For a guy who’s spent the majority of his adult life either surfing or writing about surfing, Chas Smith doesn’t seem to like it much. In fact, while reading his latest book, Cocaine & Surfing, I get the impression he hates it.
“It’s a fucking curse,” he tells me without a moment’s hesitation. “It’s an addiction like any other. It’s just not as physically unhealthy as others.”
And this is where Smith, long-time contributor to Stab magazine and surf industry pariah gets the basic thesis for Cocaine & Surfing, an epic, fun journey that tracks through surfing’s long history, from its ancient roots right through to its debaucherous present. Surfing is the same as cocaine, he argues – they’re both addictive, hollow, soul-destroying and lots of fucking fun. To go even one step further, he claims, in a direct challenge to the accepted wisdom of ‘surf historians’, that the famous watersport is not a Polynesian invention, but rather it originated in the exact same place as coke: Peru.
Whether his hypothesis holds any water is debatable, but he does spin a compelling yarn about what he calls “surfing’s greatest love affair”.
You grew up in a religious family, then went and became a war correspondent/surf journalist. Tell us about that.
Chas: I grew up in Oregon, had cousins who lived down in North County San Diego. We would come and visit them every summer and that’s where I discovered surfing. The second I turned 18, I graduated from high school, I left and came down to Los Angeles, took college and then surfed every day. I was living the dream.
The same uncle of the cousin who taught me to surf had done some mission stuff overseas, but it was always kind of shady and then eventually I learned he was smuggling stinger missiles into Afghanistan when the Soviets were fighting the Mujahideen. He was wrapped up in the Iran Contra and all that, so I got interested in the Middle East from him. When I was in university I did a semester studying in Egypt at the University of Cairo or American University-Cairo and then from there I became more and more fascinated with the MiddleEast. After 9/11 I decided, “Okay I’m going to combine my love for the Middle East with surfing.” I was with some buddies and we knew that Osama Bin Laden had been from Yemen, or his family is from Yemen, and nobody has surfed the Mainland. We went and were the first people to ever surf Mainland Yemen, which was a totally wild, super fun time, and I thought, “Okay we’ll write about it, too.” My buddy wrote a piece for Surfers and I wrote a piece for Australia’s Surfing Life and I was thinking that, “Okay I’ve totally arrived in this life. I’m writing for Australia’s Surfing Life”. I thought I was the king and then when the magazine came after however long after it takes the magazine to come and I remember reading it and thinking: “This is horrible, I am the worst writer ever.”
You obviously kept writing, even managing to get yourself kidnapped. What was that like?
It was actually pretty fun. I think the entire thing lasted less than 24 hours. Thinking back and everything I did, it was just so, so inappropriate and dumb, but we were there and I remember like seeing all the press with press marked on their cars or whatever and always wearing helmets and flak-jackets and we, I thought I was like King Middle East. I knew how to get around then, I’d been in the region on and off, I think at that point for the past almost 10 years. Anytime we heard bombs drop we would run to them, and one time I got too close and they thought we were the ones targeting the bombs so we got grabbed by the PLO first and then handed over to Hezbollah and interrogated for a long time, but then they’d set up dinner and gave us hugs and told us never to come back.
Sounds like a weird mix between Middle-Eastern hospitality and Middle-Eastern hostility…
Oh, it was so good, but initially, I mean the interrogation… I’ll always remember, they’d brought some English-speaking Hezbollah guy in that took a while for him to get there. So at first they threw us in a dungeon with a blood-stained mattress and blood on the walls. We had no secrets so there was nothing to hide, but I was just trying to think, “If they start ripping my teeth out or fingernails out, it’s just pain, right? Like if you just give in to it, doesn’t it just end at some point? Doesn’t your body shut down?” We didn’t have to do any of that. It was just a super weird interrogation where the guy would be talking to us and then he would segue into his favourite US movie stars, and one of them was Jenny Garth, I think he started talking about, about how sexy Jenny Garth was, who was the blonde one from the original Beverly Hills 90210 TV show, who’s not sexy at all.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, she’s so sexy,” I just kept telling him how sexy I thought she was just so I wouldn’t get my fingernails ripped out.
According to your latest book, surfing and cocaine is a romance story for the ages. What’s the relationship here?
