“It was the Best Thing I’ve Ever Done.” Back in Salt: Living to Surf Again, Thanks to Big-Wave Surfer Darryl “Flea” Virostko and FleaHab.

by Owen James Burke

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Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

Henry Skipp was the brightest, most interesting and articulate mind I encountered during my collegiate years. He was also my best friend.

We were both pursuing higher education with some degree of reluctance. I had left my dream job where I was preparing to take over a successful charter fishing business out of Long Island Sound, and Henry had turned down an invitation to join a surf team based out of Miami, Florida. These were, perhaps, wise decisions in the long run, but at the time we shared the agony of being trapped in academia after rejecting more aquatic career paths.

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Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

Instead, as our gills began to dry, we were forced to endure “society” parties, as they were called at our school, all awash with bad music, frat boys, and worse still, bad beer. We found solace in commiserating.

I was just finding my way in the world of surfing, and Henry was all too happy to show me the ropes. There weren’t too many other people interested in surfing at our tiny liberal arts school in East Los Angeles. We were obliviously optimistic in thinking we might tailor our schooling to 45-minute surf trips to Newport Beach, with no car. But no one shared our lust for the sea. Anyone who does, generally would have the common sense not to go to school in East LA.

We lived in the same dormitory, but Henry was crammed in with two obnoxious baseball players whose lives seemed to revolve around their shot glasses and Carmen Elektra posters. I took pity on my new companion and offered to have him move into my spacious single room.

When we weren’t in class, Henry would talk Thomas Campbell and Dave Rastovich, or peel through Surfer’s Journal magazines with big, glossy double page spreads of photographs by Tom Servais; I’d ramble on about fly fishing for striped bass and missing the bluefin tuna run each fall. We’d also talk literature–mostly Hemingway, about whom his grandfather had taught an entire course for something like two decades at Duke University.

Occasionally we’d scrounge a ride to the beach, where Henry would try, and mostly fail, to enlighten me with the finer points of surfing.

Time passed and we tore our way, fighting tooth and nail, through academia, dreaming of a life outside, and the surf trips we’d take to Nicaragua and Panama after graduation – trips which, I’m grateful to report, are still being considered.

Then I went off to Portugal, where less class and better public transportation meant I could make it to the beach almost every day after school.

Henry stayed behind in LA. He continued to struggle with some inner demons, and somewhere along the way, he went dark. I stopped hearing from him, mostly. When he did call, his voice was flat and dull. His responses to my suggestions of far-flung surf adventures were curt and bleak.

Our lines of communication shut down, and we all but lost contact.

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Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

More recently, on my way to New Zealand, I gave him a ring, recalling that he’d mentioned having moved to Santa Cruz several months before. I asked him to meet me in San Francisco for the weekend. We could catch up, and I could break up my long flight from New York.

“Sure,” he said to my surprise. He didn’t have a car yet, but agreed to bus up on Friday night and meet me.

Meeting him on Lombard Street in my old neighborhood, I could have just as soon passed him by – not that he’d visibly aged, but because his head was high, his eyes were bright and he wore a genuine, bonafide smile I’d not seen in years.

“Where have you been?” I asked after the pleasantries.

“FleaHab,” he replied.

I knew that he’d tried several stints with rehabilitation, but none, up until this point, had stuck. FleaHab is a sober living facility run by famed Santa Cruz big-wave surfer and three-time Mavericks competition winner Darryl “Flea” Virostko, who’d also survived his own quibble with dark times. Flea has since dedicated himself not only to his own recovery, but the rehabilitation of others through clean living and an introduction (or in Henry’s case, a reintroduction) into surfing and other sports, aiming to replace highs from things like drugs with the endorphins of exercise.

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Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

This past weekend I finally convinced my long lost confidante to hop on Skype, an application he’d never used, for a quick chat. When he successfully managed to answer my call on Sunday morning, albeit with the aid of his girlfriend, I was astounded.


OJB: Henry, how ya doing?

Henry Skipp: The last year I’ve been stacking up boards, surfing everyday. I’m a manager now for Billabong. Working five days a week.

Never thought I’d see the day! 9-5?

We’re open till eight everyday. I try to get the noon to eight, for surfing.

Of course you do.  Give us a little of your background story. This wasn’t your first attempt at rehabilitation; you’ve been in a sober living house before, right?

I did go to one for a few months in Huntington Beach. I decided that I didn’t want to be there anymore, and I didn’t want to be sober. I was living alone for seven or eight months, and it didn’t work out well. I was unhappy, I wasn’t doing anything. I was getting wasted and sitting around and not being able to surf for months. I eventually got miserable enough to where I reached out and begged for another chance at rehab. Most people don’t have that opportunity, so I’m really grateful and fortunate. I needed help, I was desperate, and asked my parents to send me away. They did, but the place they found was in Texas.

 I got myself on a plane and went to Texas–that’s not the way people show up to rehab. Most people have to be dragged to those places. I was ready.

