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The Inertia

“The respect Laurie Towner got from that one wave, from that caliber of surfers, was impressive,” Brendan “Margo” Margieson told me. “Andy, Joel Parkinson, and Dylan Longbottom saw him as an equal, and a mate, so that was beautiful to watch. It was a special moment for me, and maybe for surfing. I mean, we are still talking about it today, aren’t we?”

Margo was reflecting on Laurie Towner’s paddle wave at Shipsterns Bluff in February 2006 which remains the paddle benchmark at the iconic slab. Back then the 19-year-old Towner was a relative unknown in the wider surfing world. While he’d shown his potential with a Wave of the Winter at Backdoor that year in Hawaii, few outside his native Angourie knew the talent and big-wave DNA that he was blessed with. 

I wasn’t even really supposed to be there. Dylan Longbotton had taken me under his wing, was shaping my boards, and just dragged me along,” Towner told me. Originally a Billabong Adventure Division mission with the three of them, Parko and Andy Irons joined at the last minute after early exits from the Quik Pro Gold Coast.  

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“On that boat trip on the way out it was like a bunch of giddy girls on a school excursion. There was nervousness and anticipation,” recalls filmmaker Talon Clemow, whose nostalgic edit of the mission can be seen above (Towner’s paddle wave comes at the 4:20 mark). “I remember when we rocked up Andy kept saying I’m just going to go out there, get a small one and just put my feet in the wax. His mindset was to not just paddle for a bomb but take his time. He was trying to calm everyone down I think because he had so much influence. He was the World Champ. This was peak Andy.”  

Towner, however, clearly didn’t get the memo. Partly due to his grommet’s enthusiasm, and partly because he had never towed before and was fifth in line for the rope on the gang’s only ski, he suited up, grabbed his 7’2” and paddled to the lineup. 

“When Loz (Laurie) jumped off I remember Andy saying, ‘What’s the grom doing? I thought we were towing?’” recalls Margo. “He was still so competitive to his core and was rattled that Loz had the jump on him.” 

It’s worth mentioning that apart from Central Coast charger Andrew Mooney and a few locals, the lineup was empty. The Billabong crew had the only boat and ski. This was still the early days of the Tasmanian slab’s exposure. It had been pioneered by Andy Campbell in the late 1990s. Given the isolation, the sharks, and the wave itself – another level of madness – the skill and bravery it took to ride it first must rank alongside Jeff Clark’s efforts at Maverick’s.

No one had seen footage of the wave until filmmaker Justin Gane’s 1996 film Pulse. That featured a six-minute section of Margo, Dave Rastovich and Campbell surfing the solid 12-foot waves they called “Fluffy Tonkas.” In 2001, the wave was outed in a Tracks magazine trip with photographer Sean Davey capturing Kieren Perrow and Mark Mathews paddling into the step-riddled 12-footers.  

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“That 2006 day is an iconic session because of Loz’s  wave and also the star power involved,” says Clemow. “But it generated so much heat because Shipsterns was still relatively new in 2006. Unlike now, peak froth hadn’t been reached and it wasn’t oversaturated.”

 

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A post shared by Laurie Towner (@laurietowner)

Fresh off the boat and into the lineup, Towner wasn’t concerned about the wave’s history, or lack thereof. He caught two waves straight off the bat before the biggest one came through. Towner himself acknowledges his relative inexperience was a blessing in disguise. Being so green he didn’t stop to do any type of internal risk analysis. He simply put his head down and went. 

“Laurie has since proved himself as one the hardest chargers on the planet, but I’m not sure whether he would have went on that wave if Andy wasn’t watching,” says Margo. “Andy was the closest person to Loz in the lineup and he was definitely trying to impress Andy, I mean, everyone was. After that wave, Andy served back, and he went even harder. That wave set the tone for the day.”

More than that, it set an early benchmark for paddling at Shipsterns. Clemow, who has returned a couple of times to film Shipsterns each season for the last decade, reckons the wave still holds up to today’s standards. Few bigger waves have been paddled at the break in the intervening years, despite the huge advances in safety, equipment, and general big-wave performance. 

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“I surfed Shippies last year, and I was reflecting that I’d be coming down here now for 15 years which tripped me out,” concludes Towner. “And it all started, my career really, with that wave. To be a part of that crew, at that special time in Shipsterns history is something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.” 

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