The first two things that struck me about ‘The Greek’, George Thomopoulos, when I first met him as a class mate at Glenwood High School in the early sixties were the size of his muscle and the size of his smile. The school had some big heroes like Rocky Ailwood the first team rugby captain, but in corridors, the rank and file, especially amongst the guys who lived on the beachfront, George was the guy. Larger than life and full of larikin mischief, the stories that impressed me most, a young rebellious skinny kid in a green blazer low on the food chain, was how he would sneak out at night in his dad’s Yank Tank, pick up his friends and head for one of those colourful night clubs that were dotted around the backstreets of downtown Durban in those days. Later, when I started surfing, I admired his swooping left-go-right turns, his upright stall and deft walk to the nose. I doubt if I ever saw him look awkward. He seldom fell off, which probably added a vital dimension to an almost unbeatable contest game.
A classic counterpoint in the mid sixties in Durban waves was George vs Ant. The white knight – George with a clean unblemished rep underpinned with astounding athleticism, fuelled to compete, a man with a deep sense of loyalty towards the team, up against the more complex, artistic and layered surfing of Ant van der Heuwel. Ant was the antithesis. An enigmatic talent that had to be seen to be appreciated. There were others, Max Wetteland, John and Loopie Cerff, Robert McWade, Errol Hickman, Frenchie Fredericks and John Plater. Ginz and PD were coming up through the junior ranks but the real battle for me, that often took place in the waves between the Lido and the West Street Groyne, were George and Ant. A little like Kelly and Andy a few decades later.
I’m truly surprised that George’s international record doesn’t have a world title to underpin a competitive record that almost made him unstoppable in SA during the late sixties, but undoubtedly he laid the foundation for the tenacious spirit that made South Africans world beaters in the next decade. – Pat Flanagan
Garnett Currie wrote
the following piece
a few years ago.
Long before the emergence of Shaun Tomson another Thompson had made a significant impact on the world of competitive board riding on the African continent. A legend of the South African surf scene since the early 1960s George Thompson evolved from a surfing captain to a captain of commerce and industry. Here, his brother-in-law and life-long friend, Garnet Currie, tells his inspiring story.
He had to start somewhere, so he started out as a child
A young olive-skinned boy sits alone in the sand at Durban’s North Beach. Waves break in a continuous rolling motion in front of him. He only knows them as waves not lefts or rights or sets or peaks and though he fears their power he is fascinated by the shapes and rhythms.
His leg hurts but the doctors have told him that the poison that had crippled his limb was receding and, with the therapeutic healing of the coastal air and sea, he would soon be well again. Sub-consciously pushing his feet back and forth through the grainy particles he feels his muscles stretching and strengthening, the distressing memory of his worried family huddled around his hospital bed now barely remembered.
Suddenly a harsh crashing sound of splintering wood on the shoreline shatters his thoughts. An angry man is dragging a long wooden object out of the water that he then proceeds to smash with a heavy rock. The kid is puzzled by this aggressive act and he walks over to the man and asks him why is he breaking up the ‘boat’. Realising the potential of the situation, he ignores the irate man’s unrepeatable reply and kindly offers to take the offending item off his hands.
It is the summer of 1957 and at the tender age of nine George the little Greek boy has acquired his first surfboard. It is a defining moment that is to start the chubby kid with a gammy leg on one of life’s great journeys.
Sometimes a great notion
It was the road trip to end all road trips. An old dilapidated vegetable truck, 1 200 miles of blistering heat, torturous, arid terrain, pot holed mountain passes, dodgy tyres and the occasional mangy goat blocking the way forward.
Add surfers, long boards, a truck load of testosterone (and blind ambition to boot) and a great story was waiting to unfold.
This was certainly the case for 17-year-old George. It was the summer of 1964 and, whether he sensed it or not, it was the start of something big.
Their mission was to travel from Durban to Cape Town to take part in the first ever South African Surfing Championships. To everyone else it was a crazy notion, to George and friends it was a case of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
No money, no means of transport, but then no one had accounted for a smooth-talking brother who sets about convincing a humble vegetable grocer to clear his van and transport a motley crew of young ‘out of pocket’ surfers half the length of southern Africa to ride waves.
