Anyone who thinks surfing is an “adolescent activity” needs to get down to the surf beach. Chances are, your assumptions will be challenged before you even leave the car park.
At nearly any surf beach in any state you will see lean, fit men and women in their 40s, 50s and older leaving the car park or coming up from the beach with surf boards under their arms. The teenagers and young adults who sometimes accompany them are their sons and daughters, and even their grandchildren.
Surfing unites people of all ages with a common passion. It’s an activity where the young tend to look up to older practitioners with respect for their experience, knowledge and skill because most older surfers have been riding waves since they were teenagers themselves. They have insight that only years of experience can bestow.
At 71 years of age, Joe Sweeney of Torquay in Victoriahas been surfing and involved in surf lifesaving for over 50 years.
He taught his son Jeff to surf at the age of four. Now 38, Jeff Sweeney works for a well-known surfboard manufacturer at Torquay and rides the kind of waves that leave ordinary mortals gaping in awe.
“Jeff’s daughter is nine, and she often surfs with him,” Joe notes with pride. “We sometimes go out together and Jeff will give me a bit of a push if he thinks I’m not going to make it onto a wave.”
Although Joe jokes that he’s “surfing badly, but still surfing”, no younger surfer would dare laugh at him. A former Victorian champion swimmer, 1956 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, national surf lifesaving champion, and state senior surf titleholder, he represents what they would all like to be at his age.
“I hope I’m still out there ripping like Joe when I’m 70,” says an admiring Howard Hughes who, at 57, is another former competitive surfer whose progeny often join him on the waves.
His sons – Steven, 27, Trevor, 25, and Peter, 23 – hold multiple Victorian surfing titles and are rated at world qualifying level.
Click NEXT to find out how old is too old when it comes to surfingHoward, a surfboard builder based at the Victorian coastal town of Fairhaven, has lived and breathed surfing for the past 40 years. A life member of the Lorne Surf Lifesaving Club, he began surfing competitively in 1963. Between 1990 and 2000, he won Victorian titles in short board and Malibu events for his age group and was runner up three times in national Malibu competitions.
These days, he surfs purely for pleasure at beaches around Fairhaven and takes occasional surfing trips interstate and abroad.
“I generally go out for between one and two hours a day depending on the surf and how busy I am at work,” he says. “Occasionally, I’ll take half a day off if the surf is really pumping.
“My boys often say I’m surfing as well or better than [most surfers], and sometimes even better than them – and that’s saying something!” Like most mature surfers, Howard seems to have been spared the kind of health problems usually associated with ageing. But that’s not surprising. With the constant paddling, swimming, twisting, bending, and holding your breath (when dumped by a wave), surfing produces an extremely high level of fitness and flexibility.
Howard believes surfing is a pursuit for all ages, male or female, “providing you’re still physically capable and have the passion”.
Passion is a word that often turns up in conversations with mature surfers.
Bob Smith, 56, the Over-55 Victorian Malibu titleholder, says surfing is “definitely a love affair with the ocean”.
“It’s a way of life. I surf every day if the ocean has rideable waves,” he says. “It provides contentment, stress release, happiness, brotherhood, an appreciation of nature and its power, and a feeling of spirituality.”
A former school teacher – who now works part-time looking after visitors to Torquay’s Surf World Museum, and as an honorary historian for Surfing Australia – Bob does most of his surfing around Torquay, Bells Beach, Point Impossible, Jan Juc and 13th Beach. He also travels interstate and overseas to surfing meccas such as Byron Bay, Hawaii, the Maldives and Indonesia.
“There’s a great camaraderie among surfers,” he says. “I usually go to the beach alone and meet up with people I know.”
People like 60-year-old Jack Finlay, also of Torquay. A part-time editor and writer, Jack started surfing in 1959 as a natural extension of his passion for water sports. “I started riding 16-foot hollow plywood boards with friends,” he recalls. “They were very difficult to handle – tending to nose dive when you caught a wave, so you had to do a lot of swimming.”
Study and work took him away from surfing during the 1960s but he kept his connection with the sea by purchasing a 32-foot yacht and sailing the Great Barrier Reef with his wife and child.
After selling the yacht in the mid 70s, Jack resumed surfing and has been at it ever since. He was a member of the Victorian surfing teams at the Australian titles in 1980 and 1981, and two years later, won the Victorian veterans’ title.
He no longer competes –“I didn’t feel the need to prove anything any more” – but he still surfs at least twice a week when weather and sea conditions permit.
For Jack, it’s all about involvement with nature. “I feel a great reverence for nature,” he says. “I’m humbled by its power, and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to get on a board and be part of it.”
None of these surfers can say how long they will be able to continue surfing. But when they tell of Hawaiian and USsurfing legends still riding waves in their 80s and 90s, you realise that, in surfing, there’s no such thing as “too old”.