Latest News

The McLaren’s Legacy

The McLaren’s Legacy

Iconic Gold Coast landmarks, such as Mariner’s Cove and South Stradbroke Island, are well known by locals and tourists alike. But little can be said for the names behind such monumental sites that make the Gold Coast what it is today.

One of these pioneers is Don McLaren. Don’s life work built the foundations for several iconic Gold Coast features. He established McLarens Landing on South Stradbroke, the McLaren Marine Village (now known as Horizon Shores) and McLaren’s Marine (now Mariner’s Cove).

Born in Melbourne, Don’s first visit to the Gold Coast was in his teen years while visiting Queensland for a model aeroplane competition in Toowoomba. His short stay left a lasting impression on him as he returned in 1958 at the age of 24 and was lured to stay by the blooming interest for all things water- sports and swinging surf culture.


Working alongside the likes of the late Keith Williams, the founder of SeaWorld, Hamilton Island and Port Hinchinbrook, Don was actively involved in the Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens. Based off the waterways of Nerang River in Carrara, Williams’ Ski Gardens were a main attraction showcasing the watersport culture of the time as well as the beauty of the coastline. Heralded as one of the Coast’s first main attraction parks, the Ski Gardens featured stunt shows, boating displays and skiing acts. Through the years of 1959 to 1965, Don was part of numerous water skiing displays and shows, boating stunts, and “basically a bit of everything… anything that moved.”

While working at the Gardens, Don also completed his ‘Ship’s Masters Certificate’, as well as acquiring his ‘Marine Engineering’ ticket. Performing shows daily and working on boats day in and out, he became fully immersed in the scene of water skiing and boating. The year 1965 swathe Ski Gardens host the World Water Ski Championships where many performers, Don included, showcased their talents on a global scale.

As one of the founding enthusiasts for the sport, Don states, “We pioneered water skiing. It just wasn’t done the way we did it first.” Between competitive skiing, ski shows and even filming a few television commercials, the skiers did all sorts of crazy things. “You had to be nuts to do the things we were doing.”

Once the championships had ended, Don knew he was ready to take on something new. “I wanted to start my own boat business,” he recalls, “Keith said it’d be a tough job, but wished me luck. I didn’t have much but I knew I wanted to be in the boat business. It was boats and water skiing that got me into it. Once you start with dealing small boats, you just get bigger and bigger.”


Don soon found a block of land, previously utilised as anex-usedcaryard,offtheoldGoldCoastHighway along Main Beach Parade. Don began renting the land in the hopes of setting up a boat yard. With eight boats to begin (seven borrowed and only one being actually owned by Don), the Don McLaren Marine was in business. Sometime after opening, Don’s brother Vern visited the Gold Coast on his honeymoon. Seeing the success of his brother, Vern and his wife relocated from Melbourne to the Coast for good. Becoming business partners in the marine sales business, the name was changed to ‘McLaren Marine’.

By 1968, the McLaren Marine had outgrown the Main Beach block, so the McLarens moved shop to the area now known as Mariner’s Cove. Developing the area to contain their boat business and workshop, they also worked off the slipway servicing trawlers and cruise boats. Don and his wife Judy lived in the apartment above the workshop until 1977 when Don was hit with a new idea.


“We were asleep one morning. Don woke up about 6am and exclaimed, ‘I’m going to build a restaurant!’ Judy recalls. “I asked him, ‘Where? And when?’, to which he replied, ‘Here! And now! Get out of bed!”

Construction soon converted the residence above the workshop into ‘Grumpy’s Wharf Seafood Restaurant’.

As McLaren Marine grew successfully at the Mariner’s Cove, the McLarens soon were looking at bigger plans for a marina and shipyard on the Main Beach stretch.

Despite the ever-growing interest and success on the Coast for boating, the council were not convinced by Don’s proposal for the Main Beach marina. “There was no marina those days. You would tie your boat to an anchor and drop the anchor where you could find the space. We just had to convince the old guys that marinas were the way forward.”

