If you went looking for the moment Santa Cruz, California, began its reputation as a rough-and-tumble surf town, you'd probably end up on the cliff at Steamer Lane the night before the 1969 Smirnoff International Pro-Am was set to start. According to a Sports Illustrated article from the time, that's when local surfers decided they didn't approve of a bunch of interlopers taking over their home break for a day, and they'd make their feelings known by pushing the judging tower—along with a VW bus—off the cliff.
The splintered wood and bent metal washing in and out of the rocks below sent a fairly strong message to the contest directors, but the hijinks didn't stop there. According to the article, "Before the meet ended, five surfboards were stolen from two Hawaiian surfers. And thieves weren't the only dissidents. Several local surfers weren't giving up their favorite spot just because of a contest. Time and again they created confusion in the judges stands [by not leaving the lineup while the contest was on], where glare had already hindered surfer identification."
Santa Cruz's reputation for producing unhinged surfers only grew from there. Localism intensified through the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and drugs found a foothold within the surf community, further destabilizing the already fragile social ecosystems that existed at some of the best breaks. By the early 2000s, many saw Santa Cruz lineups as the cold-water equivalent of a Western B-movie saloon, where a posse of high-flying, hard-charging outlaws ruled and outsiders were met with fierce intimidation.
It felt strange, then, to be sitting at the top of The Point at Steamer Lane on a crisp Saturday morning last spring during a crossed-up swell, surrounded mostly by beaming groms, a few tepid old loggers, and a mostly harmless white guy with dreadlocks past his shoulders, a Rasta-colored wetsuit, and a Wavestorm fresh off the Costco rack.
There was one outlaw in the lineup, however. Darryl "Flea" Virostko sat next to me, scanning the turbulent mix of long-period south and local wind swell for a clean face. As his nickname implies, Virostko is small in stature, but his wiry goatee and dark, intense eyes give him a brooding air. But he wasn't hassling the weekend warriors, or sending outsiders like me to the beach. Quite the opposite, in fact: he was giving me advice.
"It's all about reading the angles on days like this," Virostko said, pointing out the various takeoff spots from The Slot to Indicator and describing the right combination of conditions that brings each to life. The light from the cloudless sky shined on the marbled cliff face to the west, where the purple bulbs of flowering ice plant hung lazily over the precipice. The water was cool and clear, and curious seals popped up all around us to take stock of the midmorning surf pack. It was an idyllic scene, as if we were surfing through a Monet painting, and it was hard to imagine any kind of dispute over waves or drug-fueled punch-ups breaking the serenity.
A set approached and Virostko let the lumpy frontrunner pass before spinning around on the second wave—an oily overhead wall. He airdropped a few feet before reconnecting with the face and leaning into his trademark knock-knee bottom turn. He took aim at the lip and blasted his fins over the top of it, sending gallons of water skyward.
"We'd battle each other for waves, burn each other, and have a lot of fun doing it, but we were wave hogs. The competition between our friends was fierce, and everyone else just got caught in the crossfire."
As Virostko traveled across the wave face, the crowd's collective gaze followed. Santa Cruz has a population of over 60,000, but in many ways it still feels like a small town, and surfing is deeply woven into the culture. Virostko is one of the best surfers ever to come from the area, which makes him a kind of local celebrity. Even the most fair-weather Santa Cruz surfers recognize Virostko and want to see what he'll do next, but Virostko wasn't always revered at The Lane.
"When we were growing up, the older guys just treated us like shit," Virostko explains. "One time they grabbed one of our friends when he was running down the point, pulled his wetsuit down to his ankles, and pushed him off the cliff. He started swimming in, completely naked, and when he got on the rocks the older guys started yelling, 'Call the cops! This kid's on acid!' So this crowd gathered around and everyone was freaking out watching him climb up the rocks naked. That stuff was beyond your typical grom hazing. It was terrible."
