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All joined by one ocean

Shaun Tomson has learned a lot in 40 years of surfing. The lessons are listed in his new book, `Surfer's Code.'

October 25, 2006|Hugo Martin | 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.

"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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 31, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
'Surfer's Code': An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about surfer and author Shaun Tomson misspelled the first name of surfing environmentalist Glenn Henning as Glen.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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