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Surfing Until 100

77-year-old Felipe Pomar is determined to keep riding waves until he hits the century mark.

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Felipe Pomar has been called the Duke Kahanamoku of Peru, usually by people who claim Peruvians were the original surfers. And Pomar would enthusiastically agree—but we’ll get to that. An original member of the Waikiki Surf Club in Lima, Pomar won the ISF world championship in 1965. He is also a three-time national champ and was a four-time finalist at the esteemed Duke Kahanamoku Invitational in the 1960s. In 1974, he grabbed international headlines and serious surfing street cred when he and friend Pitty Block famously surfed an earthquake-formed tsunami. 

Pomar hung up his competition jersey in the early 70s and moved to Hawaii to do real estate, eventually settling on Kauai. Around that time, a friend from the North Shore told him about a wave in remote eastern Indonesia that intrigued him very much. In 2000, he arranged a charter with friends to find it, and scored a week of pumping waves at Rote’s T-Land. Pomar has returned to Rote every year since, only regretting that the premier wave is a lefthander. He eventually bought land there and, five minutes after laying down his deposit, an Australian surfer asked if he’d like to see the right. The wave proved to be, in Pomar’s opinion, even better than the left. 

On one of his annual trips to Rote, Pomar reunited with his old friend from the North Shore, Jeff Hakman. While surfing together, Hakman was impressed by the sheer volume of waves the then 67-year-old Pomar was riding. That night, Hakman asked Pomar the secret to his vitality. Thus began a long, ongoing discussion and exploration into the secrets of health and longevity that Pomar, Hakman, and fellow Kauai-based health fitness expert Tom Woods would eventually develop into a program they call Surf Till 100. 

With Surf Till 100 planning its first group expedition, Pomar stopped by the TSJ offices to talk about the new venture in health and wellness. At 77 years old, he’s still built like an ox, sharp, warm, and clear-eyed. He’s the very embodiment of the health he’s peddling—which is a big part of their program, leading by example. While we were keen to pick Pomar’s brain for his map to the fountain of youth, we also couldn’t help but ask him about that legendary wave from 45 years ago.

Well into his seventies and still charging heavy surf at his local spot in Hawaii, Pomar now endeavors to share the map to his fountain of youth. Photograph by Larry Gehrke.

NM The tsunami story, does it get better every year?

FP Actually, it’s getting worse because I now cut parts to shorten it. 

NM Were you actually trying to ride a tsunami that day?

FP We were training every day to surf big Pico Alto, and we happened to be on the beach when there was an earthquake. The earthquake lasted 1 minute and 48 seconds, and was so powerful that I was convinced it was the end of the world. My friend Pitty asked me what we should do, and I jokingly said, “Let’s go surfing.” To my surprise, he said, “Okay.” So, yes, our hope was to ride a tsunami, but I’d spent the previous 15 years training to ride big waves, so it wasn’t such a crazy thing to do.

NM How big was the wave?

FP It was maybe the size of a house, 10 or 15 feet. I don’t really know. I was more concerned about the possible 100-footer behind it. To me, it represented a lifeline back to shore.

NM Where does your experience with healthy living begin?

FP I was fortunate when I was young. There’s a club in Peru called Club Waikiki, and the members were very health-oriented surfers because the guy that founded the club was very health-oriented. They had a leader. That’s where it started for me. From then, I was always drawn to people who were also very health-oriented. For example, I was very impressed by Jack LaLanne, whom you may remember.

NM He was one of the original fitness promoters, right?

FP Yeah. I also met the guy that got Jack LaLanne into health when I moved to Hawaii in 1963. His name was Paul Bragg, and he was touring the world, talking about health. He told people that he was going to live until 120. That was his plan, but he didn’t make it. He made it to 81 and died from an injury after surfing in Waikiki. Hit his head. Anyway, having met all of these people throughout my life, I had a bunch of health challenges in my fifties, including two shoulder operations.

The doctor told me I should never surf again. I didn’t want to follow that advice, so I figured I’d better learn everything I could about health so that I could keep surfing. Fifteen years later, in my seventies, I feel just as good as I felt in my twenties. 

NM You looked pretty fit in your twenties.You sure about that?

FP Actually, I was with a friend, and he said, “Felipe, are you having a hard time popping to your feet?” And I said, “No. Why do you ask?” He said, “Well, I’m having a hard time popping to my feet.” I said, “Not only am I not having a hard time popping to my feet, but I’m surfing better than when I was 20 years old.” He got mad at me. He thought I was bullshitting him.

As I was driving home that day, I started thinking, “How can I prove that I’m surfing better than I was in my twenties?” It’s impossible to prove. But maybe I can prove that I can paddle better than I used to. Peru used to have the Peruvian International Championships every year in the 1960s. The top surfers would come from around the world, and there was a six-mile paddle race. I won the race in 1968 and the time was recorded. So I thought if I were to do that race again, I might be able to improve on my time. 

So, I announced that I was going to go to Peru to do the race again, and I was going to attempt to improve my winning time from 47 years earlier. I worked with the Peruvian Surfing Federation, which organized and timed the race, and I improved my 1968 time by two minutes.

NM So, what does the Surf Till 100 program actually do?

