Surfing Way Past 60

Floridian Skip Sheffield Proves 'Geezers' can Surf!

Once the surfing bug has bit, it becomes a lifelong affliction.

I first attempted to stand on a homemade plywood surfboard when I was 14. Then on a trip to Santa Barbara CA, when I was 16, I got to ride a real surfboard. I was stoked.

I am now 65 and I still think of myself as a surfer (although I rarely go through the trouble of dragging a board to the beach.) I rationalize by saying that body-surfing is the purest form of surfing.

A few years back I visited Francis Poole, a friend since our college days at Florida Atlantic University. When Francis got a position at the University of Delaware, his passion for surfing was re-ignited. Francis lives within striking distance of surfing beaches in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. How cool would it be to surf Atlantic City rather than gamble?

When I told my friend and fellow Boca Raton resident, Tom Pizzi, where I was headed, he responded - “I have some of the best memories of my life surfing Ventnor Beach. When I was 15 I used to surf from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer and well into the winter. I can still see a beautiful 6-foot swell with an outside break on a calm day at 6 p.m. It was just great.”

As a teenager, Tom surfed days and played music at night in a rock band. Now he is the distinguished resident pianist with the Florida Sunshine Pops. Tom still likes to surf when he can.

There is a pretty good surf break at the inlet north of Atlantic City. I found the place on a surfing safari that started in Ocean City, NJ and moved north, as Francis, his 13-year-old son Adrian and I searched for waves.

It was a pretty flat day in late May, but there was a little break at a desolate, rubble-strewn shore I dubbed “Broken Glass Beach” (the locals used to call it “Scriptures,” I learned later). The place was desolate because most of the buildings had been knocked down, leaving behind forlorn, pot-holed streets and cracked, trash-strewn sidewalks, all ironically in the shadow of the glittering spires of Atlantic City. The water was freezing cold and I had no wet suit, but I plowed in anyway and rode a little shore break, just to be able to say I had surfed New Jersey.

“You found it huh?” said Pizzi in Florida. “That break is mobbed in the summer. The locals can be pretty tough. You were lucky to have it to yourself.”

The Army Corps of Engineers ruined a fairly good break at Indian River Inlet, Delaware with a beach renourishment project, as they have done in Florida. Now Ventnor City, NJ has become the favored destination. Poole’s in-laws have a condo there and the break is pretty good, especially by the Ventnor Pier. Founded in 1902, Ventnor City is the town immediately south of Atlantic City. You can literally walk the boardwalk to the casinos, but gambling isn’t my thing.

We loaded the van with Francis’ 9-foot board and Adrian’s 8-foot, 9-inch CC Rider custom on top, and took the old Route 40 to Atlantic City rather than the faster and more crowded Atlantic City Expressway. This way you see rolling farmland and such quaint towns as Pole Tavern, Elmer and May’s Landing. 

It was a partly sunny day, with a brisk wind blowing heavy fog over glassy 1 to 3-foot swells (with an occasional 4-footer) onto the deserted beach. Francis and Adrian had full wet suits complete with booties and hoods; de rigueur for the 60-degree water at that time of year. Francis lent me a shorty wet suit, which was better than nothing. I was apprehensive, but after the initial shock of the cold, I found it bearable.

I am hardly what you could call a world-class surfer, but I had ride after enjoyable ride onto the shallow sandbar. After about an hour, my feet grew numb, my hands turned purple, I was shivering uncontrollably and my speech began to slow; all telltale signs of hypothermia setting in. The same thing happened while “snorkeling the Snake” as in diving the ice-cold Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I had a newfound respect for hardy Northeastern surfers.

As a teenager learning to surf in Boca, I used to think it was weird seeing guys my dad’s age out on the break. What I didn’t understand at the time is that surfing is not just for the young. Most famously John Heath “Doc” Ball started surfing in California in 1929 and surfed well into his 80s, an inspiration to us all.

Now Francis, Tom, my younger brother John and I are geezers ourselves, but we’re not about to quit. There is something about surfing that transcends mere sport or exercise. When you’re on that wave, the outside world disappears, and you are plugged into the very core of life. You know exactly what surfers mean when they say, “Whoa, heavy, man.”

 Skip Sheffield is an award-winning journalist and arts & entertainment editor living in Florida.