We really should have paid more attention in math class.
Daniel "Tomo" Thomson clearly did, and now he's making use of his interest in geometry and fluid dynamics to build some of the most bizarre and intriguing surfboards in the world. There was a time, not too long ago, when to stroll across the beach with a square-nosed, split-diamond-tailed, 5’1″ surfboard under your arm meant you could expect plenty of smirks and "get a load of this guy" kiteboard jokes from parking-lot peanut galleries. But now, among the rows of stock-standard thrusters in your local core shop, as well as under the feet of Kelly Slater, you'll increasingly find Tomo's unconventional shapes. The son of legendary New South Wales shaper Mark Thomson, Tomo honed his world-class surfing at the bucolic points near Lennox Heads, all while eagerly absorbing shaping theories handed down by his father as well as visiting surf monks like Derek Hynd and Tom Curren. Tomo's boards—short, parallel railed, all angular noses and tails—look like surfcraft that have been transported to our time from a distant, mathematically oriented future of surfing. Which is strange, considering he's obsessed with board designs that are nearly 80 years old.
JH: Your surfing ability could very easily have led you to a life as a pro surfer, yet you've chosen to make a living building boards instead. How does your surfing affect your approach to designing boards?
DT: I wasn't actually involved in the grommet contest scene growing up. And my dad always shaped surfboards in the backyard, so I've been immersed in surfboard design for as long as I can remember. For me, deciding to shape was following the path of least resistance. My ego desired the fame of being a pro surfer, but I don't have the spirit of a competitor. Also, I felt I had this gift where I could see things in three dimensions, understand how designs work, and then rebuild them in a different way. I knew if I put my time in, I could combine that with my skills as a surfer to test my crafts and hopefully become an influential designer.
Your shapes look like a futurist's idea of surfboards, but you draw from some pretty old theories about shaping, especially Bob Simmons' parallel-railed planning hulls from the postwar years. What role does the past play in the future of surfboards?
I guess I started looking into old designs because I was inspired by the twin-keeled fish I was riding. The feeling that you get out of those boards is really unique, and it made me look at their designs a little more closely. I've always tried to make high-performance boards, but the fish inspired me to look to a different style of outline to try to capture that speed and that flow. I didn't really want to make retro boards; I wasn't looking to replicate something that had already been done. I wanted to understand the theories that designers have used in the past and find out what would happen if you applied them to modern surfboard design. Once I started experimenting with that, the designs weren't something from the past anymore. I just started freewheeling, going for whatever felt right, and keeping that evolution process going.
Do you think Simmons would recognize one of your designs if you could transport one back through time?
Totally. There were a couple boards I've made that I think were much more closely representative of what Simmons was actually doing than are a lot of the mini-Simmons shapes you see around. If you measure the aspect ratio of the width to the length of the typical mini-Simmons, you'll see they aren't accurate to the original Simmons boards. I've measured the aspect ratio of a lot of authentic Simmons boards and copied that ratio into a more performance-oriented board. That gave me a much narrower board, but I felt that the round nose and wonky tail were limiting to performance, so I chopped the nose off into an arrow shape and redesigned the tail.
Can you scale up your parallel-rail designs to make bigger boards as well?
Absolutely. The best thing about those boards is that, because they're basically rectangles, the nose and the tail are identical in width. So the scaling algorithm can be blown out to infinity, and the board would stay perfectly in scale. You can technically build any of my boards to any length and size, and it'll be perfectly functional relative to the weight of the rider. A lot of the SUP guys have actually been using that design, because it's such a scalable board, and you can make a tiny SUP out of that rectangular shape.
Have you ridden your boards in huge surf?
I haven't used the parallel outline in a big-wave board because it allows for so much speed, and in big waves speed is not always your friend. On a really big wave, you want to add more control into the equation, so you want a more pulled-in tail. Although there are certain big waves that would suit my designs. On a big, open-faced wave where you can really put it on rail—places like Sunset, big J-Bay, big Lennox—these boards feel amazing. You've got an open canvas and you can just carve like you're on a snowboard. But I haven't explored the big-wave paddle realm, mostly because I haven't been ready to surf those types of waves myself. But I want to explore all those avenues.
I don't think that surfing will be unrecognizable in 20 years, but it will be very different.
Where do you see the direction of modern shortboard design heading?
