Tomson, Michael


Forceful, articulate, self-destructive pro surfer and surfwear entrepreneur, originally from Durban, South Africa; world-ranked #5 in 1976; a cofounder of Gotcha. Tomson was born (1954) and raised in Durban, and began surfing at age 10, along with his younger cousin and future world champion Shaun Tomson. Both of the teenaged Tomsons competed in the 1970 World Surfing Championships in Australia, with Shaun advancing to the semifinals.

Michael remained in Shaun's shadow throughout his pro surfing career. In the Gunston 500—Durban's best-known international pro event—Michael placed fifth in 1973, fourth in 1974, and third in 1975, while Shaun won all three years. But it was the older cousin who came out ahead on the debut world pro tour in 1976, as Michael finished #5 to Shaun's #6. He also placed runner-up in the 1977 World Cup in Hawaii, and won the 1978 Hang Ten in South Africa.

As a surfer, the strong-jawed Tomson is best remembered for charging  into the tube at Pipeline during the winter of 1975–76, when he helped lead the "backside attack" that brought regularfooters nearly up to the same level goofyfooters at the world's most famous break. Compared to the other top-flight pros of the age Tomson's style was blunt, even raw, but he rode smartly and fearlessly.

Tomson began moonlighting in the mid-'70s as a surf journalist. In 1976 he founded Down the Line, a short-lived newsprint surf magazine published out of Durban, and also became a contributor to Surfing. Tomson eventually became an assistant editor at Surfing, and went on to publish nearly 75 columns and features in the American surf press between 1976 and 2000. In 1978, when virtually everyone associated with professional surfing was eagerly looking forward to the sport being accepted and enriched by mainstream audiences, it was Tomson who shrewdly pointed out that spectators in "Ohio and Michigan want a blood-busting winner, one they can understand because they can see the bastard who gets from A to B first." Surfing, he noted, would never satisfy this kind of audience. Tomson also contributed articles, many of them on topics other than surfing, to the Durban Daily News, and in 1979 wrote a derisive New York Times opinion piece on a racist South African heaveyweight boxer who was in line for a title shot against Muhammed Ali.

Tomson emigrated to America in 1978, moving to Laguna Beach, California, where he and longtime friend Joel Cooper cofounded Gotcha, the instantly popular surfwear company known for its flashy designs and aggressive ad campaigns. Years earlier Tomson had received a B.A. in business from the University of Durban, and by 1987 Gotcha's $65 million in surfwear sales was topped only by Ocean Pacific and Hobie. Quiksilver was a distant fourth, at $30 million. The bubble burst in the early '90s, and by mid-'90s Tomson was no longer in charge of the company he'd founded. (In 2005, after Gotcha was sold to Perry Ellis—it had traded hands two or three times already—Tomson told a reporter that his "baby turned into a fucking whore.") In the late '80s, Tomson had formed a Gotcha-owned surfwear brand called MCD, which flared briefly than, along with Gotcha itself, fell out of fashion.

Tomson appeared in nearly a dozen surf movies, including Free Ride (1977), Tubular Swells (1977), and Fantasea (1978); as CEO of Gotcha, he produced Waterborn (1987) and Surfers: The Movie (1990). He also appeared in the 2008 surf documentary Bustin' Down the Door.

From 1990 to 1999, Tomson served as president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

Tomson suffered a perforated stomach ulcer in 1996 and nearly died. Other health problems followed. He had semiregular run-ins with the law in the '00s, including a morning car accident in 2013 in which the 58-year-old Tomson was charged with two felony DUI counts, and suspicion of cocaine possession. In 2015, while still on probation, Tomson was arrested on suspicion of cocaine trafficking.