All's well that rides swells

OVER the last decade, I've spotted Shaun Tomson sitting astride his board at surf spots around Southern California. Although he's typically the most gifted surfer in the water, it's hard to tell; he quietly waits his turn in the lineup. He offers waves to others.

Only when Tomson launches onto a wave does this native of South Africa reveal the acrobatic brilliance that made him world champion in 1977. Now, in "Surfer's Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life" (Gibbs Smith: 192 pp., $18.95), this pioneer who showed the world how to ride deep inside the barrels of Hawaii's most powerful waves turns to the biggest problem facing the swelling crowds: How can surfers all get along?

To the uninitiated, it seems ridiculous that humans would fight over waves. The oceans are vast. Coastlines stretch for miles. The unfortunate truth is that there are limited places where ocean swells conspire with the configuration of the seafloor to create clean, shapely waves that peel along the shore. These surf breaks bring a testosterone-amped competition over a scarce, fleeting resource. Tensions grow fiercer every year, fueling localism, obscenities and sometimes fisticuffs.

Tomson writes about getting punched in the face at Rincon, a prime spot straddling the line between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The experience taught him Lesson No. 7: "There will always be another wave." He suggests that his brethren can generate unexpected goodwill by ceding a wave to another.

Spelling out the code, Tomson recommends ways for surfers to be considerate, to avoid conflicts by paddling around the impact zone of crashing waves, to take advantage of the riptides of life and to persevere after a good thumping. That comes in Lesson No. 5: "I will paddle back out."

This slender book, written with Drury University French professor Patrick Moser, isn't poetry inspired by the sea. But its wisdom comes from the heart. Although Tomson has lived a surfer's dream -- paid to ride the best waves around the world -- his life has been bashed by stormy seas, including the premature deaths of his father and, more recently, his teenage son.

Drawing from these losses and four decades of wave riding, Tomson's book offers life lessons for the next generation. It should be required reading for the hordes before they paddle out.


-- Kenneth R. Weiss

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