In his latest tome ex-war correspondent and surfer CHAS SMITH takes readers on a wild ride in an outrageously honest expose of surfing culture and cocaine use…
There is an allure about surfers — they look like clean, bronzed athletes who love nature and tread lightly on the earth. But there has always been a darker side to surf culture. In his new book, Cocaine & Surfing, Chas tells the no-holds-barred love affair between the two — and it makes for one hell of a story. Of cocaine in the surfing world Chas says, “It is cherished far more than beer. Far more than maybe anything, except surfing. The two pursuits have become more or less synonymous. Cocaine and surfing, surfing and cocaine.”
Surf trade shows in the 1980s were flooded in cocaine. The surf tour of the 1990s had virtually every competitor racking rails with the judges and the media before paddling out for heats. And in the new 21st century it has become completely untethered. There have been overdoses, bar fights, murders and cover-ups fuelled almost purely by cocaine. Its place in surfing’s past is mythic. Its place in surfing’s present is undeniable. Its place in surfing’s future is certain. There is something all too similar in riding a wave and smashing a bump. The rush is intense and beautiful and all too short. For this book Chas interviewed everyone who matters and dug into the vibrant history to create a ride through surf culture that is enthralling, hilarious and utterly fascinating. Here’s a snippet…
Coca has been a part of South America since at least 3000 BC, pretty much the same day as surfing. The tree, shortand stubby with fiery-red berries and electric-green leaves, grew natively at the base of the majestic Andes in what we now call Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, and has been a continuous part of coastal ancient life throughout the northern part of the continent for literally ever.Depictions or actual carbon traces of coca are found in art, mummies, sculpture, ceramic pots, and little satchels.
There is no definitive scientific theory about how it got there, but Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer for whom the whole land is named — both North and South — spotted it straightaway on his first visit in 1499 and wrote: We descried an island that lay about 15 leagues from the coast and decided to go there to see if it was inhabited. We found there the most bestial and ugly people we had ever seen: very ugly of face and expression, and all of them had their cheeks full of a green herb that they chewed constantly like beasts, so they could barely speak. Each one carried around his neck two gourds, one of them full of that herb and the other of a white powder that looked like pulverized plaster. They dipped a stick into the powder, and then put the stick in the mouth, in order to apply powder to the herb that they chewed; they did this frequently. We were amazed at this and could not understand its secret or why they did it.
And since at least 3000 BC, these pre-Incans, these Valdivians, had been toying with their dopamine levels. They had been using the coca leaf for all manner of reasons, both mundane and sacred. It is even suggested that coca was the very first plant to be cultivated in the Americas. These earliest men would use the leaf to stave off hunger, to keep altitude sickness at bay, to give energy, and to cure disease. Priests would use coca, ritually, to protect from curses, change bad luck, predict the future, and make offerings to MotherEarth — whom they called Pachamama.
The Spanish, when they first began establishing colonies in this new world, for example, brought their Catholicism with them and the Catholic priests did not like this coca-chewing ritual offering to Mother Earth or any of its attachment to the pagan gods. They thought it would be better if the plant were eradicated altogether but understood its value in keeping the native population working. Local traditions had it that buying and selling coca was blasphemy, frowned upon by the gods, but the Spanish overrode that with the Church’s blessing. They did not care what lowercase ‘g’ gods wanted, and so they seeded the world’s first large-scale coca plantations, paid the natives in coca, and became the New World’s first proper drug dealers.
A Spanish contemporary is noted saying in Colombian professor Jorge Bejarano’s New Chapters on Cocainism, ‘Our fair-minded masters do not want the poortorecognisetheir tragedy, and wish instead that they should die without realising their hunger and their ignorance; that the bitter taste of coca might dull the instinct to rebel, and that they might live in an artificial paradise.’ Thechewers,thus,didn’tneedasmuchfoodandwere kept warm and altitude-sickness-free and docile and happy even a million feet underground and very close to hell. They were mining silver and gold, digging deep into that Mother Earth, sending the riches across the seas to masters they had never met nor heard of. They worked torturous hours with wives and children starving outside but with relaxed faces and relaxed spirits.Relaxed faces and relaxed spirits.
