Newquay boy Luke Dillon has been a mainstay in ranks of British competitive surfing for over a decade. He won the King of The Groms at aged nine and has held every British title since.
A down to earth character, well liked by his contemporaries and lauded for his powerful surfing, with pepperings of progression when the occasion calls.
Four years ago he became the first British surfer to win a Pro Junior, and has since embarked on the most assiduous QS run of any British male surfer of the last half decade, hitting 31 events over the course of three years.
As per his achievements, Luke does a lot of interviews, where he’s asked about travels, goals, aspirations and the Olympics, so for this conversation, we decided to dig a little, past the competitive surfer platitudes, and deep into the psyche of a surfer battling to make it up the greasy pole of competitive surfing.
How long have you been competing?
I’ve been competing in every sport I’ve ever done since I could walk. I did under sevens football and rugby. I did my first surf competition at nine, then competed in all the junior divisions in England, then the European pro juniors tour until I was 20 and this will be my third year on the QS now.
Yea, this is the first time I’ve been home for two or three months in six years.
How have your three years on the QS been?
The first one was a learning curve, because you’re travelling by yourself, trying to make friends and get by with different languages. The second year was a good one, I was in the six stars, so always started third round, which is good. I got some good results, and finished 170th, which got me into the six stars again, and then last year I tore my knee ligament in the middle of the year and it probably took me until January to sort that out properly, because I didn’t have a surgery, so I was just babying it.
The start of this year has been good, had a couple good results and now just I’m having a bit of a break.
What do you have to achieve to come away feeling happy after an event?
Depends how my prep is, if I’m surfing good, feeling fit and strong I’m always aiming for later rounds, but it depends on what the conditions are in your heat. There’s no point in already thinking about your next heat when you’re in the first round.
At the event in Portugal I knew that if I won my first heat I’d be going in with Jadson Andre, so I was obviously really excited. I made sure I won, and then got in with Jadson and just got overwhelmed surfing with him and started to put too much pressure on myself and ended up having a shocker.
Do you beat yourself up if you don’t get the result you were hoping for?
I’m not good at losing, but on the QS you’ve got to learn to lose, take your losses how you take your wins and realise that you’re going to have that time to just sulk about it. I take it pretty bad for about an hour or two, and then let it go and move onto the next one.
Do you think you have to be pretty ruthless to qualify through the QS?
There’s certain situations where you have to be yea, you know where you’re surfing against a good friend or someone you’ve been travelling with for years, or even someone you hate. If you don’t have the ability to put that aside for the heat then you won’t make it, because heats like that can change your year. I has a friend who won in Japan last year, came to Boardmasters and won, then made a few rounds in a six star and then suddenly he was top 60 in the world, bang in the 10 stars. He was 350th before that.
Do you have to go into each comp with stories like that at the forefront of your mind? That it could all just happen like that…
Yea, you have to have self belief and believe that one event could change your life. If you were to win a decent event, get your confidence up, get yourself flying, it can snowball like that.
Has there ever been a time in your QS career time when you’ve gone ‘maybe I’m not good enough’?
Yea. I flew to Brazil for a 6 star and was out freesurfing with Thiago Camarao and Medina, and I watched a video later of me and Thiago and said ‘I surfed better than him’ and then I saw a clip of Medina and was like ‘what? That’s next level.’ Then I lost second round in that comp.
I spoke to Russ Winter about it, and he said he went to Brazil and lost first round once and sat in his hotel room crying. It just happens, you’ve got to know that you’re going to have really bad breaks, but you’ve got to come out the other side of it. Because as soon as you get yourself down you can put yourself in a dark place real quickly.
There’s 1500 people on the QS trying to do it and as soon as you start having some self doubt or you get negative it can really push you down. I think that’s partly why I’ve taken a couple months off this year. I was still in a really good place, but I was sort of losing… not my will to win, but I’d never really missed a few contests in a row before, and I thought ‘I just want to stay at home, enjoy life a bit, hit the reset button and then when I come back I’ll really want it again.’
Is it nice to come home and do well in comps here as well to remind yourself what it’s like to get on a podium?
Yea, the level in England is good- you’ve got Jay Quinn, Reubs, Miles, Jobe, Joss, Liam Turner you know so it’s not like you’re coming home to weak competition, and we’re really lucky with Dave’s tour.
Without that we’d have nothing really- we’ve got the English and the British, but you’re not going to keep your competitive edge for two comps a year, and the little bit of prize money that Dave offers can keep people going. You know when Reubs or Jobe is turning up they want to win because they want that thousand pounds, and that’s exactly what you want.
Do you feel like looking at other British surfers and people you’re mates with who used to be surfers but are now labourers motivates you to keep pushing?
When you lose first round wherever you are, you always think what would I do if I wasn’t doing this? And I understand why people have quit surfing and got a normal job, because it can feel like it’s sucking the fun out of it, and it becomes a daily graft, and I know it’s not the same as digging holes, but if can feel like you’re ruining it for yourself.
