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A 'crack' at the next wave

From Coos Bay to Yemen, surfing has been Chas Smith's passport to adventure


by: COURTESY OF DEREK DUNFEE - Coos Bay native Chas Smith says the surfing on the North Shore of Oahu (top) always draws him back to Hawaii. But, his first book, about North Shores seedy culture, probably wont be too well-received by the locals.Growing up in Coos Bay, Chas Smith couldn’t wait to leave the gray and cold and dark days behind him, even though surfing on the Oregon Coast provided the foundation for his successful writing career.

He left for college in Los Angeles at age 18, and he has never returned from Southern California.

“I’ve come to terms with my Oregon upbringing,” says Smith, 37. “I love Oregon from this distance. When I was there, I thought it was horrible. Coos Bay was a pit of a town. I’ll take smog and buildings (of SoCal) every day.”

But Smith never left surfing behind. In fact, in the past decade, he has become one of the country’s pre-eminent surfing writers for the appropriately named Surfing magazine. He annually travels around the world for his job, including the famed winter seasons on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, the subject of his first — and scathing — book, “Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell: A True Story of Violence, Corruption, and the Soul of Surfing” (HarperCollins, $25.99). It’s set to be released Nov. 19.

And, on his next trip to Hawaii, he fully expects to be “cracked.” Punched. Or, smacked. Or just simply roughed up.

Smith spent six winter seasons on the North Shore, observing and documenting the shady characters, dirty lifestyles and overall volatility involved in the surfing culture there. Basically, white people and surfing industry companies show up there to surf in the winter, treading on the sacred ground and waves of the natives, who, nonetheless, thrive on the increase in economic activity — including it “being a huge conduit for heroin and cocaine,” Smith says.

Smith calls it “the greatest story” that “I couldn’t make up.”

He tells the story as part of 24 hours on the North Shore. He writes a little about the history, but focuses more on the culture, using himself as the voice of the book from first-person experience.

Hawaii has been portrayed as peaceful and beautiful, and it is in many areas. The reality about the North Shore is it’s not idyllic.

“Hawaii as a whole has major economic problems, major racial problems ... there’s just a feeling of their land was stolen,” Smith says. “So many of them are not happy being a state. They still want to be a monarchy and a territory.

“In the surf culture, that whole dynamic is blown out, elevated. It’s almost fresh — ‘these pale loafers come in to steal our waves.’ ”

Chas Smith's new book hits the store shelves Nov. 19.The reality is also that the traveling surfers and surfing tours bring big bucks into the state, including the North Shore. Locals are basically subsidized by the surf industry. It helps feed a volcanic atmosphere, Smith says, which includes gangs shaking down visitors and surf brands.

“People know they need it, but they hate it at the same time,” he says. “It explodes into violence and anger. On the flip side, there’s the beauty of the athletic prowess, and the waves that pound North Shore. I’ve been there more times than I can count in the winter season, and each time I remember being petrified looking at the sea. It’s almost alive.”

So, it’s “not at all what tourists who look at the brochures think of it,” Smith says. But, it’s a story that needed to be told.

He says that nobody else has written such an exposé, for fear of retribution. It’s a work of nonfiction, so he talks about real people. “There are stories I couldn’t tell; the HarperCollins lawyer told me I couldn’t tell them,” he says. “Hawaii is such a mash of coconut wireless, everybody telling stories about everything. It was hard to corroborate or get real evidence.”

Smith says he will “not be welcome back” to the North Shore, and he expects to “get a ‘crack’ at some point for doing the book.” He says that people will be upset, but “I would rather feel good about what I’ve done than regret what I should have done.”

Smith has always lived life on the edge, perhaps starting with surfing in the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast, and extending to the time Hezbollah captured him.

To escape the dreariness of his Coos Bay life, he took up surfing, after visiting surfing relatives in San Diego. He and friends would surf in Oregon at Lighthouse Beach and Bastendorff Beach.

“It saved my life,” he says.

“I wasn’t a typical Coos Bay kid. I didn’t hunt or log. I could only dream of being in Southern

California.”

He went to college at Southern California’s Biola University, and received an undergraduate degree in intercultural studies (1998) and a master’s degree in linguistics (2001). Although a veteran surfer by then, it wasn’t surfing that drew his initial professional interest. Smith spent semesters studying Arabic in Egypt and English at Oxford University.

In 2001, he traveled to Yemen in the days following 9/11 for a surfing article — “me and some friends were the first to surf mainland Yemen,” he says.

He spent time in Lebanon and Somalia working on pieces for Vice magazine and, in 2006 during an assignment for CurrentTV, he landed as a captive of Hezbollah during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

He later worked for Stab magazine, venturing full-time into surfing writing. He has been a contributing editor at Surfing magazine since the mid-2000s, earning a reputation as a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners scribe.

His “Welcome to Paradise” story already has been optioned by Management 360 and sold to Fox 21, which produces “Homeland,” “Game of Thrones” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

He’ll appear at Powell’s on Nov. 25 to promote the book. Smith lives in Cardiff, Calif. — Cardiff-By-The-Sea, just north of San Diego — and he travels to Portland frequently, because his wife works as a sport agent, representing skateboarders and snowboarders, and she deals with Nike.

“I’ve fallen in love with that town,” he says.

Smith says he’ll leave the surfing world behind in due time, and do other things.

He has grown somewhat tired of the surfing culture, although “I feel that it was my savior from this dark, overcast Coos Bay. I always will, forever, appreciate and love it. This will be the last big thing, though. I want to get out ... and not be pigeon-holed as a surf writer forever.”