‘We’re here for you’: In wake of tragedy, Santa Cruz surfing community doubles down on generation next

Darryl Virostko talks to the "groms" assembled atop the cliff above Steamer Lane on Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a proudly miscreant tone and attitude dominated Santa Cruz surf culture. Some of those who survived that tough period, including big-wave champion Darryl “Flea” Virostko, are trying to pay it forward. Meanwhile, those assembled at Steamer Lane on Thursday afternoon mourned two recent deaths and tried to put them into perspective.

Santa Cruz surfing culture of the 1980s & ‘90s was known worldwide by a single word — gnarly — and it had nothing to do with the powerful waves or cold, sharky waters.

It was about the gnarly humans — the surfers and the oftentimes rowdy, reckless attitude that went with being a hardcore Santa Cruz local. At its gnarliest, the stories told centered on so many who were lost too soon by charging as hard on land as they did in the ocean.

Darryl Virostko, a product of those wild Santa Cruz days, was on his way to being one of the casualties. And it’s why he now takes the time to do what he did and say the things he said on Thursday afternoon.

“You groms know,” he told a group of young surfers gathered atop a staircase at Steamer Lane that serves as a perpetual memorial to those lost, “that if anything ever happened, something weird is going on, you can always talk to us. Don’t be scared. We’ve seen everything — really, everything — and we’re here for you.”

Santa Cruz’s surfing galaxy — Westside, Eastside and well beyond — gathered in honor of Shawn “Barney” Barron, known as one of Santa Cruz’s most colorful, creative surfers and thinkers. Barron died on May 5, 2015, at the age of 44 due to cardiac arrest induced by methamphetamine.

Thursday’s annual “Cinco De Barney” aerial contest provided a unique moment for looking forward to sunnier days for Santa Cruz’s surf culture and persona, while recognizing that the dark clouds of the past have yet to fully clear. At the same time, those gathered mourned the recent deaths of two lifetime locals from within the inner circle that have left the community both stunned and heartbroken.

Darryl Virostko, the three-time Mavericks champion, gets things in motion Thursday afternoon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Virostko was better known as “Flea” while establishing himself as one of the early legendary big-wave surfers from Santa Cruz, winning the Mavericks surf contest three times to earn himself the distinction as a “Flea-peat” champion.

As his newfound celebrity and paychecks led him dangerously off the rails with methamphetamines and alcohol, a family intervention pushed him into and through a successful rehab stint. That inspired the formation of his own surfing-based recovery program, dubbed “Fleahab.”

“POISONED”: A three-part Lookout Santa Cruz report on the fentanyl crisis

Now 14 years sober, Virostko helps honor his good friend Shawn Barron’s spirit with an aerial surf contest each year on May 5.

The contest doubles as an opportunity to help the next generation make better decisions than the ones he and his aspiring pro surfer friends once made. And to let them know they can count on an older, wiser crew of veterans — many who are thankful to still be here — that came out in force to support the cause Thursday.

But this year’s event took on an even deeper meaning beyond the loss of Barron. Another Santa Cruz surfing legend was lost this week when 41-year-old Tyrone “Buck” Noe was found dead with a knife wound to the chest on a path below Ocean View Park.

A memorial at Steamer Lane to Tyrone "Buck" Noe
A memorial at Steamer Lane to Tyrone “Buck” Noe.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Santa Cruz Police Department confirmed Thursday there has been no evidence to suggest signs of a homicide, saying in a statement: “The detectives’ investigation and the coroner’s examination determined the cause and manner of the man’s death were self-inflicted.”

Noe was a popular surfboard shaper who was born into the trade in 1980. His father, Rick Noe — who had picked up the moniker “Mayor of Steamer Lane” while surfing there in the ‘70s — met his mom, Laura Powers, an early women’s pro surfing pioneer, at the Haut surfboard factory, where they both worked, shaping and designing boards.