I’ve got friends who just ended up stopping because it was something that used to be so fun for them- but it became like a job- picking themselves out of bed to go and surf 30mph onshore closeouts, year after year, comp after comp.
It’s happened to me where I’ve come back from a comp and it’s been three foot and offshore and I’ve genuinely not wanted to go surfing. I know how stupid that sounds, and people say, ‘oh you’re so lucky’ and I know I’m so lucky to compete and do what I do and I won’t give it up, but I won’t sit here and say that I’ve never thought about giving up.
How do you keep it fun for yourself when you’re back home?
I try and surf with friends, it’s always better when you go in with two or three of you, having a laugh, going switchfoot, or doing a weird floater or air or whatever. You get to watch your mates who you’ve grown up with, try airs or cruising on a twinny. You know if you go out at North Fistral, and you’re out with 15 locals, and they’re all hooting and screaming and shouting, you get that buzz back. That’s why everyone started surfing, because it was a good social thing and everyone could escape everything that was going on at home and at work or whatever, so I guess it brings back that enjoyment.
Sponsorship money has obviously dwindled massively in this country over the last few years, there’s probably only a few of you now who make enough money to live without having to do other shit. Is another element of going to those comps and losing early hard because of the money side?
Yea, a hundred percent, I get paid enough money to live at home and compete, but if I didn’t make prize money at home and away I wouldn’t be competing, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Earlier this year, I made two thousand pounds or something off the WSL and I still haven’t been paid it yet.
We’ve got to enter the comps by a certain date or we don’t get it, but there’s no limit to when they have to pay us by. I know people that are travelling on their credit cards, if they don’t get paid, their credit card bill just goes up and the interest is just soaring. So that is always on your mind when you lose, you think ‘ah I’ve just spent another amount of money coming here, and I’ve not made any back.’ You can kill yourself from the inside thinking about it like that.
People sometimes say that people are too easy on British surfers, saying things like ‘he did well for a Brit’ – and we don’t hold British surfers to high enough standards. Do you feel like being held to higher standards would be at all helpful?
Hard one- because no matter what anyone says, the only person we can ever look up to is Russ Winter. And he rang me up last year and said look I’m really proud of what you’ve done- I know you’re not having the best year – but I’ll only ever respect you for going out and trying, because so many people have the ability, but they don’t go out and try, they just sit at home, or go and work and don’t even give it a go, and that meant a lot coming from him.
In terms of being held to a higher standard- I mean, no one’s going to have a higher standard for myself than me. Since I’ve been surfing on the QS, people always say ‘Oh you come from England’ and some of them say ‘I didn’t even know it had waves’. You’re always getting shot down as a little wildcard, so if i were to quit now I’d say, I made some good results, I beat some good names, and the thing I was probably most proud of, people respect me and GB for at least giving it a go.
The CT has become pretty wholesome, where is the QS is still much more raw. Do you think it’s important it retains that?
I’ve heard Martin Potter say he thinks that the low ranked QS’ should keep no priority, to keep the dog in it, keep it more hassly, and preserve that true grit and I agree. People go out in the comps and they hassle and they try and win and then after that it’s just like the surf community again, they all go out and have a beer or go on a bender or whatever. If you lose, there’s a party on every night.
And are the people who train and don’t get loose in the evenings the ones who do the best?
Nah, that’s not right at all and it never has been. Yes they train, yes they’re in good shape, stronger, healthier, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a beer after, or during. And there’s nothing wrong with that, they’re still the role model that people look up to because they still surf the same.
What’s the loosest thing you’ve seen travelling on the QS?
I’ve seen some pretty good stuff on the QS. Last time I was in Aus I was in a bar in Sydney and I saw two big Aussie pros having an arm wrestle with a jug of beer above their heads and four shots in between them and whoever lost had to down the drinks.
The one who lost, I can’t remember which one, waggled straight outside, fell over the front step and then somehow took home a blonde bird. I don’t think it was the one who’s married with kids, I think it was the other one.
What’s been the highlight of your time competing so far?
Probably my first full year I did the QS, I went over to Aus staying with a friend I’d just met at the world juniors the year before, and I got fifth in a 1 star, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but there was 150 people, and I lost to Connor O’Leary and then in the other quarters was Stu Kennedy and they both qualified for the CT that year.
And I was with Jobe, who was watching on the beach. It was good to be hanging up there and to surf against people of that quality, and have them come up to you afterwards and give you a hug and say ‘well done’ and then to go have a beer afterwards. That was a time when I thought ‘I can give this a really good crack,’ because I’d lost to him by 0.5 and he’s qualified for the CT!
Luke Dillon is supported by Typhoon Wetsuits, check out their full range of suits here.
Subscribe now to Europe’s longest running surf publication for your fill of timeless stories and arresting imagery from the full breadth of surf culture.
Cover photo: @lugarts