Shaun Tomson, 1977 world surfing champion and 12-year local resident, has enjoyed a successful professional surfing career, competing in the World Tour from 1975 until 1990 and earning accolades as one of the finest tube-riders of all time. In addition to his surfing prowess, the Durban, South Africa, native was, and continues to be, the consummate professional, bringing a well-mannered voice to the surfing world. He is currently the owner of the Montecito-based Solitude Clothing and has recently released a book, Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding through Life. A documentary about Tomson’s star-studded surfing career is slated to come out in spring 2008. I recently spoke with Tomson about his past successes and current and future endeavors.
You’ve been in the press a lot lately following the November release of your book. What is your goal and overall message with this book? I just want to pass along all the important lessons I’ve learned from surfing. Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been surfing for a long time, you still learn from the sport, as shown by the simple principles I outline in my book, including community, humility, brotherhood, sharing, and in general, the aloha spirit.
Throughout the years, you’ve crossed paths with a lot of the same surfers. Is there anyone in particular with whom you’ve developed a special bond? I certainly have a very special bond with [Wayne] Rabbit Bartholomew, even though we don’t see each other that often. Rabbit was the first person to try to make a career of just going surfing — he made it possible to make a career out of doing something you love. He had that vision, and a whole group of us just helped that vision come true, so today, there is such a thing as the surfing industry and professional surfing.
Wasn’t he kind of a controversial figure back in the ’70s? Not really. He was a promoter of his vision, and back in the ’70s, when everyone was wearing black wetsuits, the whole notion of being able to make a living from going surfing was kind of alien.
I’ve read that Bartholomew and others had a rough time with some of the local guys on the North Shore back then. Is this something you can relate to? Well, once you become successful, it’s tough to maintain a low profile, and sometimes you end up on the wrong side of the wrong guys, but you keep paddling out. You’ve got to keep positive and keep pushing to be the best.
What did you find to be the best approach for dealing with those guys? I think you just have to be yourself and be respectful.
How was the trip to the North Shore for Pipeline Masters a couple weeks ago? I had an incredible time in Hawai‘i, surfing some really challenging waves with some of the best surfers in the world, and connecting with some of my old friends.
Was there anyone in particular you were really stoked to see? Yes. I did in-depth interviews with 50 of the greatest surfers of all time, from Tom Curren, Tom Carroll, Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Mark Richards, and Rabbit Bartholomew, to the incredible Hawaiian surfers like Jeff Hakman, Buffalo Keaulana, Rabbit Kekai, Barry Kanaiaupuni, and Clyde Aikau. … I spoke with them about the meaning of aloha, and it was interesting to hear their interpretation that aloha is all about sharing. Surfers need to share waves with one another, and it was wonderful to hear those guys talk about that. Sharing is at the core of Hawaiian culture, and it’s an important philosophy to learn from surfing.
What were the interviews for? I’m in the process of producing a documentary called Bustin’ Down the Door. It has its focus on winter 1975, when everything in surfing changed; it draws its inspiration from an article Rabbit Bartholomew wrote. The basic premise of the film is that kids have to “bust down the door” in order to realize their dreams. The film contrasts what professional surfing was back in 1975 to what it is today, and what kids have to do to be the best. It’s going to be an interesting movie.
What made you choose Santa Barbara as a place to settle down? Initially, my family and I decided to leave South Africa because it became economically and socially volatile. We decided Santa Barbara was the best place to live in the U.S. because it has wonderful surf, a wonderful environment, and a slow-growth policy. It seemed like a wonderful environment to bring a family into.
Do you feel like you’ve had an impact on the local surf scene in Santa Barbara? I don’t know. I just try to be myself and try to have a great time in the water. I try to give back to the sport as well.
How so? I’ve done book-signing benefits all over the West Coast and in Hawai‘i, and I think it’s a wonderful feeling to give something back. As a surfer, there’s a responsibility to give back, whether it’s to send $25 to Surfrider or to Heal the Ocean.
Do you think more people are becoming aware of this responsibility? I think so. I think our experience as surfers is very special, and we’re very lucky. We all need to give something back, whether in terms of actions or financial support. I think surfers are a lot more environmentally aware than they used to be.
Isn’t that true for a lot of people, not just surfers? Yes, but surfers are certainly right on the frontline of things going on in the environment.
What role do you think environmentalism has to play in surfing today? That’s an important part of what Surfer’s Code is about — we do have a responsibility. We derive quite a bit of pleasure from the ocean. Sometimes the ocean needs us, and we need to stand up and be counted. Not just paddle out and paddle in — there’s more to the surfing experience than that.
Have you looked into using “green” materials in surfboard construction? Yes, it certainly is something of interest to me. With my company Solitude Clothing, we’ve always been a relatively small company, but have tried to push the envelope in terms of bringing environmental sensibility to clothing manufacturers. I had a discussion with Al Merrick about the new technologies they’re using to make surfboards. I think it’s going to be great to see a break in the dependence we have on petrochemicals.
Since you’ve lived in Santa Barbara, what do you think has changed the most? There’s been a bit more trash in and out of the water, but there hasn’t been wholesale land development here. People have been, generally, very environmentally aware.
Have you been following any of the coastal development proposals for the Gaviota Coast? Yes. Surfrider’s been very vocal and active at preventing McMansions from going up along that beautiful stretch of coastline. There have been a lot of concerned people out there who have been vocal about keeping Santa Barbara Santa Barbara — keeping it what it is and not losing sight of what a rare, beautiful town we have. It shouldn’t be compromised to make some developer rich.
What did you think about the Clark Foam debacle last year? I could see it coming. I think surfing manufacturers were really scared to experiment because of the monopolistic power that Clark had. Looking back, there’s been zero new technology for 40 years. Without a doubt, this was the single best thing to happen to the surfing industry in terms of progression, technology, and environmentalism.