Surfing and cocaine have truly come to look like each other in the same way that a longtime dog owner will begin to resemble his mutt, and maybe because there they were together in Peru. Mingling for three thousand, four thousand years before anyone even peeked in on them. Dancing some early, partially forgotten dance. Belonging to each other from the very beginning. There is an ancient creation story about coca that the tree was once the most beautiful woman on Earth, so gorgeous that all the wave-riding fishermen fought over her. Since not everyone could have her, the elders turned her into a plant so she could be enjoyed by everyone equally. But then, like in any great love epic, the two were split. Torn apart by forces out of their control. Surfing went to Polynesia. It was embraced by the Tahitians then really embraced by the Hawaiians. It was changed and reordered and reset and remade. And coca went to Europe.
Those early Spanish settlers busily exported new and fascinating plants they discovered back home. Coffee and its future Starbucks, tobacco and its Marlboro Red, chocolate and its Hershey’s. The OldWorld fell in love with these fabulous products and the magic properties they contained, but somehow the most magical of these stayed behind. It has been hypothesised that coca chewers looked like cows munching cud and the aesthetic turnoff was great enough for conquistadors to find no real interest in it outside of suppressing the native masses. Whatever the reason, the coca bush was left alone until 1855. But then the world cracked.
Scientists had begun to isolate compounds in plants, pulling them out and allowing them to pop in full. Morphine in 1804, caffeine in 1819, codeine in 1832, cocaine in 1855. The German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the specific cocaine alkaloid and published his findings in a journal read by another German chemist, Friedrich Wöhler, who in turn asked a colleague on an Austrian boat travelling around the world to bring him loads of coca leaves. The colleague agreed, and Wöhler passed the leaves on to his German chemist friend, Albert Niemann, who then fixed the purification process and wrote his University of Göttingen dissertation titled Über eine neue organische Base in den Cocablättern or On a New Organic Base in the Coca Leaves, which he published in 1860.
Dr Niemann’s first description of this newly isolated and purified alkaloid was less than poetic. He simply wrote, “Its solutions have an alkaline reaction, a bitter taste, promote the flow of saliva and leave a peculiar numbness, followed by a sense of cold when applied to the tongue.’ He named his alkaloid cocaine, borrowing ‘coca–’ from South America and ‘–ine’ from the stylistic way of describing local anaesthetics of the day. Coca-ine. Cocaine.
And it all seems very cleanly scientific, no? Very ‘modern manextrapolating into the future’, except the isolation of cocaine from the coca plant did something far greater. Tom Feiling, a Colombian hip-hop documentarian and cocaine scholar, wrote, ‘This isolation was not only a chemical process: it also sheared psychoactive substances from their specific cultural context. They could now be packaged as commodities, and sold to anyone with the money to buy them. Since these substances were no longer dispensed by healers, or reserved for special ceremonies, people had to learn how to take drugs all over again.’
And there went cocaine from Peru to Europe, getting isolated and purified and freed from its cow-like cultural context. And there went surfing from Peru to Polynesia, standing up and getting nude and becoming a full, wild obsession. Like The Princess Bride. Remember? The very pretty farm girl, Buttercup (played by the gorgeous Robin Wright pre- Penn), and the handsome stable boy, Westley (played by the dashing Cary Elwes), fell in love as poverty-stricken youth. Semi-weird/not sexy in the farm/barn context. Cow shit and fetching water from the well and feeding goats and collecting eggs and discordant power situation, etc. Circumstances took them away from each other, though, and while they seemed rough at the time, Buttercup was made a radiant princess and Westley a pirate wearing the best black blindfold that has maybe ever been worn, or at least the best one that has been worn by someone other than John Galliano. They both turned gorgeous.
And what if Buttercup and Westley had never been separated? I’ll tell you what. They would have gotten married and had kids, voted for populist candidates, eaten hot dogs, and lived on the farm surrounded by cow shit and goats and chickens. Their children would have fetched water from the well and eggs from the chickens and would have fed those goats, but no. That is not a real love story. A real love story transcends. Buttercup and Westley both transcended and were able to overcome the Fire Swamp, Prince Humperdinck, André the Giant, a priest with a speech impediment, and death in order to swing from the most glorious heights.
Surfing and cocaine needed to be separated from each other to find their best selves, or at least their truest selves. But nothing can keep true loves away, and the very alluring, albeit dull, cocaine and the very obsessed surfing were sure to reconnect. ■
This is an edited extract from Cocaine & Surfing by Chas Smith, published by Hachette Australia. Available in all good bookstores and online now
For the full article grab the August 2018 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.