Hawaii Surfers Surfing Past 60
Silver Surfers: Meet five surf legends who, in their 60s and 70s, still hit the beach.
The winter surfing season has arrived, and with it crowds of fresh-faced young wave riders eager to challenge themselves in the famous Hawaiian surf. Surfing will always be a sport for the young, but it’s no longer a sport only for the young. Look closely at the scene these days and you will see more gray heads speckling the water, more age lines beneath the sunscreen and more potbellied grandparents pulling longboards off their roof racks. As Baby Boomers start finding Social Security checks in the mail, the Age of the Senior Surfer has dawned. Not surprisingly, their numbers include legendary surfers, people who, in their prime, made the sport what it is today. Laura Blears. Randy Rarick. Jock Sutherland. Joey Cabell. Gerry Lopez. We found them still surfing, still contributing to the sport. If anything, their relationship with the waves has only deepened and improved.
Laura Blears was so excited about jumping into the ocean when her family moved from Los Angeles to Waikiki in the mid-1950s that she boarded the airplane wearing her bathing suit beneath her dress so she wouldn’t waste any time changing upon arrival.
Before she finished kindergarten, she had become a regular at Waikiki Beach, riding waves on the shoulders of the beach boys at Queens, standing up on waves by herself at Baby Queens and befriending luminaries such as Sandy the surfing dog. At the age of 12 she was entering surf contests, and, by the time she hit her mid-20s, she had become one of the first professional women surfers.
Today, at 60, her enthusiasm for jumping into the water hardly seems to have diminished. At night she works as a hostess at Kimo’s restaurant in Lahaina, but by day she leads aquasize classes, trains for rough-water swimming races such as the Maui Channel Swim, and—yep—she surfs. Sometimes she even competes, most recently representing Kimo’s at the 2011 Duke’s Fest surf contest, held at Waikiki Beach, her old stomping grounds.
“I just love surfing, period,” Blears says. “Luckily for me, I never stopped.”
Of course, surfing today is not quite like surfing in the old days, when she would paddle out anywhere without regard for crowd conditions. If there’s a lineup where the kids will let auntie take a wave on account of she’s the auntie, it’s not Honolua Bay on a good day, with 50 guys leaching testosterone into the water. Thirty years ago, Blears would happily go head to head with the boys there. Now she seeks less crowded spots, even if they’re less than perfect.
“I’m soul surfing,” she says. “I just want to have a good time. If I’ve got an hour-and-a-half in the water, I want to catch 10 waves, not two.”
Blears comes from a surfing family. Both of her brothers, her sister and even her parents surfed. Her well-known father, Lord “Tally Ho” Blears, also wrestled, playing the villain in the theatrical wrestling melodramas that were big in Hawaii in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1970s, Laura Blears achieved a level of pop-culture stardom of her own. For three television seasons she competed in the ABC Wide World of Sports series The Superstars, which pitted top athletes from different sports against each other. She also posed in her bikini holding San Miguel beer for promotional posters that turned up in liquor stores and bars around the country. And she posed without the bikini for a 1975 issue of Playboy, which featured photos of her surfing at Yokohama Bay in the buff. “I think everybody’s either surfed or swam naked at least once, right?” she asks.
Who’s to say. But certainly her skinny-surfing days are behind her. Aren’t they?
“I don’t want to say I might never do that again,” she says. “I might. Not for a picture, though. It’d be just for fun.”
Randy Rarick knows there will come a day when he can’t paddle out at Sunset Beach anymore, but that day hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, he’s surfing Sunset every morning and most afternoons, waves permitting.
“If there’s anything rideable, I put in a minimum of an hour in the water, even if it’s crappy,” he says.
Rarick is 62, and surfing has dominated his life for five decades. It’s his business, his vocation and his pleasure. He works through the winter as a surfboard shaper and as a surf-contest organizer, and, when summer flattens the North Shore, he chases the Southern Hemisphere’s winter swells. For most of his life he’s been seeking waves in such far-flung places as Angola, Namibia, Ghana, Albania, Greece and Lebanon, and he may very well be the most well-traveled surfer on the planet.
