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The Captain

In the no-holds-barred 1970s, Michael Larmont did it all. As a competitor, explorer, innovator, and businessman, he laid much of the groundwork for South Africa as a surfing nation.

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“Hey, Larmont! Where are you?”

It’s winter on the North Shore in 1973, and Eddie Aikau is standing on the lawn in front of a rickety old house at Rocky Point. He’s shouting. Inside, among the group of South African and Australian surfers who are renting the place, it’s flat panic. 

“People were running for cover,” recalls Michael Larmont today, “jumping out the windows, out the back.”

Larmont opens the front door.

“Hi, Eddie.”

“Larmont!” Aikau says, smiling. “I’ll pick you up at six o’clock tonight. We’ll go to the luau. You’ll meet the family.”

Then Aikau left. 

“The guys started coming out of the bushes, asking, ‘Who did he want to fuck up?’” says Larmont. “And I said, ‘He just invited us to dinner.’” 

Whether putting on the finishing touches in his namesake surfboard factory or picking exit lines in the Bay of Plenty (feature image), Larmont’s act was polished to a high sheen. Photograph by John Pauling. Feature Image by Chris Van Lennep.

A year earlier, Aikau had traveled to surf in the Gunston 500 in Durban, South Africa. Due to apartheid laws, however, he was considered a second-class citizen simply because of the melanin in his skin. His trip was fraught with racial tension.

“He’d come down to breakfast at the hotel and everyone would just gasp,” says Larmont. “It was unheralded for a dark-skinned person to be in the hotels in those days. It was a scandal. The beach parted like the Red Sea when he walked to the water. It blew people away. For us surfers, though, we were blown away that it was Eddie Aikau! So, before things got out of hand, Darryl and Lyn Holmes took him to stay with them. And one day, after surfing one of his heats, he was sitting on the wall alone, just looking at the waves. I went up to him and said, ‘Good day, Eddie. I’m Mike. Would you like to come surfing with us down the coast?’ For the rest of his trip, if he wasn’t surfing in the event, we’d go find empty waves outside of town. He ended up having a really good time. And he proved it when we got to Hawaii [the next year].

“At the luau, Eddie said to me, ‘This is your family.’ His mom said, ‘You looked after Eddie; we’ll look after you. You got any trouble, tell Pop and the family will fix the problem. Any trouble. From anyone. Just let us know and the trouble will be gone.’ I never had one bit of shit from anyone in Hawaii. I’d go with Eddie to Sunset and there’d be 100 people battling to catch waves. He’d say, ‘Larmont, paddle for the next one.’ Then he’d go for a wave, pull back, and I’d have it all to myself. The other guys out there would be looking at me, going, ‘Who is this guy and how did he just pull that off?’”

*

If you’ve ever wondered why South Africa has such a well-developed surf manufacturing industry, or why it’s always enjoyed a seat near the front of the performance-surfing stage, your lines of inquiry will inevitably lead you through the life and work of Mike “The Captain” Larmont.

You might not recognize it at first, though, if you catch him on a bad day, when the Parkinson’s is running strong and he’s a prisoner shaking the bars of his rebellious body in the old church that became the epicenter of Larmont Surf on West Street, in Durban’s crumbling inner city. But there are still glimpses if you look long enough. There are even more if you stick around to listen. In fact, it’s like he says of his own shapes: “If you pick up the boards I made 40 years ago and give them a wipe, they come up. They just glow.” 

The same holds true for Larmont.

Three of the major players in the Hawaii to South Africa connection: Paul Naude, Randy Rarick, and Larmont, launching their version of the Sting model, 1975. Despite the era’s well-documented tensions in the Islands between locals and visiting surfers, the SA contingent found themselves relatively welcome due to business and personal relationships. Photograph by John Pauling.

He first got acquainted with the ocean at a young age. Harry Larmont had served as a sniper in WWI and loved to fish, and he often brought his grandson Michael, who was born in 1951, along to cast lines at Durban’s old West Street groyne. 

