Point break

SA surfing legend, Shaun Tomson
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With his unique and empowering business philosophy South African surfing legend Shaun Tomson’s mission is to show the youth how to literally get ‘back on the board’ after a wipe-out and how to paddle back out to catch and successfully ride the next wave.

South Africa’s most famous surfer, now a successful business man, author, actor, environmentalist and international motivational speaker, has just released his fourth book – targeted at teenagers in order to help them through difficult situations in life. Leadership tracked down former world surfing champion Shaun Tomson in Santa Barbara in the USA, where he now lives with his wife, Carla, and adopted son Luke, to find out more about the motivation behind The Code, The Power of ‘I will’.

Tomson (58) admits that he has suffered many setbacks in his life, from personal loss to the humiliation of bankruptcy but he credits his surfing career for pulling him out of those sticky situations — and for many life lessons he can now write about to inspire others and prevent them from making the wrong decisions.

“Many times I got hit hard by the waves and I lost a bit of confidence, but every time I just kept paddling back out because I trusted my ability. I have used that situation a lot in life – when things go wrong I get up (paddle back out) and I try not to hide away.”

One of the biggest waves was undoubtedly the sudden tragic death of his only son, Mathew (15), who in 2006 while at school in Durban, suffered an accidental death by playing the ‘choking game’.

In Tomson’s new book he says, “Sometimes small decisions – choices you make in an instant – have such heavy consequences.” He goes on to talk about peer group pressure – something today’s youth face all the time. Tomson talks about positive and negative peer pressure, and elaborates on the fine line between the two.

 “I have spoken to thousands of children about different aspects of life and the idea for my latest book was also inspired by a group of children at a high school in Santa Barbara.

“After spending many years speaking to these children, the most important thing I have learnt is that you cannot tell a child, ‘don’t do that’. I have found that if you give a child a negative, they will take a negative approach, but if you give a child a positive they are far more likely to do something positive. 

“When I talk to youth today all I try to do is inspire them – they have to come to the decision on their own, no one can make that decision for them. I just hope that my story can inspire them to improve their lives and make them realise that a small decision can have big consequences.”

He says he always tells children; “If you remember nothing else from this talk, remember these two words ‘think twice’ because it could save your life someday.”

His new book is also very much about him giving back — and inspiring parents and children to be cautious and not take life for granted.  

Tomson, who ruled the waves from 1973 until his retirement from professional surfing in 1989, says surfing was always his first love, his passion.

Temptation has and always will be around as he has experienced back in the day when he started surfing in Hawaii.

“Stupid decisions have caused many tragedies over the years and this is why I speak to kids – many of these tragedies could have been prevented had the people involved thought twice about the consequences.”

When asked what else changed after the loss of Mathew, Tomson replies, “A lot changed – my wife and I had to find our way out of the darkness, we had to find our optimism again. We adopted Luke and that gave us a new lease on life — it was a new beginning .” 

The Code, The Power of ‘I will’ was mostly inspired by the children at the Anacapa school in Santa Barbara when Tomson did a motivational talk there last year.

While the book is targeted at teenagers in order to better help them through difficult situations in life, Tomson would also like to see if schools will find it useful. 

“I am hoping parents will read this book with their children and that teachers will also make use of it – it is a 30 minute exercise in which the student writes 12 lines (promises) to him or herself and each line begins with ‘I will’. They can then share it with a parent or a friend going through a tough time. 

“It is all about writing down your core values and what you want to do with your life. It is a simple ‘code’ to your life which can be shared with others to inspire them – I have already received thousands of teenagers’ codes and I know of some schools that are making use of it – there are even some professors using it at University as it is all about ethics and values.”

While many young children might think they have control over a certain situation, Tomson explains why that is a false belief; “You cannot control what happens around you, you can to some extent but not fully. However, you do have 100% control over your own attitude in life and any given situation. This is what I try to bring across with this book and with my motivational talks with corporate companies and schools.”

In an interview Tomson did with the Hawaiian television station GP Khon in September he said, “I really want to take this message out to children of that age (between 12 and 19) – that is the most dangerous time in their lives and they really have to be very careful of the decisions they make.”

Reading The Code gives one a new perspective on life, as Tomson uses his real life personal stories to convey his messages to the readers. All 12 chapters start with ‘I will’ and reflect on how Tomson overcame his own challenges. 

Tomsons’ life stories come mostly from his days as a surfer but it is certainly not a book a non-surfer would not understand. It is not a long book and should take no more than about an hour and a half to complete. 

It is intriguing enough to capture the older reader, while still being easy to read for the teenager. You might even find yourself having a giggle at some of Tomson’s ‘misfortunes’ with the waves.

The book carries the emotions of Tomson and his family, from the loss of their precious son Matthew, to the failure of their business (Instinct) in 1990 and it captures his new life with Luke.


Tomson, who continually does motivational talks at many large companies around the world, believes the singular most important aspect of a leader is his ability to inspire those around him.

“I have always believed that the most fundamental part of a leader is his ability to inspire – to inspire someone to do or be better, to try something different or to inspire someone to change their life.”

The example Tomson uses is one we are all too familiar with, “In a South African context I don’t think we should look any further than Nelson Mandela. He inspired change, reconciliation and he inspired a nation to be better – to form a sort of brotherhood. I hope I can bring some of this inspiration to children through my book,” he told Leadership.

In conclusion, we leave you with one of Tomson’s most famous quote’s, “Hold your children tight and then hold them tighter again. Love them with everything you have, every minute of every second of the day. Listen to them and learn from them and teach them the right way — teach them that they are not invincible.” 

More about Shaun Tomson

  • Shaun Tomson started, managed and sold two multi-million dollar clothing brands – Instinct in the 80’s and Solitude, which he co-founded with his wife, Carla in the 90’s.
  • He is the author of the best-selling book Surfer’s Code, and the writer and producer of the award-winning documentary film Bustin’ Down the Door. 
  • He is a Business Administration and Finance graduate from the University of Natal. 
  • Tomson is a World Surfing Champion, an inductee in the Jewish and South African Sports Hall of Fame, the US Surfing Hall of Fame, and has been described as one of the greatest surfers of all time by Surfing Magazine (2004). In 1999 Surfer Magazine named him as one of the most influential surfers of the century.
  • He is a board member and ambassador for Surfrider Foundation, the world’s largest environmental group dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, waves and beaches and in 2002 he received the SIMA Environmentalist of the Year Award. 
  • His most famous quote is: “I will take the drop with commitment, courage, focus and determination.”
  • Tomson has shared the stage with among others Sir Richard Branson and Malcolm Gladwell, and inspired corporations like General Motors, Cisco, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Toys R Us, Sasol, Disney, Google, Primedia, MTN and Adcock Ingram.


Ralph Staniforth

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