Tom was in great form on this trip. The silent, wayward surfer of days past was gone, replaced with the real thing: an intelligent, perceptive human with a wry sense of humor and the best bottom turn in the business. Now in his early 40s, Tom’s finally proved to himself that competing isn’t his bag anymore, at least when it comes to elite surfing, and seems ready at last to get on with the next stage of life, whatever that might hold. He teased me during the trip, reading all my notes and threatening to interview me in return; fortunately he never pursued the threat.
NC: I want to see what connects world champions and what doesn’t. So the first thing I’d like you to describe for me is your family background, your parent’s and grandparents, where they came from, what you know of them.
TC: OK. My great grandparents from my father’s side came out West, they’re Irish and they came out West to California. My mother’s side of the family were in the East, in Florida and North Carolina, I’ve still got family over there. Farming, and I don’t know them all that well, but they’re very Southern. French and Italian and English as far as that goes. But my dad’s Irish. My grandmother on my mother’s side, I knew her probably the best, she was married to a captain in the Navy, it was her second marriage and they lived in Coronado in San Diego. Captain Bill, I used to sit on his knee and we’d have geography quizzes and things like that. That was an early memory. My dad’s family, his brother I knew fairly well, he had two brothers, he was the middle, and very interesting. Very humorous. Sort of a dry humour I guess if you want to call it that. We used to do jigsaw puzzles. My first cousin from my Dad’s side of the family, he told me all kinds of jokes when I was a kid that I totally remember. The most riddles and jokes I ever remember being told was from him. They were all in San Diego. My Dad’s from San Diego, Windansea. My Mom’s side of the family were in the military. My uncle on my Mom’s side was actually stationed in Kwajalein, for a long time. As far as where our family name comes in, we know it’s from Ireland but we don’t know what towns in Ireland it comes from, because it’s spelled with an E. There’s a little bit of information but nothing that’s really traceable.
Might have been an A once.
Certainly. That’s the most logical explanation – where they came through New York Harbor they didn’t know how to write it or whatever. So. But I think it’s pretty typically American.
I was born in 1964. I began to surf in 1970. My first board was a board I got for $10 in the Haleiwa parking lot. I took that home, it was in July or something like that, and surfed it at my home break, which was Hammond’s Reef, and the waves were a lot harder to ride than at Haleiwa. I could stand up and everything in Hawaii but when I got home it was weird. It took me like a year to figure out how to stand up and do a kickout. I didn’t have a wetsuit. It was summer and toward winter it started getting colder and I still didn’t have a wetsuit, so my Dad made me my first wetsuit. He made me a board too when I was six years old. We used to live adjacent to Hammond’s and right near a train track so I would go down the train track and over the bluff down to the beach. And the wetsuit: it was neoprene with the shiny side on the inside, so I had to have cornstarch to get into the wetsuit. It was cool. My Dad took a couple of photos with a Nikonos from the water, a couple of little snapshots. There weren’t any other little kids my age. Just teenagers I guess.
How aware were you of your father’s reputation as a surfer?
A little bit. I’d seen, well, we had a photo album of Bud Browne photos. Like a big black and white photo album, with all the really great rides, pretty much. The one sequence with him and Peter Cole and Byron Ho on either side, you know that one classic. I looked at it all the time, then I saw it on film. They even showed it in contemporary surf movies at the time, Bud Browne’s Goin’ Surfing. So it was only very small bits and pieces of it. But of course he’d moved on, he’d been living in Santa Barbara abalone diving and not surfing very much, you know, surfing now and then but only on the biggest days of every year. Santa Barbara’s really not a town that’s exposed to the surf too much but you know when it gets big it’s really nice.
Kids have a kinda limited view on some things. Not everything, but you learn more as you grow older.
What was your Mom’s take on surfing?
Oh yeah, she was right there. She loved it. She still does. She ran the WSA District 3 for a long time. All the kids that did the contests remember my Mom, she was very dedicated and just really giving, you know. And she would drive me down to surf some beachbreaks, I’d convince her to drive us down to some beachbreaks when there was no surf in Santa Barbara and she’d sit in the car while we would do heats, and she would beep the car horn every 15 minutes. That’s just an example, but there’s many ways in which she was really generous and supportive.