Sure, why not? Sonny Naidoo was that type of guy. Two days later the trusty Chevrolet limped into Cape Town and out piled the Durban contingent looking dishevelled and a little worse for wear.
There was George himself, his persuasive brother Jimmy, Robert McWade, Brian de Goede, and photographer Andrew Ogilvy. George’s brother had always been hugely supportive of George’s surfing, and had no doubt his boet was a champion in the making…a Spartan off the old block.
Whether the Cape Town fraternity were pleased to see them or not was never established. They had their own hometown favourites earmarked to win their own national championship.
They had sent the invitation but, hey, “no one travels over a thousand miles to surf, do they?”
For the Durban boys the distance was the least of their problems. They had not anticipated the temperature difference between their warm tropical Indian Ocean currents and the freezing brass monkeys of the Cape Atlantic stream. Wet suits? What wet suits?
But along with other Natalians Ant van der Heuvel and Max Wetteland the warm-blooded East Coast crew weren’t going to let sub minus temperatures curb their enthusiasm.
After four days of heats at Long Beach and Kommetjie, there could be only one. Not the local hero Peter Bashford who had to settle for second place but a young Greek boy called George who quickly set out his stall of functional manoeuvres and consistency to take the trophy.
Even back in Durban the news was greeted with more than mild surprise. Ant van der Heuvel was the prodigal son, surely there was some mistake?
There was no mistake, matey! During the next 10 years George ‘The Greek’ would be South Africa’s most successful competitive surfer paving the way for the likes of Gavin Rudolph, Shaun Thomson and Ant Brodowicz.
As George recalls: “At 17 I had never travelled more than 50 miles to surf let alone all the way to Cape Town. The truth is I was in an absolute state of high anxiety, the fear of the unknown and the anticipation of competing at a higher level scared the hell out of me. Thanks to my brother’s mental coaching my self-confidence was lifted and the fear factor dispelled by the time we eventually arrived and I had to get in the water and produce the goods!
“A totally different mind set entered into my psyche that would change my life forever. You could not remove the mental state from the physical if you wanted to be a champion.”
Nostalgia is not what it used to be
Several years earlier, George with the help of a senior lifesaver Peter Bowman painstakingly fashions his first custom surfboard out of plywood wood panels, Bostik glue and nails. It’s a 12-foot long, 50 pound-heavy labour of love. Finally finished they grapple it out of the Durban Surf clubhouse, across the road to the beach and down to the water’s edge. But something is not right, there’s a strange ‘clunk, clunk, clunk’ noise coming from the inside of the hollow board. They had left the hammer inside.
Before 1964, surfing in South Africa was embryonic with the main emphasis on the surfboard and the art of surfing – the lifestyle was still to come. With little know-how and provision he who dared produced every conceivable shape and size of board in an attempt to get the best out of the relatively virgin surf breaking on Africa’s southern extremities.
As George recalls: “It was different in those formative days. It had to be. Everything was new – every wave produced a new manoeuvre and every latest surfboard design was an innovation. They may not have had any functional direction or meaning but those manoeuvres and innovations inspired others, paving the way to modern day surfing.”
George was initially inspired by the older set like James Bell, Jimmy Whittle, Harry Bold, Jack Wilson and Eric Carlson who, like most surfers in those early 1960s, were part of the lifesaving brigade and evolved from paddling to riding the waves on their elongated 14 foot plywood boards.
“My father owned a beachfront café, The Arundel, next door to the Durban Surf Lifesaving Club so it was a short hop and a jump into what was to become a major part of my life. “
But there was nothing parochial about the ambitions of this young 12-year-old Greek kid. Around this time he made a pact with one of his junior lifesaving buddies that one day they would both gain their national colours and travel the world. Less than 10 years later George was captaining South Africa on the international surfing scene and Barry Richards was establishing himself as one of the greatest batsmen in world cricket.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Plywood and solid Balsa wood was still to be being replaced by foam and fibreglass and board shorts or baggies would have been laughed off the beach by the purveyors of Speedo-type body huggers.
