Pete Gustin is an interesting guy for a lot of reasons. First, he has a job that all but guarantees you’ve heard his voice. It’s very likely that his smooth baritone has filtered from your television screen and into your living room, bounced off the walls a few times, and hit your ear drums. Hell, it’s very likely you’ve even imitated his voice without actually knowing it was his voice you were imitating. He’s been on television, radio, and movie trailers. He’s the voice of Fox News, has spoken for CBS, ABC, FXX, ESPN, The Cartoon Network, and Comedy Central. The Walking Dead, Archer, Family Guy, and SpongeBob have all played after he talks. In a world where one man’s voice rules them all, Pete Gustin’s voice is king. Oh, and Pete Gustin is also The Blind Surfer. He runs a YouTube channel of the same name, and it’s about so much more than a blind man who surfs.It’s about a blind man who is inspiring anyone with a disability, challenge, or struggle of their own to find another way of doing what they want to do. And he’s leading by example.
Now, I understand if the words “blind” and “surfer” might not exactly pair well in your brain. Surfing is generally something reserved for those who can see, but Pete’s not someone who listens when someone tells him he can’t do something. Pete wasn’t born blind — his sight, in fact, was normal in every way the day he was born — but he was diagnosed with something called macular degeneration in the mid-80s, when he was 8 years old. His eyesight had been slowly getting worse up until his diagnosis, but everyone just assumed it would require a run-of-the-mill solution, like so many other children who end up wearing glasses. He wore them for a while, but his eyesight continued to worsen.
His parents took him to Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a world-renowned hospital with specialists who might be able to shed light on what, exactly was going with Gustin’s eyes. Doctors’ famously callous bedside manner, it appears, is a cliche for a reason. “After a whole day of testing,” Gustin told me last year, “the doctor comes out and says, ‘you have macular degeneration. Your central vision will continue to deteriorate.’ He was a researcher with no bedside manner at all — like, at all. He walked in and said… that. Then he just walked out of the room.”
That was the first startling glimpse of what Gustin’s life might look like, and now, Pete is almost completely blind. He sees shapes and shadows up to about three feet away. We covered his childhood in our first conversation. I won’t cover it again this time around, but you should read about it here. Recently, though, I caught up with Gustin again to talk about his web series, The Blind Surfer. As I said, it’s about a lot more than a blind man who surfs.
When we first spoke, his YouTube channel was relatively new. He only had a handful of subscribers, and in a time when surf-related YouTube channels are prolific, I wondered how things might be going. As it turns out, a year later, it’s well and truly booming. People are tuning in. Subscribers are skyrocketing. Casey Neistat, a guy who has over a billion views and 12-some-odd million subscribers to his channel, reached out to see about a collaboration. Taylor Knox surfs with Pete. People on the street are recognizing him. And it’s not so much for the surfing as it is for Pete’s astoundingly inspirational outlook on life. Although he might not yet be in the subscriber realm of people like Jamie O’Brien or Neistat, he’s more focused on what he can actually offer people beyond a surf clip, and that might just be how he gets into the realm of those other vloggers.
“It’s such a wacky numbers game these days,” he told me. “But I genuinely feel as though we’ve got 10,000 people people who are actively engaged. You look at someone like Casey Willax, the pro snowboarder. He had tons of people who already knew who he was and were aware of the amazing things he could do, so he could literally put a camera on himself doing yoga for five minutes and get 100,000 views. The fact that I started as a blind guy who’s not really a good surfer in the first place…I feel like it’s a good grassroots thing. But it would, at some point, be nice to get those huge numbers going, but I don’t know if my channel is designed that way. I get a few people a week saying ‘your channel helped me do this or your channel inspired me to do that.’ I talked to one lady with MS who said she’d been using her MS as an excuse to skip out on doing stuff with her daughter. She was like, ‘I need to stop making excuses. If you can fight through it, I can fight through it.’ With people like Jamie (O’Brien) giving him a thumbs up and a shaka every minute… I don’t know that that would be more exciting for me as the fact that I’ve touched someone’s life.”
Running a YouTube channel that revolves around surfing, however, isn’t the easiest of endeavors when one isn’t a professional level surfer, and Gustin is aware that people like Jamie O’Brien can touch someone’s life in a different way. “Those guys are used to being out there and having interactions and touching people’s lives,” he explained. “Jamie’s just being Jamie, you know? He can go out there and shake a kid’s hand, and that kid’s going to be psyched for life. I just never had that opportunity, so this has been really exciting for me.”
Over the course of the last few months, Gustin’s become something of a minor celebrity on the beach. As his channel gains popularity, he’s finding himself in a strange situation. “It’s funny that people recognize me and I have no shot of understanding what’s going on. I can’t see them. I’m standing there with my surfboard, ready to get in the water and you’ll hear whistles and people calling my name. I’m like, ‘who’s whistling? What’s going on?’ And a few minutes later, Josh (a friend who helps Gustin surf) is like, ‘hey, you got some fans up on the boardwalk.’”
