Tasmanian surfing pioneer Mick Lawrence on the selfishness of surfing

Georgie Burgess
Swellnet Dispatch

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)

//GEORGIE BURGESS
© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Comments

Logical's picture
Logical's picture
Logical commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:21pm

Who gives a rats back side about grommets.

There are too few waves these days and too many old blokes out surfing that pay a shit load of tax every year.

Local football fields, footy, cricket etc is where grommets belong. Only greedy surf companies are peddling the "grommet heart strings" BS to build their future customer base.

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:40pm

If these old blokes are surfing an east swell from a low pressure system near New Zealand, shouldn't they be paying an additional import tax and customs tarrif?

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 2:10am

That is not funny. He talked about the south west, so it is irrevelant.

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups commented Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019 at 3:01pm

I reckon you’re onto something there. We’re super generous over here in NZ sending you all those SE swells free of charge. I reckon you guys should all be paying us a couple of bucks per surfer per surf. Payable to The Spuddups and Island Bay charitable trust, that I just formed right now. We’ll give you guys the odd rebate for when you send us NW swell, but that’s pretty rare so I figure I can quit my job now and watch the money roll in.

BTW, I’m coming back over in July to sample some of our finest SE swell merchandise. Could you guys arrange some kind of welcoming party for me at the airport? Just maybe some dancing girls, an om-pah band and some free beers. Nothing too extravagant.

Feralkook's picture
Feralkook's picture
Feralkook commented Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019 at 10:38pm

Oh why not and I guess you would like us to throw in some Centrelink payments with that swell would ya?

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups commented Thursday, 17 Jan 2019 at 6:04am

I hadn’t thought of that. How nice of you to offer! Would you be able to arrange it for us? We’re not greedy, A couple of bag-a-sand a week would do nicely.

Sheep go to heaven's picture
Sheep go to heaven's picture
Sheep go to heaven commented Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019 at 9:09am

thanks for your contribution kook, im sure the other burnt out mal riders standing in the car park whingeing about how airs aren't really surfing would appreciate it

spark's picture
spark's picture
spark commented Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019 at 3:17pm

well I'm guessing you were a grommet one day and reading between the lines no one gave a shit about you.

The old blokes that are out there surfing and paying tax so that you can sit on your towel and fit a few rays in during the week. Where would you be without them?

Great story , Tasmanian legend

Not enough of this these days

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:23pm

That's the attitude Logical!

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:31pm

Anyway, my old man - who isn't a grommet, he pays taxes etc - recently did a kayaking trip around Bathurst Harbour with Mick Lawrence as his guide. It's wild, wild country down that way and Mick regaled him with stories of surfing the South-west. I think the old boy was well impressed 'cos after the kayaking trip he beelined it to the first bookshop he could find in Hobart and bought Mick's book 'Surfing on the Inside'.

"It's the last one available," said the lady behind the counter. Dad read it, then gave thoughtfully it to me as a present, and I consequently know a lot more about Tassie surf history because of it, including how Shippies was discovered.

Shane Southorn's picture
Shane Southorn's picture
Shane Southorn commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 6:47pm

There are so many people who have contributed to surfing in Tassie and Mick Lawrence is one of them ,a loverly bloke as was his beautiful son Tim and i wish his family all the best in the future.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:33pm

If you ever find yourself in a position where you can give back, or mentor then you've reached a very lucky place indeed. Sometimes you need a close call or crisis to be called to it. There's nothing quite like a grommet's world expanding a little, maybe their first time out on a reef and it's not so scary, maybe their first proper turn and traverse. The stoke goes off the chart.
What Mick is saying is so true, in a world of unseen energy we get to go and experience the most physical manifestation of it, the pulses of ocean swell. How lucky are we?

Westofthelake's picture
Westofthelake's picture
Westofthelake commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 6:29pm

Too true vj.
It seems the older you get the more you appreciate the surf and surfing.
Has to be the next best thing to being a dolphin.