I was only there for six weeks. You’re supposed to stay for a couple months, but six weeks was the most I could do there. It was expensive. While I was there, I was sifting through the options. I had a therapist, in California. She wanted me to go to a therapeutic living environment for half a year, where I could work on getting into Grad School. The only downside was that I wasn’t going to be able to surf for six months. It was also really expensive, and the whole thing sounded like it was going to be a bit much.

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Darryl “Flea” Virostko. Photo: FleaHab.

So how did you get involved with Darryl “Flea” Virostko and his rehabilitation program, FleaHab – it’s still relatively new. How did you even find out about it?

It’s only a couple of years old. I happened to be really fortunate in that my parents were willing to stick by me through a few years of really . . . abnormal behavior.

My dad actually found FleaHab on the Internet. He called me up and said, “I called up and it was Flea’s personal cell phone number. I just talked to him for a little while.”

I ended up giving it a shot. Flew back to California, got my stuff, and drove up here, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

How difficult was it for you to get into FleaHab? He’s a prolific, world-famous surfer, and there are surely plenty of surfers out there in need of rehabilitation–it’s hard to imagine there being much space in the Fleahab house.

Amazingly enough, there was, for a while. I didn’t realize it until I moved here, but Santa Cruz is a really small town. Everyone knows everyone else. There’s a huge – enormous – drug and substance abuse problem here, so there are sober livings and rehabs all over the place. I would have thought Fleahab would be really hard to get into, but for a while, I was living with only two other people in this house. It’s five minutes biking distance from Pleasure Point, a great surfing location.

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Photo: Henry Skipp.

Are you still living there?

I moved out a week ago, actually. I’d been there for just a little over a year. The way that kind of goes – it’s a transitional place. It’s not really fair for you to be there taking up a spot that could be used by someone else that needs it. I also wanted to move in with my girlfriend, move forward a little bit.

That place was fucking great. I’m trying to leave somewhat of a legacy there. I’ve been talking to a few people – like our director of marketing [at Billabong] and my boss whom I’m going to be managing a surf camp for this summer – about writing up a grant to hopefully getting a couple of boards and other stuff for the house. It was a great experience I had there, and I would love to help the guys out over there.

What did it for you at FleaHab? What were the differences between the sober house you stayed at in Huntington Beach?

The major difference was that, at the place in Huntington, even though it was a very nice house right by the pier, no one was taking any personal interest in what you were doing with your life. Most of the people that I was with there were – kind of like me – spoiled, wealthy kids whose parents were paying their rent for them. Some people were successful there, some weren’t. I was pretty successful there, and I decided I wanted to leave.

But with FleaHab, the house manager takes a personal interest – in a good way – in the residents there. Flea does as well. He’ll ask people what’s going on personally; ‘what are you doing in terms of this, or that?’

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Left to right: Henry Skipp, Mervin (front), FleaHab’s current house manager, and Darryl “Flea” Virostko. Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.

Flea amazed me. You spend some time talking to him, and you realize he’s pretty rough around the edges. But he’s got such a big heart. He’s the kind of guy that – he’s a heckler. He’ll snap on people in traffic on a regular basis. Every two seconds he’s either waving at someone he knows or heckling someone. It’s pretty funny. But he actually helps a lot of people. Someone who grew up with him told me that he was such a piece of shit for so long, that once he got his life together and started doing some good things, everyone’s come out of the woodwork to help him.

How has Flea helped you, personally?

Flea’s helped me, personally, in quite a few ways. I didn’t have a job. I wasn’t in any kind of position to get right back into school. I needed some transition. I told him I was going to try to get a job at a shop. But I didn’t know how I was going to do that. Everyone who surfs, especially in Santa Cruz, wants to work in a surf shop. There are so few shops.

In that kind of setting, you can’t expect everyone to recognize how valuable some of the tools that they have at their disposal are, and how fortunate they are, because your brain turns to shit when you do that kind of stuff for an extended period of time, you know? That was the case with me, for sure.

Every week, Flea would be like, “Alright man, you getting out there? Are you going to find a fucking job or not?” He saw that I was making a sincere effort, riding my beach cruiser all over Santa Cruz and applying to jobs and responded to that.

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Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz, California. Photo: Henry Skipp.

He recognized that I was making an effort and saw that I was passionate about surfing and he was willing to help me. I think that made a pretty big difference.

He called up Billabong and told them to give me a job. Eight months later and I’m a manager.

Also – I was trying to get a car for a couple of weeks, and Flea said, “Alright dude, you wan’t a car? I’ll help you get a car. Can I put it on Facebook?”

Through working at the shop – thanks again to Flea – I’ve gotten to know a good amount of the surfers that Flea’s grown up with. It’s a tight-knit community. I had all kinds of people responding to me and helping me out, just to get a car.

Is there a big financial difference between the cost of the sober living house you were at in Huntington and FleaHab? 