His relationship with the establishment, too, was set early on. 

“My folks sent me to a good school, Marist Brothers,” Larmont says. “But the nuns used to beat the shit out of me. If anyone misbehaved, the whole class got beaten with canes. When I started getting punished for things other people had done, I told them to stuff it.” 

Larmont eventually hit the jackpot when his family moved to a flat at Durban’s South Beach. In the summer of 1963, he began working for George Olaf, who owned the beach concession stand, renting out inflatable Surfoplanes for vacationers to ride whitewater. He was 12 years old, already making money through surfing. It was during that same summer that Larmont began taking his own wave riding seriously. The two concepts seemed to naturally coalesce.

“I ordered my first board from Max Wetteland at Safari Surfboards and waited for about six months,” he says. “I thought, ‘Bugger this, I can’t wait forever.’ So I ordered another board from [underground Durban shaper] Cliff Honeysett. It took Cliff a whole year to finish that board. I’d paid upfront, obviously. It finally arrived, but I hadn’t had the board for a whole month when the shortboard revolution started. 

“A mate of mine had a V Machine that we brought over to my place. Then we got hold of a blank from Safari and some cloth and resin—just enough to make a board. We took all the measurements off this V Machine and used a bread knife to cut the big chunks. It took me a whole day to shape the board. We didn’t even know how to glass it. So we taped the cloth around on the underside, not realizing it would stick anyway. That board took about a month to make, but it was the original [Larmont].”

A friend later saw the board and asked Larmont to make him one too. More orders followed. “My dad was buying the blanks from Wetteland,” he says. “After we’d done about six, the guys at Safari started asking questions. They didn’t want to supply us, so they said there was a shortage of materials. But we just got someone else to go in and buy them. We were very sneaky.” 

By 1970, Larmont was shaping boards and surfing hard, being pushed along by a crew that included Darryl Holmes, Michael Tomson, Ricky Jordan, Paul Naude, and Mike Patterson. The medium for their progression? Cave Rock. 

Hauling around the corner at the Bay of Plenty, 1979. Photograph by Jeff Divine.
Early period shapes, crafted for local and global capabilities. Photograph by Paul Naude.
Photograph by John Pauling.

“We were surfing waves that were fucking huge,” he says. “We didn’t even realize how big it was. I was just up for the challenge, and it gave me confidence and focus. [Focus] isn’t something you’re born with. Focus is one of the key things surfing teaches you.”

Larmont took that focus and channeled it into fine-tuning his shaping, as well as winning surf events. He also did research into maximizing his body’s performance, becoming one of the early surfers to learn about and implement better sleeping and eating habits. He started cross-training, too, swimming 2 kilometers a day to stay in shape, which provided him an advantage in heats during the leashless days, when competitors would have to swim long distances to retrieve their boards after a fall.

In 1971, Larmont pipped Michael Tomson in the South African team trials to secure a berth in the infamous 1972 World Championships, held in San Diego, California. He immediately dropped out of school to work full time in order to afford the plane ticket. 

Like everything else surrounding the contest, the team’s experience was that of total mayhem. 

“John Whitmore was our team captain,” Larmont says, “but he went off to deal with the Hobie Cat guys because he was their agent. None of us had been overseas before. We were just left to our own devices.”

From there, along with the rest of the team, Larmont made his way to Hawaii. It would ultimately change his perspective on surfing, and his life’s direction.

*

Larmont met Randy Rarick at the Gunston 500 in 1971. Rarick had arrived that year with only two pintails and a small bag containing a couple of tees, a pair of jeans, sneakers, and a wetsuit. Just the bare essentials.  

“I looked at this guy and said, ‘Where’s the rest of your stuff?’” says Larmont. “He said, ‘That’s it. I don’t need any more.’ We clicked immediately.”

