The Light Shines Ahead

A few weeks ago, the County of Santa Barbara, which has a billion-dollar budget, employs 3,800 people and currently faces a ninety-million-dollar shortfall, asked me to deliver an inspiring speech for the County Government inauguration. As you can see from the video and text below, I told the story of how surfing and tube-riding essentially saved my life.

I strongly believe that surfing can teach us powerful lessons if we look beyond the next wave. We all live in a challenging sea and our attitude towards those challenges defines who we are, and how we live our lives. Our attitude about the present defines our future.

Our attitude about the future defines the present. Our attitude defines how we see the world and how the world sees us. Our attitude is the light that can show us the way on a journey from where we are, to where we want to be. It is a fundamental choice for all of us.

Positive or negative. Optimism or pessimism. Hope or despair. Light or Darkness. It is a simple choice. It is a choice to be made by everyone in this room and this choice can change us and change our lives and change the world all around us.

This is a story of a journey, my journey – a story of despair and hope, a journey from heartbreak to happiness, a journey from the dark into the light. For sixteen years through the 1970s and 1980s I was a professional surfer. I actually made my living by going surfing and I was pretty good at it too. It actually became a career.

Coming from a Jewish family, I was always going to go down the road of being a professional – doctor, lawyer – professional surfer wasn’t quite part of the plan. Like many of my friends from university I also became a specialist; my specialty was tube riding. It represents the absolute essence of surfing – a feeling of pure exhilaration and freedom.

Time is expanded; reality unfolds in slow motion. The past is just behind you, the present is right between your feet, racing beneath your board, and the future is just ahead, just out of reach and you are riding for the light, always riding for the light.

During my long pro career I managed to win nineteen pro events and become World Champion. I retired from pro surfing at the end of 1989. I spent a number of years in my homeland of South Africa before moving with my wife Carla and son Mathew to Santa Barbara.

My favorite spot along the California coast is Hammonds Reef, a secluded beach about a mile away from where I live. It was home to the Chumash people hundreds of years ago. My son Mathew and I used to love going surfing there and together we had some great days. In the water sometimes he’d come up to me, sit close and sling his arm around my shoulder while we waited for a wave. It is a lovely beach, a small little bay, a peaceful refuge from the business of life.

The whole atmosphere at Hammonds is calming. One winter morning Matthew and I went down to check the surf – there was a bench where we’d sit together and check out the action and we’d stash our surfboard wax at a little spot in the bushes that grew down to the cobblestones surrounding the beach. On this particular day there was no surf so Mathew said, “Let’s go and visit the memorial.” In front of Hammonds, bordered by expensive homes is a beautiful meadow, and at the eastern edge of the meadow is a memorial erected by the Chumash and decorated with dolphin figurines.

So we walked along the path to the meadow and went to the Memorial. At the base of the memorial people had left shells, bits of driftwood, pictures and other offerings. On the memorial is a profound and powerful inscription: The sacredness of the land lies in the mind of its people.

This land is dedicated to the spirit and memory of the ancestors and their children. We stood there for a few minutes absorbing the atmosphere. The Chumash had a settlement right here hundreds of years ago living off the land and the sea. Surrounded by high-end homes and our ultra modern society there was a feeling of history, a connection to the past and to the land.

We walked back down to the beach together. I could see that a plan was percolating in Mathew’s head. Come on Dada, help me. On the stretch of beach, just the two of us, no one else around, he started to build this huge circle of stones. We made one large circle and inside that circle we made a second circle, dragging the stones around the beach. Inside that second circle we then made a third circle. So finally we had three concentric circles of cobblestones on the beach.

Then Matthew made a pathway through the three circles and inside the innermost circle he dropped two large flat stones – one was to be a seat for me, and another a seat for him. He then scampered off down the beach and came back with a large stick. On top the top of the stick he had tied some kelp and attached a feather.

He had me sit down in the center of the three circles on my rock, and he sat directly across from me on his. “What this is, is a sacred story circle, Dada,” he explained while holding a stick. “And thisis the sacred story stick. If you are holding the stick you can tell a story and when you are finished you give me the stick and I’ll tell you a story.”

We sat down inside this circle of stones on the two seats on an empty beach at Hammonds and told each other stories. It was just the two of us in our own world, inside the sacred story circle. It was a magical, magical moment.

In 2006 life was good for the Tomsons My wife and I had sold our apparel company Solitude that we started in 1998 to Oxford, a publicly traded company on the NYSE. They had set up a new design studio for us in Montecito and put us on a 3-year contract.

At the time Mathew was having some challenges at school and we decided to have Mathew reconnect with our homeland and attend my old School for a few months. Carla and Mathew made the long trip together and within a month he was doing great, excelling at my old school – I was so proud of him. On the 24th of April 2006 at 9am I phoned him. Mathew picked up the phone.

