Surfing has been a part of every era of Laurie Thompson’s life. Baron of Phillip Island’s surfing industry with his ‘Islantis’ empire, Laurie is now content to remain a surfing gypsy.
words sally o’neill photos warren reed
Laurie Thompson is used to travel. He has been jumping on planes with his surfboards since he first hit Bali in the early 1970s. Now he jet sets between his bases in Thailand and Phillip Island.
“I was always a beach kid,” explains Laurie, who was drawn to the bay at Mentone from the early sixties. “We’d often wag school, and if a storm blew up in Port Phillip Bay, we’d try to surf in the chop and wind.” Originally he shared the use of an old balsa board with a friend before he secured his very own polyurethane board from Bill and Bob Young in St Kilda. His “little tribe”, armed with their new, modern surfboards, “scunged” rides to Point Leo, Torquay and Phillip Island. “It was fantastic: we were young and adventurous, surfing was new, and we realised we were into something special.”
Laurie “fell in love with the Island” in 1963 when, in his teens, he would spend summers camping with best mate Brian Murphy and family at San Remo. They would walk out to Foots or the sand bar to surf, occasionally hitching a lift as far afield as Cat Bay. The duo befriended the only two local surfers –‘Yardo’ and Zac Bagley – who filled them in on the best surf spots.
Throughout the years Laurie continued surfing Point Leo, and joined the East Coast Board Club. Originally called the ‘Suicide Savages’ after their love of surfing Suicide Point, the original club members were “basically very adventurous thugs,” recalls Laurie. “They had pretty severe crowd control and didn’t like other people coming to the Point.” As surfing became more accepted in wider society, the Savages mellowed and formed the East Coast Board Club. Laurie would hop rides with members to the Island, where he met legends like Dave Fincher, Jungles, Buck Ryan, Johnny Martin, Dogsy Luke and Dick Garside.
Transport was always fun. “Rick O’Neill, Murph and I would come to the Island in Rick’s FJ panel van every weekend.” Laurie would proudly wear his East Coast Board Club jacket. He then joined the newly-formed Phillip Island Board Riders, remaining loyal to a Club on each coast. “Clubs were a big thing then. You didn’t join: you were invited, because every Club wanted its competition strength. It was the days of breaking away from lifesaving clubs and their regimentation.”
Initially content to travel from coast to coast for waves, he describes his gang as ‘coastal gypsies’. “There’d be five of us in one car: we’d throw our sleeping bags on the ground and wake up in front of the surf. Where to kip was generally determined by where the best waves were the next morning.”
But it didn’t take long to become more and more comfortable with the Island and its variety of quality waves. He spent many a night amongst the marram tussocks around Cat Bay. “I’d find a nice hummock to place under my hip, and hope it didn’t rain (otherwise it would be back to the car, squashed in and sleeping upright). If you slept on a penguin trail, you might find one on your chest at daybreak! Sometimes we’d sleep in the old Woolamai Surf Club Nissan hut if we knew someone with a key. For rugged winter nights, the rotunda at Forrest Caves had a fireplace, and Newhaven School had a shelter shed. And, there was always a deserted shop in San Remo if you didn’t mind a rat or two running around!”
Things improved when he finally got his licence and an old Austin A40 van. “The maximum speed was 50mph (downhill) and it used as much oil as it did petrol. But at least it had a bed in the back and provided some form of creature comfort.”
They weren’t health-conscious either. “We lived on baked beans and burgers, and a major portion of our diet was beer!” laughs Laurie. The beach parties were legendary: it was nothing to cart a barrel of beer to the beach to help to raise money for the board club. On Phillip Island, they raised enough to buy a block of land for their clubhouse. “It was all funded by beer!”
For entertainment (and girls), the lads had to look further afield and travelled to the Saturday night dance in Wonthaggi. “Wonny was a pretty rough little town then,” Laurie recalls. “There were all these tough, nuggety little coalminers who wanted to fight the surfers on a Saturday night!”
The sixties was an era of surfing exploration, discovery and mystery. The gradual development of surf products extended horizons and enabled new breaks to be conquered. “We watched Express (his favourite break) for years before determining that it was in fact surfable. Short boards and leg-ropes opened up a lot of heavier, edgier surf breaks.”
