The South African surfing pioneer reflects on his life.
There was a tipping point in surfing history when the door of possibility was busted open wide. And Shaun Tomson dealt the final blow. As the first South African World Champion, his transgressive energy helped legitimate surfing as a professional sport. But the determination he showed back then was nothing compared to what came next, when his family was rocked by tragedy.
‘Deep inside the barrel, completely in tune with my inner self, nothing else matters, the hard wind and spit shooting past me from behind, my hand dragging along the wall, the light shines ahead.’ – Mathew Tomson, Becoming A Man, April 24, 2006
Sometimes, you slip into a seam where there’s just enough of something to crack your shell and make you believe in things you might otherwise not.
On a summer afternoon in Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara, the shuttered cottages of the old Miramar By The Sea summon memories dating back to the turn of the twentieth century and the railroad barons and bootleggers who hid out there. Cross the tracks at the end of Eucalyptus Lane and a stone staircase leads down to a little cove. There, a woman sits staring out at the bay. Despite her reverie being interrupted, she graciously answers questions about tides and says it breaks here when the direction is just right and even sometimes when it’s not. She tells of mysto swells that pop up out of nowhere, even in the summer, bringing in a wave that breaks across the entire cove. All the locals find their way into the lineup for a ride or two before the swell disappears again, she says.
Squinting in the direction she has pointed, you can almost see the waves trying to form. For a minute, it isn’t hard to imagine a nice, head-high peeler coming off the point and Shaun Tomson locked into it, just ahead of the foam ball – legs wide, knees bent at a perfect ninety degrees, right hand stroking the wave, eyes fierce, following the light as he moves up and down the wall inside the tube like no one has done before.
I ask the lady if she knows Shaun Tomson. Of course, she says, everybody does. She says there’s a path at the top of the stairs that takes you to the other side of the cove to Hammond’s Beach. That’s where Shaun can usually be found if the waves are breaking.
The beach lies at the end of a bougainvillea-framed lane, where a couple of families picnic in the dusk. When I bring up Tomson to a middle-aged woman having cheese and wine with her mother and best friend, she practically squeals. “He surfs here all the time,” she says. “He’s sooo handsome. And so nice, too.”
Hammonds abuts a meadow that was once a burial ground for the indigenous Chumash tribe. The Chumash are gone, but a monument bears the inscription: ‘The Sacredness of the land lies in the minds of its people. This land is dedicated to the spirit and memory of the ancestors and their children.’
I will soon learn that the beach is special for reasons other than the Chumash and the long rights when it’s breaking. This is where Tomson liked to hang out with his son, Mathew. Here, one day, Mathew Tomson started picking up cobblestones and arranging them into a circle. Then, with his father’s help, he grabbed more cobblestones and made another circle inside that circle. And one more inside of that. And inside that, two stones to sit on. Next, Mathew took a stick from a pile of driftwood and used kelp to attach feathers and brought the staff and his father into the centre. This, he said, is the sacred story circle. In here, we pass the staff and tell stories.
Surfers are natural-born storytellers. Surfing is just a great way to get to the heart of the story, to find the arc that goes from darkness to light. Shaun Tomson knows this as well as anybody.
It’s still dark the next day when Tomson pulls his black Audi station wagon into the Coast Village Inn at just past 5am. The idea is to drive twenty minutes up the coast past Santa Barbara proper to Refugio Beach, one of Tomson’s favourite spots. Tomson is tall, trim and, at fifty-seven, the pretty-boy face that became an icon of pro surfing’s early days has been forged into something more rugged and soulful. The bright blue eyes that seemed to scorch perfect lines into whatever wave he rode are just as intent.
Santa Barbara is a long way from Durban, South Africa, where Tomson grew up in the postwar baby boom, the son of an Olympic-caliber swimmer and volunteer lifeguard at the Bay of Plenty. During the war, Ernie ‘Chony’ Tomson served in the South African Air Force, a tail gunner in an American-made B-25 Marauder. Chony manned twin .50 caliber Browning machine guns in the fight against the sort of fascism that had scattered the Jewish Diaspora to far-flung places such as the Cape of Africa.
Growing up a beach rat with younger sister Tracy and older brother Paul, Tomson was kept blissfully naïve about his own country’s brand of fascism. “When we grew up, we had an idyllic existence,” he says. “We weren’t really aware of the political aspects of our lives because that was the status quo when you were young and living across from the beach and surfing incredible waves. It was only when I started travelling that I realised I was living in an environment where great portions of the population were being repressed, subjugated and were the victims of unfair and unjust laws. But growing up, I had a wonderful life.”
