The Butterfly Effect

Rob Gilley in his early forties, right before his surfing fell apart. Photo: Hougard

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

“Have you started to butterfly paddle yet?”

That was my friend’s concise retort. He had reduced my long-winded speech about age and surfing to one simple observation. His theory was that once you find yourself paddling two-arms at a time, you’re done. You’re over the hill. You’re toast. You might as well start using words and phrases like, “sonny boy,” and “credenza.”

Age and surfing is a subject I’ve dedicated a lot of thought to. I didn’t start surfing regularly until I was 18, and was at least 25 before I felt satisfied with my skill level. More than a quarter of my life had passed before I became comfortable with my surfing ability.

Damn it.

So always at the back of my mind was how long I could sustain reasonable shortboarding skills. I even became paranoid enough to break it down like this: if I surfed 250 times a year at an average of twenty 10-second rides per session, that’s 5,000 seconds a year, or 83 minutes of actually standing up on a board. If I was able to sustain my surfing for 15 years, that means I only had 20 hours of surfing left before I became a kook again.

Damn it.

So that’s why I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my early forties presented no discernable obstacles to my skill. As far as I could tell, I surfed as well at 40 as I did at 25, maybe better. I felt as comfortable and loose as I did when I was 15 years younger.

But that’s right before everything went to hell.

I can’t point to one exact moment, but right around age 45 things started to change. Very subtly at first: a mistimed drop here, a farmed rail there, but something was different. A split second loss in timing, slower paddling speed…I couldn’t really pinpoint the exact culprit. All I knew was some very disturbing moments were starting to creep into my surfing.

So since then I’ve tried to warn every young surfer I know: Age 45 is it. The glass ceiling. The beginning of the end.

But right when these surfers bury their faces in horror, I give them the good news: That despite diminished performances, you still enjoy surfing the same amount. It’s weird, but despite increased kooked-out moments, you still have a great time. Instead of shame, those full-on, pitched-from-the-top mummy tosses out into the flats become sources of humor and even enjoyment.

And maybe there’s some sort of life lesson there. That surfing isn’t really about performance, it’s more about immersion—about joy. About the simple act of paddling out.

So in the wake of this revelation, I have learned to mine the good moments from my sessions and let the myriad blunders pass off with a Dalai Lama chuckle.

And I’m happy to report that I haven’t started to paddle with two-arms at a time, and probably won’t for a while for fear of my friend’s butterfly acid test.

Or maybe I should say antacid test.