rob gilley

Geezer Nation

| posted on October 03, 2011

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.

  • Zeke

    Just got dumber reading 1/2 way through this crap…Why are you even an editor?

    Who the f**k cares about 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.*”

    No one.

  • Zeke

    You ask where the guys in their 20s and 30s are?

    Surfing better breaks or taking off deeper and ripping behind you on the wave.

  • http://n/a zeno malan

    It could be a dentist on an island.
    It could be surfer in Washington state.

  • CK

    Zeke, if you are not a jealous big kook geezer … than you are a punk who needs to learn respect for the elder statemen of surfing and a big kook too. It’s people like you that make surfing so f**ked up these days. I’m sure you drive like an @ss too. We don’t need your kind in San Diego; so get out of the line up and go home!!!


  • Tim baker

    There’s your answer Rob, that’s where guys in their 20s and 30s are – on The web being narky bitches

  • CK

    Zeke, since you are not a jealous big kook geezer you must be a young punk! It would behoove you to show a little more respect to the elderstatemen of surfing; your parents did a really poor job rasing you!!! It’s kooks like you why the lineup and surfing has deteriorated to the way it is now. Get out/stay out of the water and go home!!!


  • cliff

    maybe because it cost a fortune to live by the beach and most rich people are kooks?

  • Christian

    Hey Zeke, GAURANTEED the Gillards rip WAY harder than you. Let me know where you surf so I can come drop in on you…You’re gonna learn way or the other…

  • Christian

    I posted twice for emphisism 🙂

  • Glenn Gould

    Good points Zeke. Enough said.

  • Still cordless

    Old guys are a problem too. Sunset Cliffs. That the old guys here were overlooked between IB and La Jolla is a good thing, and perhaps testament to how they USED to be.

    The Cliffs. Wearing a cord used to identify you as a novice, kook, pussy, or all three. Not wearing one used to give a newbie or grom a shred of respect. The leashless-ness used to create a skill hierarchy; thinned the crowd a but while you or another was swimming in.

    The Cliffs. Newbreak. Used to use localism, though not very well or justified, to keep the crowds down.

    Now? The old locals (esp. at Newbs… and Ab) all wear leashes if above shoulder high. Let tons of leash wearing kids do whatever they want. SUP.

    Old guys ruined the Cliffs by NOT adhering to their rules. If you’re too old to reliably take of on sets, or deep, or when it’s big, or hollow without having the safety of a leash, then it’s time to wait on the shoulder or go to Subs!

  • Duc

    “If you’re too old to reliably take of on sets, or deep, or when it’s big, or hollow without having the safety of a leash, then it’s time to wait on the shoulder or go to Subs!”

    Same guy who barks about other people wearing full suits when he’s out in shorts freezing his ass off.

  • Michelle Bossuot

    Your article caught my eye…nice.

    Older/younger…we’re all surfers and that’s rad. Showing a lack of respect for the older generation who paved the way for today’s generation is a little ignorant and weirdly hostile (relax yo). The talented young rippers who know their history and respect the surfers that have become before them are the most amazing and innovative thinkers, creators, doers in surfing. Some of the most talented young and older surfers today are paving the way for the future and are totally inspiring 🙂

    Age is relative and is fun to compare. Your character will speak for itself…and it speaks volumes.

  • Michelle Bossuot

    Oh, and Zeke, please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with surfing history, and lack of respect for surfing or knowledge in general. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things that have neither been said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse…you are, after all, anonymous.

  • Old Dog

    Leashes were invented so girls and the handicapped could enjoy the sport also. Live dirty, surf clean, die young.

  • Joe Brophy

    You’re right now that I think about it. Was surfing small Tourmaline today. Now that I think about it, there were mostlyl old guys and women. Skip was out getting a few too. Surf there 4x a year maybe. But the ‘old’ people vide is great there. Everyone is just enjoying life.