According to Virostko, as a kid growing up on Santa Cruz's west side in the '80s, his daily bicycle commute to The Lane was a white-knuckle affair. He'd crane his head around street corners to check if the coast was clear, and then pedal like his life depended on it. If one of the older locals happened to spot him on his way to The Lane with surfboard in hand, a beat-down would likely ensue.
The pressure-cooker intensity of the Santa Cruz surf scene made surfing in the area unappealing to all but a handful of strong-headed kids, and those who stuck it out transformed into a tough, tight-knit pack. Soon Virostko, Shawn "Barney" Barron, Jason "Ratboy" Collins, Ken "Skindog" Collins, Josh Loya, and friends were pushing each other to new heights and working their way up the Steamer Lane food chain.
"It was tough for anyone else to catch waves because they'd be in the middle of this feeding frenzy of our friends trying to out-surf each other, do bigger airs and better tricks," says Virostko. "We'd battle each other for waves, burn each other, and have a lot of fun doing it, but we were wave hogs. The competition between our friends was fierce, and everyone else just got caught in the crossfire."
From the '90s into the early '00s, Virostko and co. used the rampy rights at The Slot—the steep-faced wave that hugs the cliff at Steamer Lane—to push the limits of progressive surfing. Santa Cruz had produced many talented surfers over the years, including Kevin Reed, Vince Collier, and Richard Schmidt, but this was something different. The new Santa Cruz crew set the surf world on fire with its devil-may-care aerial approach, and The Lane quickly became known as a hotbed for the world's most technically advanced surfing.
But that intensity didn't switch off once they were back on land. Santa Cruz filmmaker Joshua Pomer's 2010 documentary The Westsiders showed the crew's unraveling as certain members of the group fought losing battles with alcohol and drug addiction, climaxing with Virostko falling off a cliff just north of town in Davenport after a sleepless night on mushrooms. He somehow survived the fall, which served as the starting point for Virostko's long and difficult road to recovery and sobriety.
As we drove from The Lane over to Arrow Surf & Sport after our session, Virostko explained that he had no interest in discussing the dark period of the late '00s any more than he already has. He's eight years sober now, married with two young daughters, and he wants to leave the past behind. In his post-pro surf career, he splits his time between working construction and running Fleahab, a sober-living facility in town.
"It's fun getting to do what we do at Fleahab," Virostko told me. "I really try to teach them the importance of exercise while you're recovering, and it really helps to get them in the water. I'm stoked to see people make a full circle, and I think people trust me because they know that I've been through it too. Going from being a fucking idiot to actually succeeding in life, it's pretty special."
Many of the other hard-living Santa Cruz standouts from Virostko's era managed to turn their lives around, start families, and build new careers for themselves after professional surfing. But not everyone succeeded in navigating the long, windy road to sobriety.
Shawn "Barney" Barron was Virostko's closest friend since those white-knuckle bike-ride days in the old neighborhood. They surfed The Lane every day together, tackled massive waves at Mavericks together, and redefined aerial surfing together. But that lifelong bond ended on May 5, 2015, when Barron collapsed in his home with a ruptured aorta, caused by the combination of a genetic heart disorder and methamphetamine use.
Barron was a beloved character in the Santa Cruz surfing community who spent much of his time volunteering as a surf instructor for charities like the Mauli Ola Foundation and Wounded Warriors. He was also a celebrated local artist who immersed himself in his work, constantly creating colorful, abstract paintings and taking part in art shows in the area. But it had been a tough stretch for Barron leading up to the end of his life. His mother had recently passed away, he'd parted ways with longtime sponsor Volcom, and he was struggling to make ends meet.
"I would check on him here and there towards the end," Virostko explained. "I'd go by his house, open his door, and heckle him, just seeing what he was up to, but it was tough because I'm sober and he was still dabbling in stuff. In hindsight, I wish I would've stayed on his case more, but I didn't know he had a heart condition. That was such a shocker for it to happen like that. You don't get to say anything, you don't get to be by them when they're dying. You just wake up one day and your best friend is gone."