“The whole surfing thing consumed our lives. In many ways it was obsessive to the detriment of everything else,” remembers George. A new youth culture was taking over the coastal strips of South Africa and it wasn’t going to please everyone.
“At schools headmasters warned parents about the three biggest dangers to the education of their children – surfboards, motor bikes and guitars.”
Suddenly every schoolboy had three things on their wish list – a surfboard, a motor bike and a guitar. Naturally, George acquired all three much to the chagrin of his parents who feared that little Georgie would not aspire to the ambitions of his older brother the law student.
To surfers surfing was a healthy pastime, to authoritarians it was the devil’s work!
Despite representing his country and wearing the coveted Green and Gold national colours it took 10 years and endless official protests before George’s name was belatedly scrolled on the hallowed school honours list.
The truth is surfers did buck the system. They were lean and tanned, invariably had longer sun-bleached hair and their ethos did not conform to the grow-up-by-numbers rules of the straight-laced establishment.
As George, who has been the epitome of health and fitness his whole life, points out: “There’s always a positive to every situation. We were seen as the bad boys and everyone knows that girls love bad boys! As the competitive side developed I realised that keeping body, soul and mind together was vital, “ said George. “The ocean and its powers demand a well-tuned physical and mental machine.”
Anyone who ever had the misfortune to be constantly out-manoeuvred and out-paddled in line up with George will bear testimony to his supreme fitness and water skills.
“Despite the receding years I am sure each and every one of the crew from those early days still share the same excitement and respect from the sea that we acquired back in the sixties. There was a certain charisma and spirit about those days. We may have just been naïve and taken up with the whole newness of the sport but it had a certain quality of togetherness and uniqueness that separates it from any other era.
We were different, we were pioneers sharing a feeling, a brotherhood that very few other activities could boast. The waves were a gift from the sea that got us through the day and the memories of each curl and turn sustained us through the night,” he reminisces.
“In the sixties and into the seventies, a schism also developed between competitive and ‘soul’ surfers, with drugs playing no small part in the scene. I was straight and paid the price with some friendships, but that’s how it goes. I certainly have no regrets there.”
The truth is that the Sixties because of its very naivety and rawness had a certain spontaneity and togetherness that separates it as a kick-ass era on its own. The era ended with the demise of the long board and the emergence of professionalism.
Going into the 1970s, like a cocoon bursting open and setting free the butterfly, the sport blossomed into a multi-layered industry of lifestyle and culture – thanks to outside influence modern surfing had found its wings in Africa.
“Surfing in South Africa in the Sixties was, in fact, a mirror of what was happening or had already happened in California. Every innovation or gimmick overseas was grabbed with eager claws by the local surfing fraternity in SA and adopted to local conditions and situations,” remembers George.
The Californian syndrome was not confined solely to surfing. It was, and still is, through the wonderfully inflated medium of television and film still latent in all walks of life in South Africa. The problem was a painfully restrictive inferior complex. Everything overseas, especially California, was viewed as bigger and better.
Even through to the end of the Sixties no indigenous surfing trend was completely home grown. They were gleaned from the odd overseas trip or visiting surfer or, more commonly, ripped off from Surfer magazine and surf movies.
“Actually, South Africa only developed its own true identity in the 1970’s. The self-respect came with self belief when we finally proved that we were as good as anything that came from overseas.”
While The Greek himself was fast becoming a legend there were other names and places establishing themselves in the local surfing DNA and friendships forged in those formative years have lasted a lifetime for George. In particular, Spider Hynes, Graham Hynes, Michael Ginsberg, Andrew Ogilvie, Cornel Barnett, Dorion Hack, the Whittle family and Shaun Tomson.
It’s all about the team
“But then suddenly it all started unfolding and we quickly became part of the mainstream.
Max Wetteland went to the World Championships in Australia in 1964 and then Ant van der Heauvel and myself along with Max represented South Africa at the 1965 World Championships in Peru.”
The second ISA World Titles were held in Lima Peru in 65. Along with Max Wetteland, George and Ant Van der Heuwel represented South Africa.
