In the mid-’70s, surfing was wild — long hair was paramount, contest conformity was bogus and feral quests for mystical waves were the road to nirvana. The last thing the sport wanted was a professional, well-spoken figure at the helm, but that’s what it got in Shaun Tomson. Years ahead of his contemporaries, he stood alone with articulate grace and redefined tuberiding in the process.
Tomson was born in Durban, South Africa, where he picked up his first longboard at age 10. He made the transition to shortboards as the revolution encompassed the world in years to follow. By the time the ’60s were out, Tomson had won the South African Boys’ title, attended his Bar Mitzvah and had his first experience in Hawaiian surf.
In 1973, Tomson performed his civic duty by serving 18 months in the national army. Afterward, while attending university in Durban in pursuit of a business degree, he earned the first of six consecutive Gunston 500 victories.
The landmark Hawaii winter of 1975-’76 belonged to a group of groundbreaking regularfoots and Tomson, in particular. At the Pipeline Masters, a goofyfoot stronghold, his backhand vaulted him past a quintet of established maestros to victory. Even more convincingly, he lifted tuberiding to new heights with his in-the-barrel maneuvering at Backdoor and Off the Wall. Real tuberiding was still mired in early childhood, only having been explored for a handful of seasons, but Tomson delved deeper than anyone thought imaginable. The results were captured by Bill Delaney in his seminal film Free Ride. As audiences witnessed Tomson turning and pumping through unmakable sections, his status as the world’s best was solidified.
As a competitor, Tomson’s consistency and longevity marked one of the most prolific careers in professional surfing. A barnacle in the Top 16, from the tour’s inception until 1989, he earned the 1977 world title and came inches from regaining it from Tom Carroll in 1985. His popularity was immense, garnering him top honors at the 1978 Surfer Poll and successful business ventures with Instinct apparel and Shaun Tomson Surfboards. Wherever he traveled, surfers envied his abilities, and women swooned over his model good looks.
Above all, it was Tomson’s professionalism that granted surfing a much-needed boost in respect. And in the process, he’s been a key figure in helping competitive surfing evolve from backyard events for pocket change to grand productions with tens of thousands of dollars in prize money. — Jason Borte, October 2000