Narrating a new series about five European groms chasing their CT dreams sees the 1977 World Champ reflects on his first trip to the UK, the role of stoke and some vague recollections of the Wavelength Launch Party.
“We walked down from the car park for the first day and we were greeted by perfection,” Shaun Tomson told Wavelength. “There were blue skies, with four-to-six-foot peaks being brushed by an offshore breeze.”
This was 1981, four years after the South African had claimed his World Title. And, no, Tomson wasn’t looking at the uncrowded perfection of early surf era Hossegor. Or the untracked peaks of a Mexico beachbreak. This was… Fistral.
Tomson had arrived in Newquay, along with Rabbit Bartholomew and a clutch of overseas surf stars for the first Pro-am event in Britain; the Newquay Surf Classic. Apart from scoring what sounds like the best day at Fistral in the last four decades and making a guest appearance at the Wavelength Launch Party, for Tomson, it was a homecoming of sorts.
His mum had been born in Plymouth, and a young Tomson had grown up with the stories of her homeland. “I had a connection with the UK coastline. I loved the poet John Masefield (Shaun then recites the opening line of Sea-Fever; “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”). I had read about the Cornish wreckers, so it was all stories from my childhood. And everyone was just so stoked to have us there. It felt just so different than any other event.”
Tomson is sitting on his sun-swathed balcony at his home in Montecito, Santa Barbara having turned 66 just a few days before. He is still so handsome and articulate, so full of hair, so high of cheekbone, it almost took my zoom breath away. If I had a ring light, and by God, I was wishing I had, I’d have needed to turn the dial up to thermonuclear apocalypse to match his backlit visage.
He was waxing lyrical on his first UK trip and 50 years in the surf biz not just because I’d sent him the image of him at the Wavelength Launch Party photo (“Looks like we were having a blast, but who is the Debbie Harry look-a-like?” He asked) but because of his new role as a narrator of the EDP Surf For Tomorrow program and 10-part documentary series.
The Portuguese Renewable Energy company is sponsoring five talented Iberian groms, João Mendonça, Gabriela Dinis, Matias Canhoto, Hans and Kai Odriozola, all aged between 13 and 16 years old. Through mentorship, elite sports coaching, travel, competition, and, most importantly, time in the ocean, the aim is to have the athletes eventually reach the elite of world surfing, the CT
“For me, surfing represents a freedom and a type of unstructure,” says Tomson. “So it’s interesting to see how this program adds structure to the kids’ development and we can watch, in real-time, the results.”
With a full-time coach Jose Seabra, plus a filming crew and various other experts roped in, it’s a world away from the upbringing Tomson had growing up in Durban. Back then most of his structure and inspiration came from his father, Ernie. He was an elite swimmer and aspiring Olympian whose career was ended by a shark attack in 1946.
“He could have won a gold medal at the Olympics, but even after the attack he never lost his love for the ocean, and always encouraged my passion for surfing,” Tomson said. “He didn’t talk about passion, character, and resilience, but he showed it every day. The most important lesson he taught was to simply keep the stoke. Without that, there can never be success.”
Ernie had surgery in California after the attack and travelled to Hawaii to recuperate. He stayed in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and befriended the Kahanamoku clan – Duke had been his hero as a young boy and the South African fell in love with the Hawaiian culture and lifestyle.
That’s why Shaun’s bar mitzvah present wasn’t the sheaf of stock certificates that most of his classmates received, but a trip to Hawaii. It was that early mission that started Tomson’s lifelong love for the Islands and set the platform for his groundbreaking surfing on the North Shore in the 1970s.
In 1981 though, not long after the Newquay event, Ernie died of a sudden heart attack. Shaun was bereft and rudderless. Worse, he’d lost the stoke that his Dad had installed in him.
“Working on the Surf For Tomorrow series, and seeing the level of coaching and assistance, it reminded me of that time,” says Tomson. “When I lost Dad, I needed advice. I approached Ian Cairns, who was in his last year on tour, and I said I need help.”
At that stage, there was no such thing as a professional surfing coach. Heck, professional surfing, which Shaun had helped develop, was only in its infancy. Cairns took on the gig and became the first paid coach. The pair set out a five-year plan, and Tomson says he achieved almost all the goals. By 1985, he had captured more international tour victories than any other competitor.
“I saw then that coaching was validated and also needed,” he says. “So with these young kids in Europe who are working with these great people, and as a team, it can help them immeasurably. As long as they maintain the stoke.”
With the mention of stoke, Thomson becomes animated again when he remembered that first trip to the UK, and a trip he made to Jersey with the shaper Steve Harewood of Freedom Surfboards.
We were walking through a farmer’s field to the surf. It was a warm day, it was offshore and blues skies again,” Tomson says. “Steve said let’s eat some strawberries, and I saw the field was covered with them. We plucked them off and it was the best strawberry in my life, and still is. It was just so, well, British. I’ll never forget it.”
Unlike the Wavelength Launch party, which probably like most of the invitees, he can’t remember a single thing. And just who is that Debbie Harry look-a-alike?