FP Basically, we want to share the importance and value of building your health—that health is more than the absence of disease. For now, we do retreats. For example, the upcoming Peru expedition we’re doing is going to have three parts to it. Number one is the health part. Number two is the ancient history of surfing. We’re going to visit a number of archaeological sites and temples where the ancient Peruvian cultures were totally involved with the waves, the ocean, the tides. All of that was in their art, their religion, and their livelihood. And third, we’re going to surf. It’s an opportunity for people to surf the longest wave of their life with Jeff Hakman, Tom Woods, and myself.

NM Why is surf history part of the Surf Till 100 program?

FP Only because we wanted it to be. We want our expeditions to go places where there are great, uncrowded waves. And it just so happens that Peru has this history that, if you’re a surfer, you might want to learn about. Most people believe that surfing has only been around for 900 years, from Hawaii. Really though, it has been around for about 5,000 years in Peru. If you love to surf, you would want to know its ancient history. 

NM You’ve always been an outspoken proponent that Peruvians were actually the first surfers.

FP They were. Science and archaeology bear this out. 

NM But were they really surfing, or were they just fishermen going in and out through the waves?

FP If you think about it, it makes total sense that a fisherman would want his son to learn how to deal with the ocean and the waves. That way when they grow up, they can go through the surf and come back with their fish. So, those fishermen are going to make their children little versions of caballitos [small reed-mat boats], so they can go out and surf and have fun on the waves. But kids are kids, right? Everything they do, they’re just out there to have fun. And in those days—with no motorcycles, no bicycles, no cars—that’s the fastest they ever went on anything. They would have been stoked right off the bat.

My plan is to discover new surfing spots, get the best rides of my life, and share what I have learned regarding the importance and great value of optimum health.

NM Let’s talk about living forever. Tell me everything. What should I be eating?

FP The Mediterranean diet is very healthy. Stay away from sugar. Stay away from packaged foods. Eat real foods. Fasting is very beneficial. Have you heard of what they call zombie cells?

NM Zombie cells? No, I haven’t.

FP As we age, our body has cells that stop working. They don’t die, but they’re not working as they are meant to work. They’re referred to as zombie cells. The more you have, the less your body works as it was intended to. Researchers have found that by fasting, if your body needs energy, it will break down those zombie cells that you don’t want before it starts breaking down your muscle to use as energy. Then, if you give your body good nutrition, it will build new cells. So by fasting, you’re getting rid of those zombie cells and you’re getting your body to build new healthy cells.

NM This is great. Zombie cells. Fasting. Got it. What else?

FP How you think—belief—is very powerful. You have to rewire your brain. I did a Surf Till 100 retreat in Rote a couple of years ago. Ten people came down from Australia. We went surfing together. If they can see somebody that is considerably older than they are who is catching better waves than everybody else, that turns something on in their brain. They say, “If he’s doing it, I can do it too.” Belief is huge. There’s this old Chinese saying that goes, “If you want to cross the mountain, talk to people who are coming back.” Jeff, Tom, and I have all crossed the mountain.

NM What are the factors that take surfers down?

FP I have a list. Very important is the eyes. The eyes are number one. Do you remember who Dr. Don James was? The photographer? He was also a dentist. What most people don’t know is that as he got older, he got macular degeneration. You know what that is? Basically, you burn out your eyes. Most people who ski would not go skiing without goggles. The glare will burn your eyes immediately. In the ocean, the glare is not quite that strong, but over time it adds up. If you get to an advanced age, you will go blind. That’s what happened to Dr. Don James, and he shot himself. There’s a clear lesson here.

NM Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say.

FP Well, I’m sorry, but the main thing you can do is wear goggles or glasses. Actually, Gerry Lopez started surfing with glasses in Indonesia in the 1970s. Not long after, I burned my eyes badly in Indonesia. It was very painful, and I’ve been surfing with glasses ever since. You have to protect your eyes. You should also take vitamins specifically for the eyes if your vision is important to you.

NM Vitamins. Got it. What else is on this list?

FP Another one that takes a lot of people down is the prostate. You have to take natural things to prevent the prostate from getting inflamed. Once you have the problem, it’s very hard to fix. The third thing is the gums. You have to take the best possible care of your gums. Heart attacks and strokes often originate with gum infections. The infection circulates throughout your body, and you end up getting a heart attack. And, for older surfers, the hormonal balance is huge. You must get a blood test, but you also need a qualified anti-aging doctor to interpret it for you. Most doctors will look at your blood work and say, “You’re doing great for your age.” But you want to be doing great for a guy that is 20 years younger than you are. In America today, the norm is sick. Therefore if you are doing the norm, you are not well. 

NM So, if you’re living 20 or 30 years longer, what do you do with all that time?

FP My plan is to discover new surfing spots, get the best rides of my life, and share what I have learned regarding the importance and great value of optimum health. I believe I can help people by sharing information, leading by example, and inspiring some people to make better decisions. Tom Woods is a very deep thinker. He broadened the original concept of Surfing Till 100. He said if we are going to help people live an additional lifetime, let’s help them realize the value of finding something they love and doing measurable things to improve, care for, and protect it. That way, when our time comes, we can leave the planet satisfied because we left it better than we found it. A true win-win for everyone.