There is a Jungian theory that posits that the first half of our lives is about establishing identity and ego, and the second half is about spirituality, going deeper into ourselves. I heard about this from Tom Carroll, on a mountain bike ride high above Mokuleia on the North Shore. At the time, Tom—two-time world champion Tom—was in his early fifties and fit and vibrant and bursting with what most middle-age-and-beyond folks would kill for.
He got me thinking about surfing after 40, and I believe there is a parallel with the Carl Jung stuff. Or, to put it in surf terms, the first half of a surfing life might favor air reverses and all manner of swashbuckling, fast-twitching razzle-dazzle, but the second half draws on more subtle and experiential skills.
It’s something I think about a lot. How to keep the stoke? How to keep surfing interesting? How to not feel like it’s all downhill after 40?
Board experimentation is a good place to start. Look at Tom Carroll, Tom Curren, and Derek Hynd. At the time of our bike ride, Carroll was deep into alaias, SUPs, and a variety of fish-type boards. Curren is presently playing with skimboard variations (not to be confused with Bach’s Goldberg Variations). Hynd is FFFFing forwards, backwards, sideways, and straight into some kind of fountain of youth.
Board design puts a different frame around a surf. It’s less about you, the rider, and more about the thing under your feet. It also gets you in the water more. Trying out a new board is synonymous with that great Aussie expression regardo, as in “Goin’ out regardless of the waves.”
Wave selection. Swell chasing. Surgical striking. Nerding out on the forecasts. It can be a sort of surrogate surfing. The armchair rider of the storm. But seriously, hitting it at the right place/right time—and being able to say to your friends, “You should have been here an hour ago”—is an art form. And a snide pleasure. And a consolation when you’re older and less strong and agile.
And playing games with your surfs! Saying to yourself at water’s edge: “Ten waves, best waves I can find, all the way to the beach.” I once heard that the now septuagenarian Skip Frye plays a game with himself where he rides every wave to shore, until his fin(s) hits the sand. “Like eating every last grain of rice in the bowl,” was how my Japanese friend put it when I told him this.
The most obvious way to stay stoked is to stay fit and healthy. There’s a huge wellness movement happening today, and any number of resources to help you plunge into diet and exercise, etc. But in my experience, the Bruce Lee ethos is the most effective—
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
The great Wingnut concurs. “Flexibility over strength later in life is key,” he said. “Hanging out with surf legends over the years has shown me that. Gerry Lopez and John Peck are yoga masters. Stay limber and active.”
And the eminent Jeannie Chesser had this to say: “Just being in the water is so healing, and clears my mind so I can face the day. I also love dancing, but can’t stay up late to go clubbing anymore, so Zumba gets my dance on, and I can wear sensible shoes. But surfing is my number one motivator.”
In the 1988 PBS series The Power of Myth, mythologist and storyteller Joseph Campbell talks about acquiescence. “The problem in middle life, when the body has reached its climax of power and begins to lose it, is to identify yourself not with the body, which is falling away, but with the consciousness of which it is a vehicle.” He goes on to ask this wonderful question: “What am I? Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle?”