I’ll put it this way: the price of FleaHab is super reasonable, and it was only a couple hundred dollars more a month than the sober living house in Huntington.

So he’s not placing a premium on his name? It’s not like Promises in Malibu or Crossroads in Antigua?

Right, and that’s pretty big. A lot of sober livings, they’re there for a good reason, with good intentions, but most of them are designed for-profit, whereas FleaHab is completely not for-profit. Flea doesn’t make money off of it. Where I was living in Huntington, the family that ran it was making a ton of money. I’m not sure what happened with them, but they were sued in many different ways and pulling all kinds of insurance scams. That was a business for them; sober livings.

And Flea’s got sponsors still? How’s he making a living.

He doesn’t surf professionally anymore. He’s got a young family, does construction a couple days a week as a side job. He does a bunch of different things. He’s on the board with Titans of Mavericks, which takes up a lot of his time. He does water patrol for the Mavericks contest and the Coldwater Classic here in Santa Cruz, too.

He does still surf for the O’Neill shop team, but that’s pretty casual.

How much time does he spend at FleaHab?

Thursdays and Fridays, Flea would come by, spend half the day with us and then ask if anyone wanted to join him surfing. That was just kind of how it went. Before I had a job, all I did was go surf, all day. I’d get up, catch the morning session, eat lunch, and get back in the water. I did that for months.

When you say he spends Thursdays and Fridays at the house, what, specifically, does that entail?

He comes through for half the day in the morning–if someone wants to go surfing, he’ll do that. But, for example, this kid who’s not really all there mentally, moved in a couple weeks ago. Flea came by on Thursday and went and took a drive with that kid. It’s pretty cool the way he’s willing to do that. Everyone’s different with how they handle their attempt(s) at sobriety. He’s willing to deal with people that would be not as easy to deal with as others. This is a nice kid, but he’s not totally competent, and not the easiest person to deal with. Flea has a tough love kind of approach, but he’s helping him work things out.

With two young kids at home, that’s pretty noble.

Exactly. He seems to rise to the occasion, which is pretty cool man.

So he doesn’t live in this house; he lives down the road with his family?

It’s funny, he lives on the other side of town with his family. I’m grateful that the sober living is on the east side, where all the best surf breaks are five minutes down the road.

What’s the house like otherwise, when Flea’s not there, and when you’re not surfing. Day-to-day?

As far as the structure of it, I’d say it wasn’t a rigid living design. There aren’t all kinds of rules enforced. It’s a very relaxed environment.

Otherwise, it’s about what you’d expect. People get on each other’s nerves. Some people become really good friends. You throw a bunch of random people into a house that are trying to get over a really shitty period in their lives – most people aren’t ready to be there, or don’t know if they want to be there. All kinds of stuff can happen.

The nature of those places is that it’s an uncomfortable situation to be in. But some of those people – and this is true for any sober living or rehab or attempt at sobriety in general – are able to harness the best aspects of the process and make it work for them.

For you, that was surfing.

For me, if I didn’t have surfing, I wouldn’t have had a really good reason to want to give it another shot and pull myself up out of where I was. I was really unhappy and I had no motivation to better my life, otherwise. Going through that has given me the ability to empathize, or at least try to put myself in the shoes of people that are struggling after multiple attempts at getting sober – people that, from an outsider’s perspective, seem like the biggest pieces of shit on the face of the earth. It’s hard to understand, but most of those people, they don’t want to be there. That’s not where they’d like to be in life. A number of things have piled up against them, and they’ve kind of lost control over the reigns of their lives. In my case, I had as many resources as someone could want. I was very fortunate, but it still took me multiple tries. I’m still new in this realm of sobriety–I only have 14 months. I’m just going along for the ride.

At the same time, I’m about to start taking an intro-level Social Work Post-Grad class to see if that’s what I want to do. What I really want to do now is blend social work with the surf industry.

That would be great, and there’s quite a bit of that going on with organizations like SurfAid and Waves4Water.

They’ve done great work in Indonesia.

This last year, I did a day of volunteer work with an organization called The Wounded Warriors Project. That’s just one of many organizations, like FleaHab, that use surfing in a way to reach out to the community. I think that’d be something I have a natural ability at, and I could be passionate about and enjoy and be able to contribute to. It would allow me to be involved with surfing, professionally, but not in a solely business-oriented capacity.

I’m working with an academic advisor, and I really want to get a Master’s degree. I don’t feel like I’m done with my education yet. I guess I just had to take a couple years off and go through some weird shit, you know?

You’ve come out the other side, that’s all that counts. It’s good to see you happy and doing well, and I’m still holding you to a long overdue surf trip to Panama.

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Photo courtesy of Henry Skipp.


Watch the video below on FleaHab, learn more about the program or make a donation here, and watch “The Westsiders” on Darryl “Flea” Virostko and the Santa Cruz surf tribe.

–OJB

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