Laurie Towner is and always has been a surfer’s surfer.
Back in the late naughts, if you’d have asked anyone who knew what was what, they’d have told you that Laurie was on course to become one the most decorated heavy wave riders of his generation.
In the years that followed, suspicions looked to be confirmed as he scored numerous covers and big wave nominations, lodging memorable rides at giant Shipstern Bluff and during the Code Red swell in Tahiti. And then suddenly in 2014, his main sponsor pulled the plug, forcing him to pivot from a life of brand-backed jet setting to one grafting on a building site in order to support his young family.
Last year, after completing a tiling apprenticeship, he shifted gears once again, downing tools and taking up an offer from friend and needessentials founder Ryan Scanlon to join the team full time as a designer and product tester. Check out our needessentials wetsuit review.
Figuring the new role would involve plenty of time tethered to a desk, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to grab Laurie for a catch-up. However, when we made contact over email we didn’t find him staring at a screen, tweaking the design of a forthcoming full suit as expected, but rather out of signal, somewhere in the depths of the Aussie outback, where he’d remain for the next few months.
“So how was the trip?” we began by asking when we finally caught up with him back home in NSW last week.
LT: Good mate! It’s been a bit of a lifelong dream of mine to travel around Aus with the family. With the kids at the right age and a bit of free time after finishing my tiling apprenticeship and before moving into this new role with needessentials, last year was the perfect time to get on the road! We left around April from the east coast of Australia and basically followed the coast for eight months.
WL: Were you in a van?
LT: Yeh, we were camping in a little pop-top campervan and I’ve got an old Land Cruiser, which was the perfect car to cruise around in. We just basically hit the road and did what a lot of older crew here do, but we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to do it while we were young.
WL: I guess you’ve done a lot of travelling around Aus on surf focussed missions before, but how different was it doing it with the family in tow?
LT: It was amazing doing it this way. We did focus a fair bit on surfing too, because we had a friend – Nathan Henshaw – who also does a bit of filming for need, and him and his girlfriend were doing the same route, so it sort of aligned perfectly. We did a bunch of filming with some waves, and I also got to take the family around and show them lots of bits of Australia that I’d already seen and they hadn’t. It was pretty special in that sense. They were 5 and 7 (now 6 and 8) and now you can point to a map of Australia and say ‘this is where we live, and that’s the other side of Australia’ and they actually understand how big it is and where the different parts are.
WL: And are they into surfing?
LT: Yeh they love it, especially my little boy, he’s off. He’s already doing little turns on a 4’10 surfboard. He’s got the bug.
WL: How were the waves?
LT: Yeh, I had a ball going to a couple of places I’ve never been to and surfing some new waves. You know Australia’s so big that even doing this trip, you could do it another 20 times and you still wouldn’t tick it all off.
WL: Can you tell me a bit about the new role with needessentials?
LT: At the moment, I’m just trying to learn a lot through Ryan, the founder of need. He lives down the road from me, and we’ve become really good friends. He’s given me the opportunity to learn design and since I’ve been home I’ve been getting stuck into it and learning everything I can. It’s a pretty exciting new role after working on a job site, doing the 9-5 – it feels like such a better lifestyle. I’m basically at the beginning, but I’m really enjoying it so far.
WL: Are you designing the suits themselves? Or making tweaks?
LT: There’s definitely tweaks, at the moment I’m still very amateur, but it’s basically keeping up with products as they come out as well as doing a lot of product testing and just making sure they’re as good as they can be. Ryan never brings out the things he creates right away, we’ll always test them for a good year or so before they come out.
WL: A big part of your career up until now has been defined by surfing big, heavy waves. Are you still just as motivated as ever to paddle out and take on those scary days or has your approach to surfing mellowed a bit?
LT: It’s probably mellowed a little bit, but in saying that if the opportunity’s in front of me I still wouldn’t say no. I’ve still got that desire – not to impress anyone or prove myself – but more just motivated by the personal enjoyment those days give me. It’s one of the greatest feelings I can have in surfing. You know I don’t really care about being the best big wave surfer, or about what people think. That’s out the window for me. I don’t have to push myself in that way. I’m happy to surf 2-foot waves, and I’m happy to surf 20-foot waves, I just love surfing anything.
WL: Going back a litle bit, you started off on the traditional pro surfer path, competing as a junior and then, with the support of your sponsor, embarked on a career chasing big waves. Tell me about the decision to go down that route initially.
LT: As I got older I lost the competitive drive and I knew that competition wasn’t my thing. I always enjoyed surfing heavy barrels and luckily I got put on a couple of trips when I was young that got me in front of some pretty serious waves. I felt like I got more reward out of riding one of those really big barrels than if I’d won a contest and I was lucky to get that opportunity to go in that direction.