Around the same time Bruce Brown visited SA with Mike Hynson and Robert August on the trail of The Endless Summer and a few South African surfers (led by Frenchie Frederick’s trip to Hawaii) started travelling to various parts of the world.
“The backroom surfboard builders in Durban, Cape Town, East London and Port Elizabeth with their unsophisticated establishments and tools had no inkling of the full potential of the surfing market. With America, once again showing the way, the big beachfront surf shops were a natural progression,” remembers George.
After the Safari Surf Shop set the trend the legendary Wetteland Surf Centre opened. Max Wetteland together with ex-mercenary Ian MacDonald and Springbok skier Mike Plotz had done their homework and created not only a state-of-the-art retail store but a meeting place for the entire surfing fraternity in Durban. It had everything: custom built surfboards, surfwear, surfing literature, wax, murals, board racks, decals, skateboards, surfboards for hire and, to top it all a surf team.
This was a concept tried and tested in the States where big names were used to drive board brands. The glamour and panache of the idea had all the top surfers watering at the mouth and Maxie had no problem in signing the six Durban surfers considered to be the best at the time: George Thompson himself, Tony Van Der Heuvel, Robert McWade, John Plater, Errol Hickman, Mike Ginsberg and Garnet Currie took the skateboard slot.
Decked out in distinctive black and green baggies and anoraks, the Wetteland Surf Team dominated the local surf scene for several years before the demise of the company. This was no more evident than in the SA titles in 1966 when the first five places went to members of the team.
For a short while it was movie star stuff. They were the focal attraction of the Surf Centre and the Surf Centre was the meeting place of all surfers. If the surf was lousy you could be sure that Wetteland Surf Centre would be full of salt soaked surfers swapping stories, hanging around or trying to rip-off their favourite item.
The Surf Team was a short lived entity but was a glamorous building block in the evolution of the local surfing scene.
This in turn gave way to the surf club concept and by 1967 there were 22 clubs with 10 of them in Cape Town. George was a product of Addington Beach – one of the first beach crowds to launch an official surf club.
Under the auspices of the Natal Surf Rider’s Association there were hundreds of surfers wearing the colours of their local surf clubs such as Bay Surfing, Kontiki, Westwind, South Side, Addington, Country Club, Zinkwazi, Tallbricks, Point, Ansteys and Mahakane.
“Whereas surfing in Durban today gravitates around The New Pier and Bay of Plenty in those days the South Beach breaks ruled supreme. Addington Beach, Pump House and The Wedge were both our daily surfing and social destinations. In the Sixties this was the breeding ground for many of SA’s hottest surfers including Bernard Wardell, Dennis Brunton, John Aldridge, Colin Doveton, Stanley Sole, Willie Sills, Martin Heunis, Duncan Carmichael, Michael Espisito, Cornel Barnett and Robby White,” recalls George.
“Like the Wetteland Surf Team, the surf clubs gave us a focus and an identity that was an important part of our teenage years.”
Bring on the Spartans
When the Surfing Hall of Fame was launched in South Africa in the late 1990s it was inevitable that the name George Thomopoulos would be high on the list. His huge influence in every aspect of the development of the sport was no more evident than in the competitive arena.
Was it his drive and commitment, his competitive spirit, his Spartan blood or a God-given natural ability? In the Sixties and the early Seventies he was the supreme competitor – functional, smooth and un-wilting under pressure.
And then there was 1968. This was the year that George Thompson wrote his names in the history books and firmly establishing himself as the leading surfer out of Africa in the 1960s. Any and all silverware up for grabs locally ended up on George’s heaving mantelpiece. After effortlessly taking the regional competitions in East London, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban he took the national title for the third time.
Having already represented his country in Peru and California, Puerto Rico was calling and George had never been better prepared to take the opportunity to establish a foothold on the international stage.
It’s all history now. George was accredited with 7th place – a mere fraction of a point out of the final. But he came away with the satisfaction of beating some of the best surfers in the world and gaining the respect of his international peers.
