As the sun shines faintly from overhead, a figure adrift in the water waits patiently for the right wave. A breaker builds from behind him, and he begins paddling, trying to move his small craft at the same velocity as the advancing wave. As the cold water reaches its crest, the figure pulls upright and leans from side to side, reflecting the sun's rays toward the shore.

After the surf crashes to the sand with a thunderous clap, the figure emerges, clad in boots, hat and gloves and holding the six-foot piece of sculptured plexiglass he has used for transportaion to shore.

"First you have to judge the waves properly and know where to be, relative to the break," said Tom Robbins, 55, of Crofton, who is the oldest competitive surfer in the Eastern Surfing Association's Maryland district.

"There is a technique you have to learn to position yourself on the board. You don't want to pearl -- that's a disaster. That's when the nose of the board goes under."

Although he sounds as if he speaks from many years of experience, Robbins has been surfing eight years and is self-taught. Nearly every weekend, no matter the weather, he can be found on the Ocean City shoreline, testing himself against the biggest breakers he can find. He continues this ritual when most his age are content to watch from the shore, and at temperatures when even diehards prefer to sit it out.

"I think (my peers) respect me for being able to do that sort of thing. They're amazed that I surf all winter," said Robbins. "They are only maybe 30 guys that surf regularly, and none of them are my age. But, it's not really all that uncomfortable, provided you wear the proper clothing."

If it weren't for a career in nuclear engineering, Robbins admits he might spend even more time at the beach, a place he has been fascinated by since his youth.

"I just brought home a surfboard one day eight years ago," he said. "My boys were getting old enough to try it, so I surfed with them. I made all kinds of mistakes -- wipeouts. It was frustrating. But I decided I was going to do this."

Robbins was a finalist in the 1983 and 1984 ESA Grand Masters division finals.

"It was hard when I started. The younger kids seem to pick it up easier," Robbins said. "It's hard to learn when you are older. But it's easier (in competition) because there are a lot less people to compete against."

To ready himself, Robbins runs and lifts weights, fighting off the age that draws second glances on the beaches where he competes. Most of the surfers in the masters division, though, are older than he is, with considerably more surfing experience. (They've been surfing all their lives," he said.)

Surfing full-time is something Robbins can just dream about. But he plans to continue in the sport as long as he can, and he encourages others to try their luck also.

"They should go to someone who is trustworthy for advice on buying a proper board, and then take lessons in Ocean City," said Robbins. "They shouldn't try it without knowledgeable advice. They can get seriously hurt."

Despite the dangers of the sport and his age, Robbins has had just one injury, a dislocated shoulder he suffered in California six years ago. "My wife had to drive me to the hospital, but she puts up with it," said Robbins. "She worries about me, though. She figures my bones are not as strong. If I keep in good shape, I hope to keep going.

"I've loved the ocean all my life."