Carpenter Ben loves surfing the world’s biggest waves
- Australian big wave surfer Ben Wilkinson followed his dreams to Hawaii, where he has made his home
- Ben started his carpentry apprenticeship aged 16 and has worked at his trade between travelling the world for surfing competitions
- When he’s in the workshop, Ben chooses to wear Steel Blue boots and says the zip is his favourite feature
Anyone who has ever tried to stand on a board or sat on the beach watching surfers ride the waves can appreciate the tremendous skill of surfing.
But while a good day at Western Australia’s Margaret River or New South Wales’ North Narrabeen Beach might deliver a solid six-to-eight-foot (1.8 to 2.4 meter) swell, imagine the skill it takes to ride a 40-foot (12.2 meter) wave. For Aussie surfer and Carpenter Ben Wilkinson—who grew up surfing the waves at North Narrabeen with his father—the chance to test his surfing skills against the world’s biggest swells became a lifelong obsession.
Surfing the big waves in Hawaii
Ben now lives in Hawaii, home to the world’s most impressive waves and to the sport of surfing itself.
“My whole dream was to come to Hawaii,” he said. “From the age of 10 or so I had a dream of being in ‘the Eddie’—the big wave surf contest over here. So, I saved all my money and bought a ticket to come to Hawaii when I was 16. I came by myself and had a month here.”
Ben returned to Australia, did his carpentry apprenticeship for four years, worked in his trade for a couple of years and then cared for his father who became ill with motor neuron disease.
“When he passed away, I left Australia and basically went on a bit of a journey, just to kind of find myself,” Ben said.
That journey took him to Tahiti, where the big wave chase started again, and then back to Hawaii in 2008. For the next few years his life would be a combination of working at his trade in various jobs before starting his own business 10 years ago, handcrafting stunning, bespoke slab furniture and surfing the big wave competition world tour, including the Eddie. In 2011, he was the number-two big wave surfer in the world.
Testing his skills against the biggest and best
The Eddie Aikau Big Wave International takes place at Waimea Bay on O’ahu’s North Shore.
It requires waves consistently larger than 40 feet and, in 34 years, it has only been held 10 times. Ben said it was a tough competition with tight time constraints, but he loved having the chance to perform. Up to 60,000 people watched the Eddie when it was last held in January 2023. Ben was an alternate for that competition and missed out on surfing by one spot but went out and tackled the big waves once the competition was done.
“It was some of the biggest, best surf I’d ever seen at the bay,” Ben said. “I got out there and I caught three amazing big waves with no wipeouts and it just reaffirmed my love and my appreciation for the ocean and for the big waves. I didn’t have a time limit on me. I didn’t have any pressure. There was nobody out and it was just magical.”
Ben’s beautiful bespoke furniture
Ben has now made Hawaii his permanent home. He lives there with his wife and three children and has a reputation for making stunning slab furniture. Furniture-making became his focus because it was work he could leave and come back to after a competition, unlike construction, where work doesn’t stop for waves.
“I built a bunch of pieces for my own home, like a dining table and some coffee tables, then friends or friends of friends saw them on Facebook or Instagram and I started getting clients and selling finished pieces, too,” Ben said.
He said he tends to work with monkey pod wood, which is an invasive species in Hawaii, and has used a lot of resin to add colour to his pieces. He also likes native koa, a kind of acacia, but koa wood is very expensive.
“I just always loved big slabs of wood,” he said. “Even during my apprenticeship, I did some slab stuff for my boss. I did his kitchen counters in Murray River red gum.
“Now I’m getting more into some big art installations and chainsaw carvings. I just use the natural shape of the log and make a sculpture out of it.
Why Ben chooses Steel Blue work boots
When he’s in his workshop he’s wearing Steel Blue work boots.
“In Hawaii, you’re in and out of your shoes all the time because you’re in and out of houses all the time and it’s not kosher to wear your shoes inside,” he said. “So, for me, the zip means I can undo the zips and kick off my shoes and then put them back on and they’re all laced up and ready to go too. It’s so convenient.
“It’s nice to put on a beautiful pair of boots and be comfortable and not have to worry about a thing.”