Surfer’s Code: I Will Always Paddle Back Out

My first time surfing Waimea Bay took place in 1975 during a contest, the Smirnoff Pro. Waimea needs a giant swell to work, and oftentimes weeks (even months) can go by without a ripple at the Bay. So I had not expected to ride Waimea at all that winter. On this particular day an enormous swell had hit the North Shore; the Smirnoff started off at Sunset Beach, but the surf grew too big. The organizers moved the contest down the coast to Waimea, which holds a bigger swell. I did not even own a board big enough to ride the place, so I had to borrow one for the contest. It was a recipe for disaster: my first time out at the most challenging big-wave break in the world, and I was using a board I had never surfed.

I was conscious of the situation I was putting myself into. I certainly felt apprehensive, but I was fired up as well. Money, reputation, personal pride, professional stature, all of these were on the line. I was twenty years old: it never crossed my mind that I might meet a wave so terrifying that it would shake my confidence to the core.

The first set I paddled into was pushing twenty feet, definitely a solid-sized wave. I had wanted to pick off the very first wave that came through just to get one under my belt: shake off the nervous energy, get used to how the wave broke, and most importantly find out if the board I had borrowed actually worked for me. I had taken a calculated risk and paddled farther to the inside—closest to the breaking wave—than all the other competitors. It turned out my calculations were off. Way off. I had focused too much on getting that first wave and had paddled too far to the inside. Not knowing the break at all, I did not realize that I had placed myself into a very dangerous situation.

I remember catching the wave and standing up cleanly. As I dropped down the face I thought, “Well, this is pretty easy.” I was about a quarter way down, knees bent, arms straight out in perfect balance.

The wave hit the shallow part of the reef and jacked up. The face went absolutely vertical on me. The board came completely out of the water, and I began free-falling with my arms and legs windmilling out of control. The board hit the bottom first, then I landed on the board and bounced off with so much force that my body began skipping across the surface of the water. Normally water is a soft cushion; at high speeds it feels like asphalt.

The worst thing that can happen to a surfer who wipes out in big waves is staying on the surface. It is critical to try and penetrate, or else the wave can land directly on top of you. Even getting sucked up the face and going over the falls with the white water—as gut-wrenching as that experience can be—is preferable to having the entire wave hit you squarely. When this happens a surfer can easily be knocked senseless, or even unconscious, and then drowning becomes a real possibility. The lifeguards at Waimea are the best in the world, but even for them a rescue in the impact zone is a tricky, time-consuming proposition. Donnie Soloman, a twenty-five year-old surfer from California, died in 1996 after trying to paddle through a set wave at the Bay. There was simply not enough time to save him once he went under.

That wave did hit me squarely. I felt as if I had been walking along the highway and gotten hammered by a truck from behind. A terrifying impact. Never to this day have I been struck so hard by a wave. It was a feeling of absolute crushing violence, an unbelievable sensation of force and power. I could not have imagined any human body taking such a beating and surviving.

The wave hit and took me down deep, too deep to see anything. Sometimes surfers open their eyes underwater, searching for those shafts of water illuminated from above that offer havens from the turbulence of breaking waves. In this instance it was completely black. I have never been especially conscious of the sensation of noise underwater, but as I was being plunged into this blackness, I heard pounding, horrifying noises coming from below, as great rocks rolled around on the ocean floor.

When I finally surfaced, gasping and coughing, I thought the wave had broken my back. I could hardly move my legs. My head felt as murky as those silt-filled waters back home in Durban.

We used no leashes back then. We had no caddies like pro surfers do today—guys who sit in the channel during a contest and can paddle over a replacement board. So I began to swim toward the beach. Slowly at first, then more desperately, constantly looking over my shoulders and trying to stay out of the rip, which would have sucked me out beyond the break.

I found my board floating in a deep spot about twenty-five yards from shore. At Waimea the wave breaks a few hundred yards out, then backs off over deep water before reforming into ferocious shorepound. I hauled myself onto the board and looked first to the beach, then back to the lineup. I did not know it then, but this moment turned into a defining point of my career.

Twenty seconds of paddling and I could have been safe on the sand.

But the contest was still running—guys scrambling out of the way now as another set exploded off the reef.

I kept looking from the surf to the beach. I had just experienced the worst wipeout of my life, and I knew I could not survive another like it. The consequences of that moment have meant everything to my career; at the time, of course, I did not even have a career in surfing since the World Tour did not begin until the following year. And yet for all of its importance, the action itself was so simple: I swung my board around and paddled back out.

Australian Mark Richards went on to win the contest. I rode a couple more waves in my heat, smaller waves than the one I had wiped out on. Certainly nothing worth going into details about. Waimea taught me a critical lesson about positioning and perseverance. Never again will I make the mistakes I did that day. I had known after my wipeout that I was essentially done for the contest. I did not have to try to win after paddling back out, did not even have to surf my best during the rest of the heat. It was enough to know that I had turned my board around and faced those waves once again.

Now if anyone had told me while I was getting drilled by that set at Waimea that the business world would be a lot harder than surfing, I never would have believed them. But after retiring from the tour in 1990 I had two devastating free-falls in business, both of which shook my confidence even more than the Bay. And yet the knowledge that I did not give up on myself that day and take the easy way out has carried me through each crisis.

