People Who Surf

One surfer's return to the lineup after years spent battling drug addiction

At 55 years old, Big Dave is chasing a healthier high through perfect right-handers. Photo: Gilley

“Put it this way: I’ve got friends in Encinitas with benches named after them.”

It’s a sobering comment considering that North San Diego County benches are commonly dedicated to the prematurely deceased. In a factual, nearly emotionless tone, the 6’4” 240 pound surfer known as Big Dave has described the end of the road he used to travel. A path of substance abuse and radical living. A path that only led to ugly things.

How ugly? How about meth and heroin, smuggling illegal aliens, multiple trips to jail, being found on the floor purple and lifeless, shotgun confrontations with gangs, FBI agents knocking down your door, holing up in tweaker pads, a half inch-thick wrap sheet, and losing everything except the clothes on your back?

Ugly enough?

Dave travels a much different road now. He drives to the beach religiously every morning, charges whatever surf is on offer, and then heads off to work for the balance of the day. He is now a levelheaded, kind-hearted man who thanks his lucky stars that on the way to county jail on February 2, 2004, he saw the light and decided, once and for all, to become clean and sober.

And he also has something else to thank because in the final analysis, what really saved Dave’s soul—what really forced to him to turn away from the abyss—was surfing.

To those who grew up in the 70’s, Dave’s story is almost a familiar one: With forty bucks in his pocket, he hitchhiked from the East Coast to San Diego, and when he got there in 1976, “it felt like Disneyland.” He got a supermarket job, shared a studio apartment in Mission Beach with three other guys, slept in the closet, and surfed his brains out.

Along with surfing, though, other temptations—temptations that were rife in the ‘70s—were impossible for Dave to avoid, and he was never one to turn anything down. Before, during, and after Nancy Reagan’s First Lady stint, Dave admits that he had a strict “Just Say Yes” policy.

Dave was able to contain his raging side-habits through the eighties long enough to continue surfing, and lived right on the point at Swami’s. He kept his expenses low and water time high. He was always the kind of surfer who nabbed the biggest set waves, and drew clean, powerful man turns all the way through the inside bowl.

Eventually though, Dave’s growing dependencies caught up with him. He would do anything for the next high, and soon his need for the next fix superseded his desire to surf. After tweaking himself down to a skeleton and making multiple trips to jail, Dave realized he was in a very, very dark place when he had to sell all his boards to pay for lawyer fees.

In conjunction with his 2004 arrest, seeing perfect surf and not having anything to ride was too much for Dave to handle, and it became the one-two slap-in-the-face that made him wake up. He suddenly realized what he had become. He confronted the reality that he had, “traded surfing for a lifestyle that consumed me.”

After attending AA classes and getting sober later that year, Dave began the slow path to recovery. He bought a longboard soon thereafter and nursed himself back into shortboard shape, wave by wave. As he puts it, he began the “transition from a life of darkness towards the light”.

Now Dave’s life is completely different—he’s in a great relationship, has a satisfying vocation, and plenty of surf time. He shares his great sense of humor and Aloha spirit with all who surf near him. At 55 years old, he still nabs the biggest set waves and draws clean thruster lines all the way through the inside.

Dave feels lucky to be alive and has a parting message for all of those surfers out there who are still riding down that ugly path, “I want them to know that there is hope no matter how far they’ve gone.”

Dave and his surfing are living examples of the benefits of a clean line. Of turning away from a shadowed trough, and projecting out to a sunlit face. Of heading toward the light.