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The Wave

20 February 2017

Surfing isn’t a sport, it’s a lifestyle choice, and for a group of older surfers in California, riding waves doesn’t just have the power to change lives – it can save them too.

In sunny San Diego, just moments from the Mexican border, locals talk of a big city with a laidback small town vibe. Here, surfers enjoy 75 miles of coastline, with beaches of all types. After Polynesia, these shores were the first place people began riding waves, but as perfect sets peel off at Swami’s reef in Encinitas, it’s not the energetic youths shredding the water that grab your attention, it’s the graceful glide of an older group of surfers. And if there’s one thing you should know: it’s that Southern California’s older surf sect have the most compelling stories to tell.

“The old guys are just fabulous,” says Jane Schmauss, historian at the California Surfing Museum. “Surfing keeps people young, I’m a firm believer in that.” Schmauss got hooked on the lifestyle when her Encinitas restaurant, George’s, turned into a surfer hangout. “Kids would gather there and talk about it so much that I just fell in love with the culture,” she explains.

Schmauss now dedicates much of her time to preserving surf history, and the Oceanside-based museum has collected key artefacts, such as Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau’s 1978 Rescue Board and a century-old depiction of a Polynesian surfer woman, drawn during a Captain Cook voyage. Schmauss loves that many of the same people she served in her restaurant all those years ago are still surfing today. “Once a surfer, always a surfer,” she says. “Older guys could be stumbling around on land but as soon as they get in the water they have this graceful athleticism.”

A short drive down the coast, near Mission Bay, you can find an infamous spot, where fabled board shapers have made their mark in a corrugated steel building named Bird’s Surf Shed. Here 60-year-old Eric ‘Bird’ Huffman turned an old army quonset hut into a surfboard storage space, and in 2011 opened his library of boards to the public. More than 1,400 colourful designs hang on the concave ceiling and walls. Legendary shapes include ’60s Hanson boards, plus Caster and older Simmons models – one of which Bird values at around US$25,000.

At the back of the shed, in a dusty shaping room, is a man who’s also been surfing Southern California’s breaks for half a decade. Local hero Robin Prodanovich, 67, is lean, toned and tanned. He could easily be mistaken for a man 10 or 15 years younger. Prodanovich started working for surfboard makers Gordon & Smith before going it alone and building a successful name in shaping. He now shapes part-time at the shed. “I’m kind of a dinosaur,” he jokes, referring to the fact that he goes against the grain of modern computerised boards made in factories. “I completely shape boards start to finish by hand, including cutting the board.” Over the years he’s hand-crafted twins, quads and tri-fin designs, but is seeing more orders for retro single fins boards – favoured by older surfers – and similar to the ones he learned to surf on in the early ’60s. “I just made my son, the editor of Surfer Magazine, an old-school 9’7” single fin longboard. He loves it.”

Bird reckons longboarding has always been in San Diego, it just happens to be getting fashionable again. “San Diego’s weird, because it [longboarding] never really left, although some of the most progressive boards have come out of here, you might not fit riding them.”

The passion and energy for surfing at Bird’s is contagious. Californian big wave surfer and board glasser Dave Lot, 65, is adamant he’ll never stop. “I have friends now whose hips are going, their knees are going, they’ve had operations, they’re getting frail. They’ve had good jobs and made good money, but they can’t even get to their feet anymore,” he says. “I’ve slowed down, but I can still do it. If I get to the point where I can’t get to my feet, I’ll make boards I can ride on my belly, I’ll never give up. I love it so much.” The passion for riding waves can be felt all over Southern California. Families wander through the streets in wetsuits, dripping wet from the sea, cyclists peddle surfboards in racks attached to their bikes, and crowds at the beaches line up on plastic chairs to gaze at sets rolling in on the horizon. Surf culture has influenced the music, the fashion and the attitude of the people who live here. It’s a remarkable feat given that it was first popularised by a publicity stunt.

In 1907, developer Henry Huntington invited Hawaiian surfer George Freeth to ‘walk on water’ in order to promote his new beachside property. A hundred years ago they had to actively convince people to move here – the coastline was deemed too rugged, the seas wild and, despite year-round sunshine, the water was cold and uninviting. Little did Californians know that surfing would eventually draw people from across the globe to these same waters. Southern California surfers speak of the joy (or “stoke”) from riding the wave, plus a freedom and energy they feel in the water. Others claim it a physical and mental healing force.

