Surfing has always been a youth-centric activity, rife with images and narratives hinting at immortality. It was the first “forever young”–branded recreation, after all. Think Mickey’s calves, Lance’s pecs, and Matt Johnson’s vascularity. “Hope I die before I get old.”
The primary conduit for that oversold idealism is bound up in the surfer’s body: lithe, loose, tanned, muscular. Forget the overt sexuality of a glistening Laird or a Reef model of the month—the surfer’s physique has always been about agelessness. It’s a slow passage to Valhalla, a somatic suggestion that the ride never ends.
Yet, as surfers, we are constantly challenged by the import of our bodies, by what they represent. Specifically, it’s how they first enable the purity of our pleasure. Then it’s how they can prevent us from finding it at all. In short, the surfer’s body is in a constant state of negotiation with itself.
Learning how to surf, then learning to surf well and earning a spot in the lineup, was something that required a little bit of risk: a broken this or a tweaked that or a sliced something else. In our youth, that laceration, contusion, or sprain could be offered to our peers as a signifier that we were willing to endanger ourselves for due rewards. Your first fin cut wasn’t deep into your skin, but it sank hard into your psyche. The lack of pain, the oozing plasma, the emerging badge of honor that rode shotgun on your pubescent pride. Like the 8-year-old with their arm in a cast, the pain and inconvenience is mitigated by the rise in social capital.
Our parents might’ve even understood that delicate balance, that tightrope bet- ween going big and coming home hurt, just as in stick-and-ball team sports. Surfing might have seemed almost safer. For the maturing surfer, too, there was and is still the difference in types of injuries. A local-beach stingray hit will always pale in comparison with an infected coral cut from some far-off reef.
But then you grew up. You didn’t die before you got old.
Little things started to hurt. Your pop- ups weren’t so snappy. You checked San Onofre on the cams. You asked your shaper about a gentleman’s thruster. Within some temporal twitch of an eye, an Advil-aided co-consciousness reared up, one that raised more-substantial questions.
“Not fair,” you said to yourself. “I earned my spot. I was golden in a golden state.”
You were, until lumbar sacral compression set in. Until real attention was paid to the pain-relief commercials on television.
Take the case of Jimmy Black. A San Diego native honed on Ocean Beach Pier rip bowls and Sunset Cliffs reefs in the 1960s, he used to surf quite well. And while a 35-year career as a lifeguard and firefighter left Jimmy with a reliable pension, it also left him with a compromised body. Standing up on a surfboard was no longer a seamless moment of joy. Replaced by grunts and groans, the awkwardness of improper foot placement and arthritic hips led Jimmy down the troubling path to alt-craft choices.
“The hell if I’m going to ride a SUP,” Jimmy told me in a glib reference to choosing bodyboarding versus surfing with a paddle. It’s a tube hunter’s solution.
“But there has to be a way, Jimmy,” I said. “You’re not that old. Sixty is the new 59. A little more volume, a few push-ups, some time at the gym, avoid low-tide banks…” And in a desperate attempt to avoid the ignominious idea that surfing with a paddle is still surfing, I snidely added, “Ride an e-bike.”
Jimmy stared into his beer, mumbling about how much he’d have to invest to gain some kind of measurable return to traditional prone-to-pop-up surfing. That there are options to staying in the water, with the caveat of having to surrender some perceived dignity.
“But I’m not going to do yoga on the beach,” he continued. “Every man has a breaking point. Mine is spandex.”
Jimmy’s words reminded me that surfing is, if nothing else, a choice to ride waves and to ride them in a style and manner that complements our own feelings about ourselves. I could no more harangue Jimmy Black for his chosen lie-down position than I could gush on about some pro landing a backflip.
In my own fifth decade of surfing, when seeking advice, I look toward those who have more years on the planet, more water time, more aches and pains. Or less of the latter. I watch the old silverbacks carefully. How they wax their boards. How they watch the ocean. How they triage everything from fin setup to timing the sets to physical therapy. How they ain’t dead when more than a handful of groundbreaking surfers are. I think about the difference between Butch Van Artsdalen and Gerry Lopez. Both pioneering goofyfoots, what disparate life choices did they make that has one in the ground and one still in the tube?
