Conditions for the first round of the Bud Surf Tour’s annual stop here are historic--and hysteric (“The worst contest surf I’ve ever seen,” says a veteran surf journalist). Stiff onshore winds destroy what little swell there is as Rick Massie paddles into a peak and dances across the wave, kicking the lip with his tiny board. The swell leaves Massie wet as it dies beneath him, and the judges give him a 4.10 out of 10. He’s falling fast, from first to fourth out of four. He needs a 5.67 on his next wave to make the top two and advance to the next round. It’s a makable proposition.
Massie wants to do well at this June event. He plans to go to Europe later this summer to enter several World Qualifying Series events that, like the Bud Surf Tour, feed into the big leagues of surfing, the World Championship Tour. Last year he reached 68th on the 500-man Bud tour, which sends but a handful of its top surfers on to the 44-man WCT.
For the first time in his career, he has the sponsorship backing he needs--from Airtight wet suits, Cru surfwear and Dog Town skatewear--to tour the West Coast and parts of the world that are worlds away from his street-smart background. Massie, unlike the typical pro, struggles not only with his competitors in the water but with where he comes from.
With his fast welterweight flow (“He’s light-footed,” says a Bud Tour official, “able to generate speed and maneuvers”), a lot of people believe he can make surfing’s big leagues. But at 24, they say, he has to rally now.
“He’s at a crossroads in his life,” says former world champion Ian Cairns, president of the company that runs the Bud Surf Tour. “But it’s not too late for him to compete and do well.”
“He’s looked at as one of the best surfers from the L.A. area, from the South Bay to Malibu,” says retired pro Alan Sarlo, one of the greatest surfers to come out of these urban shores. “He could bust through the envelope and be one of the best in the world.”
Some would question the very motive of surfing for scores, cash and fame. Surfing is, after all, an exercise in personal expression--"physical graffiti” it has been called. How can you judge that?
“I like the competition aspect,” Massie, dark and lanky, says. “I love going out there and beating all these yuppie kids who think I’m nobody.
“They got all these sponsors, and I get paid half what they do,” he says. “See how they react toward me. I’m an outsider.”
The dark street leading to Massie’s Venice home is eerie, the road narrow, curb-less and unevenly paved; the neighborhood is quiet. His house--his mother’s house--is a three-bedroom, wood-frame space painted a clean white. On the porch, a friend of one of his brother’s sits, bobbing in and out of consciousness, eyes rolling back into the ghettos of her mind. Inside, nephews and nieces run around the house as Massie kicks it in his room watching the movie “True Lies.”
On the wall is a painting neighbor Perry Farrell (leader of the band Porno for Pyros and creator of Lollapalooza) gave him as a gift. It depicts a bare-chested cholo with theatrical masks on each shoulder--smiley face, sad face. On the midriff is a cross. To the left of the cross, someone has written in five names--and “R.I.P.”
One of his big brothers brings a neighbor into the room. The man, possibly in his late 30s, wears the gangster uniform: a white tank top, dark work pants. On his bulging neck, in fairly large blocks, is a tattoo that reads “V13.” He’s eager to sell a portable heater, in the dead of summer, for $10. Massie’s a target because he often has a little spending money in the pockets of his sponsor-provided pants. The man seems nervous, fidgety. He says he has a girl waiting in his car. Massie plugs the heater in and it doesn’t seem to work too well.
Later that night, over a “Big Wave” burger at a nearby Islands restaurant, Massie says he thinks that woman on the porch was on crack.
He also explains that the man attempting to sell the heater has been shot 21 times over the years. The “tat” on his neck stands for Venice 13, one of the Westside’s oldest and bloodiest gangs.
“Gang life,” he says, “is something I didn’t want to go through.”
Massie grew up in that white house, a mile and a half from the ocean, but many more psychic miles to the end of this surreal world. The blocks between the Venice surf and his house, which lies within earshot of the intersection of Venice and Lincoln boulevards, belonged to Venice 13. So did most of his six older brothers and sisters.
