‘We love you, Bucky’: Surf community mourns iconic board shaper swallowed up by addiction at 41

The people and boards turned out to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Buck Noe at Lighthouse Field on Saturday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Tyrone “Buck” Noe was a second-generation surfboard shaper in Santa Cruz who followed in the footsteps of his father, for both good and bad. Like his father 18 years earlier, he was memorialized at Lighthouse Field and Steamer Lane on Saturday. His sister, Meara, tells his story achingly well. 

Many of those who knew surfboard shaper Tyrone “Buck” Noe best still struggle to accept this final chapter of his tumultuous life.

They can’t fathom the findings of a Santa Cruz Police Department investigation that said his life ended on a path below Ocean View Park in the early hours of May 2 with a fatal knife wound to his chest and no signs of foul play.

“He was really working hard, he was even surfing again,” his friend Darren told the large, emotional crowd gathered at Lighthouse Field on Saturday. “This is a tragedy and a strange turn of events.”

Others, including his sister, Meara Boling, focus more on healing and helping others learn from her brother’s struggles. Boling, who had helped Buck navigate the challenges of life for many years in the wake of their father’s death 18 years ago, said she increasingly felt that a tragic ending was imminent.

Meara Boling, Buck Noe's older sister, stands in front of a crowd at Lighthouse Field.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Now here she was, nearly two decades after the death of her dad, a gregarious man known as “Kong” who began the family’s surfboard shaping legacy, looking out at so many of the same faces that had turned out in support then, feeling a strange, painful sense of déjà vu.

“I’m here at the Lane for a memorial paddleout again,” she told a teary-eyed crowd of about 200 that turned out in force for her brother just as it had for her father.

“My relationship with Buck has been really difficult the last few years,” she continued. “His alcoholism and addiction took a harder, darker turn, and he struggled. I encouraged Buck like so many of you, like all of you, to achieve sobriety and do the work and be present for his family. I have spent most of the last five years worrying about my brother — worrying about him dying.”

Buck Noe, 41, leaves behind his fiancée, Chelsea Plemons-Jones, and young son, Reef. The 5-year-old ran back and forth across the Lighthouse Field lawn, a spitting image of his father, checking back in with his mom and grandma often.

Buck Noe's 5-year-old son, Reef, checks in with his mom, Chelsea Plemons-Jones, on Saturday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“All of us here need to be there for Reef,” said a longtime friend and neighbor named Ethan. “Look out for him, give him some love, some fatherly advice — be there for him. He’s gonna need that.”

Others who knew Buck told stories about the fun-loving, adventure-seeking, tow-headed kid who often showed his love for friends in the most physical way possible.

“I’m sure like 80% of you have probably wrestled Buck,” his longtime friend Shane Skelton told the crowd, most of them suited up in wetsuits in advance of the traditional paddleout, the time-honored ceremony with which the surfing community marks a passing. “Buck really liked to wrestle.”

Boling, who was 9 when her brother was born, talked about the time a still-in-diapers Buck leaped out of their truck on Mission Street. “Can you guys imagine a 2-year-old Buck in a body cast all summer?” she asked the crowd.

She also shared the challenge of being the “non-surfing sister” in the Noe family. She recalled the time Buck lent her a board that she took out for a paddle and then chastised her for drifting too close to the actual surf break.

Others remembered a softer side lurking below that sturdy surface that would escape in subtle ways, Buck taking great joy in shaping surfboards for young, wide-eyed groms or helping spend time with a neighbor kid who had a serious disability.

People strolled down a Noe family memory lane Saturday at Lighthouse Field.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But friends and family couldn’t help but recall how Buck’s father, Rick — dubbed the “The Mayor of Steamer Lane” for earning acclaim as a Westside surfer and shaper in the 1970s — fell hard into alcoholism after sustaining a serious neck injury when Buck was just 9.

Rick had to have a spinal fusion and wear a halo and endured constant pain, Boling said. Even worse, he could no longer surf or do all the other things he loved so much.

