17 May, 2013 17 May, 2013

Welcome to Balliehood: The Surfer’s Midlife Crisis


When does grommethood end and balliehood begin? There’s no line in the sand or magical barrier you reach, just a cold slap in the face once you realise you’ve crossed over. Human beings are resilient when it comes to accepting and then adapting to change, but it’s a long road ahead and full of potholes for some.

A traditional midlife crisis is defined by the awareness of one’s mortality during the latter part of adulthood, and the behaviour this realisation produces. It’s said to hit men and women between the age of 40 and 60, who are preparing for the big transition into retirement. Death is the sneaky transition period lurking in the shadows beyond this, which catalyses all the crazy things people do to manage their midlife anxiety. You know the clichés: men buy themselves a red sports car, take up jujitsu and marry a twenty-three year-old named Pomegranate; women get cosmetic surgery, adopt exotic pets and start dating personal trainers who wear pink shirts and shave their chests.

The surfing mid-life crisis functions in a similar way, but rather than hitting you at 40 it strikes a decade earlier, just as you’re entering the next phase of life. There’s no sports cars or Eat, Pray, Love missions or steroids, but people do lose their minds for a spell.

The hair may be long gone, but Kelly continues to prove that there's life after the surfing mid-life crisis.

The hair may be long gone, but Kelly continues to prove that there’s life after a surfing mid-life crisis.

Heading into your thirties is a bit like going through puberty again. It’s ballie puberty. You’re suddenly a grown up and kids are calling you ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ or ‘mister’ or ‘muvrou’. You’ve never worked harder in your life and felt so exhausted at the end of each day. It seems like yesterday that you pawned a guitar and a pair of rollerblades to get to J-Bay for the weekend; now you could pay for you and your mates to go for the whole week, but there’s no time. Unfortunately your priorities lie with targets, payments, commitments and stuff that has nothing to do with surfing or fun.

And there’s no turning back – you’re strapped in for the long haul. Grommethood has ended, but you’ve been too busy to notice it happening. On top of all this, the changes you feel inside are written all over your body: you’ve got a retreating hairline, a growing waistline, piles that feel like hot knives and an extra chin that blends into your neck when you lie down.

I know what you’re going to say: age is just a number, especially today. The ballies are ruling the world at the moment. They’re fitter and stronger than ever. Look at a guy like Wayne Monk – he’s killing it in his forties. Gavin Rudolph still shreds and he must be at least sixty by now. Kelly Slater is potentially going to win another bloody world title and he’s more than double the age of his youngest challenger. What’s the problem with getting older? The thing is: those people are beyond the point where facing balliedom is a harsh reality. They’ve dealt with it and come out the other side happy, stoked and well-adjusted human beings. It’s the thirty year-olds that are on crisis alert.

Thankfully, ballie puberty comes to an end and we soon realise that we’ve got several decades of good surfing to look forward to after thirty. Just ask Neil Abell, seen here smashing the snot out of a Scottburgh peeler.

Thankfully, ballie puberty comes to an end and you realise the ripping can continue till well after your thirties. Just ask Neil Abell, seen here smashing the snot out of a Scottburgh peeler. – Photo: Sean Meets / www.shotbru.co.za

The symptoms are common: an intense dislike for crowded line-ups (which sadly only gets worse), a crippling fear of sharks and wanting to tear the face off any teenager who opens their mouth in the water. It’s not easy sharing the line-up with kids who are in their prime, when all you want to do is go for a quiet surf with a group of buddies. No hassling or wailing or carrying on like a group of morons.

But besides looking and feeling like a ballie, everyone is surfing circles around you and catching three times your wave quota. Freakishly talented and committed little snots are pulling full rotation airs over your head, carves that bury half their rail and stylish fin wafts, while your turns feel sluggish and your stance just seems to be getting mysteriously wider… You’ve been left behind. With your bald head and your dusty board, you’re fading into the crowd of flappers. And that’s when the crisis behaviour drops a gear and sends people over the edge.