Barron was the most colorful, offbeat character in a town famous for producing weirdos. He wore wetsuits decorated like superhero costumes, did handstands on skateboards and bombed hills upside down, and came up laughing after being mowed down by mutant waves at Mavericks. Barron was the mascot for an entire generation of Santa Cruz surfers who lived loud and brash and with no notion of tomorrow, and his passing marked the end of an era.
The sun was just beginning to creep up over Soquel Point as I made my way down West Cliff Drive toward Nat Young's house. Since 2013, when the 25-year-old became one of the few Santa Cruz surfers ever to qualify for the World Tour, Young has spent much of his time bouncing between events and sleeping in airports. Now home, Young told me he planned to sleep in, so I should meet him at his place at 7 a.m.—a whole 15 minutes after sunrise. Even in his downtime, Young sticks to a strict routine, balancing surf sessions with fitness training, the next event never far from his mind.
When I got to Young's house, a small cottage in the backyard of his mom's place on Woodrow Avenue, I found him sitting on the floor, meticulously placing stickers on one of the dozens of brand-new surfcraft spilling out of his board racks and occupying any open space in his living room. Young is freckle-faced and straw-haired, almost cartoonish in his physical embodiment of the California surfer archetype.
On the wall sat a blown-up cover shot featuring Young getting a thick backside barrel along the shark-infested coastline north of town. Under his TV was a painted driftwood shelf sagging with trophies from his second-place finishes in World Tour events at Bells Beach and Portugal, his ASP Rookie of the Year Award, his SURFER Poll Andy Irons Breakthrough Performance Award, and his first-place trophy from the Coldwater Classic at Steamer Lane.
Young has lived on this property with his mom, Rosie, since his parents split up when he was 5 years old. His dad, Dennis, surfed, but it was mainly Rosie who got him in the water. She was a longboarder, and she took Young to the beach all the time, got him into Junior Lifeguards, and brought him on camping trips along the coast of Northern Baja. Rosie was also friends with all the best surfers on the West Side, so Young had a rotating cast of Santa Cruz surf royalty hanging at the house when he was growing up.
"I remember they had a party here in the yard when I was about 5 years old, and they were showing a surf movie," Young explained. "Everybody was here—Flea, Barney, Rat, all those guys—and I was just a little kid in the middle of this party. I ended up climbing through the skylight with an Airsoft gun and started shooting at those guys when they weren't paying attention. Nobody could figure out where it was coming from."
Young grabbed an armful of boards to test drive, and we loaded up his black Tacoma and set off to find some waves along an isolated stretch of coast just north of town. On our way, we stopped at a West Side coffee shop where Young's friend Noah Wegrich, a stylish goofyfooter also born and raised in the Santa Cruz area, joined our caravan.
From Young's house on the West Side, you don't have to go very far up the Cabrillo Highway before you feel like you're in another world entirely. Once you pass the small town of Davenport, you're surrounded by nothing but overgrown pastures, twisting pines, and a vast, blue horizon.
We stopped to check a fickle slab that needs a very specific tide and swell direction to make the long, muddy trek to the beach worthwhile. But a pesky northwest wind had already kicked up, and it was blowing harder by the minute."This is so typical," laughed Young. "It's easy to come up here looking for a wave to yourself and just driving around for two hours, and in the back of your mind you know you'll just end up back at The Lane anyway."
There's a reason that Steamer Lane has been the go-to spot for generations of Santa Cruz standouts. Not only is it one of the most high-performance waves in town, but it's also situated so the point faces directly east, grooming wintertime northwest swells, sucking in summer souths, and allowing the cliff to act as a giant windscreen when northwesterlies blow the rest of the local Santa Cruz lineups to pieces.
