My inbox — like yours, I’m sure — has been a real dumpster fire these past few weeks. It’s been filled with news of canceled plans, trips and events sent from friends and colleagues as we all barricade ourselves in our homes until…well…who knows?
On one hand it’s very hopeful that people are taking COVID-19 seriously, that we’re collectively making changes big and small to mitigate its spread. But on the other, well, feelings of hope can seem overshadowed by those of anxiety, isolation and fear, which only seem to worsen every few hours with each breaking news alert. Increasingly, my inbox contains a surplus of doom. A real cornucopia of gloom.
One notable exception, however, arrived unexpectedly a few weeks ago in the form of a bright, shimmering word doc, simply titled “SURFER at 60”. It was penned by none other than surfing’s distinguished ’77 World Champ, Shaun Tomson, who, having realized that this year marked SURFER’s 60th anniversary, decided to write a love letter of sorts to the magazine he’s spent his entire surfing life reading (not to mention gracing its pages countless times with his own surfing).
I love this piece, which Shaun allowed us to publish here, even more today than when it first showed up in my inbox. I love it not because it validates the work that we do at SURFER, or because I relate to it super hard as someone who read SURFER cover to cover long before I worked for SURFER (although, yes, absolutely those things, too), but because it offers a brief respite from everything else that feels so frightening and uncertain in the world right now. A kind acknowledgment of a milestone, written back when people had time to contemplate things besides, you know, toilet paper.
Today, Shaun’s piece feels like the written equivalent of a warm hug in the time of social distancing, which is why it seems right to share with you now. Give it a read below, and if it sparks any fond memories of your own, feel free to share in the comments.
“SURFER at 60” by Shaun Tomson
A magazine’s life is a relatively brief transition from publication to pulp. It comes in the mail or is bought at a counter and is opened and read, usually just once. It might remain around the house for a week or two, it may be opened again, but its journey to the dumpster is assured. There is only one exception to this rule of assured destruction.
Just out of sight and just beyond reach, in attics and basements, in boxes and cupboards, all across the world, are stacks of tattered old SURFER magazines that have been with their owners through adolescence into adulthood, from working life into marriage and children. Most all of them have been seriously read — I mean really bored into, not just skimmed through once or twice like the hundreds of titles available on the newsstand and then set aside for the trip to the trash. These magazines have been studied as intently as a yeshiva student poring over the Talmud and most probably with even more fervor. These are diaries marking moments in the life of each owner, every issue representing not only a collection of pictures and articles, but also a freeze frame of their owner’s youth. SURFER is not just a magazine, but the framework for a surfing existence, a collection of reference points for a life of obsession; thinking about that next swell coming down the horizon, planning the new custom board or pondering that next trip to a far-flung outpost on the other side of the world.
I am involved with many different public events around the country — book signings, talks, charity projects and movie openings. Often someone will hand me a SURFER for a signature and the mag is always over 30 years old. “I bought this issue when I started surfing; I got this in my last year in high school; I read this while I was on the North Shore; This was my favorite cover.” Each story and circumstance are different but there is a common thread running through all of them — that one particular SURFER magazine represents a special moment in each owner’s life, and for that reason it was impossible to throw away. SURFER represents youth, freedom and a time when absolutely nothing was more important than that next wave coming down the line. SURFER is a deeply personal photo album of the life of the surfer and even though the photos may be of someone else, each different issue represents a snapshot of life at that time, and just like we don’t throw away photo albums, we don’t throw away SURFER.
SURFER magazine was with me when I started out on my surfing journey, 10,000 miles away from California in Durban, South Africa. I can remember that first wave on a board like it was yesterday. It was 1965 at the Bay of Plenty and I was 9 years old. Our beach was a narrow stretch of sand wedged between a ribbon of Miami-style hotels and apartments to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east. The beach had always been a big part of our family life; my earliest memories are of sitting on the sand with my mom and dad beside me, with a big hamper of food in front of us and an umbrella overhead. My dad would sit in his deck chair with a cigarette and I’d impatiently tug at his arm and say, “Dad, let’s go for a tiger, let’s go for a tiger.” A “Tiger Tim” is what the beachboys called a swim, a nod to the Cockney rhyming slang that had made its way down to the colonies.
My Dad would take me down to the surf, pointing out the dangers of the jellyfish, the stinging bluebottles with their zinging tails, and the powerful, fast-moving rip tides that ran out beside the piers, stealthily sucking out swimmers. The dangers of sharks he seldom spoke about even though he’d been badly hit less than 20 years before. So I knew about the dangers early but they were all brushed aside and we’d plunge in and swim out to the backline looking for a suitable wave to catch, hoping to find a broadie, a wave that would enable us to track across the wall, parallel to the shore. Sometimes we’d just get a foamie, a mass of rolling whitewater and we’d bodysurf straight in, trying to keep our bodies as stiff as possible and my dad would raise one leg while he raced forward, like a rudder in the wind; I don’t know what it did and I still don’t, but it sure looked good, so I copied that cool style of his. From bodysurfing it was a quick progression to surfoplanes, a corrugated rubber pillow about a meter long with handles on the front. My brother, Paul, cousin Mike and I would battle our way out to the backline and bomb down the dumpers, screaming with the adrenalin rush of the drop. And then my dad got me my first board, a 4’6” Wetteland Surf Rider, a mass-produced mini-board derided as a pop-out, with red rails and a clear, chop mat center. But to me I had a never seen anything as beautiful before, my very own brand-new little surfboard.