Rarick provided the South African team accommodations when they landed on Oahu after the 1972 World Championships. That leg of their trip proved the opposite of what they’d dealt with in California. The North Shore was still quiet in those days, and the waves and the surfers offered Larmont with a totally new mindset about what was possible in terms of both the scene and performance.

He returned to South Africa reinvigorated on both surfing and shaping. In 1973 he launched Larmont Surfboards, borrowing R400 (about US$1,700 today) from his mom for rent and supplies. But toward the end of the year he found himself in a pickle. His business was taking off, but he didn’t want to miss the North Shore season. He needed someone to run the store, so he persuaded Naude, then just a 19-year-old Bay grommet studying to be a sugar technologist, to step in and hold down the fort while he was gone. 

Larmont, gracing the cover of his own rag, 1978. Photograph by Paul Naude. 

“I had just got back from a year ofcompulsory military service,” says Naude. “I got a call from Mike to come down to the surfboard factory. He asked if I would open the store every day, take custom orders, and handle all the ding repairs.”  

Two months later, Larmont returned to a very stressed-out Naude. “Someone owed us R16 [US $48 today] for a ding repair,” Larmont says. “He was so worried about letting me down. I thought, ‘Now here’s a guy I can work with.’” 

“When Mike arrived back,” says Naude, “we had a pile of orders. He asked if I would stay on to help him. About a week before I was due to leave, we were nowhere near completing the boards, so Mike offered me a share in the business to stay on. It was the best decision I ever made.”

Naude served as Larmont’s right-hand man until he was poached by Michael Tomson’s brand, Gotcha, in 1978. Larmont shaped, Naude laminated, Larmont sanded, and Naude did the water-paper finishing. Together, they also threw themselves at the task of establishing every aspect of a global surf culture in South Africa. The market responded. Cash flowed. 

“In the 1970s, there was nothing that happened in surfing in South Africa that we didn’t introduce,” says Larmont boldly. “Randy Rarick was an angel from heaven! Anything new that was coming out, he sent it to me. Bonzers, channels, wings—all the

design innovations from international shapers. And he kept me informed on anything that was going down in Hawaii. Randy also used to bring groups of surfers out. You go through the who’s who in surfing of the time and they all came to South Africa because of Randy. It raised the level of surfing here. We were competing against the best, and it wasn’t cool to lose.”

“Paul had the flair,” says Larmont. “He gave me all the fashion advice for the store and put me onto Cheron Kraak, then this little hippie [who] was making shirts and shorts in J-Bay. We bought 12 pairs of her corduroy shorts and 12 shirts, and they sold out in a flash. I phoned her up and asked, ‘What label are you going to put on them?’ And that’s when Country Feeling was born.” 

Michael Tomson, hitting the ones and twos on a Larmont shape in Durban, 1977. Photographs by Jeff Divine.

“We pushed the Larmont Surfboards brand heavily in 1974 and 1975,” says Naude. “I headed to Hawaii at the end of that year and, through Mike’s connection with Jack Shipley, I had two new Lightning Bolt guns waiting for me from Tom Parrish and Barry Kanaiaupuni. The Lightning Bolt relationship grew and we got the official license for South Africa.” 

That winter, filmmaker Jack McCoy talked Larmont and Naude into starting a surf magazine. When they arrived back in South Africa, they pulled together a couple of journalists and Zigzag was born.

“It was a no-win situation,” Larmont says, laughing. “A magazine was the next logical step in creating a touchpoint for the surf community. We bought the camera equipment just because we couldn’t get photos.”

It was during this period of growth that Larmont got his nickname. His office sat in a mezzanine glass booth perched above the shaping bays and assembly line of his factory below, with Zigzag off to the side. It resembled the bridge on a ship, with Larmont at the helm. The Captain.

“There was so much change happening in surfing globally at the time, inspiration was everywhere,” says Naude. “The competition drove the South African surf industry and earned us respect internationally. Cheron Kraak created her own look with Country Feeling, and that brand was phenomenally successful. Michael Tomson started Gotcha to compete with Quiksilver, and Instinct followed in its footsteps. Looking back, we did a good job in the 70s building strong, home-grown South African brands and products.”