“I was lucky. I saw the bigger picture. As captain of the South African surfing team through the 1960s and early 1970s and Natal Captain in the 80’s, there were roles to play and questions to answer. South Africa was a fiercely proud nation beset by socio-political angst and international boycott with the dreaded apartheid sword dangling over our heads. Whenever we travelled, whether it was to the World Titles in California, Australia and especially Hawaii in 1974, the media were on us like a bunch of wolves. As captain and spokesman I grew up quickly. I realised my responsibilities as a representative of my country and as a role model.
I suspect I sorted my values and ethics out back then and I’ve always managed to stay true to them.”
He won his national title on four occasions and surfed in five World Title events and has only been emulated as a champion of his sport in South Africa by Shaun Tomson and George will be the first to admit that he’s cool with that!
George was truly a surfing phenomenon – way ahead of his time. It wasn’t so much whether he would win the next contest but which of the pretenders would be competing for second place. There wasn’t much between 1964 and 1974 that he didn’t win.
He was doing things in the late 60’s that others only came to grips with in the late 70’s. He created the standards and then bettered them. Swathes of envious surfers would huddle on the beach trying to glean what they could from the Greek as he weaved his magic in the water – so fluid, so smooth.
The thing was that he had power without being too powerful. He showed aggression without being too aggressive and above all he was stylish without losing his competitive edge. Some say that he had engineered the perfect competition strategy of manoeuvre and percentages but anyone who saw him at six in the morning demolishing the tube at Durban’s Bay of Plenty knew that his talent was audacious, unique and pure.
“It was also a lot to do with the equipment,” tempers George. “I made sure that my board designs were exactly what was needed for various conditions and eras. I can thank Spider Murphy for ensuring that I had the best boards. Spider’s designs were at times pure genius and it is no wonder his talents have been sought world-wide.”
When the short-board era began there were those who smiled and said it would be the end of George’s era but no-one adapted quicker or better than George himself as he took the V-bottom to places on the wave that mere mortals could only dream about.
George said that he emulated Nat Young: “He was the man I admired, and the man I tried to follow because I realised his potential and I realised that if I followed him I’d get much further. I wanted to be like him and the only way I could be like him was to fight the way he did in the water.
It was Nat who familiarised George with the short-board transition. While others struggled to come to terms with the new sharpness and speeds for George it was a turning point that contributed positively to his success.
George’s fame was such that he was approached by the South African Broadcasting Corporation to host a surfing programme and the weekly ‘High Wave’ graced the airwaves for several years in the early seventies. His expertise was taped once again in the eighties when he wrote a water sport column for Durban’s Daily News.
Surfing is life, but business is business
While other surfers were contemplating their next wave George already had his sights set on embracing the whole of life’s banquet. At the tender age of 22 he had invested in a café bakery the Mexican Hat and was working 18 hour stretches a day selling bread, milk and cigarettes, and a very tasty pie, gravy and chips.
But something had to give and with his business future taking hold it was his surfing that started to suffer. In fact, after captaining the South African team to Australia in1970, George disappeared into the background for nearly four years as he struggled to build a restaurant empire. But only a fool would have thought that he was gone forever and after selling the business he was back in the water and showing the youngsters just how it was done. In 1974 he once again captained South Africa to the world titles in Hawaii.
He knew it would probably be his swan-song and he relished the opportunity to be back in the thick of things surfing alongside the Tomsons, Mark Richards, Rabbit Bartholomew, Larry Bertleman, Eddie Aikau and Ian Cairns at Sunset and Pipeline.
And nobody took more pleasure in Tomson’s historic Hang Ten win that put South Africa very firmly on the map. He had been there from the beginning for Shaun, having spent time in Hawaii with him a few years earlier when they found themselves in 18foot Makaha waves together, when the man was separated from the boy.
Shaun noted many years later that George was the one surfer he admired above all others.
After studying baking and confectionery in London George applied himself to the task of career-building and ambition.
Like his success in competitive surfing there was never any doubt that one day he would join the captains of commerce and industry.
