All photos by Ted Grambeau.
In the early 2010s, images of Australia's Laurie Towner pulling into some of the world's heaviest barrels were splashed all over magazine spreads and website galleries. Supremely casual in waves that buckled the knees of some of the most revered big-wave surfers on earth, Towner thrived at notoriously nasty breaks like Ours and Shipsterns.
A long career seemed to stretch out before the talented charger, but in 2014, his longtime sponsor, Billabong, suddenly dropped Towner from their surf team. Shocked, he tried to piece together a pro surfing career by attracting a different sponsor, confident that his past accomplishments would buoy him through rough professional seas. When no other brands came calling, and with a young
family to support and mortgage bills stacking up, Towner picked up a hammer and reluctantly built a new life for himself as a construction worker.
Now 31 years old with two kids, living and surfing near the pastoral beauty of Angourie, New South Wales, Towner has found peace and enjoyment and, finally, fulfillment in life after professional surfing. But he remains one of the world's best, most formidable surfers—perhaps the most talented non-sponsored surfer on the planet. We talked at length with Towner about navigating the transition to civilian life, the uncertain existence of a pro surfer, and what it would take to get his hard-charging subsidized by a surf company once more.
Were you shocked when Billabong didn't renew your contract? You were seemingly at the peak of your exposure at the time.
It was so out of the blue. I was coming to the end of the year when I'd be signing a new contract. I met up with the team manager for lunch and he just said right away, "You're getting dropped. You're done." It was a very hard time. My partner Bronwyn was super pregnant with our first baby. There were just a few months between me losing my sponsor and us having our first child. I was making decent money— just surfing and chasing big waves, so it was definitely a hard change for me, initially. I didn't have any skills or know any trades, either. Luckily my brother is a carpenter and my mate is a plumber, so I just jumped straight into laboring. That was really hard, just going from having an incredible surf life to working everyday. But what kept me good and happy was something way more exciting happening in my life—having a daughter. I'd bought a house when times were good and had a mortgage, so I had to keep an income coming in. I had a family to support.
What did it feel like when you were cut? Were you angry? Afraid of what was coming next?
It felt pretty shit. At the time I was having a pretty good year. I'd been on a few magazine covers, I'd had a good run at Teahupo'o, and caught some crazy waves at Shipsterns. I was just so surprised. I was 26 years old—really at the perfect age to start taking my surfing to the next level. I was a little older, a little wiser, a little more comfortable with what I was doing—I was in my prime. I felt like I missed out on what could have happened with the rest of my career.
I tried to stay positive and I really thought some other brand would pick me up. I put feelers out to a few companies and had a manager looking out for me, but nothing came of it. That's when it started to get stressful. But having a beautiful partner and newborn baby kept me going. I pushed on. I did wonder, "Am I getting too old for big surf?" But of course, I'm not. The best stuff could still be ahead of me.
With the surf industry in such dire straits the past decade or so, do pro surfers often worry and talk about getting cut, wondering when the other shoe will drop?
Yeah, actually, one of my best mates and I got dropped at the same time—Wade Goodall. He was lucky enough to get picked up by Vans, and was able to do creative stuff with them, working for Vans as well as surfing for them, so it's worked out nicely for him. This is an interesting question right now, though, because during a trip I just did to Cloudbreak, there were younger sponsored guys there, and they were talking to me about my experience. They're doing well, but to them I'm an example of what could happen if things don't work out in surfing. They're realizing they need to set themselves up for what's next. That's a good thing, actually.
Were you able to keep your house after losing your sponsorship?
I was. The first couple years were a serious struggle. We only just kept the house by the skin of our teeth. I was also learning a new trade at the time. I'd been considering a carpentry apprenticeship when a friend asked if I wanted to get into tiling work. It felt like a better trade for me, so I switched. In carpentry, you're in the sun all the time. I decided I'd rather get into tiling and not work in the sun all day. But those first years after I was cut were very stressful. I kept a positive face, but inside I was pretty rattled. Finally I just realized, "Life is good. I live in a beautiful place with a beautiful family." I just had to learn something I didn't know how to do. That was kind of exciting.
Seems like you might have been able to transition to a job in the surf industry. Was that ever an option you considered?
I never saw myself in the surf industry. I think I'm too cruisy and laid back. My biggest downfall when it comes to the surf world is that I'm not the best self-promoter. I let my surfing do the talking. I feel like you have to really sell yourself in the industry, to show everybody you're living your best life, doing the coolest things everyday. I like to live that way, but I don't care about showing everybody else what I'm doing all the time.
