Tuesday 14 July

It was a meeting of two surfing generations at the Cape Town Press Club at a restaurant in the suburb of Observatory today when Derek Jardine and Shaun Tomson touched base again many years after being Durban beachfront locals during different eras, writes Tony Heard, also a past local of Durban's South Beach.

Fri, 17 July 2009

At the lunch, Tomson spoke about his legendary surfing life and his increasing switch to inspirational and motivational speaking. He, arguably more than anyone, pioneered surf professionalism in SA. As the title of the famous film puts it, he and others went “bustin’ down the door” to the Hawaiian and world big-time surfing scene, putting SA indelibly on the surf map. He is particularly interested in the preservation of surf history through the ages in SA and elsewhere.

Tomson now lives in California but visits SA annually. His wife was an ardent worker for Obama in the recent US elections, and he draws much inspiration from that remarkable campaign. At the Press Club he spoke about his latest book on the “Surfers’ Code” which gives 12 simple rules for surf and life. Originally he intended his 100 or so words of advice to be handed out to kids on the beach - but he has now complemented and woven them into a moving narrative in a work that could become a cult book. He stresses that it carries a wider message than simply for children.

His new credo seems to be that, whatever happens, there’s “always another wave out there”. (Note: Early surfers on South Beach used to call it a “backie”). Fighting the tears, Tomson told of having to overcome the tragic challenge presented by the accidental death of his son, “that beautiful boy”, aged 15 in 2006 – who, he said, had been playing a “stupid game”. He had learned that, with children, one must just “hold them tight … and love them … every second”. He had written about this when he was at the lowest point of his life after his son’s death; and he feels it still has strong resonance today.

Surfing has clearly ennobled Shaun and helped him to rebuild his life. What he had to endure seems to have driven him to serious contemplation and inspirational writing and speaking – including , on this trip to SA, appearing on a platform in the company of people as well known as Richard Branson and author Malcolm Gladwell. He speaks admiringly of how Nelson Mandela managed to transform South Africa, and was able to see the linkages between sport, eg rugby, and national unity, reconciliation and achievement. He told how his father, Ernie Tomson, taught him the ways of the surf on the beach when he was a boy, and traces his success to this. He recalls how Ernie had had a promising swimming career cut short by a bite from a Zambesi shark. But, he said, Ernie never lost his spirit. (Derek Jardine, sitting in the audience, appreciated this – for, as Shaun noted, he knew Ernie well in his days on the beach.)

The big, willowy and powerful Shaun told how he had had altercations with fellow surfers who, for instance, had rudely dropped in on him - and yet how he now feels it is best, when this happens, just to wait for another wave, which will surely come. That’s the advice to a new generation from a surf maestro. Take note! He described surfers as the ultimate optimists, prepared to drive far distances to remote beaches, to find out “whether it is flat or 15ft”! He had learned early of the danger of drugs, having been offered and refused heroin when he was young – and noting that the person who offered it to him, a surfer, was dead soon after. 

Tomson made it clear that, unlike greedy financiers in the US, he had learned in surfing and in life – particularly in the economic slump - to treat his fellow beings with honour not dishonour. He decried the reliance in some top US sports on things like steroids. He said that we need to inculcate in our children a conviction that it is not the objective to win, but the process of sport, which is important. Life should not be seen as war, with total victory or total defeat the only options, he observed.  His role models include Mandela, Obama, and, of course Hawaii’s great, The Duke; and he goes out of his way to mention, in admiration, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and JFK. And, interestingly, he lauds the poet Pablo Neruda. He thus offers a widened world for surfers to contemplate and to learn from.

At question-time, he said that “localism”, the assumption that only locals have a right to surf in a place, was the same as racism – something he had fought all his life. He was asked where he drew the line – mind you, as someone who had surfed the most dangerous spot in the world, the Banzai Pipiline, which has killed 15 surfers – between courage and recklessness. He replied: “I was always a radical, but not insane.” He observed that it was wonderful coming back to SA and seeing how things had changed in the direction of non-racialism, eg on the beaches. He acknowledged the “big problem” with crime. He said that we had to get used to our diversity as a nation. He hoped that leadership on the scale of a Mandela or n Obama would bless SA in the future.

Note: Derek Jardine surfed South Beach and was a lifesaver dating back to the late 1940s. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of longboarding in SA, and a member of the South Beach Surf Board Club, the country’s first, that was launched in the early 1950s. All this and more has earned him a place in the surfing Hall of Fame in Durban. He is as fit as can be, despite some shoulder trouble (no doubt, the toll taken by paddling frantically for slide years). On the day of the lunch, Derek was off to California to meet his son Mark, a former SA waterskiing champion. Derek prefers the warmer water there to the icy Cape Atlantic, where he lives.


Paul Lanterme
0 #1 MrPaul Lanterme 2018-03-01 12:49
Hi Shaun , I am also an old surfer / lifesaver from the 60`s and knew your dad well . I remember you and George surfing at Dairy , North Beach and the Bay of Plenty like it was yesterday ! Well done on all your achievements and go well !
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