“We never thought we’d still be around at that stage of our lives,” Larmont says. “You weren’t supposed to surf after 30. But all of a sudden you could surf, travel, and work in the surf industry. We didn’t even know what we were doing.” 

*

South Africa’s burgeoning surf culture and surf industry development prove even more interesting as a cultural moment when taking into consideration the backdrop of racist apartheid laws it was set against, as well as the wide-ranging social upheaval they caused. Anti-apartheid sanctions and cultural boycotts, while necessary to bring about needed social change, made growing a business difficult at times. They did, however, engender a sense of self-reliance that ultimately created a local and loyal audience through and well past the 1970s. 

“All businesses were negatively impacted in some form by the apartheid situation,” says Naude. “Ultimately, the long-needed change materialized. But what also helped was that Mike was tough in business, too. People found him intimidating, and he could be that and more at times. He had a no-nonsense approach. I was one of the few people that could handle his abruptness. We had this good-cop/bad-cop approach, which worked. Mike knew he was tough, and there were times that if he thought a situation might get too heavy, he’d say, ‘Naude, you handle this one!’ One thing Mike would not tolerate was being ripped off. He was always suspicious. If someone ripped him off, he would never forget or forgive.”

The Larmont Surf Shop on Pine Street, fully stocked and straight swinging in its 1970s zenith. Photograph by John Pauling.

Larmont’s attitude often extended outside of the workplace.

“His VW van was stolen once,” recalls Naude. “Shortly after he had been paid out by the insurance company, Durban surf industry character Alwin van Breda was driving across town and spotted Mike’s van parked in a taxi line, the sliding door open to allow passengers to fill in. He raced down to Mike’s shop to tell him. Mike grabbed his pistol, shoved it in his shorts, and got Alwin to take him to the taxi rank. The driver was lounging back in his seat, elbow resting in the open window, sunglasses on, music blaring. There were six or seven passengers, mainly women, sitting in the back, waiting for the taxi to fill up. Mike walked up to the open window, held the pistol up to the driver’s face, opened the door, pulled the guy out, and shoved him into the street. The passengers screamed and scattered. Mike jumped into the driver’s seat and stole his own car back!”

Through the end of the 1970s and into the early 80s, Larmont maintained his resolve to grow South Africa’s surf industry, specifically through brand licensing.

In 1978, he traveled to Australia to compete in the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach. The waves were bad and it rained the entire stay, resulting in knee-deep mud to unstick himself from in the unpaved parking lot. But Larmont had a more important agenda in play. He wanted a deal to import Rip Curl wetsuits.

“I ordered my first batch of wetsuits. Rip Curl was so down to earth and so into it, they didn’t even check my credit references or anything. They just knew I was a good surfer, and that was all they needed. The first consignment arrived and it sold out in a week. I hadn’t even invoiced them. The second shipment arrived and that sold out too. Suddenly I had about $100,000 in the bank that belonged to Rip Curl, but they never sent the statement or invoice details. They were so busy living the dream they never got around to the business. It stayed like that for almost ten years.”

Over the coming years, Larmont Surf continued to do well riding the surfwear boom. And he picked up other businesses to license nationally along the way, like Multi-fin Systems and Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax, the latter of which he still distributes today. 

In 1985, apartheid-era South African president P.W. Botha, nicknamed “The Old Crocodile,” made a speech promising the continuation of apartheid. The rand dropped 50 percent against the dollar overnight. It was the end of imported products.

Larmont, as usual, adjusted. To still be able to deliver affordable products and maintain his momentum, he founded Pro Class wetsuits and set up a factory line in the back to keep up the pace. 

In 1994, democracy arrived in South Africa. With it came wholesale changes. By the early 2000s, the area around Larmont Surf Shop began to transition as migrant communities from Zimbabwe and Nigeria moved into the new high-rise accommodations. His surf market moved out. The Rip Curl license was gone. By the time the 2008 financial crisis struck, there wasn’t much left of Larmont Surf. 

