Surfing as a SecondAct

Toy executive Keith Storie, who knows all about fun, realized after turning 40 that he wasn't having enough of it. He resolved to shake up the routine, go in new directions. He signed up for guitar lessons. He planned to study martial arts. He even borrowed a surfboard.

His approach was methodical, as if he were checking off boxes on a to-do list. He never expected to find an all-consuming passion. "I viewed all of these things as hobbies that weren't going to take a lot of time," Storie says.

Then he caught his first wave. Surfing immediately gripped him -- the power of the ocean thrusting him forward, the wind, the salt spray, the precarious sense of riding a razor's edge between success and wiping out. He discovered a sport that combined exhilaration and art -- a physical elegance that pushed aside all other cares.

"It's an adrenaline rush," says Storie, who, at 42, is a senior vice president of finance and global strategy for Mattel Inc. "There's such a thrill coming down the face of the wave. You're in sync with the water. You're moving fast, but it's a graceful, floating feeling, too."

Since buying his first surfboard last year, the lean, muscular Storie has become a zealous devotee of the Southern California surfing scene. Every Saturday and Sunday, he awakens at 6:30 a.m. and drives from his home in Irvine to Seal Beach, Calif., where he and his friends surf from 8 to noon. Although he concedes he is still learning, Storie is able to time his take-offs to the speed of incoming waves. He easily pops to his feet on the board and finds what surfers call the line -- the best angle on the wave to take advantage of its power and ensure a good ride.

He surfs even when it is cold, even when signs warn of water pollution. "I was out surfing last Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day," Storie says. He relishes the camaraderie -- "connecting with other people, trading stories about the surfing that day and other things."

A First Time for Everything

No one has exact figures, but a surprising number of people over 40 take up surfing for the first time, especially as summer nears. Many, like 81-year-old John Cronin of Whittier, never had a chance to learn earlier in life. The wiry, white- haired Cronin, a retired aerospace engineer, embarked on his demanding career path long before surfing exploded into pop culture with the music of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean in the 1960s.

Cronin first paddled out four years ago at 77.

"A friend of mine -- we have coffee every morning at the doughnut shop -- he surfed as a kid and wanted to take it up again," Cronin says as he warms up by stretching at the water's edge before going out to surf with Storie's group. On that first occasion, Cronin tagged along with his friend, who is 20 years younger. They both struggled terribly. "We were self-taught," Cronin says, laughing. "It took me four weeks to stand up. But as soon as I got up, I was hooked."

He surfs at least twice a week, and says, "I'm on a roll now."

Half of the 120 members of the Wahine Kai Surf Club, a group for women based in Huntington Beach, are over 40. "Most of them are beginning surfers," says club president Cathy Young. In some cases, women were discouraged from surfing in an era when men considered the sport their own.

There's Got to Be Something More...

A lot of new surfers, women and men, gravitate to the water when they retire, or when they begin to see beyond the strictures of professional life, says Peter Heller, who learned to surf seven years ago at 45.

"Maybe you take time to take a deep breath and decide there's something more than just working," says Heller, a contributing editor at Outside magazine. "You say, 'I'm not going to live forever. Maybe it's time to pursue some of those other dreams.'"

Heller chronicled his own surfing odyssey in the 2010 book Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave, named after the surfing slang term for beginner. He described his first attempt to catch a wave in Huntington Beach by writing of a ferocious wall of water. "Here was the wall. I paddled like a maniac, got picked up, bucked, yelled, stood up, sort of, a fraction of a second. Pitched forward, flew in the air, then foam. The wave shoved me to the bottom. I flailed for sunlight and hit my head. . . ."

The thrill was extraordinary, Heller says now. "I got pummeled, chipped my tooth and got sand in my crotch -- but it didn't matter," he says. "I stood up for that split second. All I wanted to do was do it again the next day."

The lesson to be learned was that he needed instruction. Heller would find it on Seal Beach, where he met a hobbling, middle-aged surfer with sun-bleached blond hair who "beamed beneficence, like some holy man," despite having ridden with the Hell's Angels, Heller writes. That man was Michael Pless, the garrulous, 61-year-old founder of the M&M Surfing School, which Pless operates with his son, Michael, Jr.

Pless is one of those iconic characters of California beach life. A painting at Bogart's  coffeehouse near the Seal Beach Pier cites his nickname in the caption: the "Saint of Seal Beach." Pless boasts of having taught thousands of people to surf, from ages 3 to 89. "For a short period of time, you're away from the whole world," he says of the sport's allure. "It's about you and God and the waves -- or whatever you want to believe in. I've been surfing myself for 49 years. I've never gotten tired of it. Every wave is different."

New Wave of Surfing Devotees

Learning to surf can be life-altering. High-earning CEOs have quit their jobs. Pless' students offer just a sampling of people who have radically shifted their priorities or come to see life differently after riding a surfboard. Among the influenced: the teacher's own wife, Jill Wilcox-Pless, who first climbed onto a board five years ago, on her 40th birthday.

"From that first day, I fell in love with it," she says. "I tried to learn on my own, then ended up meeting Michael." They married in 2009. Surfing, she says with a laugh, "is my favorite thing to do now -- and I got a husband out of it."

linda-surf-308.jpgLinda Richards (right), a 44-year-old technology administrator at Universal Music Group, read a profile of Pless in an airline magazine. She had just lost a teen- age niece, an excellent surfer, due to a drug overdose. To honor the girl, Richards contacted Pless and took up the sport; it helped her to cope with her grief. "You really have to live in the moment when you're in the water," she says. "It really taught me that right now is the moment I need to live in. That was an important lesson for me to learn."

Kim Frassett also dealt with a tragedy -- the death of a young nephew who was digging into a train-track embankment when his makeshift tunnel collapsed. The boy, a surfer, inspired her to buy a board on her 45th birthday. For a year, she hauled it to Seal Beach, trying to pick up the sport on her own before Pless offered her a free lesson. Frassett says her success these past six years has given her the confidence to change the direction of her career.

Whereas before she mainly taught art to schoolchildren, Frassett cut back her classroom hours so she could surf more and enroll in art school herself. "I realized that if I could learn how to surf," she says, "I could become a real artist." She bought a 1970s-era Volkswagen van to haul her surfboards in and turned her Huntington Beach backyard into an art studio. In gratitude to Pless, she painted the portrait of him that hangs at Bogart's.

Storie, the Mattel executive, also learned from Pless, and when he paddles out it's often with Pless and his friends and students. Storie seldom takes lessons any more, but he has become buddies with Pless' son, Michael, Jr., who is 34 and an expert. The social aspects of surfing are a big part of the draw for him, Storie says.

Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., Storie played Little League and high school soccer but had little chance to cavort in the ocean. Even after enrolling at USC to study accounting, Storie never became a beachgoer until the itch to surf finally got him last year.

He thinks he's learned about faith and patience. "There's a moment, as you're coming down the face of the wave, when you're essentially suspended in the air," Storie says. "If it's a big enough wave, you might be tempted to panic or bail out. It's taught me to hang in there and be comfortable in any situation."

Plus, he's having a blast, Storie says. "It's kind of like being a kid. I definitely lose myself in it. Staring at the horizon, looking for the next wave, is all I'm really thinking about."

SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and the author of Screwball, a comic baseball novel.

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