CARLSBAD, Calif. — Like many southern Californians, Pete Gustin loves to surf. The Carlsbad resident spends a lot of time in the water, and while he may look like most others out there, he doesn’t see himself that way — because he can’t see much at all.
Gustin began surfing three years ago in an effort to soak up the southern California lifestyle, but the Massachusetts native admits learning was a lot harder than he expected.
“I’d been skateboarding my whole life. I used to sail and I felt like I was coordinated. I just wanted to hop onto a board and start riding waves,” Gustin said. “I thought it would be that simple.”
But unlike most beginners, Gustin had another challenge: learning to surf while being blind.
“I have a degenerative eyesight disease, which really means that my whole world has been getting smaller and smaller and smaller as it gets really bad. These days, my functional eyesight is only as far away as my hand,” he said.
Gustin was born with macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease.
“That old question, do you want to know the day you die? I don’t necessarily want to know the day that my eyesight is going to shut in or if it’s going to shut in,” Gustin said. “I just live every day; this is what it is today, might be a little worse tomorrow. I try not to think about it too much.”
Instead, Gustin focuses on surfing, one of the few remaining activities his eyes can handle. “To be able to go out into the wide open ocean and harness the power of the waves, and get up on a board and continue to get better at a skill that I eventually hope to compete at has really changed my outlook on life and everything that I do,” Gustin said.
In order to surf, Gustin typically wears a hat that narrows his point of view, allowing him to make out the difference between light and dark.
“Light is the sky, dark is the ocean, and I try and keep the field real tight so that when a wave comes there’s more dark than light,” he said.
He also gets verbal help from his coach and friend, Josh Servi. “The biggest thing is timing because surfing is a lot of timing,” Servi said. “So just being in the right spot at the right time.” Servi’s help often comes in the form of encouraging Gustin to move in one direction or another. “So like, ‘Hey, go paddle 10 feet to your left and start paddling for the wave,’ or, ‘Don’t go right, there’s somebody right there,'” Servi said.
Aside from his limited vision, Gustin said the hardest part about surfing isn’t the waves, the water or the surfboard. It’s learning how to surf with other people in the water.
“I might get in someone’s way,” he said. “It’s not intentional, I’m not out there trying to be agro or intentionally get off my wave. I just literally didn’t see you. That’s why I started putting the shirt on that says ‘blind surfer,’ so that hopefully someone might notice.”
But being blind doesn’t define Gustin, a surfer who plans to keep riding waves however long that may be.