Close by, at the mile-long soft sandy La Jolla Shores, are surfers Linda Little, Taffi Parrish, Barb Whatley and Laura Wolfgang from the San Diego Surf Ladies club. All over 50, but without a grey hair in sight, they seem to have found the secret of near-eternal youth. “Surfing has changed my whole attitude,” says Little. “I’m happier when I’m near the ocean and happy when I catch a good wave.” At 53, she surfs regularly at various spots along California’s coastline. “I kinda’ become one with the outside world, because I can’t check my emails, I can’t do the laundry, I start to pay attention to the creatures and the water, the waves and the patterns, it puts your brain on hold from everything else when you focus on the stuff around you.”

Along with Whatley, Little is a breast cancer survivor and claims surfing has a rehabilitating force. “The paddling, while it’s difficult for me, really strengthens the muscles that are left,” she explains. For 61-year-old Whatley, surfing was also an emotional boost. “Surfing is the ultimate spiritual mind-body experience. I’ve participated in many sports in my life and I’ve never found anything even close to the connection I have to life as I have through surfing. It’s just amazing. It centres me. If I’m happy, if I’m angry, if I’m sad… I know I can go to the water for relief and a mother hug from the ocean. I pretty much feel the same as I did in high school,” she says. “I’m completely fit. When things go up and down in life, surfing helps reset me, it puts everything into perspective. It makes me humble, makes me appreciate what I have, what I don’t have and how I can get better.” The ladies paddle out, sit on their boards chatting, then beautifully glide along six-foot waves. They return to the shore beaming.

Older surfers frequent many of Southern California’s beaches, but only one is affectionately named after them. Surfing instructor Souf Tihhi runs San Diego Surf School on Pacific Beach, five minutes from a break dubbed Old Man’s (also known as Tourmaline Surfing Park), where there’s a strong social surfing community. The soaring rocky outcrop off La Jolla shelters the waves here from northerly winds, and a monument honours legendary surfers like Skip Frye, Mike Hynson and late surfing radical Doc Paskowitz, all of whom have enjoyed waves here over the years. “Tourmaline is one of the historic spots in the area. The single fin style of riding started here,” explains Tihhi.

Chris Formo changed his job and moved house so he could be closer to this spot and surf every day. “Today I got an awesome wave and that one wave just made my whole day,” says 49-year-old Formo, after his morning session. “The other day I dove under three waves and a harbour seal popped up at the foot of my board with a big chunk of fish in its mouth, another great moment,” he smiles. “You forget what’s going on when you’re out there [in the water], you’re really in the moment. Even at my age I’m still getting better, I don’t feel like I’ve peaked at all.”

More than a sporting obsession, surfing is a state of mind in Southern California, explains veteran Rick Matthews, 67. “Even when you’re not in the water you’re still a surfer, it’s about how you look at things and think about things.

“That’s the difference between surfing and other sports? You might remember skiing, but do you remember a specific run? Probably not. Surfing gives detailed memories, they just somehow get burned into your subconscious.”

One of Matthews’ most poignant surfing moments was entering a surfing contest in Hunting Beach in the early ’60s. “It was the US Open of Surfing. I’d done really well, but when I got home my draft notice [for the army] was there. I couldn’t have been higher and then lower at that point. I’ll never forget it.”

Many surfers fighting in the Vietnam War tried to maintain that surfing mindset, and when they returned they used it as a way to ease post-traumatic stress. “The thing about surfing that’s particularly relevant to combat veterans is that it’s a solitary sport,” explains Matthews. “You see that about veterans – a lot of them are very solitary. With surfing you get out on the water and it’s you on your own in a vast quiet arena.”

Heroes of their beaches, some have overcome great challenges in life through surfing, others were at the heart of the ’60s surfing scene, and in their small tribes they conquered unsurfable waves, experimented with board designs, and helped pave the way for the new generation of board riders.

Rich or poor, the ocean is a great leveller. Once you catch the surfing bug you’ll be drawn to it forever. “Longboarders our age can still hold their own, no matter what aches or pains they may have,” says 53-year-old Southern California native Taffi Parrist, “I will be surfing for the rest of my life. Even though they might have to roll me down the hill and push me into the water.”

Words: Jade Bremmer / Images: Vincent Long

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