I wonder about surfing’s pop-culture historicity, and if the effect of the tiring “It’s better to burn out than fade away” narrative is just surfing’s industrial complex targeting the emerging discretionary income of a youth market. Or is there really something unique and awkward to the challenges of growing old as a surfer?
I think, too, about my old surf pal Rob Rebstock, and his undying devotion to continue surfing, and surfing proficiently, into his sixties and beyond. Often, on a surf trip somewhere, I’d get up at five o’clock in the morning and Rob would be working his way through an hour-long series of stretches in preparation to be both the first one out and still quick to his feet.
“Rob,” I once asked, stumbling back to bed, “is it worth it?”
“I can’t control time,” he offered during some awkward effort to touch his toes, “but I can control its effect on the way I surf.”
These moments of levity are what’s offered as we’re confronted with that increasing investment required to do today what we did then. The moments that drive our decisions are those where we’re faced with alternative means of riding waves, maybe even with giving up. That’s the other surfer’s irony: It sometimes takes work to have fun. And it takes so much work to surf well at 50 or 60 or 70 years old. The adverb being, of course, relative. The great majority of surfing 70-year-olds are mostly happy to hit their feet and glide across an open face for even a moment. But if you were still hitting the lip at 50, why wouldn’t you try to keep hitting it at 51?
It seems that the questions of injury, illness, and age affecting a surfer’s life so often come to light on a surf jaunt, where the many factors that expose them gain total resonance: unfamiliarity with a spot, trip documentation, pharmaceutical agents, heavier conditions, fatigue, and, most importantly, ego.
When I ran this idea by Jimmy, he laughed. “Those are all the reasons to actually go on a surf trip.”
Rebstock, faced with the same question a few years before he died while surfing alone on the Central Coast of California, offered a more pragmatic reply.
“There will be a time when I can’t surf a 6’4″ at 64,” he said, citing physiological factors such as flexibility, balance, and plyometric strength. “But it ain’t today.”
The aging surfer, it seems, finds meaning, if not youthfulness, in their travels, their diminishing but necessary forays beyond the edge of the forest. That’s probably why we don’t plan our excursions to Cowell’s, Doheny, or Tourmaline.
Unfortunately, age doesn’t quietly nudge the surfer. It sneaks up on us one shortened session at a time. We don’t usually pay attention to the vagaries of growing old until we are forced to—until that funny-looking mole is diagnosed as melanoma, until we fall for no particular reason at all. Youth and athleticism are key factors that affect our ability to gracefully slide across a breaking wave. But so is attitude and action in the subversion of temporal tides.
Popular culture would have us all go out like Mark Foo. But our reality is more often closer to someone like Rell Sunn, who passed at 47 after a long and courageous battle with cancer. In our salad days, dying before we are old and tired and ready is beyond comprehension. It simply mutates the pecking order. Rell, whose dying wish was simply to taste saltwater one more time, had also negotiated the social pathologies of divorce, single parenting, and financial hurdles. Real-life things. Because surfing mattered too, through all of it.
Perhaps our choices, feelings, thoughts, and actions about our health as we face the inevitable decline in physicality can and will, more than anything else, affect how we sustain our surfing enjoyment. But that sounds New Age-y, trite, and forced. What does the surfer’s body really mean to those of us who are playing in the fourth quarter?
We know that youth ideology is the very apotheosis of American culture. When Patti D’Arbanville’s character in Big Wednesday says, “Back in Chicago, youth is something you passed through on your way to adulthood. Out here…it’s everything,” what she’s really suggesting is that the surfer’s body represents not just riding waves, but riding waves forever. That false- hood, thoughtfully negotiated, allows the aging surfer to scoff at pop-cult references as if they were a 200-pound 40-year-old who can’t make it to his feet carrying a 5’8″ chip across the parking lot.
Reality bites hard when we realize long-term health choices facilitate our ability to feel the effects of those choices. It’s not so much the sad wisdom of compromise or the white flag of surrender. It’s the acceptance. And using our experience to claw through the shorepound to get back outside.
[Illustration by Olga Prader]