Does your surfing feel a bit freed up after life as a pro? Does not having to go on the sketchiest waves because you're not getting paid for it feel like a relief a little bit? At least you don't have to think about anybody else's interests when you're surfing now, right?
Definitely. I was at Cloudbreak for this last big swell and I felt no pressure at all while surfing. I don't feel like I have anything to prove. I may not be surfing as much as I used to, but I'm enjoying surfing more than ever and having more fun, even if it's only two-foot beach break. I've always been a frother, but because I don't see big swells as often as I used to, I make the most of good swells and appreciate where I am and what I'm doing. At Cloudbreak recently, even if I hadn't caught some crazy waves, it was still unbelievable being there. It doesn't feel competitive anymore. I don't have to do anything for a company. I was just surfing for myself and having fun. I guess it was like that when I was sponsored, too, but it feels different now. I don't know, maybe having kids helped me appreciate that more.
When you were surfing for a living, did you feel like you had to surf the sketchiest waves and go on waves you didn't really want?
It's funny you ask. I surf for Need Essentials [a wetsuit and boardshort company] now—I'm not on contract or anything, just happy to travel for them a bit—and the first trip I did for them was to Jaws. They said they didn't expect me to chase big swells and I didn't have to go surf the heaviest waves, they'd be happy to send me to Desert Point or Namibia, to fun-sized waves. I said, "This is just who I am."
I want to surf Jaws. I love the big stuff. I love being a part of those days even if I'm not getting the bombs. It's still special. The energy around those days is just, well, I can't describe it. You have to feel it for yourself.
Do you feel like you're missing out when you see pros chasing huge swells?
That was hard at first. It's a battle in your mind, standing around a job site eight hours a day doing hard labor and not surfing. As time went by, though, I learned to deal with it and now it doesn't bother me at all. I'm getting close to five years without a sponsor and it doesn't affect me at all anymore. I can go on the odd trip here and there and be happy.
Would you do the Big Wave World Tour if it was a possibility?
I'm not 100 percent sold on the Big Wave World Tour. There's much more to bigwave surfing than what's happening on the Big Wave World Tour. So many good big-wave surfers aren't even on the Tour, which I don't really understand. You're pushing your own limits just being part of big days whether it's a competition or not. Plus, I've done nothing at a place like Jaws to be anywhere near competing in that event, but that's a wave I'd love to get comfortable with. I was there back when everybody was towing, but this year was the first time I've been there, jumping off the rocks and paddling over 60-foot waves. The coolest thing about that was I felt completely comfortable being out there when I haven't really even been chasing big waves for the last five years. I hadn't done any fitness training or anything, and, in fact, there'd been a flat spell at home for a month where I'd just been drinking beer and cruising with the family. Then that swell popped up and I got out there and still felt perfectly comfortable sitting in the lineup. I guess that's one thing you never lose.
Shane Dorian told me that after he had a family, he started questioning whether or not he should even be out in big surf, though of course he still charges. Did having a family change your desire to surf heavy waves at all?
If you were to tell me that I was going somewhere soon to surf a huge swell, from now until the big day came I'd be freaking, thinking about my family and hugging them extra close. But as soon as I jumped off the boat and touched the water, I'd feel like that's exactly where I want to be. I bet it's the same for Dorian. It's one thing on land to say you have doubts, but it changes in the water. I was hesitant
when I went to Jaws, but as soon as I hit the water it was like I had never left big waves. The one thing having kids has taught me, though, is not to jump out and try to pack a bomb right away. I might slow down a little bit and try to figure a place out before I do something stupid. When I was 19 I'd just jump right into the deep end.
Would you take a new contract if a company showed interest in sponsoring you to surf again?
It depends on the money. I feel like I still have lots of years left to chase waves, but I wouldn't go sign some contract for $50,000 or something. If I signed a contract for that kind of money I'd be tripping. It would need to be big. I'm right in the middle of what I'm learning. I don't want to stop now. But I do feel like I have a lot more big waves left in me.
Shane Powell lives near Angourie. Didn't he end up getting into tiling after his pro career ended? Are you guys competing over tiling jobs?
He might have gotten into tiling for a bit, but today he's a commercial fisherman, actually. I thought I might get into that at first, too, but I have a bit of a conscience about killing too many fish. I only kill what I can eat. I fish a lot but I won't waste one bit of fish. That's probably a good call. We'll run out of fish way before we run out of people who need tile work. [Laughs.] Yeah, that might be true. But I'm just doing the best I can. Like everybody else.
[This interview originally appeared in the September Issue, on newsstands now. Subscribe to the print or digital versions here.]