Even while he was building that career The Greek did return to the Durban surfing fold in the early 1980s and as one does continued his winning ways, racking up various masters’ titles and captaining and coaching the Natal team.
But by then he had become part of the international Unilever machine and during the next 16 years he was destined to live and work in Brazil, South Africa, Holland and Japan. In 1994 he settled in the United Kingdom with artist and writer wife Lorna,( his teenage sweetheart and also a surfer) and their son Jason (a professional rock drummer ) Ending up as Managing Director and then Chairman of Rich Products Corporation UK.
A question often asked is ‘why did George, such a committed surfer, make the decision to pursue a career away from the ocean?’ The answer captures the true spirit of the man. Never one-dimensional, always exploring, the Greek has peppered his life with variation.
From Europe’s awesome cultural heritage to the hedonistic delights of Rio, from the liquid adrenalin of a 12 foot barrel to the demands of business strategy, from the art galleries, theatres, ballet and opera houses to rock concerts and festivals, from the snowboarding slopes of Japan to the deeps of scuba-diving oceans – George has spread himself about and immersed himself in the rich tapestry of life.
And the fact he speaks four languages fluently comes as no surprise to anyone.
Of course he is in The Encyclopedia of Surfing :
“ Confident regular foot surfer from Durban, South Africa : men’s division winner in the SAfrican Championships in 1965, 1967, 1968 and 1969. GT was born in 1947 in the landlocked Transvaal town of Springs, and moved with his family to Durban at age nine, where he began surfing. Aside from his national titles, the dark-haired Thomopoulos was SAfrican team captain to the World Surfing Championships in 1966, 1968 and 1970 ; in the 1968 titles he placed seventh. (He used an Anglicized version of his name, Thompson, during this period) As SAfrica’s Zigzag magazine later recalled, Thomopoulos was “ the supreme contest rider, functional, smooth and unwilting under pressure.” In 1967 he was the highest-polling SAfrican surfer in International Surfer magazine’s Hall of Fame Awards. From 1971 to 1973, he hosted High Wave, a surfing radio programme broadcast out of Durban and from 1983 to 1985 he wrote a weekly column titled “Watersports” for the Durban Daily News.”
So what have I learnt about The Greek during the past 40 years? Well, he has the mental (and physical) strength of a bull, but then his birth sign is Taurus ( and he scores as a Warrior-King personality type). He is the epitome of drive, determination and fortitude with the uncanny ability to do the right thing at the right time. But above all it is his commitment to the things closest to his heart that has always shone through. Whether it is family or his sport, his business or friendships, George gives nothing but 100 percent.
Just as he overcame a gammy leg in his youth today George had put two hip replacements behind him when he suffered a stroke in 2009,.
Prior to the incident, George made the long pilgrimage to the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra nearly every year, often in the company of fellow South Africans..
George states very firmly that “The stroke was not a wakeup call, as I have always lived every day as if it is my last. But it did highlight what a wonderful life I have led, even though I only get the opportunity to surf occasionally now. After my rehabilitation, I rewarded myself with a trip to Bali and I head for Cornwall now and then. I am still a surfer through and through. Does one have to be immersed in saltwater on a daily basis to still be stoked?
Above all else though, I’m a very grateful man. I’ve been lucky in love, lucky in business, lucky in life AND a surfer. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Main story by Garnet Currie. All pics supplied by Lorna Currie – Thomopoulos
Lorna’s 2016 update:
“George has lived most of his adult life in large landlocked cities, which is ironic considering his pedigree. The geographical stats are as a result of his professional career as a Bakery and Confectionery Innovator, which took him to São Paulo, Amsterdam, Tokyo and London – where he eventually retired at the top of his tree as Chairman of RICH Products. ( No surprises there as whatever George took on, he excelled at, his personality type being Warrior/King!)
This lifestyle introduced him to another world, that of travel, art galleries, museums, ballet, opera and music in all it’s wonderful varieties – and he discovered he liked it. Thereafter, balancing a cultural life with trips to the ocean. These days he’s back at what he loves best – baking and traveling (Iceland and Istanbul so far this year) with a trip to the new wave pool in Wales with his son in the pipeline.”