I grew up with some of the most famous surfers in the world. I went to high school and college in the beautiful surf town of Santa Cruz, California.
Santa Cruz is a truly special place. Walking along the cliffs on the Westside is of my favorite things in the world to do. It is something so simple, yet so powerful. It's a spiritual experience to see those waves crashing against the cliffs, with seagulls flying by, and seals barking in the background. Santa Cruz is blessed with some of the best waves in the world and many people who grow up there will end up living their whole life there.
Yet with all of the physical beauty in Santa Cruz, there is also a grittiness and darkness just under the surface. This paradise also carries its share of sadness, destruction and abuse that could match many "harder" cities in the United States. Filmmaker and surfer, Josh Pomer, captures the contradictory currents of Santa Cruz in his new film The Westsiders, which is set to premiere at the Newport Film Festival in April.
Pomer's film focuses on three best friends who he went to school with at Santa Cruz High in the late 80s: Darryl "Flea" Virostko, Shawn "Barney" Barron and Jason "Ratboy" Collins. The film tracks their lives and friendship and how they inspired and pushed each other to become some of the most famous surfers in the world.
I also went to high school with Flea, Barney and Ratboy and hung out with the same crowd of surfers who spent most days of the week in the water and on the cliffs of the Westside of Santa Cruz. My nickname was "Stiff," per my lack of grace and stiffness while surfing. Unlike most of my friends from Santa Cruz, I ended up moving away and I have lived in New York for 12 years. While living in New York I would still flip through Surfer and Surfing Magazine and feel a burst of pride when I saw how my high school buddies were becoming superstars in the surfing world. Many issues would have photos of them launching incredible airs or surfing 30-foot waves at Mavericks.
While the stereotypical image of surfers is mellow, "Hey dude", carefree guys, Josh's film captures the more complex story of the Santa Cruz surf scene. Flea, Barney and Ratboy have all had their share of heavy experiences and challenges that brought the three of them together through the good and the bad. Flea talks about his dad serving in Vietnam and the fighting and divorce of his parents when he was growing up. Barney faces the challenges of being bipolar. Ratboy and his brothers lost their dad after he suffered a heart attack while surfing. Jason's mom became a widow overnight and the stress, anger and sadness lead her to substance abuse. The three friends and many surfers in Santa Cruz find their solace in the ocean.
Santa Cruz is known around the international surf community not only for its excellent waves, but also for its fierce localism. The film gives an insiders view of gang-like mentality of the surfing scene in Santa Cruz. Many of the surfers are working class kids who have various dramas at home. The majority of my high school buddies never went to college. I was one of the few who did. I ended up going to the University of California in Santa Cruz. When I went to school, my friends would come up to the campus and hang out with me. It was the first time many of them had ever been on the campus, despite living their whole life in Santa Cruz.
There was a class divide between the "rich kids," who dressed like hippies at UCSC and the locals who didn't go to college. The students would come for four years, drive up rents and compete for some jobs in the town. There were also the "Valleys," the people who came to Santa Cruz from San Jose on the weekends. The locals couldn't do anything about the 10,000 "Slugs" who moved to Santa Cruz to go the university or all of the people who drove in for the day, but the surfers could control the surf breaks, and the water became their territory. Everyone who has lived and surfed in Santa Cruz has seen visitors getting beaten down in the water or heckled on the cliffs.
The "Godfather of the Westside" is Vince Collier, a famous surfer who was like an uncle figure to the young surfers. He was feared by all with his loud, brute force and street version of justice. While the youngsters, known as "grommets" and "helgies" were afraid of Vince and the older guys, who could do anything from heckle you, to dunk you in the water, to throw your bike off a cliff, these same guys would also back you up in a second if there was ever "outsider" drama. While it was scary being around the older guys, it was nothing compared to watching the locals take on people from outside of Santa Cruz. My stomach would drop when I would be at a party with some new friends from UCSC and a bunch of my local friends from Santa Cruz would show up. The coming together of my two worlds led me to develop a Kofi Anan-like trait where I would introduce everyone and make sure everyone knew everyone and everyone was cool. There was a 50 percent chance the party would work out and everyone would have a good time. And a 50 percent chance there was going to be some drama and my high school buddies would be thrashing the house if not beating down my new classmates, the "Slugs".
