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All joined by one ocean

Times Staff Writer

The waves at Malibu State Beach crest at about 3 feet and the sun cuts through the morning haze as former world surfing champion Shaun Tomson rides the last swell to shore. It’s been nearly 30 years since he won a world title, but Tomson wows the 50 or so surfers in the water with his sharp cutbacks and slicing U-turns.

In the parking lot afterward, he changes out of his wetsuit. A lanky teenager in a bucket hat steps up and introduces himself.

“You are my favorite tube surfer of all time,” the youngster says before asking the 51-year-old surfing legend for a copy of his championship surfboard design.

Without hesitation, Tomson gives the young surfer his e-mail address and promises to send him the board design.

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“I would be so amped,” says the grinning surfer.

For Tomson, this is not just an example of good manners. It’s part of the surfer’s code. Lesson 11, to be exact: “All surfers are joined by one ocean.”

Although the teen may not know it, surfing is guided by a set of tacit rules, and Tomson has taken it upon himself to explain them to the world. In fact, he’s publishing them this month in “Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life.” Like the other lessons, No. 11 may seem a bit cliched and even trite -- a curious combination of Mahatma Gandhi and Duke Kahanamoku -- but they come at the right time for the sport.

Surfing is headed for a wipeout, Tomson believes. And he’s not alone in his opinion. The essence of surfing, many veteran wave riders say, is obscured by lucrative surfing tournaments, big-money clothing deals, overcrowded surf breaks and increasing turf wars.

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The code, Tomson believes, can help put the surfing world back into alignment.

Tomson, with 12 world tour wins and the good looks of a Calvin Klein model, makes the perfect pitchman. But his campaign raises some questions: Is surfing really drowning in commercialism and violent localism? And if so, can he make a difference with such lessons as, “There will always be another wave” and “I will honor the sport of kings”?

Before you dismiss Tomson as a Phil Jackson-type for surfing, hear him out. The code worked for him, helping him overcome embarrassing wipeouts on the surfing circuit, several failed business ventures and the death of his son last spring.

When all hope seems lost, he returns to Lesson 5: “I will paddle back out.”

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Surfing’s wise man

The conditions at Rincon Beach near Santa Barbara were prime for the “Clean Water Classic,” a surf contest held five years ago to raise money to fight water pollution. Glen Henning, the event organizer, had asked Tomson to speak at the annual fundraiser and to hand out mementos to about a dozen newbie surfers ages 5 to 12. Thrust into the role of surfing sage, Tomson decided to pass along the most important life lessons from his 40 years as a surfer. He wrote down 12 lessons in short declarative statements -- like the Boy Scout oath -- and emblazoned them on laminated cards, which he handed out to the kids.

He liked the idea so much, he later decided to stuff the cards into the pockets of the clothes at his Santa Barbara apparel company, Solitude, which he runs with his wife, Carla.

After the Rincon fundraiser, Tomson became concerned that the new generation of surfers had become lost, disconnected from the sport’s history, concerned only about looking cool and winning titles. They needed a set of principles.

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Tomson didn’t invent the code. He simply put it into writing, drawing bits of wisdom from fellow surfers he met around the world and from his own unique experience. Growing up in segregated South Africa, he became an avid reader of the writings of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi. As he started to write down the code, he found himself channeling their philosophies. The message that he began to develop was one of “peaceful coexistence with other people and with nature,” Tomson says.

With color photographs and raised quotes, “Surfer’s Code” won’t be mistaken for Tolstoy. It’s an easy beach read that follows the roller-coaster life of a surfing icon, relating his father’s near-fatal encounter with a shark, a brutal wipeout during his first surf contest at Waimea Bay in 1975 and two failed clothing ventures. Tomson is promoting the book, published by a small Utah-based publisher, Gibbs Smith, at surfing tournaments and environmental clean-up events. It is now available at most major retail bookstores, independent bookshops, surfing outlets and beachfront gift shops in Southern California.