As executive director of the Triple Crown of Surfing, Rarick is the “voice of authority” on the North Shore. He’s the Establishment that the young rebels get to grumble about. But when he’s just out surfing, he’s a role model for longevity, the ancient dude who not only paddles out at Sunset, but continues to rip. “I’m still surfing, I like to think, as good as ever,” he says. “But I’m not as physically fit as I was at 40. The bar is lowering.”
While physical decline is inevitable, it’s not as if Rarick has found no benefit at all from the five decades of surfing. “Experience makes a huge difference,” he says. “You learn the lineups, the rips and the swells. You know which waves to take off on and which to pass on. You get more picky and particular. It almost becomes like picking a fine wine. You don’t want to pick any old rot-gut anymore.”
One of the keys to Rarick’s long tenure on the North Shore—aside from owning a house at Sunset Point, a 30-second walk to Sunset Beach—is the emphasis he puts on surfing simply for the fun and thrill of it. Believe it or not, not all surfers are so motivated. In his 35 years as a contest organizer, he’s seen the terrible toll that “ego-driven surfing,” as he calls it, has taken on one generation of pro surfer after another. “It astounds me when guys find that they just can’t surf as well as they used to and they give up surfing,” he says. “I find that so odd.”
Rarick learned to surf in Waikiki as a child, and Waikiki figures prominently in his surfing retirement plan. “When I can’t surf Sunset anymore I’m going to move back to town and finish my surfing career where I started,” he says. “I’ll just come full circle.”
If you want to see what a lifetime of surfing combined with the physically demanding work of a roofer can do for you, take a look at Jock Sutherland. At 63, he’s in better shape than many his age even realize is possible. And all he does to stay fit is surf, work, stretch a little and maybe go for an occasional hike with his girlfriend, he says.
Sutherland is one of the rare North Shore surf stars of the 1960s who is not only still around, but who is holding his own on 15-foot days. He has no intention of backing off any time soon. “I could probably surf for another 15 years or so,” he says.
For inspiration, he looks to some of the surfing legends from an earlier generation, such as Rabbit Kekai and Woody Brown, who surfed into their 90s. He also thinks of fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who celebrated his 70th birthday by swimming a mile while handcuffed, shackled and towing 70 boats filled with people.
Sutherland won all sorts of surfing titles in his day, but his most enduring honor has to be the surf spot that’s named for him—Jocko’s. It’s the freight-train left that breaks directly in front of the house in Haleiwa where he grew up and still lives. The proximity makes it hard for Sutherland to miss a good swell there, even during the work week. He can wake up at 6:30 a.m., catch several waves, and still be pounding nails at 8 a.m. “It’s a nice way to start the day,” he says. “And end the day, too.”
In his youth, Sutherland had a reputation for fearlessness that could cross the line into recklessness. Age, thankfully, has tempered that. “There’s not so much impetuousness now,” he says. “I don’t blithely paddle out at 20-foot Waimea anymore.”
In fact, he concedes, he doesn’t surf monster-size Waimea Bay at all anymore, then adds, “Unless it’s early morning and there’s no crowd—but that’s a long shot.”
Pipeline is a different story. Sutherland was one of the first surfers to ride the tube at that treacherous break, and he still makes appearances there now and then. It helps that a lot of the elder statesmen in Pipeline’s famously competitive lineup—older surfers in their 40s and 50s—know Sutherland and hoot and holler supportively when he paddles for a takeoff.
“They’ll shout me into a wave, and when the younger guys see the older guys encouraging me, they go, ‘Maybe the old man knows what he’s doing,’” Sutherland says. “Basically, there’s nobody my age out there.”
The Encyclopedia of Surfing describes Joey Cabell as “arguably the finest all-around surfer of the ’60s, and certainly the decade’s best in international competition.” In his day, Cabell was known as an ultra-serious competitor, an athlete who would push himself to extremes, and a speed demon.
“I was really driven all through the ’60s, entering every contest, dominating the world,” says Cabell, who turns 73 this month and still runs The Chart House, the steak and seafood joint he opened at the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in 1968.
