Surfing: The Eternal Lightness of Being

Hang 10, Hang 11, Hang 50—however you want to do it, the lure of the wave never dwindles (and with the right attitude, age need not be a barrier). Plus: top five surf spots. By Scott Indrisek

Young, old, male, female, gay, straight, surfing has no prejudice. It’s the endless search for that eternal feeling of lightness, of being at one with nature. Folklore suggests that our cave-dwelling ancestors were riding waves on sheaths of bark before there were hieroglyphics, and the Polynesians have been doing it for at least 300 years.

That great narrator of American life, Mark Twain, wrote of surfers in Hawaii while visiting the islands in 1866: “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing.”

Surfing has become such a global phenomenon that wherever a wave can be found, a surfboard is rarely far away.

“People keep on surfing because, as my friend Mike—now 65—likes to say, there isn’t any other activity that he’s tried that’s more fun than surfing… except for sex,” jokes Roy Earnest, 58, a surfer, gerontologist, and documentarian behind the film Surfing for Life. “It’s a lot like riding a bike. You never forget.”

Whether long board, short board, stand-up paddle surfing, or body surfing, here are some tips, and must-visit surf spots, to get you going.

Weekend Warrior? Think Again

If you’re cutting your chops as an older surfer, prepare to expend a good amount of time and energy. “For someone in their 50s, 60s and 70s who is considering taking up surfing for the first time, it’s largely depends on their overall attitude and commitment to learning and, of course, health, particularly with regards to their overall flexibility in their spine and joints,” Earnest says.

“The other factor is attitude and commitment. Assuming someone has ready access to a beach that has ‘beginner friendly’ waves suitable for surfing, anyone who wants to learn how to surf has to make a commitment.  I don’t know of anyone who surfs once a month or a few times a year. So, if someone of any age can’t surf two or three times a week, they should consider doing something else.”

Choose Your Heroes

Unlike in football or basketball, surfing legends don’t have to retire into quasi-obscurity when they reach a certain age. Many of them never quit catching waves and inspiring the next generation. “Hands down, my favorite surfer over 50 is Gerry Lopez,” says Dustin Beatty, a surfer, photographer, and editor-in-chief of The Northern Post, an outdoor adventure website. “Lopez, who’s 64, is oftentimes referred to as ‘Mr. Pipeline,’ and credited with mastering the famous break on the North Shore of Oahu. Surfing is therapeutic and no doubt an integral part of the happiness people experience as they age.” The incredible Laird Hamilton is 50. Earnest cites a few 50+ role models of his own: Aussie surfers Mark Richards (55) and Rabbit Bartholomew (58).

Keep A Regimen

“Our bodies were designed to keep moving,” says Earnest. “If you’re surfing, don’t stop. Sitting too much is beginning to be seen by many health experts–and bolstered by lots of research–as a bad habit that is almost as bad as smoking or drinking too much. And it may sound trite and something that your mother might say but: Take care of yourself.  ‘Eat good food, not too much and mostly vegetables,’ to paraphrase Michael Pollan.”

For Ashley Blaylock of Chicabrava, an all-female surf camp in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, the answer is simple: “Yoga, yoga, and more yoga! Seriously, not only does it help develop important muscles for surfing, it also increases overall range of motion and flexibility, and reduces injury. It’s the best thing for all surfers to practice to keep in good shape.”

Don’t Be A Kook

“While I’ve seen a few instances of outright ageism out in the surf, younger surfers tend to be respectful of older surfers,” Earnest says. “One of the rules that all surfers learn pretty early on is that in order to receive respect from others, one has to give respect.

“A ‘kook’ is a surfer who doesn’t know the rules of conduct out in the waves and just gets in the way. A kook can be any age. Avoid being a kook and, chances are good that you’ll be treated reasonably well.”

Not Just a Men’s Club

If you’re older and a woman, you might worry that surfing is even less open to you. Think again. Blaylock’s Chicabrava hosts targeted classes for those 40 and above, a demographic that has been very popular. “We’ve been able to get women down here who are just yearning for this kind of experience. The sense of empowerment, fulfillment, and confidence they gain is an amazing thing to witness. This year alone we had two 70 year olds join our camp. A woman on a surfboard for the first time, at 70? In a bikini? 70 is the new 20!”

TOP SURF SPOTS

San Onofre, Southern California

Surfline.com describes San Onofre as “the Waikiki of the California Coastline—a beginner’s paradise of gentle breaking waves, long sandy beaches and an absence of ego.” Dustin Beatty concurs: “I’ve seen guys and gals in their 70s gracefully sliding surf here and at other premier longboarding spots.”

Baja California, Mexico

Beatty also cites the glories of this stretch of Mexican beach, easily accessible from Los Angeles. “I’ve surfed all over the world but there’s something about the raw, adventurous nature of chasing waves down in Baja that makes me return year after year. It’s one of the few places on this Earth that you can still score waves all by yourself just a few hundred miles south of California.”

Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii

While Roy Earnest dubs this his “favorite surf spot” in the globe, he’s quick to note the importance of keeping an open mind. “All surf spots have their days when all the elements come together to make for excellent waves,” he says. “Love your beach—no matter which beach you happen to be at!”

The Rockaways, Queens, New York

It remains to be seen how this stretch of coastline will spring back from the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, but doubtlessly it will retain its status as a prime urban surf spot—accessible by subway from downtown Manhattan, no less.

Australia (multiple locations)

Surfing is as Australian as Crocodile Dundee and kangaroo boxing. Even the names of the top spots conjure images of laid-back daredevilry: Boomerang Beach, Yallingup, Tamarama, and North Narrabeen.