Goannasinthegreenroom's picture
Goannasinthegreenroom's picture
Goannasinthegre... commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:33pm

Your wrong f*cked and overrated
Nothing annoys me more then old dudes on long boards waiting out the back and snagging all the waves and not letting any come through for the short boarders

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:35pm

Where did you people come from??

fuhrious's picture
fuhrious's picture
fuhrious commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:57pm

When you find out let me know so I can cross it off as a place not to visit! I might borrow that book fella!

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 5:11pm

Anytime Fuhrer. Bet you've got a sunny spot on the new verandah to read it.

haggis's picture
haggis's picture
haggis commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 6:08pm

He comes from Crescent Head.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:36pm

then the SUPs do it to the longboards, then someone paddles out on a 16ft toothpick and mows them all down. It's an arms race out there...

warddy's picture
warddy's picture
warddy commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 6:14pm

Funniest comment I’ve heard in ages ..
I live on the Goldie ..
Enough said LoL

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 6:36pm

Latest weapon? The motorised foil. Coming to a beach near you soon.

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 2:04am

We will impeach you!

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 2:05am

I will impeach anybody who gets near my peach!

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:34pm

& Stu can I borrow that book some day?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:37pm

In theory, yes VJ, not a problem.

Now postage and stuff..?

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:43pm

Maybe next time I go up to Syd for blanks and will return down the coast, pull up campsite and read near you over a couple of days. I can swap you for "Shooting the Franklin" which is the pioneer white water rafting Tassie tale, or the immortal "South West Tasmania" or plethora maps :)

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 4:44pm

I'm sure we can come to an arrangement.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 5:13pm

Congratulations on being a surfer , Mr Lawrence and thanks for that little insight into your life. Hopefully you’ve got a few screaming sets left in you yet.

Sorry to hear of your loss, glad you’ve found a way to let the sun shine on you again. From what I’ve seen , Tassie is a gem of a place and you caught it at just the right time , I reckon.

Cheers.

UserMick's picture
UserMick's picture
UserMick commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 6:54pm

Nice to know

GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 9:27pm

There are many ways to give back and perhaps one of the best is to say nothing. I'm thinking now about a handful of reefs three of us discovered by sheer chance long ago. Tucked up in little bays they are very reliable under the right conditions and we have never seen anyone else there. One of us is dead now but me and my mate aren't saying anything and it's a joy knowing they still exist as they always have.

Surfing is mostly a selfish thing and is over competitive so when I hear someone is giving back I'm questioning it, so should everybody. Some might be genuine, let's hope there are still some out there. How did pwcs, foils, sups, motorised surfboards ever get up? How is it possible that they are even permitted to surf amongst paddle-in surfing? Wave parks? What will surfing look like after a decade or two of grommies ripping the wave park for a few years before getting his/her licence and hitting a real surf beach? Surfing like everything else in life has been oversold by the Greedy Hand Emporium. Good luck with the future.

Give back to the planet, give back to the oceans and say nothing and for fucks sake pick up some rubbish each time you are blessed to visit the beach.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 9:45pm

Interesting Guy. My first reaction is to think " Well being considered a lower form of life for a couple of years didn't harm us....." But then I see the youth suicide statistics and they tell me that there are a lot of kids out there who are really doing it tough and it's not necessarily the ones from less advantaged circumstances. So more power to Mick and the many others like him who make the effort to support the ones who need it.

GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 10:01pm

My comments weren't directed at Mick, don't know him so I can't comment other than to say he sounds a good bloke and surfing does help some kids in tough situations, my comments were general and were focused on how every commercial angle has been turned over a 100 times in an attempt to make a buck out of it. You know what I mean here, the days of empty lineups are gone, we had it good, and for now? the future? How did you? we all give back? So I ask where's the gratitude in all of us?