An international influence that did permeate the Tomson household was that of Hawaii, though the introduction to aloha was less than ideal. After the war, a twenty-two-year-old Chony Tomson started training for the Empire and Olympic Games. Then, while bodysurfing with friends at South Beach near his home, he was attacked by a Zambezi (bull) shark that nearly ripped his arm off and almost killed him. Chony flew to San Francisco for extensive surgery and then to Hawaii to recover. Staying at the Royal Hawaiian Inn, Chony fell in with the Kahanamoku clan – legendary waterman and surfing’s first international ambassador Duke Kahanamoku had been a childhood hero – and immersed himself in Hawaiian culture.
“My dad never had anything but a smile on his face,” says Tomson. “My earliest memory is of my dad taking me by the hand into the water, teaching me how to swim. He used to say, ‘Never turn your back on the ocean,’ which is very profound. I think he meant you have to be aware at all times, but, also, don’t give away what you love.”
Despite his own setback, Tomson’s father encouraged his son’s growing interest in surfing. In 1969, when Shaun won the biggest local contest, the Gunston 500, Chony had a different bar mitzvah present in mind than the stock certificates his son’s classmates received. He took Shaun to the North Shore of Hawaii. It just happened to be the famous winter of 1969, the winter of Greg Noll and the biggest wave ever ridden, a wave witnessed by only a handful that has existed primarily as the stuff of oral history and legend.
“It was, like, the biggest winter ever in Hawaii,” says Tomson, lighting up at the memory. “Makaha is where Greg Noll took that wave. We were staying in an apartment five floors up. We had the best views.” Then, he casually drops a bomb: “I still have Super 8 footage of that wave, but I’ll never release it… the legend is worth more.”
We’re back in town at Tomson’s favourite breakfast joint after Refugio came up flat. Several locals hail Tomson as we stand in line, trading small talk and surf notes. Tomson greets each like a next-door neighbour, taking care to provide a brief bio, like a good host would. After ordering eggs and a side of fruit, he digs into the story of his first memorable foray into huge Makaha surf.
“I paddle out and it just keeps getting bigger, massive beyond belief,” says Tomson, eyes wide. “Makaha is not like Waimea. At Waimea, it’s one big takeoff and you do the bottom turn and you’re out. At Makaha, the wave gets bigger and bigger and you’re locked in, there’s no way out. It’s pretty scary.”
As Tomson scratched his way into the lineup, legends Randy Rarick, Keith Paull and Rolph Aurness (son of James Arness, from Gunsmoke, and a great surfer) greeted his arrival with a chorus of, ‘Shaun, what the fuck are you doing out here?’
“I went, ‘Uh oh,’” he says between bites, his still-thick South African accent making it feel like the story is being shared among mates at a barbecue. He managed a couple of waves before wiping out, “and it’s like mountains coming. I just see mountains.”
When a wave was about to crash on his head, Tomson made a rookie mistake and turtle rolled under his board. “The wave held me down and I didn’t think I could make it to the surface. I got up and the next wave hit me, and the next wave,” he says, almost laughing. “That was the closest I’ve come to drowning.”
Tomson went home a little shaken but plenty stoked. He started winning every local contest. After fulfilling his mandatory army service, Tomson thought he would go to university and then into business. There was no such thing as professional surfing, just a handful of ragged contests here and there and Tomson had little left to prove at those.
But fate intervened at the 1974 Gunstun 500 in the form of strapping Australian Ian Cairns, who convinced Tomson to join him and fellow Aussies Peter Townend, Mark Richards and Rabbit Bartholomewin Hawaii. That winter and the next, the leaders of the ‘free ride’ generation created professional surfing as we know it: formally, by introducing the idea of a pro circuit with a world championship – the International Professional Surfing tour. More importantly, though, were the stylistic innovations they made in the proving grounds of the North Shore and Bonsai Pipeline where Tomson and Richards in particular laid down the physical laws of modern surfing: attacking Pipeline backside; deep drops into deeper barrels; carving inside the wall; flaunting power, speed and technical manoeuvres in massive waves.
The revolution wasn’t quite televised, but it has since been immortalised in surfing folklore, books and documentaries – most notable being Bustin’ Down The Door, a film Tomson helped produce, which beautifully documents the creative chaos and culture clash that ensued. Things got heavy. Death threats were thrown around and the Hawaiian old guard meted out a painful dose of comeuppance to this new, transgressive crew. By the time reconciliation had been forged, the future of surfing had been written, and the professional circus – complete with sponsors, prize money, however small, and something like careers – started to take shape.