As the interest in boat ownership became more prominent, Don knew there would be a demand and needforamarina.Thebrotherssoonfound150acres of land north of Jacobs Well, in prime position to the channel between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

After gathering some estimates from local construction companies, Don realised that if he wanted the marina, he was going to have to do it alone with the help of some friends. “The quotes were ridiculous those days for that kind of job,” he laughs, “Telephone numbers… that’s how you would describe the quotes we were given.”

Alongside a few like-minded friends, the brothers were able to transform the waterway into what would be called one of the Coast’s first marinas, the McLaren Marine Village (now Horizon Shores Marina and Shipyard). Buying all their own equipment and learning to operate them, the McLarens were able to build on their own. “We didn’t use contractors, because the quotes were ridiculous. With the help of Pat Lowry and other friends we were able to make it.”

As the lands were deemed too swampy for any agriculture use, the brothers gradually pumped out the swamp and constructed a lake where they began docking boats. After the initial proposal for the marina on Main Beach, Don knew the council would deny the permit to the new plot as well, but construction went forward nevertheless. “We went and did it not knowing what would happen because there was no history or records to look back on. It was a bit of a chance.”

By the time the marine permit was granted, construction was already halfway complete at the Marine Village. Despite scrutiny from the city council, the McLaren Marine Village would prove its value and become the largest privately-owned marina in the Southern Hemisphere for a period of the last century.


While managing the McLaren Marine Village, Don and his brother had their eyes on their next venture across the channel. In the 70’s, the McLarens had invested in Tippler’s, a restaurant on the coast of South Stradbroke Island, still standing today. They decided

to sell the Tippler’s restaurant, and in exchange for the ownership of the restaurant, the brothers received a section of land further north. “My brother and I got together and built a house on the plot of land. No one else wanted it. It was just bushland. We just wanted somewhere to take the kids, somewhere to go.”

After the house was completed, the brothers started to think bigger about the potential of the island. Alongside boats and hot-rods, Don also was an avid helicopter and light aircraft pilot, freighting supplies and friends to and from the island and between business locations. After years of flying over the northern Gold Coast and South Stradbroke, Don understood the flow of boats passing south from Brisbane, as well as heading north from the Coast — all passing through the Gold Coast Seaway.

By the early 80’s, the island had proven to be popular among locals and holiday makers. While construction was still underway at the marina, the McLarens began building the South Stradbroke resort. Converting the land originally envisioned as an escape for his own family, Don’s plot of land soon became the beginnings of an iconic holiday destination where countless other families have made memories of their own, the McLaren’s Landing.


It was not all business for the McLarens and friends, despite having to balance between the slipway, restaurants, boat sales and marina businesses. They worked hard and played hard too. At a time when few boating regulations were in place, the Coast was a boat enthusiast’s playground. “I could dock my boat wherever there was sand. We could water ski right past Cavill Ave, and no one would say ‘boo’.”

Don could be found on the water fishing at any moment he could, day or night. Going out through the old Southport Bar, he could be found on the water regardless of the conditions. “They’d all reckon I was stupid for what I used to do.” He spent day and night out on the water and began regularly saving anything from small recreational boats to trawlers getting in trouble on the bar before the Coast had inlets and closed entries. “I possibly could have been one of the first rescue services. I rescued over 50 boats in a year in the early 70’s.”

With numerous iconic Gold Coast destinations to the McLaren name, Don describes his career as “the craziest time of my life, but also the best.” Now retired, Don still enjoys as much time as possible on the water, tinkering with boats and hot-rods, and spending time with his family. His current projects include restoring boats such as 1972 Formula 233, and vintage cars such as a 1971 Dodge Challenger, to name a few. In his own words, “If you’re not busy then you’re dead, plus it keeps me out of trouble.”


By Lani Esp-Morse


(Published in the October – December 2019 edition)



Related History Articles

Similar Posts From History Category