When the pandemic hit, I found myself stuck in Maine, glumly watching snowdrifts build up in front of the neighbor’s house, daydreaming about blue water and palm trees and tan boys in board shorts. I had surfing, sure, but it meant putting on so much neoprene I was one with the seals, and occasionally getting locked out of the car with lobster-gloves on to catch hypothermia. Surfing in Maine was more of a mission and less of an escape. The frigid waters were a welcome distraction from boredom, but it was surely nothing to dream about.
When I landed a job at a local surf shop to make some money and pass the time, my dad, a man of few words and great athletic prowess whose quiver of boards I borrowed many a time, peered at me, eyes thin. “Just don’t get too caught up in it. Some people treat it like a lifestyle.”
Unfortunately for my dad, and the rest of the world post-Gidget, the idea of surfing was just too enticing for its own good. I pawed through Surfer’s Journals in my down time, and oh – the romance! Bare feet, unhinged youth, uncombed hair… it was all totally epic, and soon my brain was stuffed full of images of the Mac Meda Destruction Company tearing buildings down in sheer alcohol-infused crazes! Miki Dora running from the FBI on a glamorous worldwide chase! Kevin and Craig skipping out on high school to drive the Baja in a little VW bug!
The only problem with these fantasies was that they weren’t so much fantasy. Behind the grainy film photos and lens-flared edits filled with perfect waves, these people walked the Earth in real time. Mac Meda Destruction Company was a real group of (some would say) alcoholic youth, hell-bent on tearing up a sleepy town. Miki Dora forged plane tickets and opened fraudulent credit cards. Kevin Naughton and Craig Anderson, brave as they may be and still my heroes to this day, got themselves into quite a few prickly situations and almost starved during many of their dirtbag surf trips.
Now, the fact that most surf legends have depth isn’t an ethical problem in and of itself. Surfing, or any activity, for that matter, isn’t best served “good” or “bad.” And surf legends are real people (even though they may surf like Gods and some of their lives are totally unbelievable). My expectations of other people aren’t above my expectations of myself, which is to make the best decision I can given the options I have. That looks different for everyone.
But, some decisions are just bad. Plain and simple. Many surfers have met untimely ends – and some from drug-related causes: Andy Irons, Jackie Eberle, most members of the Brotherhood, and (tangentially) Rick Rasmussen (to name a very small few). And the problem with idolizing people who make life-destroying choices is it convinces other people to make those same, detrimental choices. In exaggerated form, it goes something like, “Want to be a legend in surfing? Go live in a treehouse and don’t work a day in your life! Or, go party and do some cocaine!”
If you think I’m lying, take the drug culture in surfing at large. And to subscribe to “surf culture” (you can cringe, but that’s how I will refer to the lifestyle surrounding those who prioritize surfing above all else) it often feels as if you must partake in counterculture activities. Consulting Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing in a chapter titled “Everybody Must Get Stoned,” Warshaw illuminates exactly the point I’d like to make here: the most damning part of surf culture is that the good and the bad are so interconnected, you simply cannot ignore one or the other.
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Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of surf history is the shortboard revolution. New ideas, new board designs, waves being ridden like never before! And yet, Warshaw notes that “nearly everyone involved with the development of the short surfboard was a hardcore stoner. Dick Brewer dropped acid regularly, and Nat Young remembers that he and Bob McTavish ‘smoked a big fat one’ before every Honolua Bay session in 1967.”
Then there’s the issue of drug use propelling surfer’s lives to the wrong side of the tracks. Though Ron Stoner’s name may initially come to mind, the case I’d like to highlight is that of Michael Peterson. Due to far more than just being a Morning of the Earth star, inductee to the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, and SURFER magazine citing him as one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century” in 1999, (though this is already suffice), it’s safe to say MP is certainly a legend of surfing’s past.
But in the ‘70s, Michael, like many people during that decade, began smoking weed, eating mushrooms, and shooting up heroin. And, Warshaw writes in Peterson’s entry that “all of it fueled his as-yet-undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia.” The problems only grew from there. “Peterson’s paranoia was such that he hid in the parking lot after winning his third consecutive Bells Beach title, convinced that if he walked up to accept his prize check, spectators “were going to start throwing things at me.’” By 1976, he’d become almost entirely a loner, and in ‘78, “Peterson was arrested after a high-speed car chase from Kirra to Brisbane; he told police he was a CIA agent and was being followed by Russian spies.”
Now, you may be thinking: “well, yeah, obviously you can separate surfers from their drug habits.” But taking drugs was an integral part of surfing in some of the key decades of surfing’s history. So, can you really separate Michael Peterson from his drug use in the ‘70s? If you’re considering his identity as a surfer, I’m not so sure.
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And while marijuana is now legalized in many parts of the world, so this may not be such a dark spot on surfing’s history, it’s hard to excuse harder stuff, like meth and cocaine, which are equally intertwined. Peter Mel and Flea Virostko, two of my idols who I’ve spotted and probably made uncomfortable in my ogling north of Santa Cruz, had their shares of involvement with the meth craze of the 2000s. Warshaw writes that while they both ultimately moved forward positively (and I’ve seen both of them rip in the last year, so please understand this next bit comes with the utmost respect!), but “Flea kept the party rolling for two more years, fell off a cliff while high and nearly died, and called bullshit when friends and family staged an intervention. When he did finally agree to get help, he walked drunk into the facility, weed stashed in his shirt pocket, ran his bloodshot eyes around the joint and said ‘Where’s the bitches? I thought there were chicks in rehab!’”
Is it fair to idolize Peter and Flea? For their surfing, absolutely. For the drug use, maybe not. The most difficult part is that when we idolize people, we idolize their personas, too. The fact that Flea walked into rehab and asked about women is – I hate to say it – kind of bitchin’. Pair that with good, no, great, surfing, and you have a larger-than-life character you can’t write off as either just a druggie or just an excellent surfer. He’s a multi-dimensional person who deserves to be thought of as such (plus he’s helped others get sober with his Fleahab program).
Furthermore, surf writing is altogether a genre of its own. From profiles detailing the lives of surfers, such as “The John Peck Experience” to writing from surfers like Billy Hamilton, perhaps seriously, perhaps with a smirk, penning in a 1975 Surfing article: “we all have our individual rhythms and tempos, which we use in accordance with the various evolutionary patterns of time and space,” to books like “In Search of Captain Zero,” adventures of all varieties are lusted over, drugs are discussed, and dangerous experiences are had.”
While idolizing surfers is tempting, falling prey to the idealization of surf culture involves romanticizing drug use, shirking responsibilities, and living a largely individual (meaning no longterm attachments) lifestyle. When we put people into categories, even if that category is good, we are pigeonholing them into a character and not a person.
There are legendary surfers, but even legends are people. It’s obvious, but it’s something that’s taken me years to really accept. No one is above having problems, and the way our idols deal with those problems may not be worth fawning over.