Shaun Tomson: the legendary South African surfing star

February 22, 2022 | Surfing
Shaun Tomson: the South African surfer won the 1977 IPS World Circuit title | Photo: Tomson Archive

Shaun Tomson is one of the most accomplished tube riders in surfing history. Here's everything you need to know about the life and career story of the elegant South African wave rider.

He is a world surfing champion, a Pipeline Master, a businessman, author, motivational speaker, and an environmentalist.

Tomson is a surf legend across the world.

Well-known for his eloquent and statesman-like personality, the former Durbanite regular-footer is widely regarded as one most prolific surfers of the modern epoch.

In the line-up, Shaun was the first athlete to win 19 pro surf contests and the youngest and the oldest ever to win an event throughout his career.

The South African's talent and charisma left an indelible mark in the sport.

Tomson revolutionized tube riding by introducing a unique climb-and-drop, pumping-and-weaving technique through and around breaking sections of the barrel.

At Pipeline, for instance, his backhand approach was ferocious and fearless, skills that earned him a Pipe Masters title in 1975/1976.

Shaun Tomson rode deeper than anybody without losing control and seldom exited the tube with his trademark smile.

"Time is expanded inside the tube," the South African once stated.

Always a well-spoken figure, he is often considered the world's first real professional surfer, even working briefly as a Calvin Klein model.

Shaun Tomson cites Duke Kahanamoku as his hero and has been an avid supporter of Olympic surfing.

His father was a swimming champion and dreamed of going to the Olympics, just like the "Big Kahuna" did.

He was training for the 1948 London Olympic Games when a shark attacked him and almost lost his arm and life.

Shaun's most famous nickname is "Baba Tom."

Shaun Tomson: one of the best tube riders in surfing history | Photo: Tomson Archive

Early Life

Shaun Tomson was born on August 21, 1955, in Durban, South Africa.

He is the son of Earnest Tomson, a wealthy property owner and surf contest organizer, and Marie. Shaun has a sister, Tracy, and a younger brother, Paul.

The young South African learned to surf in the several Durban area beach breaks with his father, cousin Michael Tomson, and Paul.

He was ten years old, and his first piece of equipment was a longboard.

At 12, Shaun won the boys' division of the South African Surfing Championships.

On February 16, 1946, Earnest Tomson survived a shark attack at South Beach, Durban. His son was shocked.

The event triggered galeophobia, i.e., an abnormal fear of sharks, in Shaun, which he eventually overcame with time.

In 1973, before getting into college, the young South African served 18 months in the military.

However, he was near his home and was allowed to surf often.

Shaun Tomson is a Business Administration and Finance graduate from the University of Natal and a master in science in leadership from Northeastern University.

Shaun Tomson: he won the Pipeline Masters in 1975/1976 | Photo: Tomson Archive

The Competitive Drive

Tomson stormed the amateur South African surfing scene in his early days before experiencing the Hawaiian waves for the first in the late 1960s after his bar mitzvah.

In 1969, the 14-year-old grom witnessed Greg Noll's historical Makaha wave ride on the west coast of Oahu.

Tomson spent 45 days in Hawaii and surfed 44 of them.

Shaun's passion for challenging waves was fueled by some of his country's most powerful breaks, including Jeffreys Bay, Bay of Plenty, and Cave Rock.

His first major victory on the International Professional Surfers World Championship (IPS) arrived in 1976 during the Gunston 500.

He defeated Jonathan Paarman, Peter Townend, Ian Cairns, Michael Tomson, and Carl Wegner in the final.

Tomson went on to win the first of six consecutive Gunston 500 events (1973-1978), a feat that no other professional surfer has accomplished.

Tomson, alongside Ian Cairns, Mark Richards, Mark Warren, Peter Townend, and Wayne Bartholomew, was one of the members of the legendary Free Ride generation.

The anglophone crew took over the North Shore of Oahu with their unique and innovative wave-riding attitude, aggression, courage, rawness, and style.

The Free Ride generation opened a new chapter in the history of professional surfing, making it not only an industry but also a full-time occupation.

In early 1975, the Durbanite won the Hang Ten American Pro Championships at Sunset Beach in Hawaii.