Of course, there were other obstacles to the ocean: areas that belonged to the rival Shoreline Crips and the Mar Vista set. And the boardwalk, which attracts graffiti and gangsters from all over Southern California. But just past the tagged-up pavilion was a virtual forest in which to frolic, live and hide.
The vast Pacific.
“I find the ocean,” he says, “as my holy water.”
Massie surfs like a god at his home break--the rock pile they call the Venice breakwater in the community they call Dog Town. He walks on water, generating momentum from nothingness, punctuating his ballet by punching the fins of his small, thin board through the back of small waves. On solid ground, he is unassuming and friendly, a ladies’ man with a pager constantly blowing up and a big smile for those along the beach who greet him with respect. “What’s up, dog?” they call out.
The Venice coast was often a hot spot for surfing--from the days when George Freeth introduced the sport to the mainland at Redondo Beach in 1908 (Freeth soon settled in at Venice, “Coney Island of the Pacific”) to the post-World War II golden years when legends such as Dale Velzy and Bob Simmons made boards in Venice workshops. “The whole surf culture that we know today came from those guys,” says L.A. County Lifeguard Lt. Buddy Bohn.
Today, many surfers will tell you that Venice is perhaps the most impoverished beach break on the coast in terms of water quality, wave quality and the quality of surfing. The waves break on top of one of the region’s largest sources of untreated runoff. The county’s postwar drive to protect beach-side businesses and homes from storm surf has translated into an excess of sand and steep bottoms that throw swells right onto shore. (Longtime locals say the waves are getting better, however, as the ocean replenishes the slopes.) Those who call Venice home are often poorer and less able to spend three hours a day slashing waves. “You just don’t see a lot of kids around there whose moms drop them off at the beach to surf for the day,” says Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer magazine.
In summer, many of the kids who surf here at the foot of Windward Avenue borrow their boards from the nearby Venice Breakwater surf shop, which is named for the T-shaped jetty that used to protect the old Venice pier and is now the center of the community’s surf scene. In fall, some of the kids go without wet suits until it gets too damn cold to feel their toes.
“We got some kids, they’re Mexican, they say, ‘Nah, I don’t want to surf, I’m in a gang,’ ” says shop owner Oscar Galan. “But we don’t want little boys getting into gangs, so we just give them boards and let them surf.”
Those little surfer boys, who have shaved heads and listen to West Coast rap, look up to Massie in the same way Orange County grommets look up to the surf mag cover boys. Perhaps the breakwater boys are more fortunate, though. They get to hang out with their hero.
“He lets us hang out at his house and watch surf videos,” says Robert “Pork Chop” Kirkwood, 14. “He let us kick it at the shop where they make his boards.”
Massie is also the golden boy of the Mexican Surfing Assn., an informal group of about 15 area Mexican American surfers who meet every once in a while and talk about how to get more kids off the streets and into the surf.
Growing up, Massie had every reason to turn his back on the sea and face the streets. “Gangs were always an option for me,” he says. When he was 14, his father, of Native American and English background, died of lung cancer. Depending on the hard-earned salary of his mother, a Mexican American woman who worked the line at Hughes Aircraft, meant “we were always low budget, but we made the best of what we had,” he says. Two years ago, his cousin Fernando Montan~o, who also acted as his mentor, surfing coach and best friend, was shot dead.
“It devastated me,” Massie says. “It screwed me up.”
When Massie was 11, something magical happened off the cool waters of Venice. Something that, so far, has helped him tread the rough waters of real life.
At first it was just bodyboarding. “At Sav-On’s it was like $2.50 for that little Styrofoam board, and bam!” He smiles. “You’re out there.”
For birthday No. 12, his mom ordered a custom-made surfboard--a 5-foot-4-inch pink and green number. When the surf shop’s price went up $100 from the original quote, his mother put Rickie in the car and started for home. “I started bawling and crying so my mom turned around and bought it for me,” he says.
“It looked like a candy-striper board, but when you’re a little kid, you say, ‘Forget it, I’m on it.’ ”
His brothers and sisters were less than supportive.
