Thirty-seven-year-old big-wave champion Darryl “Flea” Virostko and I stood on a cliff above the grey North Pacific. The wind howled. The surf spot we’d come to check folded in upon itself far below us. Flea unburied his golf bag from the bed of his battered Toyota Tundra. Just couple of years old, it belched white smoke from the exhaust pipe, bled steering fluid, and ran unevenly on seven of its eight cylinders. The right-hand door and mirror were mangled from a night a few months past when Flea was driving wasted and hit a tree. A number of nights unfolded like this, Flea admitted, that when driving debilitated, hazards jumped out at him. The words “Tow Fag” had been etched in acid on the windshield by Morro Bay locals (unaware they slandered the current poster boy for the Eddie, the world’s most prestigious paddle-in contest). The truck’s interior brimmed with remnants of his former three-bedroom. No longer able to make mortgage payments on the place just a few blocks from Steamer Lane, Flea was forced to sell. Fortunately, he’d often doubled his mortgage payments when the money was good, and even though he’d lost most of the home’s value by selling during a recession and paying delinquent taxes, he’d still pocket a fraction his principal. Waiting on that check to arrive, however, was tough. Flea, his girlfriend, and their two dogs had spent some time living out of the truck. They’d recently found a cabin in the hills above Santa Cruz. Still, they might be hiking in and out of there. Letters tossed on the floorboard of the Tundra threatened repossession.
We traded driving balls into the wind, attempting to discern the white of the balls from the white caps on the sea. Obviously, he’d known that the surf would be crap, yet activities were the order of the day—hiking in the woods, building a dam in a creek bed, gathering rocks and shells from the beach—anything to keep the mind occupied. There was surfing, too, but these days it lasted such a short span, when his former pursuit could stretch through the night and day.
Importantly, however, this was a mission: Flea wanted to get it out, all of it. Rambling up-coast from Santa Cruz, we worked through the bending winter greenery in an effort to assemble his story. He’d been high for the last big chunk of it, so precise chronology became fuzzy. The obvious events were hard to look at, but unavoidable. “My contracts were up. The recession hit. And I was, basically…a drug addict,” Flea said.
“My contracts were up. The recession hit. And I was, basically…a drug addict.”
Three-time consecutive winner of the Mavericks big-wave event, Flea was leaning toward the four-month sobriety mark via a 12-step program. And he was coming clean in dramatic fashion. Hovering somewhere between steps No. 4 (“a searching and fearless moral inventory”) and No. 5 (admitting “the exact nature of our wrongs”) Flea possessed strength enough to bounce between pre-occupations with a reclaimed buoyancy. But there were the darker moments, and the just plain, being-Flea moments—like rolling down the windows to sound “Eastside fags” and getting in the face of a Steamer Lane surfer who’d been dropped in on by a buddy and assumed to be raising arms in protest. Despite the public postures that still clung to him, the candor with which he now framed his life was courageous to the point of endearing.
For the past year he’d been drinking a half-gallon of vodka a day. The first thing he’d do in the morning, if he’d slept at all, was grab a Gatorade, pour half of it out, and top it off with vodka. He called this his “little sipper,” and it accompanied his surf checks. This massive consumption was made possible by the “sparks”: smoking crystal methamphetamine, maybe four or five times a day, maybe more. By dawn on the morning of the ’07-’08 Mavericks event, Flea hadn’t slept a wink, was wide awake in fact, but made sure to pick up a coffee to blend in with his health-conscious competitors. Paddling out high was not new, nor did it boost his game. He fell out in the first round. Today, under the influence of coming clean, Flea finds it easier to say that he was a simple alcoholic, than to admit the rest. During the paddle-out for this year’s Mavericks opening ceremony, when asked to say something in celebration of the event by Jeff Clark, Flea said, “My name is Flea, and I’m an alcoholic.” The battle with methamphetamine that he and an entire group of Santa Cruz surfers’ have fought most often comes out in hushed tones. It’s been the gorilla in the room for most of the past decade.
“It got dark up here. Dark, dark, dark . . . It got grim,” said former WCT competitor Adam Replogle, “The partying started in high school and continued on, until that substance hit.”
That January afternoon, Flea and I had been to another white rock cliff just down the coast. Its nickname is “90 Degrees” because the track descending to a scenic beach is sheer for more than 100 vertical feet. At the bottom of the goat trail is a mangle of steel left from a pier that serviced the nearby cement factory. The pier is only pilings in the ocean now. Last year, Flea had been partying on the beach with other friends who orbited within methamphetamine’s gravity. The small alcove lies far enough from Santa Cruz, and obscure enough in geography, to prevent casual police intervention; it remained a kind of haven for partiers and addicts. In the early evening, Flea began to ascend the cliff trail with his dog. Two-thirds of the way up, a friend on top yelled down at him to fetch something or other. As Flea’s gaze rose upward, he became dizzy, and he blacked out. Witnesses say that his body completed a full backflip before striking dirt and stone. He eventually found himself landed on the metal leftover from the pier—60 feet below. Flea’s arm was badly broken and his face cut up, blood ran in dark ribbons. Once he came to, he wanted to scale the cliff again. Luckily, friends stopped him and called for a helicopter MedEvac. Flea recuperated in a nearby hospital for four days. “I was dead…I mean, I should have been,” he said.