A threat in any contest, goofy footer Jackson Bunch has all the tools: poise, progression, fluidity, a whip-fast backhand, and a consistent air game. When COVID cancelled much of the 2020 contest slate, a year of experience and exposure was also cancelled for the sixteen-year-old. Undeterred, Bunch has been sharpening his skills with plans to slice it up when competitions resume.

Tracks spoke with Bunch to find out how he has kept busy during lockdown (spoiler alert: he’s stomping backflips now), discuss goals, and ponder the value of having veterans like Kai Barger in the lineup.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)

Tracks: You put together some impressive contests performances in 2019. Are there any heats, waves, or contests that stand out?

Jackson Bunch: Two contests that stood out were the US Championships at Lowers and the ISA World Junior Championships at Huntington. I felt like I was in a good rhythm heat after heat in both of those contests.

As far as heats, in the ISA final, the starting horn blew and I was standing up on a wave that ended up being a 9-point ride. The video stream hadn’t even started. I felt like that set the tone and I just kept rolling from there.

You got a 9.5 at Sunset to start 2020. Can you talk about that wave a bit?

That wave was nuts. I knew I had to go. I saw a guy to the right a little bit inside of me who wanted to go. I just went. It was a solid air-drop. Pretty much closed my eyes, then I pumped and saw that it was going to barrel so I just held on through that end bowl. It almost felt like I was too high in the barrel, but it worked out.

What’s it like surfing a contest at Sunset?

It’s hard to know where to sit. It is such a big playing field. Sunset is a wave you have to watch a ton. When you’re in the heat, you have to adapt to the conditions. You’ve got a bigger board and you want to be ready to paddle up or down the point. It’s fun though. I really like surfing tricky waves like Sunset.

Speaking of boards, with so many good shapers on Maui and in Hawai’i, what led you to team up with Glenn Minami?

I was surfing a lot of different boards when I was younger. I was looking for a shaper to stick with. I surfed Kazuma, Mayhem, just a ton of boards. My friend Cole Alves was riding Minamis and he suggested I try one. So, I got a Minami. The first board, from the first session, it was magic. We have just built the relationship from there.

What have been the biggest challenges for you during COVID and how did the lockdown impact your plans for the year?

COVID pretty much ruined my contest plans. I was looking forward to the World Junior Championships in Taiwan. I was ranked first for my region. Heading in, I was ready to go. I was in Tahiti when they started calling off contests and I hoped it wouldn’t get called off, but it did.

Plus, I was hoping to qualify for the Triple Crown. I was ranked 4th.

With contests projected to start back up, what are your goals for the next couple of years?

I want to win the WSL World Juniors. This will be the last year I’m eligible and I haven’t gotten to go. I also want to make a statement in the Triple Crown. I’ve surfed some NSSA contests at Haleiwa, but never a really big contest, so that would be sick. Otherwise, I want to try to surf some Qualifying Series events.

When preparing for contests in California, do you seek out beach breaks and sandbars at home, or do you just surf wherever?

Yeah, depending on the contest, I try to surf the wave that is most similar on Maui. Most of those contests are in the summer, so I spend a lot of time surfing small wind-swell at Ho’okipa. I’m usually going left, doing cutbacks, and working on my rhythm. I try to do as much as possible with each wave. Then, I usually head to California for a few weeks of work beforehand to train.

Kai Barger is another goofy-footer from Maui’s North Shore. Given Kai’s success in contests, do you ever pick his brain about contests or anything?

Yeah, for sure. Both of us worked with Matt Kinoshita, who trained us while going left at Pavils. I surf with Kai as much as possible. I look up to him as a goofy footer and we talk about boards, QS locations, airs, turns, and technique.

For you, how does free surfing differ from surfing contests, in terms of your approach to riding a wave or deciding what kind of manoeuvres to try?

It’s all about timing for a heat. I’m not gonna start with an air on my first section during a heat. When you’re freesurfing, you can go big on your first wave. You can go big whenever. In a heat, I always want to start with two solid waves. Then, if I get those, I can go bigger and bigger.

Have you ever had a last-second wave or manoeuvre that helped you come from behind in a heat?

At Lowers, at the USA Surfing Championships. I was in the final and I had been in first pretty much the whole heat. But towards the end, I got bumped to 2nd or 3rd. It may have even been 4th. I had priority and caught a wave in the last minute-and-a-half and I fell on the first turn.

Two guys were a little inside of the guy with priority. I started paddling back out and this double-up grower came through. It slipped under the other guys, so I whipped it. I caught the wave and got the score in the last 45 seconds.

What are you focused on right now? Have you been putting together any longer edits? Do you have any tricks you're working on adding to your arsenal?

Before COVID, I wanted to go on some trips and put together clips, but since I’ve been stuck at home I just try and get someone to film when there are waves. I haven’t been focusing on edits much, just smaller Insta-edits. At some point, I’d like to make a big edit and get it out there.

As far as my surfing, I’ve been focused on switching up some things. I’m trying to expand my backside repertoire. I’m working on getting more inverted on frontside airs. I landed my first proper backflip the other day, so I’m trying to get more of those.