Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: Darryl “Flea” Virostko
Darryl “Flea” Virostko has felt the fire… but he never jumped in.
Words by Jake Tellkamp
Situated midway on the Proud Highway, the route that links Santa Cruz to San Francisco, lies a wave that turns men into memories. It is the intersection where the Pacific north-west collides with the coast in the most violent fashion. When Mavericks breaks in 2014, it’s a hub of activity; the Coast Guard helicopter swirls overhead, jet skis idle in the channel ready to throttle at a moment’s notice, and 30 men wearing inflatable wetsuits sprinkle the lineup.
But in 1998, Darryl “Flea” Virostko didn’t have such luxuries. He was among a group of Santa Cruz surfers that pioneered Mavericks without safety precautions. Flea led the pack; He was least calculated of them, but most reckless. And he threw down like he was chasing death. “Mavericks has made me… and broken me.” I have stood at the entrance to Half Moon Bay and wondered what sort of man I would have to become to attempt such a thing. All those vices would have to go, heart and head cleared of any dry land distractions. But Flea? He did just the opposite.
The first time Flea surfed Mavericks, he did so with a head full of psychedelics: “Zach Acquire, Shawn ‘Barney’ Barron, and myself were hanging out with Vince Collier in his shaping room,” he remembers. “We had just taken a hit of acid each and were listening to the buoy report when Vince got really excited and said, ‘Oh, its on!’ It was in the afternoon but there wasn’t any wind. As we drove up north we kept seeing huge sets and we were so excited! Vince divvied out the boards and we went out. I paddled right to the bowl and whipped it. Acid made me surf with such intense focus. I caught like 10 waves that day and felt so in-tune. When we were done we drove back to Santa Cruz in the back of Vince’s camper all screaming at the top of our lungs with loud music. Vince had a bottle of Jack. It was crazy times.”
Crazy indeed. By 2000, the small coastal surf town had turned into the gateway for narcotics to head south to larger markets. And Flea wasn’t immune to the booming drug culture. “I mean, everywhere has drugs and bad scenes, but the Santa Cruz Mountain area was the murder capital of the world for a while. People up there were growing huge amounts of weed when it was $400 an ounce. I think for those drug lords, coming to Santa Cruz was like going to a big city in a way. Bringing coke and meth to town started a whole new market. Not to mention the cartels were bringing boat loads of weed in by the ocean. This was a small town with lots of places to hide in the woods.” With easy access to such substances, it was nearly impossible for the Santa Cruz surf scene to remain clean. Flea and his gang of misfits included current ASP announcer and Big Wave World Tour Commissioner Peter Mel, Anthony Ruffo, WCT-vet Adam Repogle, Ken “Skingdog” Collins and Shawn “Barney” Barron. They were to Santa Cruz what the “Z-Boys” were to Venice. People feared them, wanted to party with them, and were insanely curious about what gave them such violent disregard for themselves. It was only a matter of time before the truth came out.
Standing on the sandstone cliffs just outside of Davenport, California, you can make out an industrial relic being swallowed by the sea. This decrepit pier, now reduced to broken pilings, was once used to serve the nearby cement factory, a towering eyesore that obscures the views of the mountains and the gargantuan redwoods that characterise the region.
The beach below the cliff is a safe haven for those looking to get twisted without police intervention. In order to reach the old pier, one has to descend a goat trail with a rather fitting nickname of “90 Degrees.” It’s a long fall. But it’s exactly where Flea hit rock bottom; plummeted to a near death after attempting to climb the cliff in a drunken and sleepless stupor. Onlookers say that he completed a full backflip before landing on one of those rusted pylons some 60 feet below.
“Meth wasn’t part of my daily routine til 2006 when I started to dabble,” he says. “I was up for days and took mushrooms the night before. I was dehydrated and in the sun with my two dogs. They started fighting so I grabbed one of them and was bringing her up the steep cliff. I was looking down at the rocks when they became blurry and I passed out and fell backwards. I woke up in the helicopter basket when it hit the side of the landing gear. I was flown over the hill (San Jose), and was in the hospital for four days… I could’ve died right there.”
How does a man pick himself back up after such a fall? Before his body and spirit lay broken on that beach, Flea had soared. He had an illustrious career that saw him win the Mavericks Invitational three years in a row. Sponsorship came after and Flea was making close to $12,000 a month. Although his sponsors were happy to profit from marketing him (“this crazy guy that does airs and charges the biggest waves around and would liven up the party at trade shows and other functions”), they were quick to turn their backs when Flea came clean about his drug usage. “It sure would’ve been nice if my sponsors said, ‘Hey Flea, we know you have a problem and want to help you get better.’ It should be okay to ask for help.”
“After the cheques ran out and I knew meth had me hooked, I gave myself two weeks to get it out. Let me tell you, I’m lucky to be alive after a half gallon of vodka every day mixed with gatorade and back to-back hits of meth. I made it through the two weeks and when that day came, I jumped in my truck and drove with my wife to Monterey. Driving drunk and high, I made it to the “Beacon House” (a rehab centre) and haven’t looked back. That’s the best thing I ever did.” There is something so captivating about those bastards who never say die, and Darryl Virostko is such a gent. Flea’s given death the finger on too many occasions to count but now he’s giving life back to his community: “The FleaHab house is a huge success and I’m helping people change their lives for the better,” he says. “Instead of take, take, take it is give, give, give. I love it.”