Tomson stormed the 1975/1976 Pipeline Masters with a flawless display of tube riding and in-the-barrel maneuvering skills at Off-the-Wall and Backdoor.

"Tomson rode in a wide stance, and instead of making weight shifts over his board by moving his feet - the conventional method - he simply leaned backward or forward," notes Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

"He meanwhile kept his leading arm extended, letting it rise and drop as necessary while using it as a sightline to lead him out of tight spots."

"These basic but important changes in stance gave Tomson an unprecedented degree of balance and stability, which in turn encouraged him to draw exciting new lines across the wave, even while behind the curl."

The South African competed professionally for 16 seasons and won 19 international events.

"The best competitive advice came from my dad. He said: 'when you lose, you lose like a man, and when you win, you win like a gentleman,'" Tomson once revealed.

In the late 1970s early 1980s, the "Baba Tom" switched to the twin-fin surfboard design and struggled to fight for the world title.

Nevertheless, he remained on top of the rankings.

In 1984, two years after getting his thruster setup, the 29-year-old Tomson won three world tour events and finished runner-up in the ratings to Tom Carroll.

Shaun Tomson: one of the world's first professional surfers | Photo: Dan Merkel/Tomson Archive

The Business Spirit

Tomson retired from competitive surfing in 1989, but he had always had an entrepreneurial drive.

In the 1980s, he co-founded the iconic surf brand Instinct, and in the 1990s, he created Solitude with his wife, Carla.

In 1985, he opened a surf shop in Santa Monica, California, named Shaun Tomson's Surf Beat.

He served as vice-president of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) from 1990 to 1994.

In 1995, Tomson worked in marketing and sales for Patagonia and O'Neill before becoming an inspirational speaker for multinational companies, including Cisco, General Motors, Disney, Gap, Google, Patagonia, PwC, Toys R' Us, Virgin, etc.

With his talks, he aims to influence businesses and decision-makers positively and share his life and career challenges in and out of the water.

Shaun also came out publicly against the policy of apartheid and opposed the system of government in South Africa that ruled the country from 1948 to 1994.

Tomson was inducted into the South African Hall of Fame (1977), International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (1995), Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame (1997), and Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (2014).

He was SIMA's Environmentalist of the Year in 2002 and received Surfrider's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

Shaun Tomson's superior wave reading and tube riding skills can be seen in movies like "Free Ride" (1975), "Tubular Swells" (1976), "Many Classic Moments," (1978) "Fantasea," (1980), "Surf II" (1982), "The Endless Summer II" (1984), "Blazing Boards" (1985), "In God's Hands" (1998), "Chasing Dora" (2006) and "Bustin' Down the Door" (2008).

In 2011, he released "Surfer's Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life," a best-selling book that inspires the surfing community to face the extraordinary challenges of everyday life.

In 2017, the South African authored "The Code: The Power of 'I Will,'" a book with practical advice aimed at adolescents and young adults.

Activism and Personal Life

Shaun Tomson became the Surfrider Foundation's first ambassador when the organization was founded in 1984.

He is also a former board member of the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara and an ambassador for Boys to Men Mentoring, a youth organization that aims to develop male role models who encourage and empower teenagers to follow their dreams.

The 1977 IPS World Circuit champion is a fan of Adriano de Souza, John John Florence, Jordy Smith, Kelly Slater, and Mick Fanning.

Shaun and Carla Tomson married in 1987. They had two sons - Mathew and Luke.

On April 24, 2006, their son Mathew accidentally lost his life playing "The Choking Game," a schoolboy prank in which kids cut off oxygen to get a brief high.

He was 15.

Shaun Tomson has always been passionate about surfing since he caught his first wave at the Bay of Plenty in 1965.

He once revealed he only lost the stoke twice - when his father died in 1981 and when his son Mathew died in 2006.

Tomson is 6'1'' (1.85 meters) and weighs around 180 pounds (81 kilograms).

The South African champion resides with his wife in Santa Barbara, California.

Shaun Tomson is on Facebook (@shauntomsonathlete), Instagram (@shauntomson), and Twitter (@shauntomson).