Surfers’ career paths – The gnarled and the gnarly


Surfers’ career paths
The gnarled and the gnarly

Sep 30th 2011, 14:42 by J.P.P.

HERE’S a cheering thought for the middle-aged who stare wistfully out to sea: at 27.5, the average age of the world’s top ten surfers (as determined by the ASP) is only a few years younger than the average age for the top ten golfers on the PGA tour (31). The numbers would be closer but for a few grizzled golfers like Steve Stricker (44) and Phil Mickleson (41) pushing the average up. The world’s top-ranked surfer, Kelly Slater (39), is more than half way to eligibility for a state pension in Australia. The best big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, who regularly hops on waves like the one pictured above, is 44.

On the face of it this seems odd. Top surfers have tattoos, nicknames that ape those of hip-hop stars and probably use lots of emoticons when emailing. Professional golfers wear carefully-pressed slacks, use verbs that can be found in the dictionary and have minions to carry their equipment. Then there are the physical demands of the sports: surfing is exhausting and occasionally life-threatening. Golf is—well, golf is golf.

No doubt someone who knows about golf can offer some reasons as to why the top pros seem to be getting younger, but let’s ignore that for the moment and focus on those gnarly surfers. Why are they able to go on for so long?

One answer has to do with technology. Boards have developed in leaps punctuated by periods of stasis. At the moment stasis rules: the boards ridden by competitive surfers have not changed a huge amount in the past 20 years, whatever the companies that make and sell the things would have you believe. So Mr Slater does not have to compete against upstarts who grew up using superior equipment.

Another is that while surfing well demands brawn it also requires two further skills: an ability to judge waves, which must be learned over time; and excellent balance, which can be maintained into middle age. In this surfing is rather like golf—which probably requires a similar mix of athleticism and experience. Nowadays professional surfers can…

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