That first wave at the Bay; I waxed up with a candle and made my way out through the shorie, the impact zone where the waves broke right on the sand. With the world to my back and the horizon ahead I was truly on my own. The foam rumbled towards me, I swung my board around, dug my little arms hard into the water and paddled. The whitewater picked me up, shot me forward and I leapt to my feet and stood up. That feeling of stoke instantly imprinted itself on my being; happiness, fear, exhilaration, speed, conquest all melded together into one rush of sensation. And the view, that overview of land, looking over and above it all, racing along on an invisible band of energy, three inches above the water, separated by just a little sliver of glass fiber and, for a brief moment, a master of my little universe. Surfing right there, right then, gripped me hard and fast and just never let go.
I was in my own little compressed surf world, all in a 5-mile circumference of school, home and the Bay of Plenty. Then my dad bought me my first SURFER, and as I sat there in a comfy chair in the living room, bare feet on an old dark wood floor, and sunk down into the soft folds of the upholstery, slowly turning the pages, I was whisked away to a new world I knew absolutely nothing about. It was like I had been living in a parallel universe, and SURFER was the bridge between the worlds. Unlike in the USA, the surf explosion of the ‘60s just never penetrated South African mainstream culture. Surfing was confined to the beach and to surfers and never moved off the sand into the national psyche. The whole California beach party lifestyle scene was totally unknown to us kids in culture-controlled, apartheid South Africa — we lived a life insulated from American pop culture. The country had no TV, no Gidget, no Lucy, no Gilligan, no Wide World of Sports and being a former English colony and with strong social and economic ties to the mother country, a lot of what we saw and read and listened to was coming in from England. Rugby, cricket and tennis were the big sports and on state-controlled AM radio. The Beatles, not The Beach Boys, were dominating the charts. But on reading that first SURFER, my world was changed completely and a whole new horizon opened up. Huge waves at Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay in Hawaii, Miki Dora trashing his trophies and mooning the crowd at Malibu, competitors at the US Championships with Toptex helmets charging the pier at Huntington Beach. Innovative surfboards and amazing models by Hansen, Weber, Bing and Hobie; The Trestles Special, The Performer and The Ugly. And coolest of the cool surfing apparel and shoe brands like Hang Ten, Jantzen, Keds and Pendleton. I got to know about David and Dewey and the Duke and knew that if I ever bought a pair of baggies, I had to wear them low on my hips and they just had to have the logo of two little embroidered feet.
On the beach I had seen that the ultimate maneuver in my new sport was hanging ten and I rushed through the magazine to see a picture of someone on the tip. That first magazine began a lifelong fascination SURFER. I knew there was always going to be something new and radical in there and I’d always just blast through looking for that one maneuver that would stop me with a WOW. SURFER was a window into the heart of surfing — it would tell me where the change was happening and if I read between the lines, really drilled into it, I would hear the heartbeat of surfing and know where we were going; Who was hot, what was hot and what were the latest discoveries. David Nuuhiwa became my favorite and then I later saw him in film — tall and statuesque with that royal, nonchalant style, unhurried and elegant.
I would read and reread the magazine, the copy becoming imprinted on my brain. I would remember every caption to every photo, I would pore over every ad and then go through and read it all again. Each copy was treasured and kept in a growing little pile. As the copies became worn out, I’d carefully sticky tape the pages together. It wasn’t like the magazines became old and started to deteriorate. I’d just wear them out through over-reading. Back then the magazine came out only every two months, and in South Africa it was the only magazine available, so there was a lot of wear and tear between issues. Years later I’d pick up an issue and remember exactly where I was when I got that issue and there have been some especially memorable issues.
My first issue: I can still remember being mystified by a line of copy from that first SURFER I read 55 years ago. It was a quarter-page, black-and-white picture, about center page. The surfer was midway through an ungainly wipeout, only one foot on the board. The caption read: “Even Phil has ‘em.”
“What does this mean?” I thought. “Who is Phil and what does he have that is so unique it deserves mention?” It took me a few issues to work out that Phil Edwards was one of the world’s best surfers and that even the great one had a wipeout occasionally.
Revolution: There was John Witzig’s “We’re Tops Now” issue that shilled a new age of surfing and described Nat’s “smashing” of my idol David Nuuhiwa and the rest of the Americans. In 1976, PT [Peter Townend] was on the cover of the “Bustin’ Down the Door” issue that defined our generation, described a new revolution and inadvertently created a firestorm in Hawaii.
My favorite of all time: I was 17 years old at boot camp in the South African Army, 4 weeks into it and 400 miles from home in the apartheid capital of Pretoria. I’d been screamed at, shot at, gotten little sleep and generally been drilled on the parade ground into numb submission. We lined up in our squads to receive our mail and the corporal handed me a SURFER my dad had sent me. A perfect, ultra-miniature left broke on a beach somewhere and that magazine immediately took me away from where I was, to exactly where I needed to be. And that is what the magazine has always done for millions of us all around the world. No matter where we have been, it has always taken us somewhere else, to exactly where we needed to be.
Back in the ‘60s I’d go down to the corner shop at the bottom of my street to pick up my SURFER. If it wasn’t on the stand, there was a Bally pinball machine in the corner that I could jostle for a while — 5 balls for 5 cents — and I’d while away the time and sometimes trap the silver ball in the flipper, and if I could strike it just right and hit the target, or drop it in the hole, I’d be awarded with the staccato crack of multiple free games. Two months was a long wait for a surf obsessed gremmie so there were a lot of pinball games, but the wait was always worth it.
I still get my SURFER every month, and now it comes in the mail and I don’t have to go down to the corner shop. Sometimes, when I’m wandering through an airport in LAX, or Salt Lake or Phoenix, on the way to somewhere else, and there is a new SURFER on the stand that has made it there before my mailbox, I can’t just walk by and go on my way. I’m absolutely compelled to open it, and I’m instantly transported back into time, into that little surf stoked boy in the corner café in Durban, South Africa, absorbing all the new newness, looking out at a distant world of perfect waves and dreaming of going someplace else, to where I need to be.