In his own way, Tomson helped catalyse how the industry would function. “I got my first free wetsuit from Pat O’Neill in November 1975 in Hawaii,” he says. “It was a yellow vest and because I had a big year the wetsuit was featured on many magazine covers all over the world. I saw all the coverage so I wrote to Pat asking to be paid to wear the wetsuits. He agreed and I became the first member of Team O’Neill, an idea Pat had been working on, inspired by the ski industry.”
Tomson earned a reputation for power and fluidity in all conditions, but it was his tube riding that turned the world upside down and earned him a place in the top ten of Surfer magazine’s greatest surfers of all time. Before Tomson, Pipeline specialists such as Gerry Lopez would draw a straight line through the barrel and come out the other end as stoic and graceful as possible. Tomson, though, turned the tube into a canvas, a place to express himself in bold, powerful strokes.
“I felt like I could comprehend time better than anybody else,” says Tomson. “Time would slow down. I could look at the wall and the curve of the wall and understand its complexities better. I had this innate sense of riding inside the tube. At times, I even felt like I could control the wave.”
From there, draw the line to Tom Curren, Andy Irons and Kelly Slater, who himself has confessed awe at what Tomson did backside, single fin, at Pipeline. Tomson would go on to win the Pipeline Masters, Vans Triple Crown, 1977 World Championship and be named one of the twenty-five most influential surfers of the past century.
If Tomson has a light about him it’s not because any retrograde, surf-god glamour illuminates him. He and his mates earned peanuts so the Slaters and Fannings could earn millions. They made something out of nothing and that something is now a ten billion-dollar global industry. But Tomson’s true measure came post-professional surfing, after the contest victories and adulation died down.
In 1990, when Tomson retired, there was no such thing as a lucrative endorsement deal for surfers put out to pasture. You had to make your own way. While still touring, he started Instinct surf wear, which did well enough but bottomed out in 1990. So, with newborn son Mathew in tow, Tomson and his wife Carla returned to their native South Africa where Tomson fulfilled a promise to his parents to complete his education – a thirty-five-year-old undergrad at theUniversity of Natal.
“I loved it,” says Tomson. “South Africa was very rigorous academically to go to university. It was very much the Oxford-Etonian concept of building the Renaissance man.”
Tomson and Carla returned to the States and started another line, Solitude, in 1998. It, too, had its ups and downs. At one point they were going bust, and had everything packed up on a Friday in preparation for a Monday shutdown. Only the phone stayed plugged in. “As long as the phone was in, there was hope,” Tomson laughs.
That Sunday, a man approached the father of one of Mathew Tomson’s little league friends and asked where he could find the shirt the guy was wearing. The little league dad said he’d better hurry, and passed on Tomson’s number. Solitude was back in business on a handshake deal the next week. Tomson and his wife sold Solitude and Instinct to Oxford Industries, a large apparel company, in 2006.
Becoming a man is hard stuff. You’re not born into it; you arrive at it through loss, struggle and determination. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some great men in my time – Muhammad Ali, Desmond Tutu, Ray Charles, my father – and the one thing they have in common is an indescribable presence. Shaun Tomson has that presence. Walking through town, at his barber’s, wherever we go, people greet Tomson as if they want to take a piece of him home, put it in a vase and make a centrepiece out of it.
It should have been a good year, 2006. Tomson’s businesses were finally settled. His son Mathew was going to his parents’ native South Africa a generation after Apartheid for a semester at Tomson’s old prep school. And Shaun’s book – Surfer’s Code, Twelve Simple Lessons For Riding Through Life, which spins surfing-based aphorisms such as ‘I will catch a wave every day’ into beautiful parables – had just come out to good reviews and great sales.
Instead, though, it was the year things went dark; the year fifteen-year-old Mathew accidentally died playing ‘the choking game’, wherein kids asphyxiate to get a brief high. Tomson didn’t know when he wrote Surfer’s Code that he’d need every one of its lessons about patience, courage, commitment and perseverance for himself.
A turning point came when he was by his wife’s side in the hospital’s psych ward. “I didn’t think Carla was going to make it,” he tells me. “She no longer had the will to live.” A friend who had also lost his son came to visit. The friend had been working with a grief counsellor, a swami. The friend said the swami had a message from Mathew. “It was a clear day,” says Tomson, “a day like this. And a lightning bolt hit the hospital and the whole hospital shook – a completely clear, cloudless sky, and the message was, ‘Mathew just wanted to tell you that he’s sorry, he made a mistake.’ You know, that gave us a connection with our boy,” says Tomson.
