top of page

Riding High

By John Phipps

Cocaine + Surfing

Chas Smith, Rare Bird Books, 2018

Everyone who tries it once agrees: there is nothing on earth more thrilling, more joyful, more utterly certain to set one’s heart racing, than riding on a wave. Observing a native Hawaiian surfing, Captain Cook admitted the man looked like he was enjoying ‘the most supreme pleasure.’ Jack London described the experience as one of ‘ecstatic bliss.’ Where then are the similarities between what London called the ‘Sport of Kings’, and the cartel-enabling heart-attack-machine that we call cocaine?

Cocaine + Surfing is the book to answer that question. Early on, the author recalls that after catching his first wave he was flooded with an astonishing feeling, one that was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. And then he qualifies: ‘This first sensation lasted exactly three minutes and then I needed it again.’

Ah. That’s more like it.

The connection between suring and cocaine is obvious to Chas Smith, a surf journalist with an insider’s view of the industry. He claims that fashion, music and all other industries associated with cocaine have abandoned it at one time or another. But not surfing:

Surfing’s flame for cocaine has never dimmed. Has never even flickered. She has loved her cocaine virtuously, decorously, passionately, almost monogamously, since as long as I’ve been around.

The author wryly presents himself as a writer of once-great potential whose career has somehow ended up in the barely-legitimate cul-de-sac of surf journalism, trawling around industry parties where surf bros and brand CEOs alike sit around with the clenched jaws and fixed stares of the utterly begakked, talking about themselves, endlessly. In chapters named after the stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey (‘The Call to Adventure!’, ‘Supernatural Aid!’), and in a style that reads like Hunter S. Thompson by way of Vice, Smith sets out to prove that surfing’s romance with cocaine is ‘the world’s most degenerate love story.’

The love story goes like this: cocaine and surfing emerged, in protozoic form, in South America around 3000 BC. Neolithic Peruvians would surf their caballitos – narrow, one-man fishing craft– in from a day’s work and unwind by chewing coca leaves. Like all true lovers, the two were separated when that pre-Incan race sailed to Polynesia, and then eventually to Hawaii, leaving coca behind but taking surfing with them.

In the twentieth century, pioneering surfers realised that polyurethane foam, the material inside surfboards, was indistinguishable from tightly-packed cocaine. And so surfing’s early explorers became smugglers - and addicts. Smith even claims that the initial purchase of surfwear brand Quicksilver was made using the proceeds of a single coke-filled board. By the 1980s the drug was everywhere. There are anecdotes aplenty here about pro-surfers snorting footlong lines before a competitive heat. But names are omitted: insiders will know who these shadowy figures are, but the general reader is left in the dark.

Surfing and cocaine’s romance came down hard in 2010, when three-time world champion Andy Irons was found dead at 32 in a Dallas hotel room. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the industry closed ranks and everyone denied what everyone knew: that Irons - like many of his co-competitors - had a cocaine problem. There was a moment of collective reflection, and the possibility of drug testing competitive surfers was raised for a while. But the proposals were quashed in time, and the culture of silence reasserted itself. Smith feels that he himself contributed to this problem, and it is surprising to find, at the centre of this gleefully hyperbolic tract, a heartfelt mea culpa.

The surfing world now faces what Smith calls ‘the apocalypse’: the collapse of the surf industry and surf culture in both image and substance. The causes of ‘the apocalypse’ are threefold. The first is a crisis of identity. All countercultures experience a moment of uncertain reflection when the first adopters begin to reach old age. When your fellow surfers are fifty-year-old stockbrokers, you might well ask, ‘what kind of a rebellion is this?’ The second cause is overcrowding. There are a finite number of good waves in the world and a finite number of days they can be surfed. In some places there are now more surfers in the water than waves on the horizon.

The third and most important cause is economic. Historically, surf brands made their money selling clothes, not surfboards. In 2018 surfing’s veneer of cool has faded, and despite an ever more crowded ocean both major brands and independent shops are going bust, fast. The industry has responded by rebranding surfing as a competitive-sport-cum-wellness-activity. Think yoga for honeymooning stockbrokers and you won’t be far off the pace. This is not just unforgivably uncool, it’s an attempt to market surfing to its own perennial hate figure: the non- or wannabe surfer. The kook.

Is making the hatred of beginners a cornerstone of your sport’s identity nasty? Yes. This is Smith’s point: surfing is inherently nasty, utterly vacuous and highly addictive – just like coke. And if he ultimately fails to provide evidence that his two subjects are uniquely intertwined, it hardly matters. This book is packed with a rattling antagonism and depth of analysis that sets it miles above the bromides of the surf-wellness industrial complex.

A word of caution: Smith assumes his reader surfs. He makes extensive use of surfing terminology and provides no glossary. Which is to say that those with a background purely in cocaine may find themselves at sea.

JOHN PHIPPS reads for an MSt in Early Modern Studies at New College. His writing has appeared sellotaped to bricks hurled through the office windows of the LRB, and The New Yorker shall be next.

Art by Abigail Hodges.


bottom of page