Carla and I had a 3 way business conference call scheduled with the headquarters in New York. I called in to South Africa and Mathew picked up the phone right away – it felt like he was sitting next to me.Hey, Dada, I want to read you something. He then read me a beautiful essay. I asked him who wrote it. I did, Dada – he was so proud of it. He captured the essence of the surfing experience along with a depth of spirituality.

Four words really stuck with me: The light shines ahead Carla jumped on the line and we had to start the call. I love you Dada, I love you too, Mathew. A Japanese film crew came and picked me up – they had flown out to interview me and wanted some pictures.

Of course, I took them down to Hammonds. It was a magnificent Spring Day and they interviewed me on the beach I looked out to the ocean and something just didn’t feel right – it is too perfect, I thought. Walking back on the path I had a profound feeling of unease. 

Something felt very, very wrong. I stopped under a large Eucalyptus tree that lines the trail and the interviewer stopped with me. “There is nothing more important than a positive attitude,” I said to him. The words just popped into my head. Those words formed a core belief, but the words sounded loud and forced to me. We got in the car and my cell phone rang. It was Carla.

Mathew was dead. How is that possible? I had just been speaking to him. Carla was destroyed. I was destroyed. How is that possible? He was playing a risky game that had deadly consequences. Our lives were shattered in a moment. My friends rallied, got me a passport and ticket and put me on a plane. It was a harrowing trip back to South Africa – I was in a state of disbelief and my only thought was to save my wife. My beautiful son was gone and I knew I was close to losing my wife as well.

On my arrival, Carla had to be admitted to a psych care ward and I didn’t think she was going to make it. During her second week in the hospital a friend came to visit. Our friend said, “I have a message from Mathew.”

One bolt of lightning hit the hospital, one clap of thunder, out of a cloudless sky. I have a message from Mathew. He said he made a mistake and wants you to forgive him – what he did was an accident. One bolt of lightning. Did it make it easier to accept?  

No. But it did give a connection to the after life, that our life on earth is not all we have. Knowing that Mathew was still with us in spirit gave us both the strength to move forward and that moment of light was a turning point.

I reread the essay Mathew had read to me on the day he died. The light shines ahead. The light shines ahead. His words of hope resonated deeply with me and do so every day. Life was very hard but each day made the pain a little less severe and my wife and I grew closer.

It was like two trees had fallen in a storm and in the process of falling, toppled against one other and stayed up and then grew together, ever closer. Through all the pain, we did have that hope that one day we would be a family again.

We missed being a family On the 25th of August we received a phone call out of the blue that would change our lives. A baby boy had been born just before midnight the previous day. Were we interested in adopting? We both immediately said yes.

The baby was born a month premature – the date of birth was supposed to have been 25th September. The 25th of September!? That was Mathew’s birthday. Carla said, “This is our baby, that is a sign from God.” We got another call back immediately telling us that she had planned to call the baby Mathew. We knew the baby had to be ours now!

The next morning she made her decision and we had our baby. We drove up to the hospital immediately in a state of delirious happiness, the light shining ahead of us. We arrived at the hospital and were told to proceed directly to the nursery before meeting the woman who would share the precious gift of her child. We went up to her room and walked in and met her for the first time and looked at her lying on her bed like an angel, because that’s what she was.

She was our angel, come to share a gift from God. I looked at her, and we all hugged together and all felt right with our lives – we were surrounded by this incredible warmth and emotion. She asked if our baby was beautiful and we said he was and we thanked her for her trust and the amazing gift of our child, for sharing with us what was most precious to her.

I looked at her lying on the bed and I felt like I was looking at my wife’s twin sister – the resemblance was uncanny and quite took my breath away and Carla’s as well. We all hugged and left. She asked us the baby’s name, because she wanted him to be born with our name. “We like Luke,” we said. “It just feels right.” That day, on the drive home Carla and I were overjoyed.  

Let’s check what Luke means. Mathew’s name meant “Gift from God.” Luke’s name means: “Light or Bringer of Light.” Luke is the bringer of light. He has brought the light to us again just like Mathew wrote. The light shines ahead. The light shines ahead. My wife and I have been blessed with Luke.

We have found our way though the darkness and into the light. And my son’s words helped me survive. There is a lot of goodness in this world. There is a lot of goodness all around us, and we all have this light inside of us.  And this light shines through to the world and people around us, in our attitude. It is up to each and every one of us whether we wish to shine this light on the road ahead and illuminate the way forward, towards a better future, for all of us.

I’d like us all to consider the simple question: What is your attitude?

It is an answer, a choice without any shades of grey, without nuance, without complexity. Light or darkness. Positive or negative.

This I know.

Shaun Tomson is an ambassador for The Surfrider Foundation and a member of’s Advisory Board. He recently developed a new surfboard with Al Merrick called The Warp, released an iPhone app called Surf Creatures, and enjoys contributing to inspiring projects.