeling so sick. By the final I was so exhausted. There was this wave, and I went to hit the end section and my legs just gave way. If I’d hit it, I might have won but I was stoked to even make the final and get second to be honest.
So you’re looking forward to the comp this year (laughs)?
I’ve heard another goal of yours would be to make the Aussie team with your little sister, Olive?
Yeah, it’s Olive’s first year in the 16s and it’s my last year in the 18s so it’s the one year we could go to World’s together. That would be the best thing ever, but we’d have to either win the junior circuit or win nationals. I’m hoping we can do well on the circuit first because the waves at Nationals last year were tiny, and there’s a lot more pressure, so fingers crossed!
Special thanks to Perry Hatchet from Water Patrol Australia for assisting at The Box.