The first occurred in 1995. I was sitting in the waiting room of well-known apparel company in Southern California. It had not been my first interview for a job. Not even my second. What’s more, I had never had to interview before because my whole life I had worked for myself. I had arrived that morning tens of thousands of dollars in debt after having closed the doors on my own apparel company in South Africa. Three years of hard work down the drain along with the dream of prosperity in and with South Africa. And the consequences of going under at that point extended beyond my own survival to that of my wife, Carla, and my five-year old son, Mathew. After an extraordinary career on the World Tour as a champion surfer, as the owner of a successful apparel company that had sponsored other surfers, as someone who had always been optimistic and successful, I sat in that chair and realized that people had very little interest in Shaun Tomson. Suddenly I was no longer a success.

I came from a family of successful entrepreneurs. My father and uncle had both owned their own businesses, and my cousin, Michael Tomson—also a professional surfer—had founded the surf apparel company Gotcha in 1978. I followed suit in 1980 by founding Instinct. Even from the beginning of my surf career I had wanted to parlay my success on the Tour into long-term financial security in the business world. Instinct was created with this in mind, but after I retired from the Tour in 1990, I was bought out of my share in the company. So I returned to South Africa to finish my university degree. Afterward Carla—who had a degree from London’s Saint Martins College of Art and Design—and I decided to start over again in our native country. We called our company simply Tomson.

It was a personal and financial failure directly linked to the volatile times in South Africa. We were a country in political transition during those years, literally on the brink of civil war. Although the democratic elections in 1994 transpired peacefully in the end, the years leading up to the elections were extremely violent. The Natal area, which included Durban, had been placed under a state of emergency by President de Klerk. At stake, of course, was over three hundred years of white-dominated rule. Very conservative factions among the Afrikaners had denounced de Klerk and fallen into league (amazingly enough) with equally radical elements among African militants: these forces had a vested interest in the failure of a unified South Africa, which would have meant a loss of independence for them; for the Afrikaners especially, a black-dominated government could mean retribution for Apartheid. So black and white fought battles in the streets against Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. To add to this chaos, South Africa had been in deep recession. Our business simply was not strong enough to survive such political and economic hardships. After three years of working and struggling I found myself in Southern California wondering not only about the future of South Africa, but in particular the short-term prospects for me and my family.

After the unsuccessful interview I was very shaken, not unlike the feelings I had experienced after my wipeout at Waimea, but more on an emotional level. I had a similar life-changing decision to make, but this time I understood, as I had not before, how serious the consequences of that decision would be for my family’s future. It would have been easier to get on a plane and go back home to my wife and son rather than face another interview and risk those terrible blows to my ego. I phoned Carla in South Africa. Her advice to me was simple: keep looking for a job. She knew—for the sake of my own self-confidence—that I had to find something, anything, before returning home. She was right, and I needed to have that reaffirmation from someone so important in my life.

I did paddle back out and find a job with a great clothing company, Patagonia. Then another one in the apparel division at O’Neill. After three years with those companies, Carla and I decided to start our own company again, this time in Santa Barbara. We knocked on doors, talked about our ideas, and we raised over a million dollars in investments. The apparel business is a very demanding, time-consuming endeavor, and we could not have worked harder. Carla designed all the clothing and directed production while I oversaw the day-to-day business operations. After three years we had built up a great product line, with hundreds of distributors from California to New York. And then 9/11 hit, and the bottom fell out once again.

Our company, Solitude, experienced what many businesses did after the terrorist attacks: sales plummeted, and we had a hard time finding investors to recapitalize. Apparel is an especially expensive product to fund with a great outlay of time and capital on the front-end (to make the clothing) with the possibility of very little return due to changing trends, or even an event as unforeseen as the attacks on the Twin Towers. To make a long story short, I was looking at my second business failing in less than ten years. We had no cash coming in to fund our next season, and investors were holding onto their capital until the political and economic situation stabilized. Overall, the situation was not unlike the turmoil leading up to the elections in South Africa.

On a Friday we began clearing out our offices in Santa Barbara: furniture, inventory, personnel. Everything. Except three things: my desk, my telephone, and a computer terminal. I had no idea what I was going to do come Monday, but as long as I had a phone hooked up I could still make calls.

Turned out I didn’t have to. By chance one of my friends got talking with another father-Randy Paskal- at their sons’ Little League baseball game the next day. Randy and his father were looking for investment opportunities, and of course I was looking for investors. Carla and I met the Paskals the next day, on Sunday, and we shook hands on a deal. Monday morning we started moving everything back into our offices. What is it they say in baseball? It ain’t over till it’s over.

We eventually sold Solitude to Oxford, a large publicly traded apparel company on the New York Stock Exchange.

I have faced more competition than I ever did in surf contests, and I certainly have gotten my fair share of poundings. But I have always made it back up. Whatever comes over the horizon at me, I draw strength from knowing that my experience in the water supports other aspects of my life that now take priority. I may yet get worked over again in the apparel business and washed up on the beach. Home will always look like a comfortable place to rest and recover. But you know I’ll always be paddling back out again.