Good roof racks were also a revelation. “We’d lose our boards occasionally. We’d just put them on with stretchy octopus straps, the natural enemy of the strong headwind. My friend Murph lost a board from his car on the bridge at midnight. He had to paddle out and look for it. Another time Tugga Taylor’s board flew off and went through the windscreen and out the back window of the Morris Minor behind. Often the weight of the stacked boards collapsed the roof racks totally on the bumpy sand bunker runs into beaches like Flynns Reef. Old beach-bashing vehicles were the general transport choice for functional as well as financial reasons.”
Environmental awareness was not on the horizon as they cut tracks through the dunes to breaks and parked as close to the waves as possible. “Everything was carefree and the island was pretty barren and deserted,” says Laurie. The day that Bruce Richardson took his brand-new Valiant along Summerland Beach is legendary – the tide came in and covered the car. “A couple of guys said they surfed over the top of it,” he laughs. They waited for the tide to go out and pulled it out with a tractor, then it was taken straight to Cooky (the mechanic in Cowes) to be repaired. “A week later, when Bruce and Hippo were driving to Bells, they turned the heater on and got sand-blasted!”
Laurie made several attempts to move to the Island permanently, but work always dried up after Easter. In the late sixties he worked for Klemm Bell Surfboards in Gardenvale. “I loved it: my whole life centred around surfing, and Klemmy was my surf-industry mentor.”
For a time he got a ‘real job’ as a sales rep for a fibreglass company. It kept him in the industry and gave him a good insight into business acumen and procedures. Now with a regular wage, he took his first trip to Bali in 1973 when the island had not long opened up to tourism. He loved its potential and it gave him a lifelong passion for Asia. “I’d come back from one trip and start saving for the next.”
Klemm soon asked him to manage his new outlet at Torquay. Between 1974 and 1977, he ran the branch on the understanding that he would soon manage a branch on Phillip Island. “It was the time when surfing was starting to boom. Torquay was the centre of surfing in Australia and the world.”
Laurie would race back to the Island to surf on his days off. “The weekend crowds would be gone and it was mine!” They were good years, but totally exhausting. “I said to myself: ‘Loz, if you don’t stop this, you’re going to kill yourself’. So I gave notice.” The Island had won.
Based at Phillip Island’s gateway in Newhaven, Laurie set up Islantis in 1977, living out back in his “bachelor pad” and regularly hanging the ‘gone surfing’ sign on the window. He was ‘living the dream’, surfing the Island on the pick of days and spending winters carving up waves in Indonesia where he also led tours of 60-70 surfers. “I’d organise a group ticket to travel over, and then everyone did their own thing and we just met up to fly back. In those days you had to get visas and injections, and the planes were old Garuda prop DC10s,” he recalls.
Laurie also became somewhat of a media celebrity, providing on-air surf reports for the hippest radio stations. “I’d have to run out early in the morning and then get back to the landline and wait for the station to ring me. You had to be careful: you didn’t want to point everyone to one beach. So I generally just reported on the open beaches from Forrest Caves to Williamsons, then Cat Bay, Flynns etc. Now surfers are pointed to an exact location via computers. They are forewarned of each new swell arrival, its direction and duration. Consequently, there’s overcrowding, fights and hassles – that’s progress for you…”
In 1980, he started losing interest in the rapidly-changing Bali and took his first surf trip to Nias in Sumatra. “It was a lot more raw and travel was harder, on local coconut boats and buses. Boats were always sinking and bridges washing out: they were pretty adventurous times.” He started travelling via Bangkok, where he met his wife, and they continued the surfing gypsy lifestyle through the eighties and nineties as they raised their children between countries.
Islantis sold in 2005. “It got to the stage where I figured young people didn’t want to buy a block of wax off an old guy.” His part-time base of Phuket is a hub where he can easily jump on a plane and be surfing the South China Sea in Malaysia, the Pacific Ocean in Taiwan or the Indian Ocean in Indonesia in an hour. “I’ve been to Burma, India, so many exciting regional islands and other far-flung places, but I’m slowing down now and accepting that my surfing days are coming to an end.”
Laurie’s surfing legacy is the lifelong friends and memories he has made. “Surfing has been my life. I think I constantly had the best of it, from the exploration of the sixties through to the business side of surfing today.”
Surfing has a history and Laurie is a big part of it. “There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t have something to do with surfing – contacting friends, collecting and researching historic surfboards: it’s part and parcel of my life and everything I’ve been for the past sixty years.”
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