At every single surf party everybody’s got a baggie and it’s just non-stop. The cocaine use has never gone out of style at all. I just think that cocaine and surfing have so many similarities, chief among them I just think the high is similar. You catch a wave and all you want to do is just catch another wave. It’s not like you think, “Okay that was awesome, now I’m finished.” All you ever want is another bump.
Surfers and coke-heads both tend to be very covetous of their highs…
Completely. Coke replicates its life in the water or land. I mean the guy that has done a bunch of blow in a party is just so paranoid that everybody wants to steal his blow. It’s the same with the crazy local who’s out at Snap or anywhere who is hoarding waves. You have so many waves, and all he thinks is people want to drop in on him and people are going to steal his waves. Cocaine and surfing turn people into weird gollums.
I noticed in the book you talk pretty negatively about surfing and surf culture. It’s almost like you hate it to be honest. What’s with that?
My disdain for the surfer is completely my disdain for myself too. I do think it’s good in that it can be healthy, obviously doing physical activity, working out, being outside, being in the water. There’re good things about surfing. But besides from the very kind of minimal health benefits it gives you, it’s a fucking curse and anybody who thinks of it as spiritual is completely deluding themselves. It’s an addiction like any other. It’s just not as physically unhealthy as others. But surfing destroys families and destroys your bank. I mean it guts people. And it’s great if you want to think of it as spiritual then good on you, but for me, I think it’s very, very, very hard thing to think of it as anything other than selfish, ugly and malevolent.
What’s the way forward? What’s surfing’s salvation?
I would love, love, love for one of the big surf brands just to be honest someday. Just to say, “Yeah, we’re fucked up.” Like for the World Surf League or Quiksilver, Billabong or Ripcurl, or anyone of them just say to a whole press conference, “It’s okay. We are fucked up.”
Quiksilver, I know, were founded on drug money, more or less. See the surfing industry manufacturer association, where all of them get together every year and it’s always fucking crazy, like people bring hookers and stuff to the damned thing. We’re still paranoid about anything bad coming out ever. I can’t tell you how many emails and calls I’ve had with surfing industry executives. They’ll be furious about something that was so benign that nobody ever would have cared about except they just feel like they have this weird image to protect. I would just love if somebody big in surfing would say, “Hey! We are fucked up and it’s a glorious fucked-up thing and that’s a lot of fun,” but that’s all it is. There’s nothing else beside being a lot of fun.
You talk about Andy Irons and his tragic overdose in the beginning of your book. Do you think surfing attracts self-destructive types?
Surfing is an addictive behaviour and people who are good at it have addictive personalities. Even Kelly Slater, right? Who is basically as clean as a whistle. I mean, he’s a crazy addict for surfing and he’s been able to not be addicted to other things but the sport automatically attracts addicts. So then it’s really easy to get addicted to other stuff, more problematic stuff, and then add on to that surfing’s own weird, conservative thing where you’re not supposed to talk about it and where nobody can deal with it honestly, and then it’s just a recipe for absolute disaster, where you aren’t able to say, “Hey! Slow down,” or “We understand,” or “We can help”. It’s a self-destructive cycle. The damned industry should have learned a big lesson from Andy Irons and then it didn’t learn shit. Nothing’s going to change. Nothing did change. In a few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another kind of surfing overdose.
So tell us about the history of surfing and cocaine. How are they connected?
People will dispute this, of course, that surfing started in Peru, but I genuinely think it did, and I just think it’s interesting that cocaine and surfing both historically started at the exact same time or were discovered or used at the exact same historical time. As far as the surf industry is concerned, I just think that the likes of Jeff Hackman glassing cocaine into his fins then going to buy Quiksilver is such the prime example of this marriage. Of course, surfers have always loved coke, but the fact that a Hawaiian, Californian surfer glassed cocaine in his board and took it to Australia to surf Bells and then had this coke and sold it, and they were going to buy heroin to bring back in blocks, but instead bought the license to Quiksilver in the US: It’s such a nice, tidy, little story that I don’t know how you can beat that one right there.
Has your book pissed anyone off?
I’m sure it has but these days I don’t hear about it because back in the day, anytime anybody got mad at me, I would run stories about it, typing, word-for-word, the conversation and laughing about it. And so these days, when people get mad at me, I think they mumble to each other, but they really try and make sure I don’t hear that they’re upset.
Chas Smith is the author of Cocaine & Surfing, published by Hachette Australia RRP $32.99. Available now in all good bookstores and online.