THE OLD MAN OF THE SEA : Shaun Tomson Has Left His Homeland and Overcome One Fear of Surfing

Times Staff Writer

The Calvin Klein image-makers like athletic types. They’re into wavy, wind-swept hair, cut evenly. They’re into dark-tinted, rectangular sunglasses. They’re into bronzed, smooth skin. Simply, they’re into hunkism.

Calvin himself spends countless hours searching for this personification of perfect. And he thought he found it in a picture of surfer Shaun Tomson. He just had to have him model Calvin Klein pants. Nothing was going to come between this man, this vision, and Calvin Klein.


It was pure happenstance, but Tomson will take it. He will take a big modeling job when offered one. For once, things were coming easy.


It hasn’t always been that way. Tomson has fought enough demons to earn a place in the ethereal world.

He has overcome the death of his father, Earnest--his soul support--to stand on his own. He has overcome galeophobia, an abnormal fear of sharks, to become a professional surfer. And he has overcome the burden of being an ostracized South African athlete to become an international ambassador of sport.

Tomson is not just a voluptuous bod; he’s one of the world’s best surfers--some say the best there ever was. Though he has won the world pro title only once, in 1977, he has the most tour wins in surfing’s decade of professionalism.

Though Tomson has appeared in Vogue and Gentleman’s Quarterly, modeling is purely a sidelight. Where he truly shines is not in the flash of a Hasselblad studio camera; not in the hot glow of television lights (he has appeared on “The Today Show,” “P.M. Magazine” and “The Merv Griffin Show”) and not in the glare of a photojournalist’s Nikon. For Shaun Tomson, illumination comes from the water.


He shares an affinity with the ocean as his father did. That’s why, for the time being, he will put aside a potentially lucrative modeling career, a thriving sportswear manufacturing business and a chance to work as an actor to follow that endless summer. He will do this knowing full well that at 29 he is the old man of the sea, and that the surfing aficionados have little use for has-beens.

So far he has assuaged the aging process, but even his most staunch supporters see his reign as surf king ending.

“You can’t defy mortality,” said Michael Tomson, Shaun’s cousin and longtime surfing compatriot. “I’d hate to see him get beat seriously, that he would overstay his welcome.”

Tomson has no intention of being swept aside like the ex-champ who lives in the past. He will step down with dignity, in his time.


“I don’t feel I’ve reached some sort of pinnacle that I’ve been aiming for,” he said. “I love my occupation. I love surfing. Winning contests never was my goal. I’ll surf for two more years and then retire.”

Tomson’s aquatic passion was built around his father, once a South African swimming champion.

Earnest Tomson, the son of a Russian Jew, a Tomonosky who had emigrated to South Africa in the early 1900s, had the pioneering spirit of his new-found countrymen. But that spirit dimmed in 1947 when, just off a Durban beach called the Bay of Plenty, he was attacked by a shark, and suffered severed ligaments in his right arm. His promising swimming career was over, the scars of shark’s teeth leaving a painful reminder of what could have been.

Said Earnest’s best friend, Peter Burness: “He lived his life very much through Shaun. He was very much a driving force in the surfing scene for South Africa.”


Young Tomson, the eldest of two sons and a daughter, never let Earnest down. Tomson dedicated himself to the surf at the Bay of Plenty, no more than a 100 meters from their home.

Spider Murphy, Tomson’s longtime Durban surfboard-maker, said: “Whenever the surf was up, Shaun’s father would make him go out. He would cry before he’d go out there on big days, but his father would make him do it.”

Added Michael Tomson: “When he was 12 or 13 his dad would really yell at him. Shaun would burst into tears on the beach.”

Tomson claims his father never forced him into the water, that exaggeration runs rampant along the coast. “He was the sort of father that if I lost he would never yell at me,” Tomson said. “He loved me to win, but didn’t hate me to lose. I think, in a way, I’ve achieved what he really wanted for himself.”


Shaun’s younger brother, Paul, a fine surfer in his own right, often felt isolated because of the special bond between father and eldest son.

“My father and I didn’t get along too well,” he said. “Shaun was his main channel of energy. Shaun got his push in surfing from my dad. I got it from Shaun.”

Tomson, who travels with framed pictures of Earnest that he puts on a nightstand at every hotel he visits, prefers talking about the memorable times with his father, a well-to-do owner of an auto repair service in Durban.

One of Shaun’s favorite vignettes is the time Earnest presented him with a Bar Mitzvah present most surfers only dream about: a two-month surfing safari to Australia and Hawaii.


Shaun was 14 when he saw Hawaii for the first time. It left a lasting impression.

“We were there for 45 days and I surfed 44 of them,” he said.

