Remember Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Harbor
Santa Cruz Harbor. Photo: Nate Lawrence

Remember Santa Cruz? There was once a time when you couldn't open a surf mag and not see a photo of a guy with booties and a vermin nickname, boosting in front of those unmistakable sandstone cliffs. There was Flea's beer can board art and Barney's superhero wetsuits. Peter Mel pulling in behind the bowl at Maverick's and the white heat of Adam Replogle gouging a frosty green wave. Jay Moriarity's iron-cross wipeout at Mav's. Flea smoking Kelly in the final at Maverick's in front of national news cameras, and throwing a Westside victory party that would have made Charlie Sheen blush. These were the days of big travel budgets and healthy bank accounts and "Photo: Tony Roberts" and the wide-angle revolution. When two cars full of Santa Cruz pros would rock up at events and they commanded people's attention. Remember when this small California beach town produced more talent over two decades than anywhere on earth? Remember when Santa Cruz ruled?

Puerto Escondido, Mexico, 1989. A gang of pros from Santa Cruz has invaded this seaside resort town, to the chagrin of the Rusty surf team, who is also here filming for a TV show back in the States. After a week of throating barrels and raucous hijinks, the Santa Cruz contingent has stolen the spotlight from Team Rusty.

Photographer Sonny Miller, here for the Rusty shoot, is now hooking up in the water with the Santa Cruz guys. When the trip is over, Barney will wind up on the cover of Surfer – his first – inside a sparkling Puerto cavern wearing a shit-eating grin. The TV producers, meanwhile, can't get enough of the colorful Santa Cruz cast. There's loud-mouthed, brawling Vince Collier. There's the quiet, calculated Richard Schmidt, who always winds up on the craziest wave of the day. There's Barney, the playful court jester, doing handstands on the beach and making trippy drawings in the sand. The Santa Cruz crew has swagger. They have style. Team Rusty doesn't have nearly as much and the producers rewrite their script and turn their cameras toward the spice. That night a bevy of coeds on vacation from Arizona State, as well as the sultry brunette TV host, join the Santa Cruz boys at their hotel bar. The margaritas flow and another successful Mexican sojourn is celebrated in style.

The Santa Cruz crew's reputation precedes them around the world. Santa Cruz surfers aren't afraid of cold water and they aren't afraid of sharks. They surf Maverick's – wasted. They drive massive raised trucks with tinted windows and actually get them dirty. They are the antithesis of Southern California's tame waves and plastic tits.
Santa Cruz is a beautiful anomaly. While most of California is one monotonous stretch of forgettable beach break, Santa Cruz offers up a Vegas-style buffet of waves: flawless river mouth sandbars; long, winding pointbreaks; heaving reef slabs. Santa Cruz is also an island, isolated from the outside world on all sides. Up the coast are miles of empty pastures and lonely beaches, home to hairy nudists and elephant seals. Down the coast are the endless fields of California's agricultural engine, and the faceless farm workers who blend into the landscape. Head inland and you're met with the redwood curtain of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where new-age communes and meth labs are cloaked behind thick foliage. And straight out front is the big blue Monterey Bay.

If you're born into this surfing postcard, Santa Cruz is easy. Live with mom and dad, rule the lineup, get all the good waves. It's a fantasyland of scenic greenbelts, beach cruisers, gourmet food and raging house parties. And the cherry: an endless supply of young women imported into town each fall, courtesy of the University of California. Too easy. But living in this bubble can be treacherous to a young surfing career. Bud Freitas knows this. The 27-year-old grew up on top of Pleasure Point, where he honed a powerful, stylish act, and was soon pegged as the second coming of fellow Eastsider Adam Replogle, the last surfer from Santa Cruz to make the world tour. But during the prime of his career, Bud found himself cycling sponsors, partying and never generating much buzz beyond the borders of Santa Cruz.

"We have so many good surfers in Santa Cruz, but it's not like people are filming full time up here," says Bud. "It's not like if you go to Salt Creek or Lowers, where you've got 30 photographers."

There are a lot of bubble surfers in Santa Cruz, guys who absolutely destroy it on their side of town, but rarely venture outside the county lines – Randy Bonds, Noi Kaulukukui, Austin Smith-Ford. Why travel and do contests when you can stay home and score better waves than you would on the road? Why not sleep in your own bed with your own girlfriend? It's true that the surf industry doesn't pay as much attention to Santa Cruz as it does Southern California. But is it because today's Santa Cruz surfers aren't commanding the attention like their predecessors, or is it because the industry is myopic and strapped for cash? Depends who you ask. But the surfers do what they can around town and hope to get to Bali or Mex once a year. And there's always the Cold Water Classic. But the truth is, most are living inside a bubble, and ripping Pleasure Point doesn't register on the outside world's radar.

"It held me back forever," admits Bud, who's still a sponsored professional and also runs a surf school on the Eastside. "I got down the road and figured it out now, but for me to showcase my surfing I have to be out there on the road consistently, not just stay in this little bubble and wait for the swells to come. I think a lot of people just get lazy because we have such good waves here."

