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Dad Dance: What’s Behind Surfing’s Fetish For Older Men?

One time they were just like you
Drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue
Help the aged
Don’t just put them in a home

– Pulp

“I’m old, I could take the Search sticker off… it gets boring after a while” – Tom Curren, Free Scrubber

ITV made a documentary on the American surf scene back when Kelly Slater was still in high school in Cocoa Beach. As Kelly parks his hatchback in the school carpark and rushes to class, Merrick needles gleaming in the back, it’s already clear that this beguiling, green eyed 15-year-old, some kind of divine reincarnate of both The Duke and Jesus of Nazareth was to be the future of the sport.

What wasn’t so obvious was that he’s still be the present of the sport, over thirty years later.

From Florida, the program makers travelled to SoCal, where to meet various Huntington Beach surf fixtures. One, a local poet/writer/commentator who might have been called Spike, wearing a T-shirt over a long sleeve tee, glasses and a beret. Spike leans in and enthuses profoundly, to camera. 

“Wanna know why they’re up in the dark man, headed out there?” he asks, indicating the rolling surf behind. “It’s more than ‘look at me’. It’s more than adrenaline… it’s their daddy. It’s the only thing that can toss you up in the air and catch you again, like your father.” 

It seemed like a throwaway line from someone quite fond of the sound of his own voice, but perhaps Spike was onto something.  

Could daddy issues, what therapists like to describe as the loss of paternal authority be part of the reason we’re fixated by sportsmen long since gone grey, bald or both?

Surfing has long been the spiritual home of the youthful, the virile. It’s also enjoyed a deep nostalgia phase, fixating on those whom used to be youthful, in their honey tinged heyday.

Today, it’s having to go a little further to get its rocks off. Its latest niche kick, is for older dudes. Our greatest term of endearment and respect, after all, is ‘uncle’.

When Rip Curl released Free Scrubber a couple of weeks back, a 15 min film by Vaughan Blakey made in Mexico during lockdown last year, it quickly went in to the top ten videos on YouTube globally, captivating surf fans the world over.

What could so entrance a sporting audience about a man who won his last World Title 31 years ago? Perhaps a ripping yarn or juicy exposé into some famous myth or scandal? The Occy rivalry? What he really thinks about Slater? Some kind of Agassi-style addiction bare all?

Aside from a few quirky cut aways, it’s just action, mainly. An actual action video of a 56 year-old-man surfing. Looking great, of course, and not just any man, one of the sport’s all time greats. But an old one nevertheless.

One who’ll be qualifying for his free pensioner’s bus pass in a couple of years (in London & Wales, at least, with a slightly longer wait in the shires).

And looking it too. Pretty trim, considering, but well worn. Weathered. Like a tanned Tony Robinson all bulging, bag lined eyes, like a nightshift worker woken up three hours early from his nap.

Free Scrubber was been universally adored around the surf world. With comments ranging from ‘Best video ever’ to merely the mealy ‘Best in last 15 years’ (when he was a spritely 43).

To complete the full fetishisation, there’s even a watch along YouTube video of a coach ‘breaking down’ our favourite near OAP’s surfing. Nearly three thousand people have watched two South Africans watching Tom, pausing it to talk at length about his arms, legs and hips.

Meanwhile Kelly Slater, now 49, is still arguably surfing’s biggest draw. He was one of the pre event favourites for Pipemasters in December, the tour’s most challenging event. As a hissing cyclone swell lit up the Gold Coast, in the New Year, arguably the highest performance stretch of surfscape in the universe, the star of the show, according to the titles of clips and articles capturing proceedings was Occy, who was then the oldest ever World Champ when he won his title – in the 20th century. He’ll be 55 this year.

But it’s not all performance, on wave ability. Some of surfing’s favourite quinquagenarians are mere eye candy. Like Laird for example, our coffee creamer peddling pectoral picture of vitality, bravado, alpha. He’s five years older than Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

But surfing audience’s voyeuristic kinks or otherwise, there must be some reason for the longevity, some tangible waveriding benefits to being advanced in years. Getting better with age, can’t just be the preserve of gardeners and osteopaths.

Meritocracies don’t come much more real than big Maverick’s, just ask Peter Mel, who surfed into history in January by backdooring the take off bowl, aged 52.   

At an age when most other sports’ pros are very much ex and have long since been jowly, ruddy-faced and into co-commentary, ours, even ones that are into co-commentary, are just coming to their performance peak.

So maybe not daddy issues after all, maybe getting older really is just getting better. Psychoanalysts Freud and Jung ended up falling out over the Oedipus Complex theory, and whether it applied to both boys and girls.

Oedipus, of course, according to 5th century BC Greek mythology, kills his father so that he can replace him, and marry his own mum.

But surfing doesn’t want to kill dad and lie down with mum, obvs. That’d be twisted, sordid, depraved.

Now Uncle, on the other hand…

Cover image: Andy Potts/Rip Curl