Shaun Tomson – Biography
Just standing on the beach checking the surf, Shaun Tomson has presence. There is something elegant and stylish in the way he is. The voice. The poise. He is the polar opposite of the stereotype. Not the unkempt vagabond slanging on about his last ride with hyperbole and manic hand gestures, Tomson was (and is) the consummate professional in form and expression. With his refined South African drawl coupled with regal good looks, Tompson stood out a poet among commoners. But he backed up his scene with surfing unimagined at the time. Peter Townend calls him the Kelly Slater of his era, and he has been ranked by industry heavies as one of the greatest surfers of all time for inventing new tube riding and backside surfing techniques and for drawing the blueprint for the next generation of professional surfers to follow with 14 successful years on the world tour. However, according to his own summation, it wasn’t natural talent that propelled his success but rather a simple, deep love for riding waves.
Born 1955, Shaun Tomson was raised in Durban, South Africa which was still racially segregated under Apartheid rule. Shaun attended an all-white school and fell in love with the beach at age 9 during family excursions to the Bay of Plenty. After returning from World War II, Shaun’s father Ernie was attacked by a shark off South Beach while training for the South African Olympic swimming team. The attack left his right bicep shredded, effectively ending his athletic aspirations. So when Shaun began surfing at 10-years-old, his father became interested in the sport as well, eventually coaching his son in addition to other Durban surfers like (cousin) Michael and later SA superstar Martin Potter.
Tomson developed quickly in the rugged, powerful African waves and soon was a successful amateur surfer, becoming the boy’s national champion two years after his first ride. Ernie organized and co-founded the Gunston 500 (South Africa’s first professional surfing contest), which Shaun would win (6 times total). However, he would also spend many years trying to live down claims of nepotism.
After serving his mandatory 18 months in the South African National Army, the 18-year-old Tomson aspired to finish his university studies and enter the business sector, but fate would intervene during a discussion with traveling pro Ian Cairns who was in Durban for the Gunston 500. He encouraged Shaun to go test his mettle in the big Hawaiian surf, a comment that would drive him to jump a plane the moment he finished his exams and spend winter break in the islands.
Tomson had surfed Hawaii before. His first trip was a bar mitzvah present from his father in 1969. But this trip would be different as he quickly fell in with a group of Australians who would collectively change the game of surfing for good. Tomson, along with Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Peter Townend, Ian Cairns, and Mark Richards, would redefine high performance surfing during a furious few years of glory on the North Shore.
Shaun finished off his first winter in Hawaii with a win at the Hang Ten Pro Championships held at Sunset Beach. With $5000 in his pocket and a new found energy in his surfing, he put his education on hold and took for Australia where he surfed the pro events down under.
The following season on the rock saw Shaun an early arrival with an eye on refining his equipment and approach. That year, Tomson and company attacked the surf with such abandon that they claimed a clean sweep by winning every Hawaiian event of the season. But beyond simple conquest, they had also branded themselves something special. Their reckless antics and stylish lines at Backdoor and Off the Wall were immortalized in the seminal surf flick of the era, Free Ride, influencing an entire generation of surfers aptly coined the Free Ride Generation.
In particular, Shaun’s behind-the-peak drops and up-and-down maneuvering in the tube were like nothing anyone had seen. Modern barrel riding technique can be traced directly back to Shaun’s barrel driving approach. Also, Tomson’s wide stance distinguished his style from that of other surfers of the era and allowed him to shift his weight forward and back without moving his feet (now the standard in short board surfing). But his influence wouldn’t be based simply on his performance in classic regular foot strongholds like Sunset and Backdoor. When Tomson paddled out to the left breaking Pipeline on his extreme rocker pink banana shaped by Saffa Spider Murphy, he found a new way to attack Pipe’s beyond vertical drops. Drawing high lines and driving deep into the trough allowed a position far back in the tube sans digging rails and nose-diving (common with much of the equipment of the day). His “mistake” in board choice later became the cutting edge of big wave design. That same year on the North Shore, Tomson won the 1975 Pipe Masters, essentially re-defining high performance surfing with an approach that would make for the base of today’s backside surfing aesthetic.
About this era, Shaun would later tell Huck Magazine, “Well, it was a group effort. There were six of us, all from the southern hemisphere and all with a vision for a different type of surfing. We came to a different environment with a different philosophy. Yeah, surfing was a lifestyle but we also saw it as a sport. At the time, it was a revolutionary idea that you’d be able to make a living out of it. Today, in the context of a $16.5 billion dollar surf industry, it seems a very long time ago.”
By 1976, Tomson was taking university classes when he saw that he graced the cover of both Surfer and Surfing magazines. That year he competed in a handful of the events on the new International Professional Surfing tour, finishing 6th place before becoming a full-time travelling pro the following year. In 1977, he was crowned world champion, the high point of his 14 years as a travelling pro surfer. He maintained winning form the entire time and floated near the top of the ratings even during a difficult transition to the twin-fin. During this time he relocated to Santa Barbara, California.
At 29 years old and after switching to the new tri-fin design, Shaun battled (winning 3 events that year) to take a close second place behind Tom Carroll in 1984 and soon appeared on the Merv Griffin Show and Good Morning America. Three years later (after finally dropping from the top ten in 1989), he retired from professional surfing with 12 career tour wins to his credit, including one at the 1986 Spur Steak Ranch Surfabout (when he became the first over-30 surfer to win a pro surfing event). Upon leaving the tour, Tompson’s target shifted from bottom turns to his company’s bottom line. Those later years were nothing if not eventful, as his roller coaster quest for business success saw fruit as well as famine.
He founded both Instinct surf wear and Surfbeat Surf Shop. Instinct rose to industry prominence, sponsoring world champion Barton Lynch, but would eventually fail, spurring Tomson to return to South Africa with his wife and newborn son in 1990 to finish his BA in business finance. He started another business in Africa but would soon close shop and return to America far from the unstable political situation back home. He returned to Santa Barbara and began Solitude Sportswear in 1998. That same year, he stared as a surf journalist in the film In God’s Hands.
No one imagined that a surfer could ever achieve the success and notoriety of mainstream athletes, but Shaun made it happen with a career that has spanned over 35 years in the industry: World Surfing Champion, environmentalist, author, filmmaker, and successful entrepreneur. Tompson is ranked in the top 10 of Surfer Magazine’s “50 Greatest Surfers of All Time.” He has served as Chairman of the Advisory Board for the Surfrider Foundation. He produced a documentary on his early days on the North Shore entitled Bustin’ Down the Door and authored its companion book. But it was the loss of his teenage son Matthew that would deeply tarnish the luster of his otherwise charmed existence and possibly provide the muse for his book The Surfer’s Code in which he isolates surfing’s basic truths and outlines how they can help one navigate the troughs and tempests of life.
Number one on The Surfer’s Code: “I will never turn my back on the ocean.”
A simple statement that has driven Shaun Tomson from those idyllic days playing inside the shark nets at the Bay of Plenty to today, looking back over an historic career in this young sport. He has never left the ocean that has designed and defined his life. While Rabbit would later write in Surfer Magazine that Shaun “had the whole package: Hollywood looks, charisma, charm, versatility, phenomenal power, and amazing skills,” Tomson instead plays down any natural talent and places his success squarely on the shoulders of his love for surfing and his insatiable thirst for water time, two aspects of his life that have remained constant to this day. His is a surfing life realized.