Avoid wipeouts, use surfer's lessons

Published September 17, 2006

It has been said that all surfers are part of a "tribe." Travel anywhere, meet a fellow surfer and you have an instant friend. Surfers share a bond, one that is forged in the white water of a wipeout and the state of grace that can be found when the waves are chest-high and glassy.

Surfing is more than a sport; it is a way of life. Learning how to surf is easy. Learning how to be a surfer, however, can take a lifetime.

But as the Iron Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck said, "Only a fool learns from experience; I learn from the experience of others."

That is why veteran wave rider Shaun Tomson decided to put his hard-learned life's lessons on paper. It doesn't matter if you are a fisherman, scuba diver, kayaker, board sailor, wake boarder or open-ocean swimmer, Tomson's book, Surfer's Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life (Gibbs Smith, $18.95, paperback; in stores next month) has something for you.

Tomson, a South African who was world champion in 1977, spent 14 years on the World Tour. Recently voted one of the 25 most influential surfers of the century by Surfer magazine, Tomson has seen surfing grow from a fringe sport to a multimillion-dollar industry.

He came of age in a time when surfers didn't get seven-figure paychecks for putting their names on wet suits. But he isn't bitter about the slim paydays of yesterday, noting: "There is nothing more honorable than making a living by doing something you love."

A sampling of the lessons:

Never Turn Your Back On The Ocean: This old Hawaiian adage comes from living in a place where large waves can appear unexpectedly, often with disastrous results. Veteran water sports enthusiasts agree: never underestimate the ocean.

Tomson's first rule has a much deeper meaning. His father, Chony, training for the 1948 Olympics, was swimming off Durban, South Africa, when he was attacked by a Zambezi shark, a relative of our bull shark.

He lost part of his right arm but not his sense of humor. In the years that followed, when asked about the attack, he would say: "The shark died of blood poisoning."

But rather than "turn his back on the ocean," he made sure he taught his son how to swim and body surf in the same waters that abruptly ended his sports career. In America we might call that "getting back on the horse."

Never Fight a Rip Tide: One of the first things a surfer learns is to use current to his advantage. A rip tide is not really a tide, but a river of water flowing out to sea. A surfer can ride a rip tide like an express train out to where the waves are breaking. The key is go with it, and when you want to get off, just paddle (or swim) perpendicular to the current until you are free. You may encounter strong currents that threaten to pull you off course. You can fight them and tire yourself out, or go with the flow. The tricky part is knowing when to get off.

Watch Out for Other Surfers: Surfing is a solo sport, but most surfers never ride alone. Surfer Laird Hamilton, a pitchman for American Express, is best known for riding down the faces of 100-foot waves with his feet "strapped" to a specially designed surfboard. Hamilton knows that if he wipes out, Dave Kalama and Derrick Doerner will be there to pull him in.

Surfer's Code is a must for all who love the water. Now if we could get a few of our politicians to read it.