I went to San Onofre once in the late ‘60s and was amazed to see senior citizens riding waves. We were young and arrogant and figured that we would never be old. Typical of all children, we, the new generation, knew everything there was to know about surfing. They, on the other hand, knew nothing but how to point those heavy planks toward shore.
The men (and they were all men, that day) were probably no older than 40 while we were in our early teens. They seemed comical to us at the time, but we were polite to their faces, never realizing that many of them had risked their lives for us during World War II, and that they were also veterans of the waves and had forgotten more about surfing than I had ever known of my recently adopted art form. They had names like Burrhead and Whitey and Woody, and they understood things that I am still trying to figure out. Things about hydrodynamics swell directions and fish migrations, and things that could keep you alive when the ocean turned against you and all you had was your hard fought knowledge.
Now that my peers and I are among the oldest surfers in the lineup, we stand at attention, wondering at the young generation as they fly past us on spacecraft we never dreamed of.
It’s been 33 winters since surf historian Matt Warshaw, big wave legend Ken Bradshaw and I stood on the shore of Waimea Bay as it sent everyone to shore. Huddled near us was the legendary big wave ride, Peter Cole, who said, “You can surf Makaha until you’re 80, Sunset until you’re 60 and this place until you’re 55. I’m 56; I’m done.” The words hit us like a shot. The great Peter Cole was finished making his mark at Waimea Bay. On the drive home I silently kicked myself around, realizing that I, while merely in my late 30s, would never be done with big surf, since I had never ventured into it. There is no way I would have surfed Waimea that day if it had been half that size.
Later that week I would engage Cole in conversation about our mutual friend, Encinitas local, the late, great Kit Horn. “If Kit had stayed in Hawaii, he would have been better than all of us,” he said. He then spoke about the ageless Rabbit Kekai, who passed away last year, and how Rabbit, who was approaching 70 at the time, was still taking off on set waves at Sunset.
Some friends of mine who are now in their early 70s are still surfing well. Chief among them are Skip Frye, Ben Aipa and Paul Strauch. They were the best surfers I ever saw, and while I didn’t know them at that time, I had photos them riding waves, on my bedroom wall. They have since proven elegant in landlocked conversation, or the water.
I used to think that somebody should do a move on older surfers. Well, someone did just that in 1999. His name is David Brown, and his film is called “Surfing For Life.”