Turning Point – Redefining The Tube

Shaun Tomson turns barrel riding inside out.

The Hawai’ian winter of 1975/76 was a potent combination of brilliant freesurfing and competitive success for then up-and-coming South African surfer Shaun Tomson. First, the 21 year old won the Pipeline Masters, the most prestigious event in surfing. As if that wasn’t enough, his now infamous sessions at Off The Wall would leave an indelible mark on how everyone after him approached tube riding.
Before Tomson’s heavily documented barrel clinics at OTW, tube-riding venues, however dangerous and radical, were almost exclusively makable, semi-predictable waves. The ideal was peeling perfection that presented an obvious exit, waves like Pipeline and Big Rock. But Off The Wall was a whole new game. The wave lurched and heaved over sand and coral in a series of seemingly unmakable sections, one step away from being a vicious closeout. This wave demanded an entirely different approach than “turn and trim” to be ridden successfully.
The standard tube-riding tactic of the time was to make the drop, pull in, and shoot a straight line for the shoulder. Tomson, who was already famous for his tight, arcing face carves and avante guard performance surfing, brought those same talents inside the barrel. His repertoire consisted of a tucked, late drop, and as the wave went square and it looked as though he was about to take the lip on the head, he’d lean into a fully extended bottom turn, inside the barrel, leading to a coiled, high-line tuck deep in the tube. He would hold the high line inside for as long as possible, subtly weighting the outside rail, which led in turn to another extended bottom-turn pump to negotiate the next backdoor section looming down the line. All of this transpired behind the curtain, hidden from view of onlookers on the beach.
Fortunately for aspiring tubesters, it was captured on film by the equally astonishing water-camera work of Dan Merkel. That footage would anchor Bill Delaney’s 1977 landmark performance-surfing film Free Ride. Shaun became the stand out in an era packed with regular-foot tube-riding pioneers like Michael Ho, Rabbit Bartholomew, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Larry Bertlemann, and Michael Peterson, to name a few. By that time, the writing was on the wall: There’s a new sheriff in Tube Town, and he is, of all people, a quiet, unassuming young gentleman from South Africa. And although kneeboarders like George Greenough and Rex Huffman had been maneuvering in the barrel for years, it was Tomson who brought dynamic tube riding into the mainstream realm of stand-up surfing.
Given Tomson’s technical, stylish, and powerful approach to both maneuvers inside and outside the tube, it was of little surprise that he went on the next year to become world champ. But his true legacy will always be his supernatural tube-riding performances at Off The Wall and Backdoor during that winter. Even now, it’s comforting to know that 30-plus years later he’s still out there somewhere, lurking deep in a twisting tube whenever he gets the chance.