Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, April 22, 2001

‘Captain Zero’
raises the bar for
surf-themed journalism

"In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road"
By Allan Weisbecker (Tarcher/Putnam, 328 pages, $24.95)

Review by Tim Ryan

Surf journalism for the most part is an oxymoron. Stories from surfers often are filled with jargon that only other surfers might understand or care about. It's technical and self-serving, sterilized to avoid angering sponsors or advertisers, or so flowery as to come across as silly idolatry.

But the last few years have seen surf-themed writing rising to the level of mainstream tomes -- and acceptance -- dealing as much with a search for identity or place as the perfect wave. Books like "Caught Inside" by Dan Duane and "Tapping the Source" and "The Dogs of Winter" by Kem Nunn are rich in character, tight in plot, intelligent in theme, and connect readers of varying interests like good stories are supposed to do.

Raising the bar is Allan Weisbecker, a native East Coaster and surfer who has traveled the world riding waves and smuggling drugs.

Weisbecker's "In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road" is a bit of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

In the fall of 1996, Weisbecker, 48, was disgusted with the commercialization and overcrowding of the formerly pristine beach town where he'd lived most of his life. He sold his house and abandoned a screenwriting career, piled his dog and surfboards into his camper, La Casita Viajera (the little house that travels), and headed to Central America.

Five years before he left on his journey, Weisbecker's old surf buddy Christopher had abandoned the trappings of modern life and taken off for Mexico and points beyond, never to be heard from again.

Weisbecker's plan was to follow in his friend's "natural direction of vanishment." His dream was also to find a special place where the waves are good and life is sweet and easy -- think "Endless Summer" meets Paul Theroux.

Weisbecker has an eye for detail and recall, a vivid imagination and an obsession for analyzing almost every experience he encounters, from riding perfect waves, thoughts about leather-skinned fishermen and the preference of long boards vs. short boards.

There are moments when Weisbecker shares his most vulnerable moments, as when he breaks down crying over his loneliness and at the loss of a wonderful woman's love. The writer's understated mention of Shiner's passing without explanation of the circumstances carries with it such weight that I had to put the book down to compose myself before I could continue reading. Being alone seemed to provide the time for him to be able to understand that surfing is more soulful than simply riding waves.

"Captain Zero" offers a world of places amazing, beautiful and dangerous, populated by vagabonds, expats and fugitives, road bandits and surf gangs.

Weisbecker quickly found lots of perfect waves and idyllic places, but it took him far longer to understand himself and that paradise hides in our own souls.

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