As part of the “free ride” generation, World Champion surfer Shaun Tomson is known for his influence on the sport.
“Being in the tube is surfing’s existential moment, the absolute essence of what surfing’s all about,” Tomson told The Surf Channel in an exclusive interview.
Originally from Durban, South Africa, Tomson began surfing in 1965 and has since been named one of the “Top 10 Greatest Surfers of All Time.” Currently, Tomson has involved himself as an environmentalist, actor, businessman and author — his most recent publication being, The Code.
In an on-going attempt to share with the world the life lessons he learned as a professional surfer, Tomson wrote The Code – The Power of ‘I WILL.’, which targets youth to inspire their generation. Catch up with one of the most influential surfers of the century as he talks story touching on his youth, his North Shore experience in the ’70’s, and how surfing has made him who he is today.
The Surf Channel: Why surfing?
Shaun Tomson: Surfing has been a part of my life from my earliest memories of my father taking me by the hand down across the sand into the water, teaching me how to swim, body surf, and lots of important lessons about life. He loved the ocean…
My father was one of South Africa’s top swimmers and life savers. My mum loved the beach as well. It’s been a part of my life since I can remember… It was our family environment.
First wave and first whip?
ST: I remember my first wave like it was yesterday. We used to call whitewater, “the foamies” in South Africa and this little foamy came towards me and I swung around. I’d been body surfing for many years and was experienced in the water. I was a really good swimmer and my father had taught me that, so I was really prepared and confident and that first little wave came to me and I swung around and I took it, stood up and that sensation, that first moment I think has been something that’s kept me surfing ever since, and it’s kept me stoked ever since.
After that first time up, you just look out at the world differently. It grabbed my heart, and that sensation kept me going.
I remember the first board my dad got me when I was 8-years-old, a 4’6” mass-produced board by Wetland called, “the surf master” with these red stripes on it.
How’s life in the tube?
ST: Being in the tube is surfing’s existential moment, the absolute essence of what surfing’s all about.
The fear aspect, the exhilaration aspect, the intimate connection with nature. It’s just you, and the wave, and your board. That moment of absolute connection that’s really sublime. When it feels like time has slowed down, it feels like you could actually control the wave in some ways. There’s no sensation of sound, just for me, it’s absolutely silent. Because I think your senses are so focused on everything else, that sound is not important. You’re just striving towards making it, striving towards coming out and then you just have that feeling of being absolutely connected and part of the universe, a part of nature. You’re operating at the very best tubes, the most exciting dangerous ones, when the coral might just be a couple feet below you. You have this feeling of, it’s not invincibility, but this feeling of absolute supreme confidence, and this feeling of like “this is what you’re meant to do.” On the very deep challenging technical tubes, you’re always on that absolute balance, you’re on that razor’s edge of making it, or not making it. And then woooosh, that compressed air will often just blast you out. When you come out, you have this feeling of exhilaration that’s unmatched in any other endeavor. I’ve played a lot of sports: cricket, rugby, tennis, competitive swimming. I’ve won events outside of surfing, and won big events in surfing too, but you never really get that absolute compressed moment of exhilaration like you do when you come out of that tube, wooooosh.
Describe Winter on the North Shore.
ST: Well I’ve always thought that Pipeline is the most important wave in the world. I think it’s one of the most technically challenging waves in the world that is really a measure of a surfer’s courage, his technical ability, and also a measure of his instinct. It’s a very instinctive wave, it’s not a wave that you have this wide expansive wall like Jeffrey’s bay or Super Bank, it’s very compressed. It’s compressed into an ultra steep takeoff, jam into the barrel, and out. It’s not like a maneuver orientated wave, maybe at the end of the ride you can pull off one big maneuver, but it’s about the tube, it’s about the barrel, it’s about that intense takeoff. It’s very intimidating as a young guy, when you see Pipeline for the first time and you paddle and paddle and paddle and paddle over that edge, the coral is right there. If you make one mistake, you’re done. I’ve seen people die at Pipeline, I’ve seen terrible injuries at Pipeline. I rode Pipeline for the first time when I was 15 years old, and I rode it for the last time when I was in my 50’s and I broke my nose [laughs]. The first time I rode it, I was really terrified of the takeoff, so I think for a surfer you really have to come to terms with that fear. You have to face that fear, and you have to conquer that fear. You go out there and you put in a good showing at Pipeline, it shows you’ve got it as a surfer. It’s changed a lot over the years, I first rode Pipeline in 1970. The crowd is just unbelievable right now. Not only today do you have the danger aspect and the technical challenges, but you have this insane, intense crowd. The crowd is very hungry and the crowd is really aggressive. When we used to surf 10-12 foot Pipe on a low tide, and it’s just capping off second reef but it’s coming in on first reef at 10 ft plus, that’s the most dangerous size because all of the energy is compressed on that first reef. It’s not like when its 12-15 feet and it’s out on the second reef. I remember days where it was just 1, 2, 3, 4 guys, it just wasn’t that crowded because it was intense. Maybe guys didn’t have the technical expertise, maybe they didn’t have the equipment to take it on, but today the general standard is just super super high. There are so many great guys, you have so many guys that deliver out there. You have everyone from all over the world, from Brazil, Australia, South Africa, everyone wants to come there and make a name because Pipeline’s a benchmark. They want to be noticed at pipe. They want to make it happen at Pipe, they want to be a Pipeline master.