“They gave me a hard time when I first started surfing,” he says. “They all called me white boy.” Later, as he did well in amateur contests and competed against people such as future world champion Kelly Slater, they grew proud. He beat several of today’s top pros, graduated from Venice High and stayed out of trouble (although, he says, every time he’s been pulled over by police--except once--they’ve conducted guns-drawn felony stops). But even today, as Massie can safely call himself one of the best 100 surfers in California, his family is noticeably absent.
“Contests often start during the week,” he offers, “and nobody really has time.” He mentions that his mother might move back to Texas to be with her family. If that happens, he gets the family house--and with it, the head-of-the-household duties. “I’m going to make my brothers and sisters get a job, or be more responsible,” he says, “because it’s not like I’m going to be able to support them.”
When asked about his brothers’ and sisters’ gang activity, he says, “It’s something I really don’t want to get into.” Most, he says, have had trouble with the law.
“Growing up, people would say, ‘You’re a Massie, huh? Yeah, you’re the good one,’ ” he says. “That pisses me off. Every single one of my brothers and sisters is smart--smarter than me. And if they could start over again, they would.”
Court documents show that several people residing at Massie’s address have long criminal records that include arrests for burglary, assault, armed robbery and murder.
Massie is happy with his sponsors because, he says, not a lot of companies in the surf industry want kids who look like him--close-cropped hair, deep dark eyes, chocolate skin--to represent them. “People want the surfer look--blond, blue-eyed kids,” he says.
The surf world, to be fair, is well represented by people of color, from top Hawaiians such as Sunny Garcia to a generation of Brazilian pros that is challenging the Old Guard countries for world surfing supremacy.
“It may be an unfortunate fact,” however, says Surfer magazine’s Hawk, “that a lot of companies that are trying to sell surf products to non-surfers are eager to maintain that blond-haired surf-god image.”
Massie looks to companies such as Japan’s Airtight and Cru and the Venice area’s own Scott Anderson, Dog Town and Ocean Gear surf shop for sponsorship instead of relying on the mainstream surf corporations that are largely based in Orange County. He works on and off at Anderson’s Marina del Rey surfboard factory, painting art on custom surfboards. Recently, he started doing grunt work for a cousin who makes music videos for the likes of Chicano rapper Kid Frost.
It’s ironic, say those around him, that Massie has had such a hard time surfing for a living. After all, this is a surf industry that is infatuated with its formulated street looks. Who better to represent them than someone who knows the street?
“There’s nobody on the tour who’s lived the life I’ve lived,” Massie says. “I’ve seen people shot; I’ve seen people stabbed; I’ve had guns pulled on me.”
Back in the warm Oceanside water, the ocean just won’t cooperate with Massie. The announcer calls “one minute.” But there’s no surf. The competitors sit there like they’re playing checkers.
“Five-four-three-two-one.” The foghorn blows.
Massie rides in, his body prone, his head down. As he walks up the beach, water dripping off his 5-foot-10-inch frame, he shamefully shakes his head.
“I came in last--I’m a loser,” he says. “I should quit this sport.”
Massie has only a few friends on the tour. One, 18-year-old Billy Oswald from Redondo Beach, consoles him. “The waves are crappy,” he says.
A few paces back, one of the winners, who has a Christian cross painted on his board, points at the sky and says, “Thanks, big guy.” When Massie reaches the parking lot, he spikes his board. A group of competitors huddles nearby, oblivious. They wear baggy shorts, mirror shades and what seem like permanent scowls as they gloat over pictures of themselves in the surf magazines (“I’ve got the cover of Surfer next month,” says one, “the magazine!”).
“I’m going home to drown my sorrows in beer,” Massie says as he peels his wet suit from his skin.
A few steps away, written in crusty old surf wax on the curb that divides the lot from the boardwalk, are the words: “F--- spicks.” When Massie sees it, he just shrugs.
That night he drinks a couple of 40s on his porch and wonders if, at 24, he still has a future in surfing.
Later, he comes to terms with his doubts, offering this philosophy on surfing:
“It’s not who’s the best,” he says, “but who has the most fun.”