Tomson broke into competitive surfing in the mid-1970s with a gift for carving up waves and riding longer and deeper into a tube than anyone at the time. He was also the antithesis of the beach-bum surfer. He was articulate and polite, a gentleman surfer who had money from his father, a wealthy South African property owner and surf contest organizer.

Although his aristocratic upbringing drew some resentment from his peers, Tomson’s skills won him many fans, a 1977 world championship and a place in the South Africa Sports Hall of Fame. Australia’s Surfing Life magazine called Tomson the all-time best tube rider.

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It’s his reputation as a great surfer that his friends hope will carry his message of civility on the water.

“The people are going to read his book because he has that much respect,” says Jericho Poppler, a trailblazing woman surfer and co-founder of the Women’s International Surfing Assn.

But others doubt his message will take hold among the sport’s hard-core set.

“The idea that Shaun Tomson is going to tell us how to behave in the water, many will roll their eyes,” surfing historian Matt Warshaw says.

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Even the Rincon organizer Henning, who calls Tomson’s efforts admirable, says it may be too late. “Bottom line is that he’s fighting an uphill battle.”

Lack of etiquette

Although veteran surfers disagree on the significance of Tomson’s book, they will concede that civility and respect are plummeting among the new surfers crowding the beaches. The most basic and time-honored rules of surfing are often flouted, such as the etiquette for riding a wave. In the water, surfers paddle to the “lineup” beyond the breaking waves and wait their turn. The rider closest to the pocket of the breaking wave has the right of way. The next surfer in the lineup jumps on the next wave. That’s the way it is supposed to work, but it’s hard to be civil when surfers are crowded shoulder to shoulder at nearly every popular surf break. Between 1987 and 2005, nearly 1.2 million new surfers have come to the sport.

Even respected veterans are getting a taste of surfing’s sour side.

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Peter “PT” Townend, the 1976 world surfing champ and coach of the USA Surf team, says that young surfers often “drop in” on his waves at his favorite spot in Huntington Beach. “First in the lineup has no bearing,” he says.

He lays part of the blame on surf camps that churn out hundreds of new wave riders every year. “All they do is teach them how to stand up on a board,” he says. “They don’t teach them about respect in the water.”

Whether Tomson can help set surfing right again remains to be seen. But whereas many professionals would take pride in launching a clothing line or collecting a few trophies, Tomson strives to pass on a code that has left a lasting influence on his life.

Earlier this year, he stood on a nearly empty beach in South Africa on a sunny spring day, looking out at sets of 4- and 5-foot waves. It was a perfect day to surf, but that was the last thing Tomson wanted to do.

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Tomson’s son, Mathew, had moved to Durban to attend his father’s alma matter, Clifton Preparatory School. In April, the teen was found at the boarding school hanging by his own tie. At first, police ruled the 15-year-old boy’s death a suicide, but they later concluded that he had died playing the “choking game,” in which youngsters asphyxiate themselves to get a quick high.

Tomson was left in shock. Earlier in the day, Mathew had called him to read him an English class assignment, in which the boy describes the joy of catching a wave, shooting through a tube of rushing water and coming out a member of the surfing community. The son had fallen in love with his father’s passion.

After arriving in Durban to bury Mathew, Tomson delayed the release of his book. How could he promote a book now? What worth were his words in the light of this death? One of Tomson’s high school buddies suggested he get out on the waves. Tomson resisted. How could he surf when his world was falling apart?

But his friend kept pushing him and eventually he agreed. They met at a place called Ballito Bay.

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“It was a beautiful beach,” Tomson recalls, sitting in a coffee shop in Malibu five months later. “And I’m paddling out and I’m crying, just crying.”

“The remarkable thing is that sea water and tears have the same amount of salt,” Tomson says, his eyes red. “The water just washed over me.”

At that moment, he felt the ocean draw him in and lift him up, and he recalled thinking, once again, about Lesson 5: “I will paddle back out.”

Tomson then relaunched the book, adding an epilogue, dedicated to his son.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com


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