Surfing’s biggest drug busts

What do all these surfers have in common? Um … this? Photo: Shutterstock
What do all these surfers have in common? Um … this. Photo: Shutterstock

Surfing and drugs have been linked since the 1950s. The cultural synergy between the two has always been well known, and it’s unsurprising that many surfers have added a, shall we say, “commercial” element to it over the years.

Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade is just one book that examined how traveling surfers used drugs to finance their search for waves. Others, however, succumbed to addiction, and many high-profile surfers were no exception.

When Michael Tomson, the co-founder of iconic surfwear brand Gotcha, was arrested last month on suspicion of dealing drugs, it was just the latest in a long line of drug busts in the surfing world.

Michael Tomson

A typical Gotcha ad from the height of the company's success. Photo: Courtesy image
A typical Gotcha ad from the height of the company’s success. Photo: Courtesy image

South African Michael Tomson was a professional surfer in the 1970s who went on to become one of the main drivers of the surf industry in the ’80s. He cofounded the Gotcha surfwear brand, which, for a period in the late ’80s, was one of the biggest money-spinners in surfing. (That journey was detailed in a book called Going Big.)

However, by the mid-’90s Tomson was no longer in control of the company, and in 2013, following a traffic accident in Laguna Beach, California, he was charged with two felony DUI counts and suspicion of cocaine possession. Then, on June 22 of this year, he was arrested for suspicion of drug dealing after Laguna Beach police on a probation check discovered $2,000 worth of cocaine in his home.

Schapelle Corby

Australian Schapelle Corby wasn’t a surfer herself, but when 9 pounds of marijuana was discovered in her bodyboard bag while she was traveling to Bali in 2005, her case generated huge media interest, especially in her native Australia.

Corby has always maintained her innocence, saying the drugs were planted, but that didn’t stop her receiving a 20-year sentence. She spent nine years in the Kerobokan Prison before being released in 2014 on parole. However, the terms of parole mean she cannot leave Bali until 2017.

Anthony Ruffo

Well-known professional surfer from Santa Cruz, California, Anthony Ruffo was sentenced to two years in state prison, two years in a sheriff’s custody program and one year of county probation supervision in 2010 after being arrested for possession of drugs for sale, following a previous conviction for selling crystal methamphetamine in 2005.

The 2014 documentary Learning to Breathe chronicled Ruffo’s attempt to move from “dealer to healer” and his desire to give back to the Santa Cruz surf community that has been badly affected by drug use.

Robbie Page

Robbie Page was a successful Australian professional surfer who won the 1988 Pipeline Masters. A known raconteur and party animal who also dated former French President François Mitterrand’s granddaughter, Page was arrested in Japan in 1992 after customs found a single tab of acid in his wallet.

Page had inadvertently brought the drug in after partying in Spain. He spent a total of 66 days in a Japanese prison, 30 of which were in solitary confinement, before continuing his surf career.

Donald Takayama

Regram from our friends @liquidsalt photo by Glenn Sakamoto, We all Miss you DT!!

A photo posted by Hawaiian Pro Designs (@hawaiianprodesigns) on

Donald Takayama was arrested in 1985 in connection with a cocaine smuggling operation. He was a multiple USA champion in the 1950s and ’60s and was credited with being the world’s first professional surfer.

Takayama was also one of the most influential and respected surfboard shapers in the world when spent his 13 months in federal prison. After his release, he continued to be a major influence on surfers like Joel Tudor and Kassia Meador and gained further respect for his epic contribution to surfing, which continued unabated until his death in 2012.

Buttons Kaluhiokalani

Buttons Kaluhiokalani was one of the most influential Hawaiian surfers of the late ’70s and early ’80s, known for his freewheeling style, progressive surfing and constant smile. However, drugs had been an ever-present constant in his life since he became addicted to cocaine in 1985.

Buttons was arrested in 1998 and in 2007 featured on the TV show “Dog the Bounty Hunter” after being arrested for drug offenses. He regained sobriety later in life, but died in 2013 from lung cancer at age 55.

Steve Bigler

Steve Bigler was a talented surfer from Santa Barbara, California, whose career highlight was a fourth-place finish in the 1966 World Surfing Championships. After moving to Hawaii, Bigler became increasingly involved in drugs and spent 20 years traveling the world, financing his trips to France, Spain, Portugal, Afghanistan, Indonesia and the Philippines with drug money.

Eventually he was busted, and in 1996 he was arrested in Santa Barbara on smuggling charges and served 27 months in federal prison before being released in 2001.

Rick Rasmussen

Headline courtesy of Encyclopedia of Surfing.
Photo: Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Surfing

The son of an aerospace test pilot and former pro basketball player, Rick Rasmussen made a name for himself in the late 1960s as one of the world’s best tube-riders who had pioneered both Pipeline and Grajagan in Java. However, all the while, he was smuggling drugs, and in 1979 Rasmussen was found in possession of a kilo of cocaine while in Bali, spending three months in prison awaiting trial before being acquitted.

Two years later, back in New York, Rasmussen sold $500,000 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer. Before he was sentenced, he was shot dead in Harlem at age 27 in what was believed to be another drug deal that went wrong.

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