Friends say they knew of Buck Noe’s struggles with sobriety after he dealt with severe traumatic experiences multiple times throughout his life, but say they could never have imagined his life ending as the evidence suggests it did.

“Just unfathomable,” said Richard Schmidt, the longtime surf instructor and one of Santa Cruz’s original big-wave surfers. “I saw him five days ago and he actually looked pretty healthy. It’s hard to believe and such a double gut punch, first with Dez and now with Buck.”

The other son of the Westside being mourned alongside Barron and Noe on Thursday was Desmond Quilici, who died in February at age 25 from what friends and family members suspect was a counterfeit pill, such as the benzodiazepine Xanax, made lethal by a poisonous dose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl that is wreaking havoc nationwide.

While Quilici’s heartbroken family continues its multiple-months wait for toxicology results, and Noe leaves behind a young son who will never get to know his father and a devastated fiancee, a community that has grown accustomed to tragedies is left to ponder what to make of this latest string of deaths.

Hans Haveman, 56, a Westside native who runs H&H Fresh Fish and grew up watching over those younger than him like Noe, was one of many to express his sadness on social media Thursday. He told Lookout he’s blown away by what he’s seeing around him these days.

“There are benefits to growing up in a small town in that you get to have a million friends, but the downside is that you get to see them die,” he said. “I think there is a darkness that has come over a lot of young people. There are so many people dealing with anxiety and depression these days — it’s overwhelming.”

While Haveman says there might be reasons to think Santa Cruz is uniquely prone to risky, adrenaline-seeking behavior (“Truckee is probably similar,” he said), Schmidt says he isn’t as sure.

“People like to say, ‘Oh, that’s Santa Cruz,’ but I don’t think that’s the standard here,” he said. “I think most places in the world there’s the dark side of addiction.”

Former Santa Cruz mayor Hilary Bryant, a longtime regular at Steamer Lane, said she tends to feel similarly: “I mean, we live in a surf community so it could be viewed that way, but I think it’s more a statement about our society in general and where our community is. Mainly my heart just breaks for those families.”

Virostko echoed that sentiment to the young surfers before him during Thursday’s opening remarks: “Just remember that lots of people have left us too early. Right now Barney has some special guests up there beside him in Desmond and now Buck. We want to think about those guys today and send our thoughts and prayers out to those families.”

Virostko believes the groms of today, looking up to the likes of Nat Young, who is thriving in his return to the sport’s professional pinnacle on the World Surfing League, are in much better hands.

“There’s more of a community involved now and there’s a group of us older guys who are reformed and have a better idea of the message we want to put out,” he said. “Before, it was more just like f--- everybody, we own this place. That was the culture that I was brought into when I was growing up. While I would never take anything away from what I grew up as, it definitely wasn’t the best environment.”

As a rare combination of solid north and south swell lit up the Lane on Thursday afternoon, a who’s who of Santa Cruz surfing legends — including Young, fresh off a plane and a fifth-place finish at Margaret River in Western Australia — lined the cliff surrounding the venue.

One young surfer, Westsider Adam Bartlett, properly captured the aura of the event’s namesake, donning pink flamingo ears and matching surf trunks over his wetsuit. “Barney used to love to scream when he did big airs so make sure you do that,” Virostko told the young charges before they took the lineup.

Adam Bartlett shows off his Barney tribute costume.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Now that Virostko is the dad of two young daughters growing up in Santa Cruz, it has only helped solidify the different lens he trains on the world around him.

“You come driving by the Lane at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and you see the fence with all these bikes locked up — that’s such a good feeling,” he said. “To know that these kids are utilizing nature as an outlet to get that energy out, doing something positive in the afternoon. It’s very cool.”

Mental health resources

  • If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, 24-hour, multilingual trained help is available by calling the 988 hotline. Find more information from the Family Service Agency of the Central Coast.
  • Trevor Lifeline (LGBTQ): 866-488-7386.
  • Call 911 for emergency services, call your doctor or go to an emergency room.
  • For more resources, visit the Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health Division website.

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