There are two lineages in surfboard design: one is the theory of displacement, and the other is the theory of planing. Simmons is behind the planing hull theory, which is that a wide tail block and straight outline maximize lift and reduce drag, and you turn using the rail. The displacement theory is all about cutting through the water efficiently, like a big cruise ship, which leads to needle-shaped boards with pulled-in noses and tails—the typical modern shortboard. The outline is real sleek, with the goal of cutting through the water. The planing hull, on the other hand, is designed to sit on top of the water. Combining those two schools of thought to find the best of both worlds is where I think the future of board design lies. A shorter board with more volume, blunt entries, and a symmetrical aesthetic is, to me, where surfboard design can continue to evolve. That shape still allows for powerful, on-rail surfing, and also faster rotations once you're in the air.
Do you think the ideas behind your designs are lost on the average surfer?
Whether they understand the concepts or not, any level of surfer can benefit from them. I think my boards are easier to ride than any traditional high-performance board. The rectangular outline is a much more stable platform to paddle on and to surf on. Because of the volume distribution, it doesn't tip around. You don't need to be a great athlete to generate speed on them. They're very intuitive, and to me, the perfect board is whatever enables the rider to surf their best. You shouldn't have to be at the peak of your physical abilities to get the most out of a surfboard. I think we're leaving the era of having to be a pro to ride a pro's board.
A lot of people get hung up on the appearance of your boards. Do you like how your boards look?
Initially, it wasn't about the aesthetic, but once you start to associate a certain look with a certain sensation while surfing, then it becomes really attractive. It's easy for me to understand that people can look at these boards and see them as gimmicks because they look so different. But the designs are functional. Now when I look at pointy nosed boards, they gross me out. To me it looks really retro. I'm pretty certain that the parallel-railed aesthetic is so functional that we'll see more and more of them out there. They might not replace the standard shortboard completely, but they're definitely going to have their place.
What's it like to have Slater interested in your work? Does his interest further validate what you're doing?
Kelly's a very interesting human being. He operates on such a high level in so many facets of life: surfing, competing, health, business, and all-around intellect. To be honest, I was a little intimidated by him for a while because he's been a hero of mine for so many years, but we've got an intellectual bond. We break down different areas of board and fin design and figure out ways to rework things. We've been trying to blend his and my ideas for a perfect surfboard, and riding the waves of trial and error. I'm continually striving to refine my concepts to meet his incredibly high standards. Whatever comes of it, I'm just super stoked and grateful for the opportunity to work with him.
What do you see as the future of high-performance surfing?
I think the future will be more diverse, with a wider variety of designs that allow for a much more freestyle approach with really surprising lines, rather than everyone riding the same type of board, jamming the shit out of the lip and doing an air reverse on the end. It comes down to people opening their minds to different boards and different ways to ride waves. I don't think that surfing will be unrecognizable in 20 years, but I think it will be very different. Every sport needs to evolve.
It seems like there have been a lot of advancements lately in surfboard construction materials. Do you think polyurethane is finally on its way out?
I think the development of new materials in surfboard construction is absolutely going in the right direction. I've always been a proponent of epoxies and carbons. Polyurethane is so limited in its performance characteristics, even though pros riding polyurethane boards are still topping the podiums in contests. But that's because surfing is very hung up on the business side, and what materials are popular is limited to the production of the big brands. I think that once a material like carbon fiber is used widely, and properly, it's going to seem that a board that doesn't use it is deficient. Once surfers develop an understanding of the feeling of different materials, they adapt really quickly.
What about for you? Do you have more breakthroughs to make in your designs?
The creative process for shaping is like a staircase: you go step by step, you tweak a little of this and a little of that, and eventually you get to a point where you break through the ceiling and a board takes on a whole new dynamic. I've had some great results in multiple concave bottoms these past 18 months or so. I'm finding that enhancing the bottom contours instantly improves the lift, speed, and sensitivity of the board, and I think that the significance of that shift could be on par with when we went from domed bottoms to concaves. The only thing holding back more experimentation in bottom contours is in the physical labor of building them. But I do think quad concaves and multiple belly-channel boards will be commonplace pretty soon. I've also been experimenting with a hybrid of shortboards and planing hulls, putting traditional tails on boards with parallel rails and squared-off noses. Those boards offer some new feelings, so I'll roll with that and see where it goes.
And I don't think finless boards have really been done right yet. I have some ideas about how to make finless boards so you don't have to squat down and hold onto the rail, but can really lean into the rail, like a snowboarder does. I think that's possible, and I'm quite confident that I'll eventually get into that. But right now I'm kind of preoccupied with trying to reinvent the modern shortboard. [Laughs.] I'm not going to get bored anytime soon.