Nic Lamb Maves
Nic Lamb, Santa Cruz’s Maverick’s prodigy. Photo: Doug Acton

Nic Lamb fits the Santa Cruz surfer archetype to a T. He is 24, often wears a chip on his shoulder and has perfected the "standout from 2-to-20 feet" approach that served as the bread and butter for the generation before him. But while Nic spends most days hucking frontside airs at the Lane, you'll rarely see it. The only time he gets love from the surf media is when he's taking off under the lip of a 30-footer.
Somewhere along the line, Santa Cruz lost its spot at the forefront of aerial surfing. "Since the judging criteria changed, your world tour guys have incorporated all the airs into their repertoire," explains aerial pioneer Jason "Ratboy" Collins. "Now everybody is doing more radical surfing, even during events. There's not your little niche surfers, like air guys, like we were back then."

The stronghold has been Maverick's, where the camaraderie remains and Santa Cruz is still progressing big-wave surfing. Peter Mel is 42 and winning events on the Big Wave World Tour. Anthony Tashnick is still the youngest-ever Maverick's champ, and is still pushing the limits with local boys like Ryan Augenstein and Tyler Fox. And it was only two years ago that Santa Cruz's Shawn Dollar stroked into the (then) largest paddle wave ever recorded during the freesurf session before the final of the 2010 Mav's event.

For a young Santa Cruz pro like Nic Lamb, there are two options: hit the road and get to work making heats and getting shots, or break out the 10'0" and go do battle at Mav's. The big-wave arena is where Nic has dedicated himself. Each winter he's taking off deeper in the bowl and he's creeping his way higher on the alternates list for the Maverick's contest. Nic says he isn't worried about where the fickle lens of the surf industry focuses next. He will be out punting airs and charging big waves either way.

"When people think Santa Cruz, they think crazy ocean animals, large surf and aerial progression," says Nic. "That statement stands true today, and it's only advancing."

Darryl “Flea” Virostko. Photo: Sherman

America loves a good drug story. It's tempting to attribute Santa Cruz's fade from the limelight to one fatal flaw — meth. In reality it was a multitude of factors conspiring together. Economy. Apathy. Industry. But because one pillar of Santa Cruz surfing nearly destroyed himself with meth, many people think a plague of the devil dust crippled an entire generation of Santa Cruz surfers.

The Santa Cruz Surfer Methamphetamine Saga has been well documented, picked over with a fine-toothed comb. Darryl "Flea" Virostko's story of stardom, excess and destruction was the perfect combination of Greek tragedy and E! True Hollywood Story. His fall, and subsequent attempt at redemption, was covered by everyone from the surf mags to The New York Times.

After a glorious youth of heavy partying and brilliant surfing that saw him rise to the highest echelons of surf stardom, Flea started smoking meth in 2007 and lost control of his career and his life. "As an extreme surfer, I made the parties pretty extreme," says Flea. "And I was not shy about what I was doing." He went missing from his spot at the top of the Lane totem pole and stopped surfing, going days without eating or sleeping. He was dropped by most of his sponsors, ended up losing his house to the bank, and nearly killed himself with drinking and drugs before checking into rehab.

"There was a point where basically the drugs were unmanageable," says Flea. "I couldn't manage my own life. They call it speed for a reason."

Flea, now 40, officially announced his retirement from pro surfing in January. He's working as a drug counselor through his Fleahab program. "I want to help others and I want to be surfing," he says of the program that incorporates an active lifestyle into its rehab regimen. "It's putting a positive twist on a shitty situation."

Nat Young
Nat Young is Santa Cruz’s great hope, punting the way for the next generation of Santa Cruz groms. Photo: Ryan Craig

Thank god for Nat Young. Other than the Maverick's crew, the freckle-faced goofyfoot is carrying the flag for Surf City. Nat is the Obama of Santa Cruz surfing. He is Hope. Nat doesn't fit the stereotype of the Santa Cruz surfer. He's innocent. He's always polite, quiet. He doesn't have a filthy nickname. But he does have a backhand approach that is among the best in the world. Nat won the Cold Water Classic when he was 17, which in Santa Cruz is bigger than winning the Pipe Masters. He doesn't travel with other Santa Cruz surfers, but not because he doesn't want to. "I wish I had friends from Santa Cruz to travel with," says Nat, "it would make it that much more fun." Instead, Nat runs with an elite pack of kids from across the globe, all branded with swooshes and targets, pushing each other to sit deeper and punt higher.

But a new cast of Santa Cruz characters is forming behind Nat, and he's rooting for them. "There weren't that many young kids surfing when I was growing up, but it's cool to see how many there are now. I'm hopeful about the future of Santa Cruz surfing; there are so many kids starting at a young age."

You see these kids in their wetsuits, riding their bikes along West Cliff Drive, boards at their side. You see them heckling and pushing each other out at Sewer Peak. Nic Hdez. Wyatt Barrabee. Wilem Banks. And more. They run in packs, as groms do — as Flea, Rat and Barney did. They're coming up, and have the potential to push Nat, and each other, and bring the old luster back to town.

The waves along this coast will always be some of California's finest, and Maverick's will always be a short drive up Highway 1. And that's why Santa Cruz will forever breed great surfers, the same way it will always produce classic characters. After all, this is the town that gave us Jack O'Neill and the wetsuit. The town where Kevin Reed popped off the first documented aerial back in the '70s. Santa Cruz is the town that brought big-wave surfing to California. And this is the town where Hawaiian princes first brought surfing to mainland U.S. soil, right at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Eventually, these new kids from Santa Cruz will start showing up at beaches around the world again — with swagger and new tricks — stealing the spotlight with no apologies. —Leo Maxam