On a recent day at Malibu, across a head-high right that was velvety smooth and machine-perfect, I watched Allen Sarlo fang off the bottom, bang off the top, fang off the bottom, bang off the top. He must’ve done this ten times. It was almost dizzying—the fang/bang of it all. Allen is 62 years old. These were lines you might expect from a surfer half his age.
Shredding past the age of 50. It’s not an easy thing. Adult responsibilities stack up. The body stiffens. The belly wants to drop. And most frightening of all is that we are conditioned to believe that our surfing will naturally decline, that diminishing returns will have its way with us.
I don’t buy it. I believe that shredding in mid-life and beyond is a totally viable thing, provided we uphold our end of the deal, and provided we allow our perception of “shredding” to change.
Allen Sarlo concurs.
“I just love to surf,” he told me. “I do it everyday and I think about it everyday, and I imagine myself surfing good and not surfing slow. Equipment’s important. Watching what you eat is important. But it’s also really about desire. If you stop, you’re dead. You cannot stop moving. It’s much easier to maintain your physical fitness than it is to lose it and try to get it back.”
Devon Howard, age 46, shredder of all genus of board design, seconds the motion.
“For me it’s really just down to water time. If I get in the surf four to five times a week it seems to keep me quite fit—because I stay busy in the lineup.”
Devon told me that he believes that training is key, though he trains way less than he’d like to. He says that yoga—when he does it—serves him incredibly well. Allen, too, believes in a holistic, cross-training approach that includes kite surfing, foil surfing, and cycling.
I’m 53. I’ve been surfing voraciously since age 12. In the late ’80s I surfed professionally, which is its own curse/blessing. For most of my teens and twenties and even into my thirties I surfed pretty much everyday, sometimes twice a day. My board was an extension of my feet. Then I got real serious about writing, and realized that to get better at that, I needed to learn how to sit alone with my work, which meant way less water time.
This is a conundrum I’ve yet to fully solve, but the thing I’ve learned is that you have to pull your ego out of the equation—as best as you can. You also have to know your own habits and predilections. I don’t like crowds, and I will happily sacrifice wave quality for a quieter, more solitary experience. And I try to listen to the feelings within rather than the au courant moves of the day. Which is to say that I get great joy out of just streaking across the trim line. The Italo Ferreira backside helicopter? Not happening for me anytime soon.
At the end of the day, it’s about retaining a humble stoke. Devon speaks beautifully to this—
“Attitude is the biggest thing for me. I know it’s a crowded world out there, especially with Covid, and lineups are more crowded than ever and likely to be that way for quite some time. So I just try to suss it out, and if I go into a crowded lineup I need to know what I have just signed up for. You also have to not get too picky about the conditions. If you think you will just wait for the good days you will miss the whole point of surfing. Sure, ripping is rad, but let’s not forget how important the whole ritual of surfing is for us spiritually. From waking up and brewing some coffee or tea, to loading up the car, to checking the coast then suiting up and feeling that first smash of cool saltwater on your face. Anytime is a good time to go surfing, and if you can maintain that perspective you will surf until your wheels completely fall off.”