Tasmanian surfing pioneer Mick Lawrence on the selfishness of surfing
When Mick Lawrence unknowingly became a surfing pioneer in the 1960s, he says it would have been easier to tell his mother he was joining the Hells Angels than buying a board.
"I was always a water child. I always felt different when I was in the water," he said.
Growing up in Hobart, he was a competitive swimmer and in 1963 attended the trials for the Tokyo Olympics and finished an "outstanding" last. But a year later he saw a touring surfing film that changed his life.
"I went and sat down ... and stood up a surfer."
Without hesitation Mick ordered his board and in 1967 and 1968 won state championships. He then spent his life exploring around some of Tasmania and the world's most remote areas.
Now 72, Mick is giving back to the community by working with the latest generation of surfers — grommets — as well as making a film about the importance of friendship.
As surfing started to take off, places like Park Beach in Tasmania's south became very busy (Photo Mick Lawrence)
'It gets into your blood'
Becoming a surfer was considered a fairly extreme lifestyle choice in the 1960s. "We didn't know how to surf, we didn't know where waves came from, we were green," Mick said.
"We were raised by people who witnessed two wars and a Great Depression; their approach to life was totally different. You were taught respect, you went to school, you got a job, you married a woman and you got a mortgage."
But he said the era of the Vietnam War was a turning point. "I was too young to drink beer with my mates but I was old enough to go fight in Vietnam," Mick said.
But he found rebelling against the norm and taking on a lifestyle of surfing was much more appealing.
"It gets into your blood and that's it."
Mick Lawrence claimed the 1967 state surfing title at Eaglehawk Neck (Photo Mick Lawrence)
A proud legacy
Mick and his surfing friends had no mentors and were the first generation of surfers.
"Now, you've got five-year-old kids surfing with their grandparents — it covers three generations," he said.
"Back when I told my mum I was becoming a surfer, it was worse than joining the Hells Angels. That was society's outlook on surfing because it digressed from the norm."
He said the surfing image had shifted from bums living on beaches to hugely successful global businesses.
"We didn't think about the future of surfing, we were addicted and obsessive. I don't think in our wildest dreams that fifty years later it would be as it is now, and that makes me pretty proud. It's a great legacy.
"I never intended to be a pioneer, I was just a kid having fun."
Mick Lawrence surfs in the 1967 Australian Titles at Bells (Photo Mick Lawrence)
Search for a selfish wave
Mick and his mates learnt to surf by failure. They drove halfway around the state to find waves, often not understanding the weather.
"The exploration, the search, is an intrinsic part of surfing in Tasmania," he said. "We live on an island surrounded by water, so there's the opportunity for swell anywhere almost anytime."
When the sport gained popularity, things started to change. "Surfing is very selfish. It's all about you and the wave, it's not about sharing."
In the early 1970s a world-class surf spot was discovered in a little-known place called Bali, and a handful of passionate surfers set off for Indonesia.
"Kuta and Legian were two little villages, the rest was just rice paddies," Mick said.
He travelled to New Zealand, Hawaii, Mexico and the continental United States to surf and witnessed popular beaches slowly fill up.
"Surfing is about a beautiful connection with a powerful unseen energy force that roams around the oceans of the world, and we're just fortunate enough to be able to capture that in its dying moments before it dies on a beach."
Phillip Island was among the many surfing destinations for Mick Lawrence (centre) and his mates (Photo Mick Lawrence)
He said that connection became lost when there was a crowd.
"Some beaches have 250 people out at a time when it's working — and that's not surfing, that's awful. Here, we're lucky. You can escape to the south-west, it's an effort, a lot of planning, a lot of good luck, but the rewards are great because you can have it to yourself with a few mates."
The search for the perfect lonely wave involved exploring Tasmania's wild coastlines, often involving trekking through bush or travelling by boat.
Giving back to the grommets
About ten years ago Mick's aorta split and he was told he wouldn't live. But as he recovered he wrote a book about surfing and later explored Tasmania by sea kayak as well as make films and work as a wilderness guide.
Mick now works with the South Arm Board Riders through Surfing Tasmania to mentor the latest generation of surfers.
"I don't know how long it is before the ultimate wave gets me," he said. "I decided I wanted to give something back, so I thought I'd do that through the younger kids at the beach."
He passes on knowledge — surf skills and life skills. "Sometimes it's easier for a kid to speak to an elder who is not their parents.
"By me passing on the baton, it comes from someone who has respect for the place."
Mick Lawrence signs copies of his book Surfing On The Inside for the grommets (Photo Surfing Tasmania)
Source of strength
Mick is still making films, and his current project about mateship was inspired by the people in his life who'd experienced hardship.
"It would have been very easy to roll over and give up, but the thing that got them through was their mates."
The surfing community was there for him after tragedy struck in 2017 when his son Tim, himself a dedicated surfer, was killed in a jet ski accident.
"It's one of the reasons I decided to give something back," Mick said. "I was always giving back, but I was doing it through my son and his friends.
"It's one of the worst things that could ever happen in your life, but surfing and my surfing friends taught me you've got to look at it another way.
"Tim would be shocked and horrified if he saw me wallowing around in self pity."
The surfing community rallied in support of Tim Lawrence's family after his death (Photo ABC News/Aneeta Bhole)
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