WL: In the years that followed you had a couple of big wave nominations and some standout rides, then in 2014 you were left without your main sponsor, what happened there?
LT: I was 25, turning 26, about to have my firstborn baby with my wife. I was getting paid to surf and I actually had a really good year that last year, and then I guess the surf industry had a bit of an issue and I was one of the ones to get cut. I had a home loan and I still felt like I had a lot to achieve, still being in that hungry mid-20s mindset, where you want to go hard and I felt like I got pushed away from it in a sense. That was the hardest thing to swallow. I jumped straight on a job site and was a labourer for a few years until I decided to get a tiling apprenticeship. I did feel like I was missing out until a couple of years ago when needessentials started to look after me and send me on a few trips. But now looking back on that, it’s one of the most positive things that has happened to me.
WL: It seems like a lot of people in that situation succumb to being quite bitter about the whole thing. How did you work to avoid that?
LT: I reckon I got lucky in one sense, with having one of the most amazing things life can give you happen at the same time. Having a kid was probably how I kept my head screwed on. I thought I’ve had this amazing life and experienced so much in the surf. You know, with some of the waves I got to ride, from the age of 18 up until having the baby the year I got dropped, there was no need to be bitter in a sense. Having my kids and my beautiful wife there to support me was one of the biggest motivators. Life just rolls on basically. And it was kind of cool because I got to hang at home. I could just appreciate having a kid and watching him grow up without jumping on flights here there and everywhere. You can understand where other people get bitter if they’re all in and they’re doing everything right and then it happens, but I guess in this day and age there’s so many talented surfers out there, it could happen to anyone. It’s just the way it rolls I guess.
WL: As a workaday charger, in Fiji in 2018 for example, did your attitude change compared to when you were a full-time pro. Did you find yourself holding back because you had to go back to work the following week?
LT: I think that’s when the love of what I do came into it. Maybe that’s why I did lose sponsorship, because of the way I think, in general, you know. I wasn’t pushing to be the best. I was just pushing to enjoy myself, have a good time, and hopefully ride a few bombs when the swells came. It’s the way the big companies seem to push everyone, like you’ve got to be the best, when that’s kind of the wrong attitude to have in a sense. For me, I was just going back to doing the thing I’ve always loved, whether I had a sticker on my board or not. On the boat, I can look at the waves and go jeez it looks big and scary, but once I’m jumped off and in the moment I feel comfortable and relaxed and I know I’m capable of doing it.
WL: After that swell in Fiji were you straight back onto a job site?
LT: Yeh, I went straight back to doing tiling. I remember saying to my boss, who I was doing my apprenticeship with at the time, mate there’s a proper good swell coming, can I go? Or are we super busy? Usually every week we had jobs lined up back to back. But he was such a cool boss for me and a good mate and he was like ‘ye nah go go! If you want to go, go for it.’ Then when I got home I jumped straight back on the tools.
WL: What’s that like the week after?
LT: It was actually really exciting. For a few years before I hadn’t done much travelling. That was the very beginning of need helping me to get places. They funded me to go to Fiji, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I’d been living as an apprentice with a family, with a house mortgage, I was living week to week, so I was lucky enough that Ryan said if there’s a swell jump on it and we’ll help you get there.
When you ride a wave like the one I got at Cloudbreak, you’re definitely on a high for a while. I came back to pumping waves here and where normally I’d be all over it, I was so excited about the wave I’d caught in Fiji, I didn’t even go surfing. I just went and sat on the rocks and watched my mates get barrelled. I was that high on the wave. They’re the moments why I love it.
WL: What are you enjoying most in your surfing right now?
LT: I’m enjoying most that I enjoy surfing anything. I’m enjoying that it doesn’t have to be perfect for me to have fun. Yesterday I was surfing a little two-foot point break on an average little twin fin that I shaped myself. I do still love riding my Dylan boards. But lately, the thing that’s been getting me in the water is riding a different board every surf basically.
WL: And do you head up to Snapper for those cyclone swells?
LT: I live quite close to there but I don’t go up there very often. I’m happy to surf in a crowd, I just save those trips for when I really feel like surfing up there. I guess we are pretty bloody spoilt here in Aus, there’s so many waves, so when it’s doing its thing up there with a thousand people out, there are big rogue ugly waves here with no one out, so ill just jump in the water and surf a crappy burger-y wave and have probably just as much fun.
WL: What are your plans for this coming year?
LT: I’m pretty excited to get my head into this whole design thing and learn off Ryan, but he’s also keen to get me on a few strike missions. Basically, I’m just excited to take a new path in life and still have surfing right there as well.
WL: Thanks Laurie, we’ll keep an eye out for the edit from your trip around Aus!
A fresh batch of needessentials 6/4/3’s and 5/4’s have just landed in the UK, get yours here to see the remainder of winter out warm and toasty!