All that attention, however, started out as a bit of a double-edged sword. Spectators can cause undue pressure, but a successful YouTube channel requires them. In the beginning, Gustin felt that pressure, but now it’s faded slightly. “The first day we went out with a lot of cameras, we had Josh out there with his GoPro, Brooks, who’s flying a drone, and Maggie, my wife, who’s on shore with a camera. I literally fell on four waves in a row. I was all nervous because it felt like everyone’s watching me now. “It totally freaked me out. But now — like we went out with Taylor Knox recently, we had two drones, three GoPros, Maggie was on shore… and Taylor Knox was there — and I realized that I literally haven’t surfed in over a year without cameras pointing at me.”
The story behind how Gustin got involved with Knox is an interesting one. A few years ago, in October of 2019, the Carlsbad Boardrider’s Club was having a competition. Gustin, with his typical can-do-anything attitude, decided it would be fun to enter. “I was like, a very, very, very bad surfer at the time. I was lucky if I even caught a wave. But I heard about this club and the contest — the Carlsbad Boardriders Club; just a bunch of people who ride boards in Carlsbad, like me — and I thought it would be fun. Maybe I’ll catch a wave, but that was about it. I didn’t know anything about it. I showed up and it was the biggest day Carlsbad had seen in three years. Maggie, my girlfriend, told me that it was really big. Like, really big. Then, we were looking at the list of people competing, and there were a lot of big names there. Really good local guys. Taylor Knox was in the heat before me. I thought it was just going to be a bunch of 40-year-old dudes on longboards. Before I paddled out, Taylor walked by me and mentioned a piece Fox had done about me. He said, ‘Hey, I saw that piece on Fox. You make me want to be a better person!’ It was before I started the channel, but I thought that if Taylor Knox was inspired by watching me try to surf, imagine what it would be like for people who aren’t amazing at surfing.”
Gustin paddled out for his heat. The waves, as mentioned, were huge, and there was a solid rip running south. Gustin was getting pounded, unable to see waves until the very last second. “It was just wave after wave after wave,” he remembered, “so eventually I just decided to stand up and ride the wash in.”
That’s when he heard screaming from the beach. Maggie came wading out into the water in all of her clothes. She informed him that the police were concerned about him, because he was getting dragged alarmingly close to the rocks. “I was so embarrassed,” he said. “I felt like such an idiot. Out there trying to compete with guys like Taylor Knox and I can’t even get out.”
When he got to shore, he felt a hand on his arm. “Someone said, ‘hey, you still have like four minutes left in your heat,” Gustin recalled. “‘Let’s go get you a wave.’ I can’t recognize him; he’s just a blob of a person, and he goes, ‘Hey listen, I’ve been a pro surfer for twenty years and even I had a hard time getting out.'”
That hand on his arm, as you’ve guessed by now, belonged to Taylor Knox. “Sure enough, the guy takes me by the hand and runs me the length of the beach over to a jetty,” Gustin said. “He got me out there, pushed me out, and I ended up getting a wave.” They kept in touch here and there over the next few years, and Taylor was recently featured on an episode of The Blind Surfer.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t necessarily watch a surf show on YouTube for anything other than the surfing. I’ll skip ahead through the talking parts and get straight to the bomb drops or the big barrels. It’s a little vicarious, but with Gustin’s show, it’s the opposite. I watch it for the talking parts. Gustin’s show isn’t about the surfing so much as it is about what it takes for him to surf. Sure, it’s about a blind guy who surfs (and Onewheels and tow skates and wakeboards) but underneath that shiny, clickbaity top coat, it’s about a man who is overcoming obstacles — big ones.
“I had Jamie and Ben (Gravy) in mind when I started this thing,” Gustin told me. “I wanted it to be a surf channel. But the more we went on, I realized it was the opposite. They’ve become completely opposite channels. It took me a hot minute to realize that. There’s a recent episode called Is My Beard on Straight (watch that here), and it’s just me doing day-to-day things, like trying to navigate down a new set of stairs. I think people are getting into it more now because the more they watch, the more they realize that ‘Wow, everything is kind of difficult for this guy, but he’s still out there trying to do new stuff.’”
And that, of course, is the draw. That’s what The Blind Surfer is all about. Everyone’s got struggles — some are harder than others — and everyone needs to find a way to overcome them. Gustin hopes that in showing that obstacles are meant to be overcome, he’ll inspire people to get out there and find a way to do what they’ve always wanted to do, no matter what’s in their way.
Subscribe to Blind Surfer on YouTube and follow Pete Gustin on Facebook and on Instagram.