Pete Gustin proudly wears a “blind surfer” rash guard. His YouTube fans embrace his adventurous spirit, but he’s still sometimes hounded by haters in the water.
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Surfing has a steep learning curve that has discouraged its fair share of newcomers. You might 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.
“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.
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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.
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.
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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.
Although Gustin was surfing for his own reasons, he realized his efforts could be inspirational after Taylor Knox, a pro surfer, ran into him at a surf event. Knox, who had caught a story about Gustin on a San Diego news station, said he wanted to work harder after seeing him surf.
“Maybe this is a story I can tell,” he said.
Gustin posted his first videos on YouTube and TikTok on New Year’s Day 2020. He has about 1.8 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, which, while heavy on the surf content, also showcases other activities — firing guns at a shooting range, wakeboarding, joking about how he can’t drive — along with videos about voice-over work and answering questions about being blind. His TikTok has roughly 682,000 followers.
He relies on sound cues to edit his videos. A sighted friend then looks over everything, sometimes fixing the visuals, before Gustin publishes. Gustin was worried that his content would be too niche, but that’s not been the case. In fact, his YouTube surf channel was nominated this year for a Streamy, the Oscars of the online video and creator world, the first to do so. (Basketball hype man Jesser ended up winning the sports category.) But no matter, he still gets online messages from people who see his perseverance and want to overcome their own challenges.
“This is a translatable story,” Gustin said. “I show the struggle and the challenge. But I’m still willing to take it on. I feel like it’s the most important thing I can pass on to people. So the only time I will explain surfing is when it helps them understand the struggle. It’s not the wave. They don’t care about the waves.”
Gustin says he would like to go on more trips — a typical draw for surf channels and just a fun activity for any surfer — but his voice work keeps him tied to his nearby breaks. Even if his channel grows, he doesn’t foresee becoming a full-time creator. But he does plan to keep surfing and trying new things.
“Surfing is a metaphor for life,” he said. “Just like how the paddle out is for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.