Looking out into the Atlantic Ocean recently at Narragansett Town Beach, Allen Santucci, 27, a surfing instructor, reached back into time.
Surfers bobbed up and down on their boards in the waters ahead, waiting for the right wave to glide them — or carry them standing up, if lucky — at least a few yards.
“About 10 years ago, I had this fellow who was 97,” he started to explain. “He wanted to stand up on a surfboard. It was on his bucket list, one of the last things he wanted to do.“
“I worked with him and after three hours I had him riding a wave, standing on the board,” Santucci said, adding that he never saw the man again.
Yet for this man, the allure of surfing — if only one time — drew him to make real this dream of standing on a board in water, a symbol of rebirth and life continuing.
Peter Panagiotis, 71, David Levy, 70, Tony Sciolto, 73, and Kristen Fraza, 52, make that same surfing dream happen each week — sometimes several days during the week.
They, too, defy historic trends that surfing is only for younger folks. This crew likes to challenge the odds. Instead of calling it a day, they are clenching the “Endless Summer” of their lives.
Some of these four have traveled the world — as did the two surfers in the 1966 film by that same name — in search of the perfect wave. Today, though, all four are focusing that search in the waters off South County’s shores.
These grandparents see no end anytime soon.
It is also no coincidence that Panagiotis — who goes by the name Peter Pan — as well as Levy and Sciolto came into their adolescence and surfing in southern Rhode Island. They love the ocean.
Local waves and the awe-inspiring movie ginned up passions in these then-young folks to try something new, the three men said.
Sciolto pointed to the 1960s, growing up in Matunuck and getting a pop-out surfboard for $69. He’d paddle out into the rushing ocean that would be a proving ground to develop his new skills in the art of surfing.
For Pan and Levy, Narragansett’s nearby shoreline offered that chance, too.
According to a 2011 report by Surf First and the Surfrider Foundation, the average surfer’s age is about 34 in the United States. SurferToday pegs the number of people who enjoy the sport at 23 million worldwide.
This sport brings an exhilarating thrill of a ride before the wave loses propelling life, fading into the sand or rocks of the approaching endpoint at the shoreline. It’s much like life for those aging in its robustness.
Like the two Young Turks who chase the holy grail of a perfect wave in the “Endless Summer” flick, these older surfers live with the hope of returning for more paddle pushes to an offshore lineup for deliverance of their quest.
Why They Do It
The reason is pretty simple, said Fraza, Sciolto, Levy and Pan. They like the rush of the ride, the fun of being “barreled” — inside the wave and below the white foaming crest — and the community of surfers they’ve grown older with.
They all said that they surf throughout the year, often several times a week.
Having their own boards and wetsuits gives access to the nearby Atlantic Ocean — whose temperatures can dip under 40 degrees or top 70 degrees — to continue to enjoy their passion.
“There’s no feeling like surfing. It’s like flying,” Pan said. “I remember catching my first wave and said, ‘this is fun.’”
He lived in Cranston at the time, he said, and eventually his parents bought a house in Narragansett because “they got fed up driving me to Narragansett every day.”
Levy, who grew up in Narragansett and spent time on its beaches with other surfers, added, “There’s nothing else like it. And in those days, you learned from your peers.”
“I love the beach and the ocean,” said Sciolto, also known as “Tombstone Tony” because he owns a monument and gravestone business in Cranston. He explained that his family had a summer home over 50 years ago in the South Kingstown section of Matunuck.
Younger Fraza, who started surfing after these old guys had already been doing it for decades, said her husband Matt, also a surfer, encouraged her to try.
“I did it once, and I was definitely sold on it,” she said about her start 25 years ago.
All four said they learned how to surf — and most importantly, the rules of it — from other surfers and friends who taught them how to do it.
“It’s not something you‘re going to learn in five minutes,” said Levy, acknowledging that from the shoreline dreamers may think it’s easy to paddle out, hang around until a ride starts, and then stand up.
Fraza remembers her own learning.
“It’s a humbling experience,” she said. “Pros make it look easy getting out there, but that’s only half the battle.”
Falling off, getting tired from riding after paddling out again and again burns energy and brings a heavy blanket of exhaustion, she said.
If there’s much to learn to keep yourself and the board afloat, there’s just as much in finding the right spots to surf, whether a specific beach area along the ocean or perhaps only the right part of a single wave, said Sciolto.
Of course, these veterans said, there are riptides to contend with, hurricane waves, sets of waves that come three or four at a time, and simply angling for distance when waves are closer together, making it tougher than riding those farther apart.
“We’ve all had an excess of 25,000 waves. After you get that many, you don’t count them like others and younger people do,” Sciolto said. “They were not all gems for all of us, but there were a few in there. All of them were nice. It’s never a mistake to paddle out.”
The bug for surfing even took Pan and Levy into the business side of it. They started a surf shop business together called Watershed in downtown Wakefield.
The two later parted company, and Pan now runs Narragansett Surf and Skate Shop in Narragansett with his daughter, Tricia. He is also surfboard division director at manufacturer BIC.
Levy later started his own business in town, Levy Surf Designs, where he makes custom-made surfboards and stand-up paddleboards.
Fraza said with a laugh that she hasn’t yet found a way to make money in surfing, so she keeps her job as a physical education instructor.
Even though the art of surfing remains the same, these older surfers say, running into more and more younger surfers or newcomers who fail to follow surfing rules or “etiquette” has become a frustrating problem.
Changes in The Sport
“You’re dealing with people who just shouldn’t be out there,” said Pan.
Fraza said, “There’s a respect part of it, and people just don’t have it.” Levy chimed in, “I just don’t think younger people have it anymore.”
