Shaun Tomson (pictured top, with the sneer).
Big Waves, Beat Downs, and the Birth of Modern Surfing
A Revolution Revisited
Thursday, January 17, 2008
In 1975, there was no such thing as a world champion in the sport of surfing. There was no professional tour, no big money contests with international sponsors, no chain stores in middle America selling surf clothes to pale-skinned teenagers who have never seen the ocean. Surf companies didn’t enjoy success on the New York Stock Exchange and men and women certainly didn’t earn millions of dollars a year to chase perfect waves around the world. There were only waves, boards, and riders, the occasional contest with peanut prizes, a budding surf-minded media, and a testosterone-driven swirl of reputation, rumor, and ambition hanging over those who chose a surfer’s path.
Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew
From the rose-hued vantage point of hindsight, the mid 1970s were a golden era of sorts for surfing; it was a time when crowds were still mellow, pursuits still pure, and anyone willing to buy a plane ticket to Hawai’i, paddle out, and make a death-defying drop could earn a name for themselves the world over. It was from the soil of this fertile time-thanks to the unblinking bravado and athletic prowess of a rag-tag bunch of young, shaggy-haired board riders from South Africa and Australia-that the sport of surfing as we now know it was born. As current Montecito resident and former World Champion Shaun Tomson recalled recently of those heady years, “It’s not like we had some specific objective to change surfing. We just wanted to be the best and be the most radical; and I guess somewhere in that process, modern surfing was born.”
Mark Richards, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Shaun Tomson, Michael Tomson (Shaun’s cousin), Ian Cairns, and Peter Townend. The names are certifiable legends in the annals of professional surfing, for without them and their groundbreaking performances in the waters along the North Shore of Oahu, Hawai’i, during the mid 1970s, the current surfing culture would not exist. They traveled around the world as teenagers-living in relative squalor, risking life and limb taking on the most challenging waves in the world, and locking horns with an established and equally legendary guard of Hawaiian surfers-with the hope of earning themselves a reputation and perhaps enough money to do it all again the following season. It was a labor of love driven by desire and the type of youthful exuberance that young men often find burning in their bellies as they come into their early twenties.
Mark Richards, pictured with his trademark “wounded seagull” bottom turn.
Unlike today, when aspiring surfers can enter contests at their local beaches and climb a well-worn, familiar ladder to success, contest entrances in the mid ‘70s were a rare privilege given only to those who had a known reputation as a hot surfer; the only way to earn that status was to go to Hawai’i and drop into the biggest, baddest waves you could find no matter who or what stood in your way. Famously described in a 1976 Surfer magazine article by Rabbit titled “Busting Down the Door,” the situation was such: “The fact is that when you are a young emerging rookie from Australia or Africa, you not only have to come through the backdoor to get invitations to the Pro meets but you have to bust the door down before they hear you knocking.” And when these young men did just that-feeding off each other, tube riding, carving, and hitting the lip on big Hawaiian waves in a way never seen before-not only did they set off a media storm, which produced iconic photos and groundbreaking surf films that forever altered the direction of surfing, but a few of them also nearly lost their lives in the process.
A regular these days at local haunts like Rincon and Hammonds, South Africa’s Shaun Tomson set the surfing world ablaze with his tube-riding approach and body twist, full-rail power gouges.