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‘Bustin’ Down the Door’ of Modern Surfing

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Today's surf culture owes a lot to the gutsy surfers who ruled the waves in the 1970s. A film premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival tells their story.

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You can’t turn around in this town without running into some form of surf culture — from surf photos that often grace magazine covers, to the mellow, reggae-inspired music that has you thinking of beach bonfires and the like, to the Hawaiian shirt and flipflop-clad exec the next table over at Starbucks, Santa Barbara and surf culture are almost synonymous.{mosimage}

And yet, only about three decades years ago, there was next to none of that out here: no Quicksilver, no Volcom, no surf publications, no huge endorsements.

That all changed in the mid-1970s when a small group of Australian and South African surfers made a big splash in the Mecca of surfing: Hawaii’s North Shore.

“You really weren’t anything until you had surfed the North Shore,” said Shaun Tomson, one of the individuals who changed the face of surfing 30 years ago. He and his cohorts are the subject of Bustin’ Down the Door, a surf documentary that’s premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Tomson would know. The son of a would-be Olympic swimmer whose career was sidelined by a shark encounter, Tomson nevertheless loved the ocean, and surfing it was his only mission in life.

But how do you carry out your mission when at the time, surfing, even in the land where it was born, was seen as more of a pastime than a sport? How do you bust down the door to a very closed surf scene?

“Back then, you could surf, but you had to be doing something else for a living,” Tomson said.

Certainly there were people who were willing to wrap their schedules around the tides, and there were also those who would voluntarily make less money if it meant access to the waves when they called, but surfing as a job? Not a chance.

Or at least that’s what people thought.

Bustin Down the Door chronicles the pivotal years of the late ‘70s, when surfing evolved from leisure activity to high-profile sport. Directed by Jeremy Gosch, it’s a film that brings out what really happened on and off the beach for the first people to be labeled world champions of surfing, and started the movement toward surf culture as we know it.

“For lots of people, the ‘70s were a time of peace and love,” Tomson said. “For us that was just a really rough time.”

For all the acclaim he and his fellow hotshots got, there were some hairy situations when the locals, incensed at these foreigners who had the gall to turn the sport on its head, lashed back. Ultimately, a peace brokered by the legendary and revered local surfer Eddie Aikau kept the young men from further harm, and reunified the sport.

“He really just came in out of nowhere and saved us,” Tomson said. “That’s just one of those stories that needed to be told.”{mosimage}

Fast-forward three decades and Tomson is the head of Solitude Clothing, a local company dealing in surf- and outdoor-inspired gear. He’s still making a living off surfing, but it’s more from his Montecito-area office than it is from some huge swell off the coast of who knows where.

He’s also still dealing with some of the old backlash, in the form of people who lament what they see as the overcommercialization of surfing, the crowded beaches and surf zone traffic.

“We didn’t set out as a group to change the world of surfing,” he said.

It’s sad to see surfers battling it out in the water over whose wave it is, he added, urging surfers everywhere to heed the Eddie Aikau example and remember that they’re all out there for the same reason.

“But it’s not wrong to want to get paid for doing what you love, so you can do more of it. You see artists who get paid for their talent and passion,” he said.

“It’s as pure a motivation as any that’s out there.”

Bustin Down the Door shows at 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Arlington Theatre. But don’t miss the official Santa Barbara welcome of the surfers coming in from abroad at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, or the ongoing exhibit of photos from the film, taken by surf photographer Dan Merkel, also at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

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