Benny boo's picture
Benny boo's picture
Benny boo commented Monday, 14 Jan 2019 at 10:13pm

You people that pay out on long boards ! what came first the chicken or the egg ? Would there be a sort board with out a long board or a old dude with out a young dude ?

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 1:56am

He looks like a tree.

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 2:00am

Pete would get on with this dude.

No mal half a quiver's picture
No mal half a quiver's picture
No mal half a quiver commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 6:18am

Long boards came first then the short board and now with modern design and better craftsmanship I see longboards making a resurgence. After riding short boards for 20 years I can assure you 1 good round house cutback on a longboard a week if your lucky is far more rewarding then a couple in 1 surf. For me progression is the ability to a longboard well. I get hounded in the surf but most of the time I ride the whole wave not just the shoulder. Next time you see a long boarder get the fins out on there back hand just think that mal kook got the fins out what a kook. Tassie has me foamed up freezing cold sharked up hours walk to the car park if injured no doubt about it pioneers.

B.B.Blitz's picture
B.B.Blitz's picture
B.B.Blitz commented Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019 at 6:23pm

Much respect for Mick and other pioneer types eg Peter Troy etc etc.Looks like the era of nostalgia is upon us, we all have many surf stories that just would never happen these days.Write em down ,they are invaluable.

spencie's picture
spencie's picture
spencie commented Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019 at 12:20pm

A good read and good on him for giving back to the community. Not all the old surfers ride long boards and snake in the line-up. There's plenty of us oldies (I'm 70) who try as best we can to still keep up in the line-up without having to resort to riding mals, etc.

easterly

stylemaster1970's picture
stylemaster1970's picture
stylemaster1970 commented Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019 at 1:04pm

Why are all these hard core shortboarders riding soft longboard waves anyway. Go surf real waves and stop ya whinging.

If you argue with a fool long enough you will loose sight of who the fool really is........

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019 at 4:25pm

It's a deal style master, you take the crap, we'll take the quality. No more longboards snaking the sets, sounds good to me!

Benny boo's picture
Benny boo's picture
Benny boo commented Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019 at 10:45pm

There are still empty line up's to get the set waves ! And I think you guys are missing the point of surfing, fun ! long or sort who gives a shit.

Jono Mereszka's picture
Jono Mereszka's picture
Jono Mereszka commented Thursday, 17 Jan 2019 at 8:09am

Legend Mick, love ya passion.

No mal half a quiver's picture
No mal half a quiver's picture
No mal half a quiver commented Thursday, 17 Jan 2019 at 8:18am

Short boards are for blokes who can’t use all of there wives vagina.

Patty Boy's picture
Patty Boy's picture
Patty Boy commented Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019 at 9:49pm

When I was a Grom I was surfing at North Clifton, Hobart with my mate Wayne. There was a great left bank (for cliffy) anyway and we were pretty much taking the left overs. I scored a good one and was flying through the inside and Wayne was paddling back out, instead of a look of excitement on his face Wayne was kinda freakin and then it happened Mick Lawrence jumped on my back pulled me under and punched me a couple of times and when we came back up he said, "always look inside". I now run a surf school and have told that story a few times. Mick's nickname to us was Fred Flindstone as he was a big bloke with tight curls. That was the mid to late 70s. When I got my 'P's and was able to explore a bit, a favourite wave was Eagle Hawk Reef, a nice hollow little ledge. I was having a great surf this one day and Mick paddled over to me eyes all red and full on gave it to me about getting too many waves, I thought I was going to get pumbled. Then a guy that became a good friend Jacko came over and called him off telling him I was only getting waves because you fellas are piking the sets. I kinda felt that I had moved up from being a Grom that day. Years later when I was a cop on Bruny Island I ran into Mick and he had full on mellowed. I wish I had told him those couple of stories and I have a couple more too. Anyway I guess he will read them now. Good on him and I am really stoked that he is investing in our surfing community. Just to let you know Mick I have looked inside ever since but can still be heard saying "didn't think you would make it mate"!

Pat Eastwood