Shaun Tomson Talks J-Bay

"The choices just overwhelm people"

Looks like the surf isn’t going to cooperate for a while during the J-Bay Open waiting period, which is a shame. At least the first couple rounds had their moments. To get my Jeffreys fix the other day, I called Shaun Tomson—a starting player on anybody’s best-ever J-Bay All Star team—to talk about this amazing and amazingly difficult wave.

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Why are there so few great J-Bay surfers?

The wave is so long, and everything looks so wide-open ahead of you, and the variables seem endless. It just overwhelms a lot of people. The choices can feel overwhelming. Even to really good surfers. I’ve said it a million times. Jeffreys is an easy wave to surf, but a difficult wave to surf well.

From the beach, or watching video, it doesn’t look that way at all.

No, it doesn’t. There’s a correct line at Jeffreys, and when you’re watching it seems pretty easy to pick that line out. It’s not. Only the really tuned-in surfers can find it, and stay on it.

The forecast isn’t very good for the contest. If was 8-foot and firing, who would be your picks?

J-Bay is a carving wave, and there are just a few really sublime carvers on the tour these days. Taj, Joel, Kelly. Mick is actually a bit underrated in this regard, but he’s in there for sure. And Jordy. Out of all those guys, I’d say he has the biggest power surge. He’s just a bigger guy; he’s got that much more leverage. Plus Jordy knows enough to ride a longer board out there.

Dark horses?

Bourez for sure. Adam Melling hasn’t yet put it together on Tour, but he could be right in there.

John-John?

That’d be interesting. There are two basic kinds of surfers on Tour, the reactors and the analyzers. John-John is a reactor. When he throws himself over the ledge at Pipe he does a hundred things right in a matter of seconds. But on a long wall like J-Bay, where you need to be quite a bit more deliberate—I don’t know. I’d like to see him out there on a board three inches longer than he normally rides, with a little fuller nose. He could be outstanding.

Medina?

He seems to get better by the month. Almost every time he shows up, he’s added a new dimension. At Snapper, he showed that he’s got that amazing, beautiful quick carve off the top. But J-Bay is about huge, sustained carves, and about covering a lot of area with your turns.

If the surf did come up, I wonder if Kelly would keep riding his tiny boards.

He’s got everybody boxed into this idea of “Let’s go shorter.” The single biggest influence on Kelly Slater’s board designs, who do you think that is?

I don’t know. Not Merrick, he’s too conservative.

Mike Stewart. He was the first guy to stuff his board down the face at Pipe. That mid-face stuff. That’s where Kelly developed his technique, from watching Mike do that, years and years ago, when Kelly was just a kid. What he does now, on those tiny boards at Pipe, is similar to what Mike was doing at Pipe in the ‘80s. Take off unbelievably late, stuff the rail, and with those little boards you can just sit in there and match the wave’s speed.

That’s Pipe, though.

No, I know, that’s what I’m getting at. I don’t think it’s going to work at J-Bay. Kelly’s such an exceptional surfer, I mean, who knows? But at Jeffreys you need a lot of rail. It’s a fundamental problem for so many guys who show up just for the contest. A few years ago I was there, this was when Bobby Martinez was still on Tour, and I could see that he was struggling to make waves. I paddled over and said, “Hey Bobby, how many boards did you bring?” He said three. I asked what sizes, and he said 6’1″. I asked about the other two, and said, “No, they’re all 6’1″.” For pro-level guys, what happens when your board’s too small, is you end up doing a lot of free-fall floaters. I’m just hoping that I don’t see any of that these next few days. Those damn free-fall floaters. Do one of those at J-Bay, and you’re doing something wrong.

jbay_ellis
The overwhelming bounty of choices. Photo: Ellis

Riding Jeffreys well seems to have a lot to do with, not just the bottom turn, but what you do before the bottom turn. Curren was so good at adjusting his line down the face, and waiting on his turn.

Yes, it’s just taking measure of where you are on the wave. Kelly does it too. Again, the instinct for most surfers, when you’re looking at that much wall, is to charge forward. When you’ve got it really dialed, though, it’s actually got a lot to do with holding back.

Did you have a moment, early in your J-Bay experience, where there was suddenly a big jump in your understanding of how to surf it?

I rode Jeffreys for the first time in 1968, and I went back pretty regularly from then on. In 1975, when I was 19, I drove down there with my dad. I brought two boards, a six-eight, and a seven-footer— the same boards I took to Hawaii at the end of the year, and rode at Backdoor and Off The Wall. The Free Ride boards. Anyway, I was riding my 6’8″ and it seemed like the right choice, the waves were pumping, and the board was going pretty well. Fitz was there, too. Yeah, and Bunker Spreckels, Art Brewer. This must have been right after the Gunston contest. So, yeah, Fitzy and I were kind of going at it out there. And I notice that Terry’s riding what I think was a 7’7″. Much longer than what I was on. From watching him, I decided to change over to my 7’0″. And right away, that board was just—perfect. Perfect! That was the revelation. And that’s sort of what I’ve been talking about this whole time. Going up a few inches in size made all the difference. It smoothed out my line. The turns, the arcs, everything started fitting the wave better. The projection was better. The speed. Tuberiding got much easier. Jeffreys isn’t a big cylinder; it’s a high pocket tube, and you need to keep your line up there, and a lot of time you’re pushing through all these bits and pieces that fall down around you. The longer board gave me that added momentum in the tube. So, I mean, it was a better choice on every level.

Who are your all-time favorite J-Bay surfers?

Jonathan Paarman, without a doubt, in the early years. Just mind-boggling for the time. Terry Fitzgerald for sure. Occy’s in there. Tom and Kelly. Is that five? Wait, wait, wait. I’ve gotta get Tom Carroll in there. Oh God, and Joel too. I love the way Joel surfs Jeffreys, he’s in there as well.

(Postscript #1: Shaun emailed EOS after this page went up. Man was in agony. “On the best guys at J-Bay, how did I not mention Jordy? I just love his acceleration and balls to the wall power!)

(Postscript #2: The first surfer in the vid clip is “Peerless” Peers Pittard, not Jonathan Paarman. The second shot is Paarman.)