How a blind surfer got over his fear of wiping out (and you can too)

I learned it very slowly, I didn’t watch surf videos growing up and had no idea what surfing was.

Surfing has a steep learning curve that has discouraged its fair share of newcomers. You may be tossed around by waves, yelled at by locals or hit by an errant surfboard.

Pete Gustin experienced these usual surfing perils and overcame it all with an additional hurdle — he’s legally blind. Not only can he not see what’s coming but he also can’t study how others do it.

“I learned it very slowly,” he said. “I didn’t watch surf videos growing up and had no idea what surfing was.”

Despite all that, six years after his first paddle out, Gustin has one of the most subscribed-to surf channels on YouTube. The content has gotten him industry accolades and messages from people around the world inspired by his life. He’s recognized wherever he goes, thanks to his popular TikToks explaining how blind people maneuver through the world.

Gustin paddles out for another wave. He started surfing about six years ago, and now has one of the most popular surfing channels on YouTube.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s not really content about surfing,” he said. “And it’s not really about a blind guy. It’s a tale about someone who has something in their way but is willing to work really hard to try to overcome that.”

Gustin, 45, was born in Boston with a rare eye condition that causes vision loss over time. He was diagnosed when he was 8 after he struggled to see the chalkboard in class. He had to give up sports like baseball pretty quickly, but he picked up swimming and even joined the football team as a lineman, where his job was hitting the guy-shaped object in front of him.

Losing his vision so young left him feeling vulnerable. He spent years trying to disguise his deteriorating eyesight, going so far as to do things like preparing for dates by scouting out multiple restaurants, plotting out the way through dining rooms and getting menus ahead of time.

“I was born sighted, grew up sighted and then had something taken away,” Gustin said. “It made me feel lesser than everyone else.”

In summer 2016, when his eyesight went from bad to worse, he decided to push himself and not get stuck in a safe routine dictated by his blindness.

“I could go to the same restaurants, walk around in the same house, walk the dog the same way every day,” Gustin said. “It’s a life I think a lot of people would be happy with, but I didn’t want that to be my life.”

Having moved to Carlsbad, he picked the tried-and-true California transplant tradition of attempting to surf to keep things exciting. With just enough vision to see light and dark blurs, he went to Army Navy Beach with an 8-foot soft-top board bought for the occasion and paddled out into whitewash near shore and started practicing popping up when he felt the power of the wave grab him.

“I was the king of the late drops,” Gustin said. “That’s what I thought surfing was.”

As much as he tried to hide his eye condition on land, he did the opposite at sea, creating a rash guard that said “Blind Surfer” to announce his lack of sight out on the waves. That didn’t stop one surfer from trying to punch him and another from intentionally running into him with his board after Gustin accidentally dropped in on “their” waves.

Pete Gustin navigates the waves, relying on the building energy of the swirling water around him.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For both safety and to improve his skills, Gustin started to paddle out with Josh Servi, a local surf instructor, a couple of years into surfing on his own. Having a coach has led him to better breaks, which have bigger waves — and are more crowded. Having Servi call out waves lets Gustin know when to paddle, when to get into a better position and when to fall back if someone has already caught the wave.

“The progression I’ve seen still blows my mind,” Servi said. “I have high hopes for what he can do.”

Gustin surfs mostly on weekends because his job keeps him busy. If people don’t recognize him from his “Blind Surfer” rash guard, they might when they hear him speak. He’s an award-winning voice actor whose credits include movie trailers, commercials for the San Diego Padres and voicing Optimus Prime, the robot hero from Transformers, in a commercial. When you think of the titular voice for “In a world…”-type movie trailers, it’s probably Gustin’s you hear.

This was also a part of his life where he hid his blindness, memorizing lines for auditions and then pretending to read the paper he held, going so far as to move his eyes along the page.

He’s established enough now that he doesn’t have to do that anymore. He has a home setup where clients email him lines, which a screen reader says into his earpiece and which he then repeats into his microphone. Gustin typically has 50 to 100 pieces to record each day.

With one of his surf coaches, Brooks Venters, right, giving him direction nearby, Pete Gustin heads out to surf at North Ponto Beach in Carlsbad. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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