“He wasn’t the big Viking anymore,” she said. “He couldn’t ski, couldn’t play tennis. He had to have this big piece of foam on the front of his board where he laid his forehead just so he could paddle out on a surfboard. But he couldn’t surf anymore.”

Saturday's crowd at Lighthouse Field, gathered for Buck Noe's memorial.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After Buck’s mom, Laura Powers, a surfboard artist renowned for her pin lines and an early women’s surfing pioneer, moved to Hawaii and Meara was off at college in Berkeley, it was just Rick and Buck.

“Buck was kind of Dad’s caretaker — and they were so much alike,” Boling told Lookout. “People loved Buck. He was unabashed in loving people. You know, he would just connect and open up and would make people feel good around him.”

Buck was only 23 when he found his father unresponsive at his home, dead of apparent cardiac failure. Rick Noe, 54, wasn’t in good shape at that point, his daughter said, though he was still shaping surfboards and working hard on his own sobriety.

Heavy hearts were found everywhere Saturday at Lighthouse Field.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Boling told the crowd that their father’s death drew Buck and her closer: “We loved on each other more and leaned on each other to navigate the terrible loss.”

As she saw him gravitate toward the same demons that had befallen their dad, she asked him to make a choice.

“I begged him to only take the good of Dad and to leave the rest — to not have this be his journey,” Boling said.

Now, Boling says, she wants others to know how hard her brother tried in that effort, even though it might not always have appeared so.

Memorials for Buck Noe that will be hung in the community.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“He worked so hard to try, over and over again,” she said. “Can you imagine how hard it is to try, and want to be sober, and not be able to do it? I don’t want him to be remembered as a failure. I want us to know that his strengths carried him as far as he could go. And it’s probably farther than any of us could’ve done walking in Buck’s shoes.”

Meara Boling fights back tears during the memorial for her brother, Buck Noe
Meara Boling fights back tears.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Boling, who lives in Alaska after moving away from Santa Cruz with her family 15 years ago, told the crowd how much their support for her brother meant to her.

“I have spoken to many of you and I know that you have supported him to the best of your ability for as long as you could,” she said. “Maybe you helped him by finding him in a bad place and getting him out of it, maybe you took him home, maybe you bailed him out of a tough situation or maybe even literally jail. Maybe you lent him money, maybe you dropped him off fresh banana nut bread because you wanted to show him how much you loved him.”

Noe surfboards by the lighthouse during a memorial for Buck Noe
Noe craft from throughout the decades gathered on the Lighthouse Field lawn Saturday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She told them she wanted her brother’s unvarnished story to be told because there are plenty of others struggling who need help and support.

“I want to both acknowledge and not disguise the struggles that Buck faced because I don’t want to stigmatize this,” she said. “I don’t want people to not be able to get help.”

Boling told Lookout that Buck, like his father before him, had been in and out of recovery programs, with different levels of success. She emphasized that getting sobriety resources is extremely difficult.

“It’s hard to get help. The system is really, really hard,” she said. “He didn’t have the right tools, even though he tried. He just couldn’t carry it anymore.”

As others told stories of special surfboards shaped for them by Buck, or grade-school memories of an apple pie that Buck so proudly baked all on his own, Reef Noe ran around the grassy field scattered with hundreds of surfboards his dad and grandpa had shaped for the group assembled over the years.

“We love you, Bucky,” said one of his friends who took the mic briefly, too broken up to say much more.

Soon they would paddle them out at Steamer Lane, hold hands and send their friend’s ashes into the air and his spirit off into the great blue yonder.

People had their Noe craft in one hand and a flower in the other entering the water Saturday at Steamer Lane.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Even as the Noe sister who doesn’t surf, Boling wasn’t about to be left out of the water ceremony.

She borrowed a board and a wetsuit and paddled out along with her brother’s grief-stricken partner, Chelsea. But not without the help of the same tight-knit community she’d been supported by 18 years earlier, in this very same bittersweet spot that celebrates so many of this surf town’s victories and losses.

“Everyone came together to help lift us up and send Bucky off right,” she said. “That’s the type of special community Santa Cruz is.”

Saturday's scene from above Steamer Lane for Buck Noe.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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