He still surfs, too, but his impulse toward world domination has long since given way to simply finding convenient and uncrowded waves. These days he’s more likely to paddle out at Number Threes in Waikiki than make the long drive to the North Shore. Not that he isn’t game for a long-distance surf safari when the opportunity arises.
He spent a good part of the 1970s sailing around the South Pacific in the 43-foot ocean racing catamaran he built, surfing empty reef breaks right off the boat. He made one such trip a few summers ago, sailing 1,210 miles to Fanning Island, half way between Honolulu and Tahiti, to spend a month with his son and a friend fishing, diving and surfing. “There’s a really nice left there in our summer, which is their winter,” he says.
Cabell started his surfing career in the 1940s, riding the rollers at Waikiki on a big redwood plank with a V-tail and no fin. Later, he moved up to a lighter, balsa-wood board shaped from a surplus World War II life raft. He liked staying at the cutting edge of surfboard technology, and when the shortboard revolution of the late ’60s supplanted the bulky longboards that had been the norm, he shaped a shortboard for himself that he called The White Ghost. He designed it for speed, which was a hallmark of his surfing.
Nobody flew across the steep face of a wave faster than Cabell, who tore down the line in a cannonball tuck, with feet and knees close together, like a downhill ski racer. The skiing stance came naturally to him. He was born and raised in Honolulu, but he went to college on the Mainland and discovered snow. He became a top ski competitor and developed a lifelong pattern of spending summers in the Islands and winters in Aspen, Colo. It was in Aspen that he opened the original Chart House in 1961, followed by others in California and then Waikiki, all with the same dark wood interiors contrasting with the bright aloha wear of the servers.
Cabell’s fitness regimen involves power walking the steep grades near his home on Wilhemina Rise, going on 15- to 25-mile bike rides, and working out in a one-man canoe. That’s on top of summer surfing and 120 days of winter skiing and snowboarding. And the diet that drives his highly-active septuagenarian lifestyle? “Lots of steak and seafood,” he says.
Sixty-three-year-old Gerry Lopez, master of the Bonzai Pipeline, left Hawaii a long time ago to raise a family in the high desert of Eastern Oregon. Two mountain ranges stand between him and the nearest surf spot. They haven’t stopped him from surfing.
“I go as much as I can, and I go a lot,” says Lopez, who has gotten deeply into standup paddle surfing these days.
When not snowboarding or traveling out of state, Lopez frequently gasses up his RV and drives the 200 miles from his home in Bend to the coast for his SUP surfing fix. “I go out in just about any conditions,” he says. “I like it when it’s big, but, yeah, I’ll go for anything. At this point in my life, my standards have slid.”
His appreciation for the surfing, though, is stronger than ever. “I always say the first 20 years of surfing was kind of like a little test to see if I was really interested, and it was only after that when I started to see the depths of what surfing has to offer and how large it really is, how complete, how much there is to learn from it,” he says.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lopez made a name for himself as the best tube rider in the world at the Bonzai Pipeline—he’s actually called “Mr. Pipeline.” He had taken up yoga in 1968, and it had a profound and noticeable influence on his surfing. The camera loved his grace-under-pressure style, and the lyrical cinematic montage of Lopez at Pipe turned up in so many ’70s surf flicks it became a genre convention. Lopez also acted in a few Hollywood movies, including a co-starring role beside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian.
Lopez frequently gets back to Hawaii. He has made five trips in 2011 (one to compete in the Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championship) and he planned to be back this month to do commentary for the Billabong Pipe Masters, a surfing event once known as the Chiemsee Gerry Lopez Pipe Masters. “It’s a great excuse to go surfing,” he says.
Yoga continues to be a big part of his life. “As I’ve gotten older, especially when I’m here in Bend, it’s probably the biggest part of my daily routine,” he says. He practices for two or three hours each morning, and then either teaches an afternoon class at the local yoga shala or takes someone else’s class. He also has a regular gig leading yoga and standup paddle-surfing camps at a Mexican beach resort.
Does Gerry Lopez ever entertain thoughts of someday retiring from surfing altogether? Hardly.
“Why give it up? It’s a good thing. If you got it going, keep paddling,” he says.
David Thompson is a freelance journalist who has written for HONOLULU on subjects ranging from donkeys to vog to dining tours.