While there were disturbing aspects of the localism, there was something also beautiful about the bonding and community of the surfers. Barney, Flea, Ratboy and many of the Westsiders were like brothers, who inspired each other, pushed each other's surfing in the water, and took care of each other on land. Surf by day, party at night and offer a couch to a friend when they need it.
Pomer's movie documents the Westsiders surfing and how Ratboy, Flea and Barney become internationally known for their high-flying aerials to their pushing the limits of big wave surfing. Ratboy and Barney ended up winning numerous aerial contests around the world, one of the most exciting moves in surfing. Flea ended up winning the Mavericks contest, not once, not twice, but an unheard of three times in a row. No one else has ever won the contest twice. Santa Cruz surfers were featured in movies and magazines around the world and gained international recognition, not only for the aggressive surfing in the water, but their hardcore attitude and flavor out of the water.
The surf hard, party hard attitude reached new heights as Santa Cruz's surfers were becoming more and more known. What starts as partying like rock stars, living a great life, ends up spiraling out of control for some of the surfers. Flea is very open about his partying highs and lows in Pomer's film. At its worst, his drug use consisted of a gallon of vodka a day and a serious addiction to methamphetamine. His low point was almost dying when he fell 50 feet down a cliff while high on drugs. He broke bones and was flown in a helicopter to emergency room. While Flea is the most open about his drug problem, the film makes clear that many others in the scene develop serious addictions to meth and cocaine.
Hearing about guys I grew up with developing serious drug problems brings up a range of emotions for me. I have spent the last 10 years working at an organization called the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that wants substance abuse to be a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. We advocate for treatment not jail for people with substance abuse problems. On trips back home to Santa Cruz I would catch up with friends on the cliff. I would tell them about the Drug Policy Alliance and how we passed a law in California called Prop. 36 that offers treatment instead of jail for people's first two drug offenses and they would say, "I know Prop. 36, that's what kept me out of jail!"
Seeing my friends dealing with substance abuse reminded me that drug abuse can hit most communities. Here we are in a place that looks like a beautiful paradise, yet people are still dealing with pain, demons and drugs. While some people hit rock bottom and some ended up spending some time behind bars, luckily many escaped the long 15-year sentences that I have seen handed out to mostly African American and Latinos here in New York.
The Westsiders allows people an inside view and understanding of the tight knit surfing scene in Santa Cruz. You ride the wave with Flea, Ratboy and Barney and watch them rise, fall and again rise. Toward the end of The Westsiders, Flea announces that he is in recovery and no longer using drugs. Flea has not only been clean for a year, but he has started a nonprofit called FleaHab to help others struggling with addiction. He believes in the healing aspects of surfing and nature and takes people in his program out in the water. The ocean is his higher power. Flea has always been a leader who people look up to. It is clear how much people inside and outside of Santa Cruz are rooting for him. His rise, fall, recovery and helping others has already received national attention with major stories in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Jason and Barney are also giving back to the Santa Cruz community they love. Jason, who quit high school to become a professional surfer when he was a teenager, continues to surf professionally and is now the surf coach at Santa Cruz High School. Barney continues to be a prolific artist and surfer who teaches kids with special needs to surf. There is moving footage of Barney teaching a young kid with a disability out in the water to catch his first waves.
For the last 17 years I have lived in New York and San Francisco, but when people ask me where I'm from, it is Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz, with its beauty, its edginess and most importantly its community, is a place that makes me who I am.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance and a graduate of Santa Cruz High and University of California Santa Cruz.