The Butterfly Effect

| posted on January 29, 2013

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.

  • Mike

    “pitched-from-the-top mummy tosses out into the flats”. Classic. I experienced this old man syndrome recently during a softball game. Running for a ball, I tripped too slow to react I fell down sideways, my reaction time was so slow I didn’t have time to put my arms out. I mentioned to my wife I took an “old man” fall.

    I’m 39 so I guess I have 6 more years. I knew this going into my 30s that I didn’t have much time left. I’ve been trying to get in all the moves I’ve ever wanted to do knowing it will be over soon.

  • Adam

    Well written, but I disagree with the age you chose. I would but it at 55 based off what I have seen from the old guys in the water.

  • Rad Rob

    its a state of mind…….I got hooked at 14 yrs of age because I went faster on a long board than riding waves on rafts up to that point…….it was ” fun ” and still is 46 years later

  • Adam


  • Scott

    This is depressing

  • David

    I’d encourage everyone to add some martial arts training to your routine. Where you spend only seconds riding waves for all your hours in the water, you will spend hours every week in the kind of split-second reflex, strength, flexibility and spatial awareness training every week if you do some karate or aikido training. Plus there’s some added value in dealing with troublemakers, if it comes to that. Aikido, by the way, is the most analogous to surfing. And it teaches you how to fall, too, which beats a mummy toss any day. : )

  • Greg

    A serious training regimen is essential. If you’re over 25, you don’t surf to get in shape, you get in shape to surf. I’m 55, ride a 5’11” as my regular board, and I’m having more fun than ever after 40 years of surfing. First, you can’t be carrying any extra weight. Second, what works for me is a lot of yoga, swimming, and strength/ balance training using a bosu ball. We will all slow down eventually, but you can keep it going longer than you think.

  • D. B.

    Guys. Have you been watching Slater? T Knox. Those and many others are still killing it. Look at recent footage of Pottz, Carrol. We’re good and can still improve into your 50’s. it’s about mindset and breaking down barriers.

  • Bill

    I ran almost daily for 27 years, which helped me stay fit for snow skiing and cycling. I also had the wind to hike the mountains here in Wyoming. Then at age 50, my left arm went numb while riding my motorcycle one day. I thought I was having a stroke, but it turned out to be 2 degenerated discs in my neck. The doctor said my heart and lungs were in great shape from running, but my neck was a mess. I surfed back in the late 60’s when I lived on the coast, but now if I look up for too long, it pinches the nerves in my neck and I am in agony. So I walk, ride a townie bike, and I doubt if I could paddle out unless I knee paddled like we did on longboards in the 60’s. I agree with the author. Find the Zen in your sport to keep the stoke. I’m happy to still be out there at age 60.

  • kristian

    State of mind..? After a broken spine, knee surgery, and nerve damage.. I still find a way to enjoy the sport..

  • Jimmy the Saint

    Rob Gilley – That photo caption is a joke right? That is Curren surely… If not you rip! Good that you are writing about surfing again and not about cameras or film. Not that those articles aren’t interesting, but a computer screen never does a photo justice, and while I would love to see the prints of the 50 shades of grey photos, I don’t get much pleasure seeing them through a pixelated computer screen!

  • bert in scotland

    Different people (of distinct races) age differently.

    Also, lifestyle choices (diet, booze, drugs, sedentary life) have an impact on how we age.

    Getting old sucks, but the alternative is not very attractive either.

    Getting old disgracefully is an art form!

    — bert

  • Lucas

    Bottom line: you spent most of your life surfing without knowing its true purpose.

  • Larry

    No glass ceiling here. I’ve been surfing since my teens and I’m now 53. I love going up the youngsters and never backing down. I’m still aggressive when it comes to catching waves but mellow in the lineup. The key is staying fit. Too many older surfers just want to catch more waves so they get a longer board, instead of working out and building paddling muscles. Short boards
    are too much fun to give up on. Oh yeah, I’m amazed it all the surfers that smoke cigarettes. Are you kidding me! I cherish my lungs and need them for those extra long hold downs. Keep surfing, Bra!!!

  • David Bracey

    67, and still at it after 48yrs in the water. Take it from me, performance doesn’t matter. When you’re in the water with your sons, daughter and grandsons, the worlds a great place. Goofy but still struggle a bit on rights – one day!

  • G

    Do all things mentioned here + listen to loud rocking a$$ music and be with way younger women.
    Then if that doesn’t help your surfing, who cares.