Innovative and aristocratic regularfooter from Durban, South Africa; 1977 world champion, and inventer of the climb-and-drop method of tuberiding; often described, along with Kelly Slater, as "the ultimate pro."
Tomson was born (1955) and raised in Durban, the son of Ernie Tomson, a wealthy property owner and surf contest organizer. Shaun began surfing at age 10, under his father's tutelage; two years later he won the boys' division of the South African National Championships, and at age 14 he was regarded as a longshot contender for the 1970 World Championships. Tomson utterly dominated the South African competition scene, and in 1973 won the first of six consecutive titles in the Durban-held Gunston 500, the biggest international pro event outside of America and Australia. (Tomson served his mandatory 18 months in the South African National Army in 1973 and 1974, but did so near his home and was allowed to surf often.) In early 1975, the dashingly handsome Durbanite won the Hang Ten Pro Championships in Hawaii, and over the course of the year earned just over $10,000 in prize money from various contests, more by far than any other pro that season.
Tomson made his biggest mark on surfing the following winter on the North Shore of Oahu. His win in the 1975 Pipeline Masters was in itself dramatic, but really just a signifier for the way he had, in just a few weeks, changed the parameters of high-performance surfing. 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. He meanwhile kept his leading arm extended, letting it rise and drop as necessary while using it as a sight line 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. Tomson (6'1", 180 pounds) introduced his weaving tube style in late 1975 at Backdoor and Off the Wall in Hawaii, where he rode deeper than anybody, and with greater frequency and control, often exiting the tube with a joyous smile. He was just as groundbreaking with his backside approach at Pipeline, standing nearly straight up in the tube when the wave allowed, or dropping to a crouch and bringing his right shoulder forward in a prototype of what would later be called the "pigdog" stance.
Tomson's thrilling new moves were captured beautifully in the era-defining surf movie Free Ride. The following generation of surfers, especially Dane Kealoha and Tom Carroll, patterned their tuberiding on that of Tomson's, and present-day techniques are almost all based on lines Tomson worked out in the mid-'70s. "I remember certain tubes," he later told Tracks magazine, "where I was so in control of my mind and body, that it actually felt as if I were controlling the wave itself."
Tomson was taking economics classes at the University of Durban in 1976 when the world pro circuit was formed; competing part-time, he finished the year rated sixth. Dedicating himself to the circuit in 1977, he moved into the ratings lead halfway through the season and held on to win the title.
Tomson was a new kind of champion: articulate and perfectly groomed (he worked briefly as a Calvin Klein model), with a distinctly patrician air. "In an era filled with rough-hewn Australians and street-wise Hawaiians," surf journalist Phil Jarratt later wrote, "Tomson strode in like the Great Gatsby." Surf magazine profiles noted that he had never camped out on a surf trip or fixed his own surfboard dings.
Tomson's performances suffered a bit in the late '70s and early '80s when he switched to the twin-fin design, but he nonetheless remained near the top of the ratings, finishing fourth in 1978, sixth in 1979, third in 1980, fourth in 1982, and sixth in 1983. He meanwhile moved from Durban to Santa Barbara, California. In 1984, two years after getting his first tri-fin, the 29-year-old Tomson won three world tour events and finished runner-up in the ratings to Aussie Tom Carroll; two years later he dropped out of the top 10 for the first time, and after the 1989 season—his 14th—he retired from competitive surfing. Tomson had 12 career world tour wins, including a victory in the 1986 Spur Steak Ranch Surfabout in South Africa, where the 31-year-old veteran became the first over-30 male surfer to win a world pro tour event.
Tomson founded Instinct surfwear and Shaun Tomson Surfboards in the late '70s (cousin Michael Tomson had just launched Gotcha surfwear), and in 1985 he opened Surfbeat surf shop in Santa Monica, California. Both businesses had failed by the time Tomson moved back to Durban in 1990 with his wife and newborn son; he returned to college and received a B.A. in business finance. In 1995, the Tomson family returned to California, where he worked in marketing and sales for Patagonia clothing, then O'Neill wetsuits. He founded Solitude surfwear, head-quartered in Santa Barbara, in 1998, and later became a motivational speaker.
Tomson was featured in more than 40 surf movies and videos, including Tracks (1970), Playgrounds in Paradise (1976), Fantasea (1978), We Got Surf (1981), Wave Warriors (1985), and Surfers: The Movie (1990). In 1985, he appeared on the Merv Griffin Show and Good Morning America. Tomson was profiled in 20th Century Surfers (2000), a cable TV documentary series produced by Opper Films, and received good notices later that year for his role as a surf journalist in TriStar's big-wave drama In God's Hands. In 2008, Tomson co-produced and starred in Bustin' Down the Door, a well-received documentary about the 1975-76 North Shore surf season.
Tomson wrote more than a dozen surf magazine articles between 1979 and 1991, including 1980's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Pro Surfing But Didn't Know Who the Hell to Ask," a four-part series published by Surfing magazine; he also wrote the foreword for Pure Stoke (1982) and Above the Roar: 50 Surfer Interviews (1997). Tomson's 2006 book Surfer's Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life is dedicated to his son Mathew, who died that year at age 15 while playing the "choking game."
Tomson won the Surfer Magazine Readers Poll Award in 1978. He was inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 (and was named that country's Sportsman of the Year), the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, and the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1997. Australia's Surfing Life magazine named Tomson as the world's all-time best tuberider in 1991.
Tomson served as vice president of the Association of Surfing Professionals from 1990 to 1994; in 2002 he was appointed as chairman of the National Advisory Board for the Surfrider Foundation environmental group, and was given the Environmentalist of the Year award by the Surf Industry Manufacturer's Association.
Surfer magazine's "50 Greatest Surfers of All Time" article, in 2009, put Tomson at #8.