Sciolto put it plainly: “There’s a lot of kooks — beginners — out there who think they know what they are doing. They don’t.”
Entitled, selfish or reckless behavior can break the fun of catching a wave and riding it. There is a protocol that the old-time surfers grew up with and feel strongly that new and younger surfers should follow.
Even 27-year-old Santucci, manager of Matunuck Surf Shop on Matunuck Beach Road in Matunuck, agreed after listening to the comments of veteran surfers.
“In many cases, they are very much correct,” he said. “People today do what they think they can get away with, and what seems fine to them is a blatant disregard for the rules of the road and safety,” he added.
So, what are these rules that are unwritten around beaches in Rhode Island, but found posted quite plainly in surfing states such as California and Hawaii?
• Don’t drop in on another surfer
• The surfer closest to the peak has the right-of-way
• Paddling surfer yields to surfer riding wave
• Don’t ditch your board
• Don’t be a snake by paddling around someone to catch a wave
“There is also pecking order in the lineup,” said Fraza, referring to the line of surfers who have paddled offshore. The first person to occupy a prime spot is expecting to ride the wave without someone maneuvering around to steal it.
“Just because there are 10 people paddling for a wave doesn’t mean 10 people can catch it,” she added.
Another change comes in surfboards. Levy explained that they started as wood, then evolved into fiberglass and foam, then to Styrofoam and epoxy.
They come is all sizes — small, medium and large. Each surfer, whether old or young, has his or her preferences, especially between a longboard, which has more control but less movability, or the shortboard, which offers the opposite.
Prices can range from $450 for a beginner’s long foam board to $6,000 or more for a custom-made and precision-fitted board, surfboard makers said. Local surf shops also rent them.
With time, experience, age and wisdom about surfing, someone may also have a “quiver” — a collection of boards — that is a personal signature of their taste in design and skill in the water.
Also today, more women are found in the ocean lineup, as compared to some 50 years ago when Pan, Levy and Sciolto started in a sport that was unwelcoming to females. Their place was on the beach to watch surfer boys.
Fraza said, however, that even in the mid-1990s when she started, some disparaging remarks came her way.
“I was told to get out of the water and go surf somewhere else,” she said.
That has changed, and even reluctant and traditional surfers — and those just ignorant of cultural equality — are being forced into more acceptance, said Pan, Levy, Sciolto and Fraza.
“People see me now, they see others talk to me, ask about my kids, I ask about theirs,” she said. “They know I belong there and they show that respect.”
Though South County surfing areas have improved their gender equality, it still remains a relatively white young person’s sport, these surfers said.
Duran Searles, 40, of Kingston, confirmed their observations. Searles, who is Black, said he has surfed South County waters several times weekly during the summer and fall for seven years.
“I haven’t seen too many of us out there,” he said, saying the number of African-Americans, whether older or younger, he has seen is about one or two over the past seven years.
“It’s just a matter of exposure to it,” Searles said. “We’re not really exposed to doing something that is outside our comfort zone.”
The experience for him, Searles said, began at 33 years old, with just trying out a board from Pan’s surf shop.
Pan, who is Caucasian, said economic forces often decide who can afford equipment, live near a beach or have transportation to get there.
For older surfers, especially these three men approaching their 80s in a time when people continue to take fewer risks, there is the potential for major injuries to happen.
Bumps and bruises — and even more severe injuries — are simply part of the sport.
The ocean may be one of the world’s largest age discriminators, meaning that as the local surfing population ages, their pasts on boards are catching up to them with lower back pains, worn rotator cuffs and ligaments not as susceptible to standing firm against crashing waves.
And there is always the threat of skin cancer, including dangerous melanoma, from years of sun exposure.
Pan noted, “Older surfers. if they are fools, they try to go out and compete with these young punks and then get hurt and get aggravated.”
If the older crowd forgets, chronic injuries pop up to remind them.
“You need to take your time. There are days I don’t even stand up,” said Sciolto, because of back ailments or tired muscles from working with gravestones most days in his family business.
During his interview with South County Life, Levy mentioned he had been surfing earlier in the day.
“I was getting stiff out there,” he said. “When you get stiff, maybe you’ve got one more good one in you.”
Surfing Into the Sunset
So how long can these aging folks keep surfing?
In “A Guide for Old Surfers: Is There an Age Limit for Surfing?” Doug Robichaud wrote that hips and knees can get weaker, which prevents surfers from popping up on their boards as fast and from turning them as expertly.
There are three tips, according to Robichaud, to help someone continue surfing at an older age.
• Ride a surfboard with enough volume that will offer you the stability and control you need
• Stretch daily and focus on your areas of weakness
• Listen to your body
Dr. Bernard Portner, a non-surgical orthopedic specialist in Honolulu, told The Associated Press that he believes older people who surf are no more prone to injury than younger wave riders.
“Older people who surf generally started when they younger,” he said. “All those years, those who got injured significantly fall by the wayside. These old guys have survived, and they know what they’re doing.”
“The surfing and being active in general is preventing them from injuries,” Portner added.
Pan, Levy, Sciolto and Fraza agree there are limits on taxing your body. Even 27-year-old Allen Santucci from Matunuck Surf Shop said he pays close attention to his body’s aches and pains. That doesn’t, though, lessen his passion for surfing.
“That will be the last thing I give up,” he said about growing older and peering into a far distant future.
“Tombstone Tony” Sciolto, whose gravestone business job gives him a front seat to thinking about the end, plans to continue surfing as long as possible.
“Don’t we all want to hold on to what’s near and dear to ourselves?” he asked, answering his own question with, “Of course we do. Will it happen? Probably no, but we can have the hope.”