Jeanne Keith-Farris’s earliest memories growing up in California are of playing in the surf with her mother. She dreamed of being on a board on the water when she got a bit older.
Then her family moved to land-locked Colorado when she was 12, followed by Calgary, where she lived until her retirement about a decade ago. Her surfing dreams dried up over the years – but they never died.
When their working years were over, Ms. Keith-Farris and her husband moved to Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island and there, in the sand and surf of the Pacific Ocean, her surfing dreams were reignited.
“It’s a little daunting, starting, because I would have been 56 or so then,” she says. She played around in the surf for a few years but “that was not cutting it. That was not surfing.”
“A few months before my 60th birthday I caught my first so-called green wave [an unbroken wave, the kind you see in surf pictures] and just got hooked on it,” she says. “You get that one wave out there that one day and you’ve just got to find that magic again because it’s feels so amazing. And I won’t get them as often as some of the younger kids, but it keeps happening and I keep going for more, trying to find that elusive better wave.”
Now 65, she owns seven surfboards and hits the waves nearly every day when the weather co-operates. She inspired her daughter to learn and together they have gone three times to a surf school in Los Olas, Mexico.
“I built up strength and endurance, and then became obsessed with getting better,” she says. “I do keep improving and that’s what keeps me going out. It’s slow progress at this stage in my life.”
Surfing is a difficult sport but Tiffany Olsen, manager of the Surf Sister Surf School in Tofino, B.C., where Ms. Keith-Farris learned to ride the waves, says she has taught beginner surfers will into their silver years.
“I’ve taken lots of people of all ages, from five to 100, out surfing and everyone has a good time,” she says. “I think the most important thing is that people don’t think of it as a competition or go with set goals. You just kind of have to go out in the ocean and see what happens. Low expectations are usually the best expectations when surfing because then you always surprise yourself.”
Regardless of age, she advises those who want to learn to prepare by starting with some basic yoga stretches, including lunges and forward folds, and some arm strengthening exercises such as arm circles and push-ups or planks.
“Anything that gets that upper body strong because the paddling is really what takes it out of you,” she says.
Surfers should also practice balance and staying in a low stance with knees bent. There are modifications that can be made if necessary, she says.
Ms. Keith-Farris is a great surfer, Ms. Olsen adds.
“She’s better than me, I’ll tell you that much,” she says. “She’s definitely not your typical 65 year-old, but I think exercise is getting to be a bigger thing for people in our lives and so it’s not unattainable, that’s for sure.”
On the other side of the country, Mark Moore, co-owner of Halifax Surf School with his wife, says it’s not uncommon to have retirees sign up for lessons at the school, located at Martinique Beach about 40 minutes east of Halifax.
He reiterates that would-be surfers need a reasonable level of swimming with the ability to swim about 50 metres. Most importantly, they need to feel comfortable in the water.
“If you don’t have the wherewithal and the comfort to be able to hold your own in water that’s deeper than you can touch, something that would be normally not a big deal could become a big deal,” he says.
And he strongly suggests lessons because the instructors are trained to work with beginners and can ensure a person is outfitted with the right wetsuit gear (a necessity in colder Canadian waters) and board. They can also assess ability level.
“People may have a high level of, let’s say, golfing fitness, but they don’t have what it takes to do a pop-up on a surfboard,” Mr. Moore says. “We try to teach in shallow water that’s chest deep, so that so people can touch… but ultimately, we never really find out until we’re out there and people are actually getting pushed along by waves if they’re going to have the fitness to do it.”
But with the right fitness level and the right equipment and the right ocean conditions, it’s an amazing sport, he says.
“I love it,” he says. “Surfing is very [big in] pop culture and there are ton of people who have seen it and always been curious about it.”
Surfing is not for seniors who are faint of heart but it is magical for those with the desire and motivation to see it through, Ms. Keith-Farris says. Silver surfers shouldn’t let fear hold them back.
“If you’ve always had that dream and then you start to tell yourself, ‘I’m too old for that. I couldn’t possibly do that,’ well, you can. You absolutely can. It just takes the courage,” she says. “Do not ever be afraid to accept the challenge and get out there and give it a go.”