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Beach Grit

False: No Airs For Old Men!

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

Ancient studs grow wings!

Tony Roberts is a 52-year-old surfer from Santa Cruz whose stated public goal is to be the best over-fifty surfer above the lip. Brad Gerlach, who is 50, is a former world number two (or one depending if you subscribe to Gerr’s belief that if you were, at some point on the tour ratings, number one you should own it).

He’s also got a point to prove. He lives for the betterment of his technique.

Two men. Same age. Same belief.

To wit, just because you’ve hit the autumn years don’t mean you have to stop improving. And it certainly doesn’t mean your wings are clipped.

Recently, Gerr flew to Costa Rica. He’d help Tony with turns; Tony’d help Gerr with his airs.

Tony told Gerr, “Don’t boost too early.”

Gerr told Tony. Get that ass real low. “Your butt needs to go down toward the Achilles tendon,” said Gerr. “Jordy surfs so good ‘cause his ass is on the ground!”

Tony grew up as a skater/surfer and was mentored between 12 and 16 by the early air pioneer Kevin Reed, who was in the news recently when he was arrested on suspicion on murdering another homeless man although he was quickly released.

Tony says he nailed his first real air in 1978.

“Surfers said I surfed like a skater. Skaters say I skated like a surfer,” says Tony, who moved to Central America 20 years ago. He divides his time between Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

See, Tony had a little epiphany when he hit thirty. He didn’t want a part of the American Dream. Didn’t want to throw the physical world away in  pursuit of the material He wanted to surf and he wanted to hit new heights of performance even as he aged.

So he went vegetarian. Got into yoga.

And surfing in warm water?

“It was like taking off the ankle weights,” he says.

I ask, what do older guys struggle with most, air wise?

“The best guys at doing airs have surfed like that their entire lives. Not many guys my age were focussing on surfing above the lip when we were kids. It just wasn’t cool. We were called flying squirrels. If a surfer can stay in shape and surf every day into their fifties, they’re usually honing the same type of surfing they always did.”

Gerr knows the sound of that. He was totally into airs when he was fifteen but felt an insane pressure to work on his power. Sure Pottz was doin’ airs back then, but he won a world title with cutbacks and surfing at a self-confessed three-quarter pace. Gerr got back into airs in his late forties. He says the weirdest thing for older guys is moving your front foot in the air and sticking the landing.

“It’s a weird thing to land on the nose of your board,” he says. Tell an old guy to wax up the front third of his board and you’ll know how weird.

Which makes it sounds like if you didn’t grow up doin’ airs, don’t start. Tony says it’s never too late. You’ve just gotta want it, even if you have to temper that excitement a little, he says.

“If you have air fever and just try airs on every wave your stomp percentage will be real low. So, first tip. It’s wave judgement. You gotta learn what a good ramp looks like. You have to know when to go, when to blow. Slater is a great example. He only goes for airs on waves that have good sections for it. Most older guys tend to boost too early and fly out the back of the wave.”

Tony says you have to slow the game down, even if it means eating into your style. Stomp on the tail, stay in the pocket, wait for the wave to set up.

“Watch any footage of Ratboy Collins. He has a very exaggerated setup,” says Tony. “He’ll even just stand on the tail and sideslip to let the wave form in front of him, then pumps and gets speed and then really pauses at the last moment until he sees the coping, then boosts.”

Gerr says: “Filipe Toledo’s whole momentum is going through his front foot. He doesn’t get that stuck-at-the-top feeling and the reason he’s landing so many aerials is he has a very clear picture in his mind where he’s going to land. He’s not up there in the air going, “I’ll see where I am when I’m up in the air”. The better surfer you are, the slower the wave appears to you.”

Gerr air

“Nothing Filipe would lose a nut over but it felt good,: says Gerr. “But enough for an older cat to look at and say, man, that looks fun. Maybe I can try a little flight.”

What else are the old men doing wrong?

“They crank too hard once in the air and over-rotate,” says Tony. “A nice straight air is equal parts power and finesse, like a straight ollie street skating.”

Specifically, “the frontside edge of your front foot is what should be guiding the board upon takeoff. Wherever your eyes go the nose of your board follows so it’s important to eyeball your landing on the lip or real high on the wave face.”

Gerr says you’ve got to remember to straight your legs coming into the lip, bring your board to your chest when you exit, straighten a little in the air, and compress to land. And, for god’s sake, stay over your board.

Tony’s got a few drills, too.

“Skateboarding gives a man a chance to practise ollies over and over so you develop that muscle memory. Learn proper ollies, and there’s a ton of YouTube clips showing you how to nail ‘em, on a head-high quarter pipe with a decent sized coping you really get that ‘bonk’ wired.”

Bonk? The moment you hit the lip and it pushes back.

How about the old man’s choice of weapon?

“Real important,” says Tony. “Thickness and width in the tail makes lift-off a lot easier. The wide round nose template catches a lot and fishy type boards, twin fins and four fins, tend to make you surf front-footed which is okay for lateral type airs, but isn’t conducive for vertical style squaring off the bottom to lip launch punts. The best airs come when you are feeling that rail-to-rail carving speed through the contour of the wave and then you boost.”

Gerr rides a thruster setup with a small rear fin. He agrees with Tony on board choice. “Quads do great cutbacks, carves, floaters but only straight airs.”

More than anything, you’ve gotta live airs. Watch footage over and over, although don’t get all hung up watching someone like Reynolds or John John. It’ll overcomplicate things.

Know who you should watch?

Kelly Slater, who turns forty six at his next birthday. His technique isn’t close to Dane or John, or even Craig Anderson or Creed, but he’s coming from the same back foot era as you. His desire to succeed, and not technical perfection, is what gets him through his airs.

And you’ve seen those tens at New York, at Bells, yeah? You like?

As you learn, as you progress, maybe you’ll see a little of yourself in the greatest surfer of all time.

Another tip, says Tony, is to “ride logs and stiff single fins a lot because when I get back on my little board it feels like a skateboard in comparison. It gives you that fresh lively feeling. When the board feels like that it feels like I can do anything.”

Tony says his best air was a Hail Mary frontside 360 three years ago.

“I was going really fast and just threw everything at a meaty section on an overhead wave and ended up really high and rotating super slow. I wasn’t planning on trying to land it but when I came around I looked down and saw the most pillowy landing and I knew I was going to make it.”


Or maybe the whole thing just frustrates you?

“Listen,” says Gerr, “they’re just fucking hard. Not hard technically, just hard because you need to do a lot of ‘em. You have a have a certain type of wave, a consistent wedge, that you can go and do fifty of ‘em a day. To think you’re going to pull one off just once in a while? No way. Those kids, they’re spending eight hours a day practising them, and then several hours watching movies of guys doing airs.”

Thing is, says Gerr, “Surfing is something you just can’t force. If today isn’t your today, maybe tomorrow is. Getting mad isn’t going to change a thing. Don’t set yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations. Yeah, you’ll learn airs if you try hard enough. Just don’t panic when it doesn’t work straight away. Surfing shouldn’t be painful.”

(Note: This story first appeared in issue number 336 of Surfing Life magazine, which you can buy here.)