For the most part, the surfing midlife crisis happens in a few basic ways (with variations that change according to each person and their own set of problems):

Denial: The first is flat-out denial. Rather than facing the truth about your muffin top and the need for a bigger, more buoyant board, you let the old 6’1″ gather dust in the garage, leave your wetsuit on a hanger in the cupboard and make up excuses not to surf. End of story. You still watch surfing clips when the boss is not looking, catch the webcast during ‘CT events and talk shop when the buggers get together for a few cold ones. Everything is normal, except you don’t surf anymore.
Predicted Time Span: 1 – 5 years

Twiggy just started going bigger, harder and faster after passing the thirty years-old mark.

Twiggy just started going bigger, later and more committed after turning thirty.

Psychosis: Lying all the way on the other side of the spectrum is the delusional chap who sees his thirties as the last window of opportunity to make a stab at ‘CT qualification, big wave glory or a lifestyle sponsorship. Rather than seeing the newly established physical limits of getting a bit longer in the tooth, this is the soldier who decides to change his stars. He or she quits their job, changes their facebook profile pic to a shot from Matric, orders a ten board quiver and starts a rigorous training schedule. Their days now revolve around running with boulders underwater, sneaking into the shark tank at the Oceanarium to punch the raggies in the face and clocking up as much surf time as humanly possible. One foot to twenty foot, they’re out there trying to prove a point: they’ve still got it.
Predicted Time Span: Depends if they’re married. 1 week – 6 months.

A New Life: Some people think they see the big picture and decide to take a break. They start playing golf, pilates, SUP’ing, Kite Surfing (kite surfing has poached more self-respecting surfers in the windy Eastern Cape than I care to talk about) or casual MMA. Some people move to Joburg or inland, under the guise that money will fill the black hole left by time in the ocean. This is almost the same as denial; it’s closer to displacement, though.
Predicted Time Span: 6 months – life. Dangerous if the money is good.


So what happens to these thirty-something prodigal and lost children? They come back and we accept them into the fold with open arms. Surfing has seen some spectacular examples of the midlife crisis. Bobby Martinez’s outburst and Shane Dorian’s acting career immediately spring to mind. Kelly Slater had the presence of mind to quit the tour and lay low while he went bananas for a few years – he was actually at a magician school in Reno during that time.

Bobby Martinez, soul-searching before the outburst at the 2011 Quiksilver Pro New York.

Bobby Martinez, soul-searching before the outburst at the 2011 Quiksilver Pro New York.

Growing old gracefully takes practice. It’s not funny at first. But the good news is that ballie puberty comes to an end and we’ve all got several decades of good surfing to look forward to after thirty. It may take a while to ride out the shock of growing older, but that’s all it is: a passing phase.


  1. Bronson
    17 May, 2013 at 9:27 am · Reply

    Epic post amigos….. I’m planning to deal with this by moving to Costa Rica, focusing on building my own business (again) and spending as much time in the water as possible.

  2. charlie
    17 May, 2013 at 9:35 am · Reply

    Life begins at 40!! What a classic read Zag, nice one.

  3. David Van Rensburg
    17 May, 2013 at 10:47 am · Reply

    44years old..8 boards.. 3 surfs this year due to slavery.. i’ve taken time off to reconnect with my daughter,surfing,music,family and friends. first week off and the flu lurgy has me man dow. watching riopro webcast hahaha . great article

  4. Jonesy PE
    17 May, 2013 at 11:57 am · Reply

    Got to strike that balance …….my old man is turning 60 next month and I can’t see him quiting being in the water at every possible moment .

    He has extreme time management skills and works for the sessions !!!!
    I’m 37 now and am so stoked to see Slater at 41 keep at it the way he is .

    Generations of surfers will now look towards going into the 60’s that is for sure.

    No place or space for quitting .

  5. BT
    17 May, 2013 at 5:07 pm · Reply

    Clay ,you have described Balliehood to the T.Great article .
    Dad T .

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