Tomson also witnessed one of surfing’s memorable swells, the Swell of ’69 that closed down much of Oahu’s North Shore. It is such times that surfing lore is made. This is Shaun Tomson’s:

It was a really big day, one of the biggest of all times. I can’t believe I went out. Because it was so big there were giant lulls, 15 to 20 minute lulls where the ocean would be flat. I was at Makaha (on the western side of Oahu) and thought well, I’ll go out, it doesn’t look that big. I got out there and there were maybe a half dozen people out there--Keith Paul, Greg Noll, those sort of guys. (Paul and Noll were two of surfing’s revered big - wave riders . ) Then I saw this set come through, this monster set, I was soooo scared. I took off on one wave, but pearled (fell face first) half way down. My board came up right next to me , and I turned around and there was this humongous, giant awful, awful set. I just got over the first one. Then, the ultimate surfer’s nightmare: I just got over the first and I started paddling up the second one, it must have been 20 (feet), maybe bigger, and about three-quarters of the way up the face it starts to break at the top. So, I’m scared. Normally, I would have have just bailed. I figured maybe I’ll turn turtle where you turn your board over and hold on. We must have been a mile out at a power point. But it took my board like I wasn’t even holding on to it and held me under the worst of my life. I thought I was going to die. I managed to kind of scramble up and I washed up to the beach and my dad ran out to me and grabbed me. I was so stoked to see him.


The feeling must have been mutual because there was a long embrace, and for Shaun a sense of safety in the arms of his father.

There were other trips, and many other stories, but one seldom mentioned was the shark attack at a break the locals call Kontiki. No doubt Earnest’s unspoken words of his debilitating injury left scars on Shaun as well.

“I’m still terrified of sharks, you know,” Tomson said. “I have a real problem with that.”

The Bay, a natural break for surfing, likewise is a natural habitat for sharks. During the months of December, January and February, heavy rains overflow the Umgeni River and turn the Bay into a dirty, murky haven for sharks.


“You can feel a presence,” Tomson said of shark-infested waters. “You get paranoid. And you know there is something bad out there. As soon as I see a fin I go in. Before surfboard leashes (an elastic band connecting the surfer’s ankle to the board) I was afraid to lose my board on a big day. You’d have to swim in deep water, and I’d be thinking that my leg was going to be bit off at any second. I’ve swum through brown, dirty water just praying, ‘God, let me get to my board without being eaten.’ ”

Tomson has exited the water safely thousands of times, but he once had trouble entering the waters of Brazil and Indonesia because of his nationality. He travels the Assn. of Surfing Professionals (ASP) tour with an Irish passport. His maternal grandfather is from Ireland.

Tomson has been a U.S. resident alien for five years. He has lived in Orange County, Santa Barbara and now with his mother, Marie, sister, Tracy, and brother, Paul, in Santa Monica. They all plan to apply for citizenship. Tomson has opened a family-run surf boutique called Shaun Tomson’s Surf Beat on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

Yet, the spirits of another world haunt him like a poltergeist. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot hide his heritage. To the world, Tomson--who once received the Springbok Colors for athletic achievement--is considered a South African with all the political implications attached.


In the past, Tomson has dodged much of the controversy surrounding apartheid, South Africa’s policy of racial segregation. Like most athletes, he says sports and politics should not mix, but realizes they do. It has put him in a rather tight spot.

“You must remember when we grew up there was very little media attention on South Africa,” he said. “As a young person growing up there you don’t really have a perception of things being that different than other parts of the world. Only when you travel you realize it.

“I didn’t leave South Africa for moral reasons. California was the place for me in terms of my future.

“I know there are a lot of things inherently wrong in South Africa. But I’ve never denied I’m from there. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are a great many South Africans who love South Africa but don’t like the policy of the government. And in a way some people think because you live in South Africa, because you’re a white South African, you’re a racist. That’s just not true.”


The Tomsons also were a South African minority--white, English-speaking Jews. “That kind of limits you,” he said.

But because of his status as an internationally known athlete, he has been thrust into a sensitive situation; a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. A few highly ranked members of the APS tour, including Tommy Carroll, two-time world champion, are boycotting the South African segment of the tour, which begins today. Tomson, claiming he is concerned with the strength of the surfing, has decided to compete.

He has tried to balance his burden as if he were pulling into a cresting 15-foot peak at Jeffery’s Bay; which is to say he approaches the topic with caution.

“I’ve never surfed out of patriotism,” Tomson said. “I’ve never surfed to bring honor to anyone but myself. But my actions speak for themselves. I’m living in the United States. My whole family is living here with me. I love this country; it really is my country now.


“But I feel South Africa has potential to be a great country. But there has to be a form of power share. The black man has no say in the government at the moment, and you can’t get away with it, it’s an unfair situation. I’ve come out publicly that I do not like the policy of apartheid and am opposed to the kind of system of government in South Africa. But I’m also opposed to violent change.”