Tell us about the dangers of Pipeline.
ST: You know the dangers of Pipeline are profound, I’ve had many wipeouts at Pipeline. I think to ride Pipeline well and to mitigate the risk, I think you gotta do two things. One, you have to be absolutely committed to the drop. For years I would go there from South Africa, and it was very difficult to come to terms with that wave because the takeoff is so scary. Our equipment wasn’t as advanced as the equipment is today. Then something really helped me riding Pipe, and that’s as you’re paddling for that wave, you’ve got that northeast tradewind coming up the face that’s creating all these ridges in the face, it’s making the wave stand up even more vertically than it normally stands up. You’ve got spray in your eyes, you’re not sure who’s on your inside, not sure who’s on your outside. The wave has come to that absolute point of no return, and it’s coming towards you as you’re paddling. I found that at Pipe you need to just take two more strokes, both from a literal perspective and both from a metaphorical perspective. That helped me focus on taking the drop with absolute commitment. Just taking those two more strokes. But the danger is there, and the danger is real. When you watch these young guys, on video and on film, they make it look really easy: Kelly Slater, John John Florence, Jamie O’Brien, Bruce Irons, Joel Parkinson. If you go out there as a recreational surfer, or someone who’s not in that elite level, man it’s very, very easy to cop bad punishment. Watch Kelly Slater in a final, they’re gonna be some waves where he’s gonna cop a pounding, the greatest surfer in the world. He’ll come back up and he’ll paddle out. Even the very best guys in the world can cop a pounding, and as it’s happening to you, you never know. That can be the last pounding you’re ever gonna get. It’s gonna force you into that coral headfirst, or the backside of your fin’s are gonna get you across your throat. There are a lot of ways you can die at Pipe, I’ve seen guys smashed into that reef headfirst, crushed skulls, brain damage, killed. The danger is very real. It’s not like football, baseball, basketball, “oh I’ve got a sore knee”, “oh I hurt my ankle”, “oh someone jammed me.” Unfortunately it’s never really been shown in the general population how unbelievable these athletes are. From a perspective of courage, technical expertise, and passion when they’re paddling over that edge, and they need a 9.7, and there’s 60 seconds to go, man it’s like, they are risking everything for that 9.7, or that 9.8, or that 10. Every time I watch guys at Pipe it’s truly inspiring.
Can you tell us about your family?
ST: You know, I think everyone in life is going to face terrible loss and terrible challenge, every single one of us. No one is immune no matter how much money you’ve got, no matter what sort of person you are. We all suffer, my mom suffered, my dad suffered, I saw it. My mum grew up on the island of Malta during the second World War. The most heavily bombed place in the history of the world. She endured 3,400 air raids in the second World War by the Nazis and the Italians. Two direct hits, their house exploded on them twice and ultimately, they had to be evacuated and ended up in South Africa. What everyone on that island endured was so severe that every single inhabitant of that island during that period was given what’s called the “George Cross”, which is the English equivalent of the civilian award of the Medal of Honor. It’s like the Victoria Cross but for civilians. They had to endure so much that all of them, just for enduring, they were heroes. So I think she always had that spirit of indomitability and great optimism because she had been through it several times. My father as well, my father was very optimistic. He had this amazing force, Hawaiians call it “mana,” it just exuded from him. He was one of South Africa’s best swimmers in his youth and he had come back from the second World War.