Three years later, they adopted Luke. “Adopted is too weak of a word,” Tomson, told me on he drive up to Refugio that morning. “It’s more like he chose us, like the universe put us together.”
These days, a typical morning in the Tomson household begins with three-year-old Luke waking them up at 6am. “He’ll come rushing in, barrelling into the room with us,” says Tomson, admitting that it’s his favourite part of the day. Then, Tomson will make Carla a latte and they’ll all lie around in bed watching the news. Next, it’s get Luke off to school and start working on one of the many projects they have going. “If the surf’s good, I’ll always try to get in a session,” Tomson admits.
Tomson lives in Santa Barbara not because he got rich off of his apparel business – he didn’t – but because he likes the vibe. He likes that the global environmental movement started here after the horrific 1969 oil spill: Tomson became the first professional surfer to join Surfrider Foundation in 1984. That’s him doing the radical bottom turn on their T-shirts.
His Spanish-style home, a few blocks north of the Coast Village Road, is a relatively modest affair, considering the neighbourhood. It’s tastefully appointed – Tomson’s wife, Carla, is a designer and it shows – and there’s a large, inviting backyard. “I love the atmosphere up here and I love the people and the very laid-back lifestyle,” he says. “It’s not as frenetic.”
We sit at a large, wooden table off the kitchen. The afternoon sun fills up the backyard behind us and a sturdy tree in the middle of it throws just enough shade. Carla offers coffee while Tomson shows me his latest project, a children’s book called Krazy Kreatures. It’s an A – Z illustrated encyclopedia of some of the more ominous sea creatures. It’s done in verse and is quite charming; Tomson himself seems delighted by it. Another book, Code, a collection of useful affirmations aimed at kids, is slated for a 2015 release with the working tagline, ‘Join the sacred story circle.’ For every copy purchased, a book will be donated to needy institutions.
Alongside his books, Tomson has incorporated elements of his experiences into motivational speeches for corporations, universities, elected officials and environmental groups. It all began when Glenn Henning, the founder of Surfrider Foundation, asked Tomson to give a speech inspiring the Rincon Homeowners Association to replace their septic tanks, which were leaking into the bay. Tomson went home and outlined what became the Surfer’s Code in twenty minutes.
Recently, Tomson addressed the Santa Barbara County board of supervisors. He titled his talk, ‘The Light Shines Ahead’. It began:“We all live in a challenging sea and our attitude towards those challenges defines who we are, and how we live our lives. Our attitude about the present defines our future. Our attitude about the future defines the present. Our attitude defines how we see the world and how the world sees us. Our attitude is the light that can show us the way on a journey from where we are, to where we want to be. It is a fundamental choice for all of us. Positive or negative. Optimism or pessimism. Hope or despair. Light or darkness… This is a story of a journey… a journey from heartbreak to happiness, a journey from the dark into the light.”
“You never know who needs what you can give,” Tomson tells me. “You know, we got a gift from this woman who gave us life without asking one thing in return.”
He tells the story of a black South African boy he helped put through school back when he was competing. They hadn’t spoken in twenty years, but the boy, now a man, came to Mathew’s funeral and he and Tomson reconnected afterward. The man had gone on to earn two degrees and become headmaster of a school teaching 1,300 kids. He asked Tomson to visit the school to speak.
“I went to his school. Impoverished. Impoverished. They didn’t even have an assembly hall,” says Tomson. “The headmaster came and [addressed] the kids before me. It was like Martin Luther King. These kids have nothing, but their school uniforms and their blazers and skirts and they’re immaculate and you could see he had empowered these kids. Two of these kids spoke after I spoke – these kids could be at the head of the class at Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley. What this guy has done is amazing.”
As the day winds down, a kaleidoscope of colours dances in a soft sun and a sea-misted breeze carries the smell of pink ladies and poppies. Tomson shares another story, about how just the other day Luke came into his office when he and Carla were looking at a picture of Mathew on Carla’s computer screen, a black and white photograph.
“And Luke walks in and looks at the picture of Mathew and he says, ‘Look at the rainbow.’ It’s a black and white picture,” says Tomson. “On the day Mathew died, he spoke to Carla and said, ‘Mommy, I’m standing under a rainbow. I’m in the perfect place.’ So, you know, it just gives you the knowledge that our lives are brief, but there’s this connectivity and sure, you know, it’s terrible that we lost our beautiful boy and we can’t hug him or kiss him, but his spirit is around us.”