Published: July 6, 2008
THE alarm goes off about 6 a.m., and Tom Eilbacher rolls over and listens for his neighbor’s wind chimes. If they’re clanging, it’s not a good day to surf. If they’re quiet, he’ll get up, check the surfing Web sites, get into his car and drive up the coast from his home in Brick, stopping at various beaches along the way. He’ll park, watch and wait. If he’s not satisfied with the waves, he’ll move on to the next spot, where he’ll park, watch and wait again. He goes through a tank of gas a week hunting for the perfect wave.
“I’ll surf anytime, from sunup to sundown, from Seaside Heights to Asbury Park,” Mr. Eilbacher says. “You get this adrenaline rush when you catch an overhead wave. It’s an awesome rush.”
He speaks with the enthusiasm of a teenager, but in fact he is 52. After surfing briefly in his youth, he took up the sport again at 49. In the years since, he has acquired four boards, four wet suits of varying thicknesses, and boots, gloves, and a hood so he can surf through the winter. He has also acquired sprained ankles, backaches, bruises and lacerations from being hit by his surfboard.
The beaches may be crowded now with surfing dabblers and Johnny-come-latelies, but Mr. Eilbacher and other diehards have been out all year, even when there was a nip in the air and frost on the trees.
In New Jersey, people who follow the sport say, a quarter to a half of the surfers may be middle-age or older.
Chris Mauro, editor of Surfer, a California-based magazine, said that the number of people surfing has grown since the late 1980s and has greatly increased in New Jersey.
“A lot of these surfers are part of the over-40 crowd,” he said. “In fact, the average surfer now is in their late 20s.”
For the older, dedicated surfer, “beach season” has little meaning. Every day is another day to surf, and life has to revolve around surfing.
“It’s really all I want to do,” said Ken Liss, 44, of Long Branch, another surfer who trolls for good waves year-round.
Many of the older surfers have been surfing since they were teenagers. Others have taken up the sport recently. Each year, the Jersey Shore chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an international surfing organization, holds a longboard surfing contest, limited to the kind of boards — generally nine-foot or longer — preferred by older surfers. There were only 16 applicants when the contest began 15 years ago. Last year, there were 150, and Stephanie Rinaldi, the chairwoman of the Jersey Shore chapter, said the average age was about 40. Ms. Rinaldi, of Port Monmouth, is 40 herself.
Alexis Cuozzo, 46, of Bradley Beach, said that five years ago she left a six-figure job as a product line manager in Manhattan — and an apartment on Central Park West — so she could spend more time surfing. Ms. Cuozzo, now an art teacher at Point Pleasant Borough High School, picked up the sport at age 38 during summer stays at the Jersey Shore and became enamored with it. She said she would lug her surfboard back to Manhattan, put on a surfing DVD and watch it all night.
Increasingly, she found that as the weekend drew to a close, she didn’t want to return to New York. She said that when she received a note from her co-op board saying, “Please use service elevator for bicycles and surfboards,” she left her job and sold her apartment. She now hangs out with surfers in their 40s who are obsessed with the sport.
“We’ll be walking down the street, and all of a sudden someone will say: ‘Wait? Did the wind just switch direction? It’s coming from the west now.’ And then you’ll be texting everyone,” Ms. Cuozzo said.
Mr. Liss, an information technology analyst for the state, says surfing is all he thinks about. Every day, he checks surfing Web sites to find out what the surf looks like, which direction the wind is blowing, and how high the waves are. He said he once gave up a chance to attend a college because it was too far inland, away from good surfing.
When he’s not surfing, Mr. Liss said, he gets irritable, even depressed.
“Even my wife knows my mood and will say, ‘Go surf,’ ” he said.
James Steen, 48, of New Hope, Pa., said that when he was young, he would surf in the morning and get into work so late, a secretary began asking him, “What’s your excuse this time?” One day, he told her to make something up. The following day, he said, he was teased mercilessly by his colleagues about having a yeast infection.
One problem for older surfers is that while their minds are willing, their bodies may beg to differ. John Tiedemann, 54, of Point Pleasant Borough, is an associate dean and marine biology professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch. He takes the coastal route to work every day so he can check out the surf, and has made career choices that enable him to surf at will.
But he has surfed so many winters, he said, that he has lost some hearing because of so-called surfer’s ear — bone thickening in the auditory canal resulting from prolonged exposure to cold water and wind. And after getting caught once in waves well over his head that pushed him under the water and dragged him about two blocks’ distance, he says he’s more cautious.
“I realized early on that you really have to know your limits,” he said. “And I know that at my age, I’m a little bit slower, and my reflexes are less than they were when I was younger.”
Noel Hillman, 51, a federal judge in Camden, said that when he was in his 20s he could spend eight hours a day surfing. Now, he’s out of the water in about two. He also says the old-timers like riding a longboard not only because it’s what they grew up with, but also because it’s an easier ride and less work to paddle.
“The less energy you can spend getting out, the more energy you can have to surf,” he said.
On one of the last cold Saturday afternoons in the spring, before the arrival of the summer crowds, Mr. Eilbacher drove north to Loch Arbour, changed into his wet suit in his car, put on a hood, gloves and boots and jumped into the cold water. He tried to catch a couple of waves but couldn’t quite paddle fast enough. Finally, he managed to rise up on his board, his arms stretched out like a T. After surfing for about 45 minutes, he emerged from the water lugging the eight-foot board.
“I had three good waves,” he says. “Did you see me?”
His face was beaming, though he kept arching his back and rubbing his rear, saying the fin on his board had jabbed him. He returned to his car and came back moments later in street clothes.
His T-shirt read “Old Guys Rule.”