    And the guy ranting about the cliffs please lighten up. It is a really fun place that 1. Should not be talked about over the ‘net’ (my bad) and 2. The ‘Locals’ there are now OLD and can’t enforce their crap any more. I am 38 now and when I was in my 20’s and got snaked and threatened to be punched out. Now I am in my prime and those donkey’s are in their early 60’s. Now when I see young kids in the water I just smile and say hi.

  • Buccaneer

    Buttons at white fence
    Jack Jensen at turn arounds
    Too many guys in Oceanside to list…
    A bit older then 40 to 50 but we ain’t going anywhere soon.
    And Zeke the geek…..

  • Buccaneer

    And I miss you at Goat Hill

  • JH

    Zeke the geek I’m a young 11 year old grom and you are not a good role model for us up and coming rippers. Please do not come to my beach with you BK attitude!

  • Neptune of the North

    That picture is obviously inaccurate. Everyone knows that guy should be holding a paddle next to his walker…and yes, I do blame Laird.

  • gucci mahn

    (Nicki Minaj)
    I just had a epiphany,
    I need to go to Tiffany’s
    Fendi on my slippers & my cookies always slippery
    I don’t need help,
    I pay da bills on time

  • Geo

    love the article. I really see the same in the lineup. also think reading some of the magazines lately i feel they cater to a younger crowd and wonder if i should even renew.

  • Scrump

    Your answer lyes in the expense of living in a beach community in California. Who can afford to raise a kid near the beach any more? and if you can, youre probably at work most days..all day. Pretty simple.

  • BG

    Those of us in our 20’s and 30’s are currently too entrenched in protesting for what the older generations had. Maybe if your ilk, those born around the Eisenhower/Kennedy years, hadn’t allowed Nixon and his cronies from the Chicago School of Economics to implement a destructive economic model, or better yet, voted for your classmate “W”, twice, nonetheless, or that sanctimonious ass Christie, we could be sharing more lineups and enjoying fall’s gifts (yep I’m an east coaster). However, in order to attempt any sort of security, never mind social, we work 2-3 jobs and scour online posts for more or slightly better opportunities (and break to read the occasional surf blog). So for all of you “geezers” that didn’t have to suffer through debilitating school loan payments, insufferable mortgage interest rates, severe bank penalties, lack of healthcare, and overall bleak outlook towards the future, as you began your independent march in life, I say enjoy the fruits of your parents labor. You get empty lineups on solid swells, because like your parents generation, and certainly their parents before them, we cant afford to miss work to enjoy it with you. And for that I am envious.

  • L.F.J

    HAHA.. Tim Baker, well spottet! 🙂

  • deacon

    poor little bg,

    what? your peruvian art history PhD not working out for you in 2011?

    instead of not showering and attending some lame protest, go swing a hammer, wait tables in a horrible restaurant, or sweat it out on a charter fishing boat. thats what our type of “ilk” had to do. and generations before us snickered at us for these “tough jobs”. however, we at least learned a work ethic that earned graduate degrees, catapulted careers at investment management firms, drove us to start our own succesful self-made businesses, and ultimately allowed us to shape our own philanthropic agendas. and guess what? we paid off our school loans, saved money to buy homes at current ALL TIME LOW INTEREST rates, took care of our families well, and funded our looming retirement during the oh-so-scary “lost decade”. we even managed to get in a nice session or boat trip here and there.

    so, put down your 9th cup of starbucks today, dust yourself off, and actually go do something to make a difference in YOUR own life. then, you can paddle out to the lineup and tell us how great it feels to be on your way to geezer nation. because the only handout you’re getting from us geezers is one solid set wave. you’ll have to earn the rest…

    good luck,


    ps: my parents said to tell you that you’re being a little bitch.

  • BG

    you voted for Reagan too didnt you Deacon

  • JS

    I know for a fact BG works his arse off blue collar and restaurant style…AND gets to surf on occasion. But alas, he is a dirty liberal…its better than being whatever deacon is, a smug self-righteous know-it-all. Later, im gonna get some set waves before the grommies get off school.