Though he kept in the water until very recently, grabbing his fair share of New Pier’s finest, health issues set in and developed rapidly. 

*

Surfing has given Larmont an encyclopedic knowledge of its history, culture, and characters. It’s also given him a way to make a living and a life. But today, looking back at it all, what he remembers most vividly are the in-the-flesh experiences he enjoyed all over the world, rare moments on the road that could have happened only in that early era.

Leaning into giant Cave Rock, 1978. Photograph by Jeff Divine.

“What really set me off,” Larmont explains, “was when I was 14 and I got this surf magazine. There was this picture on the front of this beautiful suntanned blonde girl in a bikini. Inside were waves in France and someone noseriding. I thought, ‘I want to go there.’ Then I bought a world map and stuck it on my wall to figure out where else I wanted to go.”

When he was 21, Larmont traveled through Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica: “In Peru we’d surf all day, eat supper, sleep for one hour, then go out all night. After a few days, I was so tired. I asked my friend Geneque Rey de Castro, ‘How do you do it?’ He said, ‘You have to get some coke.’ So the next evening I arrived with a six-pack of Coca-Cola under my arm and he went, ‘Are all South Africans stupid like you?’”

Another memory springs forward, of being one of the first to surf Réunion Island: “I came across the bridge just before Saint-Leu and I said, ‘Fuck! Look at that wave.’ I accelerated the last 500 meters into the parking lot, looked around, and thought, ‘There’s no one here. Why’s no one here?!’ I paddled out thinking, ‘This is just not possible.’ That was in 1975. When I came back, I told Paul about it. I said, ‘Don’t tell anyone. This one we’ve got to keep to ourselves.’ I went back in 1976, and again in 77, 78, 79, and 80. I’d tell people I was going fishing in Zululand. But word got out. The crowd on a good swell went from six to 60. Randy went in 1981, phoned me on his first day, and said, ‘Mike, don’t come.’ I haven’t been back.”

“I knew a guy who was a narcotics trader in Costa Rica,” begins a different yarn. “He took me to surf this river mouth where it was about 10 to 12 feet. But it was a soft wave, so you could glide into it before it pitched. You could come off the bottom, whack the top on a 12-foot wave, then just free-fall. I surfed with one other guy the whole day. Days like that, that’s what it’s all about.”

“I see a wave breaking and, even with the Parkinson’s, I start thinking about how I can get out there.” 

“To be part of surfing in the 1970s was pure magic,” says Naude. “I think that feeling is shared by all surfers the world over who were in their prime during that decade. We were super fortunate. It was a time of innovation and the development of a new chapter in modern surf culture. It was just full-on stoke.”

Larmont’s fever of memories settles down and we’re back in the shell of his old shop on West Street, once the beating heart of South Africa’s love affair with surfing. It’s being packed up and going under the hammer in a few weeks. Times are changing. Larmont is moving out of his old inner-city headquarters and heading north to a quiet spot in front of a wave he calls the Sunset Beach of KwaZulu-Natal. 

“Surfing has become an elitist, costly exercise,” Larmont says. “We’ve become followers instead of being leaders.”

It feels like he’s throwing down the gauntlet for the next generation of Saffa surf entrepreneurs. Then he changes tack. 

“It’s unhealthy having so many brands under one roof—all the eggs in one basket,” he says. “The fashion side is stagnating. But surfing will come back. Youth is the most important factor, and surfing’s spirit.” 

Then he pauses, lifts his head, and looks out into the street. 

“The act of surfing is still incredibly exhilarating, you know? I see a wave breaking and, even with the Parkinson’s, I start thinking about how I can get out there.”

Despite the global and local surf industries suffering a bust in the late 2000s, Larmont continued to hold it down in Durban lineups until his health took a recent downturn. Tucked and running at New Pier, 2012. Photograph by Luke Patterson.