“I was basically trying to surf as good as the guys from Flea’s era without getting caught up in the stuff they were doing outside of the ocean. Don't get me wrong, they were all good guys, and they were really friendly to me growing up. It's just that I never wanted to have to deal with the same struggles I saw them dealing with."
We suited up and walked up the point, past the lighthouse, and hopped over the fence that lines the southern edge of the cliff. At the tip of the point, a long finger of rock gradually descends to the water's edge, where surfers time their jump with incoming swells. Through decades of local surfers walking down to the jump spot, smooth footholds have been worn into the stone. It's the same path that Virostko and friends started taking in the '80s, that Richard Schmidt first took in the '60s, that all the great Lane surfers have traversed since it became the epicenter of Santa Cruz surfing in the '40s. But while the path to The Lane is much the same as always, the culture in the lineup has changed.
"It's true that it's gotten mellower around here in my lifetime, especially in the last few years," says Young. "It's definitely not as intense as it used to be with the localism and the fighting and everything. Now if you go to The Lane after school, there's a bunch of little kids in the lineup having a good time, and it didn't used to be that kind of place. But there's still a balance, there are things that still need to be respected, and I think people understand that."
Out in the lineup at The Lane, the tide was high and the waves were wonky from backwash, but Young had no problem finding a few runners at The Slot. On his first wave, Young stood up and drew an unwavering line to the trough before getting low to his board, loading up all his weight over his heels, and rocketing up the face. Surfers who obsess over technique will often argue that all great surfing stems from a great bottom turn, and after years of surfing the steep rights at The Lane, Young's backside bottom turn is faultless. It was only a chest-high wave, but when Young hit the lip, spray flew 10 feet into the air.
By the time the displaced water returned to the surface a few moments later, Young was already starting his next turn. It's this approach—nothing brash, just technically flawless surfing—that has endeared Young to WSL judges and carried him to podiums all over the world. And, like Virostko before him, Young commands the attention of the entire lineup every time he paddles out at The Lane.
On paper, Young and Virostko have a lot in common: they both grew up in the same neighborhood, both were the children of divorced parents, and both showed incredible talent on a surfboard at a young age. But that's about as far as the similarities go. While Virostko and friends wanted to spark an aerial revolution, charge the biggest waves at Mavericks, and serve as the hard-partying antiheros of the surf world, Young made up his mind early on that he wanted to go in a different direction.
"When I was a kid, I would see the guys from Flea's era out in the water, and obviously I looked up to them because they were a million times better than me at surfing," Young says. "When I got older, I'd see them around town, but I wouldn't see them in the water as much, and I fully knew what was going on with the drugs and everything. In a way, it was almost like they were role models because they showed me what not to do. I was basically trying to surf as good as them without getting caught up in the stuff they were doing outside of the ocean. Don't get me wrong, they were all good guys, and they were really friendly to me growing up. It's just that I never wanted to have to deal with the same struggles I saw them dealing with."
It was almost time for Young's training session up the road at Paradigm Sport, where he'd work himself to exhaustion, then paddle out for another surf session in the afternoon, per routine. He's had some strong performances on Tour, finishing out the 2015 season in the top 10. But Young believes he can do better, and he's willing to work as hard as he has to in order to prove it.
As we loaded our boards and wetsuits into the the truck bed, Young was stopped by fans and well-wishers strolling down West Cliff. Old guys came up to shake his hand and wish him luck this year on Tour, while awkward tweens simply shouted things like "Go Nat!" from a distance. That phrase has become a kind of rallying cry in the surf community, and although Young is far from the kind of loud, brash personalities that Santa Cruz has become known for, it makes sense that he would amass a following among local surfers. Young is symbolic of the culture shift happening throughout Santa Cruz lineups. In a town that watched its greatest surfers live like rock stars and pay heavy tolls because of it, being a clean-cut athlete may be its own kind of rebellion.
[This feature originally appeared in “Hidden In Plain Sight,” our October 2016 Issue, on newsstands and available for download now.]