  • deacon

    nope, sorry to disappoint bg. i was born in 1972. politics and religion can be discussed at the fools forum over at fox news and huff post. struggling is part of being young. embrace it. they say youth is wasted on the young — i call b.s. an say it’s the best time of your life. struggles and all. because that kid you see with nothing to eat in a third world country on your way to surf perfect left handers? i bet his parents wish they had some of our “struggles”.


    Old Guys Rule.

  • deacon

    ha! good one js, and thanks for the compliment. hope you and bg enjoy your mid-afternoon thursday session. (and, yes there is a touch of jealousy here) you boys have it real tough. if you’re worried about our kids getting home from school and taking your set waves, well then we know where you sit in the pecking. sorry, gotta run and pick my oldest up from one of the protests – we have to stop and pick him up a new pair of vans on the way home. take care.

  • MSG

    Funny article Rob. I too have noticed all the old(er) rippers in the water these days and have thought what it will be like when I get old and try to surf….WAIT is 41 old now? OH CRAP! Where’s my leash?

    On the leash-less topic, I motored out to a certain point a few good southies ago and forgot my leash. Surfed great head highs at “D-tanks” and didn’t loose my board once. Just focused on nice clean lines and had a blast.

    To all the young guns out there, life’s a bitch! It will be interesting to see if you’re still surfing in your 40’s, 50’s and beyond. Just wait until you’re married with children MUAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA. You have no idea. Now where’s my Surfboards Hawaii single fin from 1978?

  • Mike Dreebin

    Still out at Malibu after 49 years. What we really need are digital watches with BIG numbers. We can’t wear reading glasses in the water.

  • Chuy

    Rob thanks for the article, but I know where all those surfers are…..They are playing no-friendo (nintendo, x-box, etc), and they are all fat because of it…..

  • Whamo

    Get it while you can! Someday you will not be able to surf.

  • Robbie Nelson

    Rob, the next time you are out at Swami’s look for Jeff Morris. On the smaller days you’ll see him killing it on a super short, super wide board that Jeff from RAT surfboards is making now for us older geezers.

    It’s hard to miss Jeff. He’ll be the one SMASHING the lip and doing crazy airs. Yes, airs. He’ll be launching (and sticking) airs with the same variations that kids half his age. Or you’ll find him surfing with his 3 year old son, Dane Curren, at D Street.

    Just don’t get him stated on the whole Dane Reynolds thing or prepare yourself for an earful.

    Hope you are well,

    Robbie Nelson,
    Former Encinitas local, now on the East Coast

  • East Coaster

    It takes time and effort to not only learn to swim but to learn to surf.
    We cannot control the surf, it takes dedication. You have to surf many many bad days for the occasional good day.
    No instantaneous results, no turning on the waves, no making the water warmer, just surf what you get.
    And most importanly for those of us who do surf, enjoy.

  • Jaime Glenn

    Do not ask me how was my wave because I cannot remember by the time I make it back out… No, really.

  • JA

    What an insightful blog. (Yes, I acknowledge that I’m a year late to this party, but I found myself cleaning out some email on a rainy day and couldn’t help responding.) I too have noticed this evolution, or perhaps more properly “stagnation,” in the lineups. I’m less qualified to make such an observation these days because I rarely find myself surfing or even much motivated to hit the water, but on those occasions when I do, it is definitely a different vibe and scene no matter where I go. When I was a once a day regular around Carlsbad, Encinitas and Oceanside, it was super competitive amongst a lineup that consisted of 75% of surfers 25 years old and under. Oh well, makes it easier for me to catch waves I suppose on those memorable days when I get the urge to surf.

  • Clay Feeter

    Speaking of San Francisco’s/Ocean Beach “DOA”/Double Overhead Assoc. club does ANYbody know how to get ahold of Doc ‘Hazard’ Rennecker? I was a member of the club in the late 70s and would love to see if Mark can post some of the many “DOA” days photos someplace for us to see.