Geezer Nation

Rob Gilley has his finger on the slow, irregular pulse of the California surf scene. Illustration by Peter Spacek /

Rob Gilley

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

January 19, 2010-

Another well-hyped El Niño storm is forecasted to hit the coast today. The National Weather Service is calling for howling southwest winds and torrential rain from the get-go.

Take the kids to school under a menacing sky but no precipitation. Drive by the beach and notice that the wind is easterly.

Get a better look at the ocean in Carlsbad and the surf is big and firing. Nobody out.

Drive straight to Swami's and the lineup is practically barren. It's offshore, double-overhead and there are eight guys out.

Suit up as fast as I can and paddle out. When I reach the inside, I see who's out: Ken Mcnight, Mark Brolaski, Scott Bass, Tom English, Jack Davis, and a couple of others.

It's 8a.m., it's uncrowded and as good as I've seen Swami's in decades...and I'm out here with the same dudes that I surfed with in 1983.

It was this rare, anomalous session that really got me thinking about the graying of the surf population. About the fact that on days like this the median age could qualify for a senior discount.

When I really started to pay attention to lineup demographics, I found something surprising: even if you factor in "younger" surf crowds at places like Inside Seaside and Black's, I figure that the average age of a San Diego regular is between 40 and 50 years old.

Holy Geezerville.

And this isn't just a San Diego phenomenon. It's the whole state: the Lowers mob, the Malibu crew, the Santa Barbarians, the Ranch curmudgeons, the boys up north--they're mostly older dudes too.

Even the San Francisco D.O.A. (Double Overhead Association) lives an ironic truth: Soon many of them will be able to fulfill the other meaning of the acronym.

And the surfers I'm talking about are not your average potbellied longboarder or barrel-dodging, wave-stabbing SUPer either--they are day-in, day-out shortboarders who can still hit the lip and get pitted.

These guys might not be able to punt airs, but they take off deeper, draw a cleaner line, and put it on a rail with more finesse than most men half their age.

As far as I can tell, some of the best surfers on any given day at any given San Diego surf spot are older: the Gillards down in I.B., Richard Kenvin in La Jolla, Todd Thorton at Suckouts, Pat Connors and Mark Brolaski at Swami's, Javier Huracaya at Ponto...the list goes on.*

What in the Sam Hell is going on?

In trying to figure this out, my mind wandered in three different directions:

1. Where have all the 20- and 30-year-olds gone? Sure there are guys like Ryan Bracker and Ryan Burch and Ryan Moore and sprinkles of post-baby boom Ryans out there, but for the most part there seems to be a missing generation or two. All I seem to see these days are mini-groms and geezers. What happened to the legions of young construction workers and waiters and students and drug dealers and bellmen and security guards and bartenders who I use to compete for every wave with? Did the recession kill them off? Or has the technological revolution drained their motivation? Has Facebook sucked them into cyberspace? If so, remind me to thank Mark Zuckerberg.

2. Surf advertising is barking up the wrong tree. Instead of force-feeding us the "youth movement," they should be pandering to our decaying bodies. Savvy companies should be paying '70s surf stars like Buttons and putting them on TV,

"Shoots brah, surf all day, use Viagra all night!"

Or be providing live web feeds of balding WCT pros getting their rugs patched by The Hair Club For Men.

Or airing a Sean Briley testimonial about the benefit of Tums.

Or a Lynn Boyer infomercial about a miracle wrinkle cream.

Or providing a platform for Jeff Clark, the new pitchman for action-friendly Poligrip.

Or a Tom Curren public service announcement about the early prevention of bunions.

Or offering an online Tai Chi class called, "Cakewalking with Gerry."

Or providing a free Cialis sample tablet with every ESM girl. (A clever way to keep the lineup empty for four hours?)

3. As it turns out, I am not obsolete after all. After SURFER purged its staff recently, I am the only photojournalist with gray hair left. I am SURFER's only connection with the bulk of the surf population!

So I have a message for Brendon Thomas and the other SURFER editors: I have leverage now, bitches.

And you know what? I want a signing bonus and a new contract, Brendon, or I'm taking my octagenerian audience with me. In fact, draw a new one up right away and bring it to our next meeting, sonny boy.

Just make sure you remind me to bring my reading glasses.

*feel free to add to the list by posting a name of a ripping geezer on this blog's comment board.