Said Ian Cairns, a friend and former professional surfer: “He saw a need to take his family out of there. It’s not a black and white issue. The saddest thing is that he can’t live there anymore.”

Whereas Tomson has handled the issue of apartheid with diplomacy, some of his family members have been much more succinct with their feelings.

Said Paul: “We are here by choice. We don’t like what’s happening over there.”


Said Michael: “It was tenuous living there, to bring up children there. South Africa is so split and fragmented socially. Even among the whites there is a strong dichotomy of classes.”

Politics aside, the days of Durban offer fond memories for Tomson. When he competes at the Bay of Plenty a great sense of nostalgia overcomes him. He remembers another era, one filled with the naivete of a Paris spring.

Tomson began surfing in Durban with his cousin, Michael, when he was 8. Sometimes, they looked like Tomson Twins, each trying to out-duel the other wave after wave. They mastered the technique of tube riding, surfing inside the barrel of a wave, and bursting out to complete the ride. They were pioneers of surfing’s New Wave where leaving a suture-like trail on the face of the wave were and are the rage.

“We couldn’t believe the tube rides they would get, there has never been anything like them,” said Murphy, the surfboard maker.


“It’s really depressing going back there,” Tomson said of Durban. “Nothing’s the same. We all used to sit at this place called Dantes, a cafe right in front of the Bay. We could sit there and sip tea and literally watch tubes run by. But Dantes has been deserted, it’s like that portion of my life is gone. When my dad died (in 1981) it made me realize that things will change. South Africa was incredible place to grow up.”

Five years ago the unflappable Shaun Tomson was living a quixotic life, willfully globe-trotting the world’s exotic ports. He was the embodiment of professional surfing where fast women and fast bucks are the spoils for fast rides.

But then something happened. Tomson grew up. Cairns said he matured, that his passive days have passed. Though he’s still in perpetual motion, Tomson has taken a more serious view toward the sport. He makes all the calculated moves to brighten surfing’s image and lure sponsors.

The 11-month tour has contests in Japan, France, England, South Africa, Australia and the mainland United States. The maximum a surfer can earn from competition is $150,000, but travel expenses run as much as $40,000 a tour.


Tomson, who earns a high six-figure salary with competition, promotions, his sportswear company and modeling, would like to see surfers approach a salary of tennis players and golfers. He feels strongly about making it a more popular sport because he and professional surfing have grown up together. In 1975, when professional surfing was in its infancy, Tomson left the University of Netal in Durban, South Africa, only three units short of a business degree to join the tour. At the time he expected to join the establishment--either in business or law--but he had so much fun on the tour he never left.

He hasn’t made up the three units, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. He has a beachy charisma that he hopes to capitalize on after he retires from the ASP.

Which brings us to his future. Will he become an actor? Will he continue in the sportswear industry? Will he pursue modeling?

“He’s doing Calvin Klein ads or nothing,” said Cairns, an ASP executive. “Until he gets a starring role, he won’t be an actor. Until he can be a champion in something else, he won’t try it.”


Tomson says he held off because he had no idea what he wanted out of life. “Surfing is what I do best,” he said. “I don’t really know how to do anything else. It’s just going to be so hard for me to give it up. It’s very hard to go from being one of the top guys to being a nobody.”

But he has a plan.

He once studied acting part-time, and plans to commit himself to acting school once he retires from sport. He also may continue with Instinct clothing, a South African sportswear firm he started and retains a 33% share of. Instinct is grossing about $2 million annually. Though he isn’t fond of the modeling business: “For me, being someone because of what you are to being a hanger for clothes is kind of hard to handle.” But if he can pique the interest of Calvin Klein, he can make it in the meat market, too.

“I had to start at the bottom with the clothing industry,” said Michael Tomson, who is vice president of a rival clothing firm, Gotcha. “Shaun will have to do that, too. But he will achieve in whatever area he wants.”


No matter what avenue he pursues, surfing will remain his joy. The fiber that bonds him to the sport may weaken, but will never break. He still will seek the elusive perfect ride . . . and never find it.

And in the thousands of spectacular rides he has made, only one at Oahu’s reknowned Pipeline stands out as being close to his nirvana. Only once, for eight seconds, did he punch the envelope to its outer limits.

“I thought I was in perfect control of my universe,” Tomson said. “I really did. I was riding the tube like I was on the outside riding around sections and riding through sections. I reached a point where I thought back on where I had been and what I’d done. It was like all the power went out of me and I fell. I just felt like I had accomplished so much when all I had done was ride the wave perfectly. But to me it was the statement of my surfing.”

The grand times are fleeting. The grand times are frustrating. The grand times are forever.