Totally stoked! Longtime surfers avoid the wipeouts of aging in ‘Surfing for Life’

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Whidbey Life Magazine

When surfer and gerontologist Roy Earnest proposed an idea for a film about aging surfers to award-winning filmmaker David Brown, he was clear about one thing.

“Growing old doesn’t have to be bummer,” Earnest said.

With “Surfing for Life,” a documentary written and directed by Brown, with Earnest as his co-producer, these guys found the perfect group of joyful, rebellious, totally stoked ladies and gents to illustrate that point.

This film is an incredibly inspiring portrait of 10 pioneers of surfing, all of whom were over the age of 60 and still surfing when the film was shot in 1998. This award-winning, heart-lifting, 68-minute documentary will be shown at the Clyde Theatre in Langley at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13  in the first in the Clyde’s new 2013 Films and Filmmakers Series that will happen on Sunday afternoons through the winter and spring. (The screening starts at 1 p.m. with another hour-long documentary Brown made titled, “Going the Distance: Journeys of Recovery,” which profiles four survivors of traumatic brain injury.)

Surfer Woody Brown was 88 in "Surfing for Life" and was still surfing at age 94.

Surfer Woody Brown was 88 in “Surfing for Life” and was still surfing at age 94.

The stars of “Surfing for Life” are John “Doc” Ball (93), Woody Brown (88), Rabbit Kekai (79), John Kelly (81), Eve Fletcher (73), Anona Napoleon (60), Fred Van Dyke (70), Shay Bintliff (64) and Peter Cole (69). Thanks to some great archival photos and film, the audience gets to see what many of these folks looked like as young people; athletic, tanned, happy and gorgeous. In the film, they all still glow with a vitality for life, which really sends home the message about how to age well. As Doc Ball says in the film about surfing, “It keeps you stoked! and you don’t pay attention to your age then; it don’t seem to matter.”

“When I’m out there surfing I’m able to let go of a lot of things into the water; whatever problems come my way,” Napoleon says.  “You have sense of being one with all of creation, being one with the ocean, being one with the heavens; there’s a feeling of completeness.”

After seeing the film, surfing moves up a notch on the bucket list. But even more than that there’s a feeling that life is too short not to live it well. Living well means doing the thing you are passionate about. That’s what keeps you young, and the people in this film are the “poster children” for that concept.

It’s the actual challenge of becoming one with the wave, being very close to nature in that way, that seems to be the magic for the surfers. But all of them seem to be also very serious about having fun, too, and giving love.  In exploring key aspects of healthy aging, as well as elements of rich, well-spent lives, the documentary underlines the critical importance of staying active and involved as one ages, along with the value of friendship, family and love, memories, service, spirituality, activism for social justice, closeness to nature, playfulness, humor and healthy acceptance of the changes that are inevitable to an ageing body.

The thing one notices about all of these elders is their natural aptitude for happiness that stems directly from their relationship to surfing. Growing old, for these folks, certainly has its challenges, but it doesn’t look anything like a bummer.

Here's "Surfing for Life" filmmaker David Brown behind the camera. (Photos courtesy of David Brown)

Here’s “Surfing for Life” filmmaker David Brown behind the camera. (Photos courtesy of David Brown)

Brown is an Emmy Award-winning San Francisco filmmaker who brings the film to Whidbey Island through his ties here with childhood friend, local business owner Deborah Valis of Island Athletic Club, and also Drew Kampion, the surfing journalist and author, whom he met through the surfer’s circuit on another film. Brown will attend the screening and be on hand for a Q and A following the screening.

“Surfing for Life” is narrated by actor Beau Bridges, and uses a great soundtrack of slack key guitar music in the spirit of aloha mixed with the music of the periods when these surfers were making their marks on the shores of California and Hawaii. (Sound designers Paul Zahnley and Ross Wilson won the Emmy Award for sound design for the film.) From the 1930s through the big band Swing years to rock ‘n roll and the Beach Boys, the music elegantly links the life stories of these graceful folks with interviews, contemporary day-in-the-life footage, contemporary surfing footage and an abundance of extraordinary archival material, including images of several of the world’s finest early surf filmmakers and photographers, including LeRoy Grannis, the founding photographer of Surfer Magazine. Through the portraits of these inspirational and lively elders, the documentary challenges all the pre-conceived notions of aging presented in the media and commonly held in America’s youth-oriented culture.

The select older surfers in “Surfing for Life” overturn the common perception of surfing as an activity only for young people and, in the process, make an important statement about the human potential of later life. It’s sad to know that some of these wave-riders have died, but such a film as this keeps their spirits alive. As the late Doc Ball said, “I’ll keep surfing until I die, then I’ll be riding light waves up in heaven.”

Among other notable projects, Brown also made “Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown,” an hour-long profile of Brown, who becomes in that film even more legendary as a 94-year-old surfer.

Brown has made a slew of interesting films. Check out his website here. For the Clyde Theatre go to


Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist, who also writes the Duff ‘n Stuff blog for the Tuesday editions. 

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