My father was one of South Africa’s best swimmers, he was an amateur lifesaver and volunteered for the second World War. He had been a great swimmer when he was very young, broken some South African records and loved his amateur swimming career. He volunteered for the war and then came back and he was getting ready for the Olympics. The Olympics were in 1948, this was in 1946, just after the war. He was out on a little surfboard, they used to surf these little surfboards, and out of no where this shark just came up underneath him and hit him. It hit him so hard and nearly bit his arm off in one bite. That was his swimming career done, finished. He nearly died in the attack, they pulled him out of the water, rushed him to the local hospital right there on the beach where I grew up. I wasn’t born yet when he had the attack, he had to learn how to deal with life now that his dream had evaporated. He was never going to go to the Olympics. He was never going to win an Olympic medal, but he never looked over his shoulder. He always had this amazing optimism for life and he loved the ocean. My earliest memories were of dad taking me down to the water, teaching me how to swim, 200 yards away from where he had been hit and his life had been changed. There’s this wonderful expression that the Hawaiians use, and I use it in my first book. I’ll never turn my back on the ocean. My father really epitomized it. He could have just walked away after the attack and that was it, but he never did. He told me about the dangers because I’ll never turn my back on how the ocean operates on a number of levels. One, you’ve just gotta be aware of the dangers, and two, don’t walk away from your passion. They were both to me, living examples of how you could lead your life even though you’ve suffered and been through a tragic period. I lost my beautiful son at 15 and a half years old and my wife and I were destroyed in 2006. Our lives were shattered and it took many years, but slowly we rebuilt the pieces. It took a while before my stoke was burning again, it was extinguished after that. I had no desire to go surfing. Ultimately I did go surfing and it helped me through those terrible times. I do these projects, and speak and write for a few reasons. One is to give back what surfing has given me. Also, I think to keep the spirit of my beautiful son alive as well. My boy made a terrible mistake, one mistake, I tell children that. I tell young people, “Man, life is short, and it’s easy to take the wrong path.” As an adult you can’t tell a kid, “don’t do this, don’t do that,” you can’t. All you can do is, and I do when I speak to people, is say, “just think twice.” That decision is gonna happen. It’s gonna happen when your mom’s not there, your dad’s not there, your mate might be there, but it might not really be your mate. You’re gonna be alone, just think twice. Hopefully, by what I do and by my stories, when that decision comes to a kid or comes to an adult and it’s potentially life changing, someone will go, “maybe I’ll just think twice.” Surfing has given me this gift, I love to give it back. I love to keep the spirit of my boy alive. I think it just feels good to me in my heart, it just makes me feel better.
As an experienced surfer, what are you trying to communicate to the rest of the world through your books?
ST: Surfing has taught me fundamental lessons about life, surfing didn’t just teach me how to ride waves really well. I think of that it being all that I’ve got from surfing. I’ve built my life around surfing because surfing has been multidimensional to me. I’ve had the competitive experience, I’ve had the spiritual relationship and I’ve had the business aspect of it. For me now, I still get an incredible amount of satisfaction just from the pure exhilaration aspect of it, the physical feeling, that feeling of being able to push yourself, and continually trying to improve in something that you really love. Everything’s behind me and that whole horizon of possibility opens up for me. It’s always offered hope, it’s always offered newness, optimism. The danger aspect I think has added to the experience, even though it’s not a big part of my experience now, but the challenge of the experience. I think there’s so much that surfing can offer to all people. Even if it’s just a vicarious experience. Surfing’s inspired me to do lots of things. I think that inspiration, that thread, has been a common thread in all the projects that I’ve ever done in my life that are either directly associated with surfing, or peripherally associated with surfing. I have a new book that just came out, The Code – The Power of I WILL, which is also targeted at young people. All of my projects have been to inspire because surfing has inspired me. In some ways, there’s circularity there, where surfing’s given to me and I’ve just given back what surfing’s given to me. It’s a nice thing to do, for my heart, for me.
That’s how Surfer’s Code started out, a friend of mine Glen Henning who started Surfrider Foundation in 1984 here in Malibu was facing a severe environmental crisis. He phoned me up in 1984, he said “Shaun, I want you to be the first pro surfer to become a member of Surfrider.” I joined it then, I’m now on the board of directors with a simple mission, to protect the world’s waves, oceans and beaches. A number of years ago he said, “Listen, I’m having a contest at Rincon, it’s facing the same problems that Malibu has, environmental issue. I’ve got a group of kids, so come down to the beach and give them something. I don’t care what it is, just give them something. You got a hundred twenty dollar budget.” So I wrote, Surfer’s Code, I just sat down in front of my computer for 30 minutes and I wrote the twelve most important lessons that surfing taught me about life. It didn’t start out to be like twelve, I just thought I’m gonna sit down and write stream of consciousness, asking myself what did I really learn. I didn’t learn how to be a world champ, I didn’t learn how to ride the tube, I didn’t learn how to go upside down at Pipeline, that was one part of it. Sure, I learned how to compete, and I learned the honor and integrity of being champion. I learned about how important it is to have a passion and try to create a lifestyle out of passion. But what did I really learn? What would these kids be interested in? I wrote this little card, 12 lines 105 words. Every line began with “I will”… and that gesture of giving to those kids changed my life. My life went in a different direction. My wife and I had an apparel company. I was “make it big… sell it” just like I did with my first company… instinct. I thought, maybe there’s more here. I gave these cards to the kids, it turned into a grand swell. Kids wanted the cards, moms, dads, and lots of big companies wanted me to come and speak to them. The biggest companies in the world. Thousands of people, hundred people, 500 people, thousand, two thousand, three thousand people and I spoke about these simple lessons, with some of the biggest speakers in the world. Mainstream community doesn’t really know much about surfing. It’s sort of this mystical thing. “Ahh these guys, they go to Hawaii, they ride these big waves, or they get on their jet ski, and they ride a big wave,” and I just told them what my experience is and what my relationship is and it’s good to give back what surfing has given me. It’s a good feeling, I love it.
Watch Shaun Tomson featured during the Turtle Bay Resort ‘Talk Story’ series: