In Search of Captain Zero PA: pb reprintby Allan Weisbecker, A. C. Weisbecker
In 1996, Allan Weisbecker sold his home and his possessions, loaded his dog and surfboards into his truck, and set off in search of his long-time surfing companion, Patrick, who had vanished into the depths of Central America. In this rollicking memoir of his quest from Mexico to Costa Rica to unravel the circumstances of Patrick's disappearance, Weisbecker intimately describes the people he befriended, the bandits he evaded, the waves he caught and lost en route to finding his friend.
In Search of Captain Zero is, according to Outside magazine, "A subtly affecting tale of friendship and duty. [It] deserves a spot on the microbus dashboard as a hell of a cautionary tale about finding paradise and smoking it away."
In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road is a Booksense 76 Top Ten selection for September/October.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 5.96(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.92(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
In Search of Captain Zero, Chapter 1
November 5, 1996
San Miguel Campground, Baja, Mexico
At first light this morning, I put some water in the kettle, fired up the stove, then stepped out of La Casita Viajera (the little house that travels) and looked seaward to see what the surf had done overnight. In the gloaming opposite the shoreside loom of the city of Ensenada I could see that the head-high west swell that had been running for the last five days had dropped to a couple feet. I squinted at Todos Santos Island some ten miles out in the bay, thinking that there were probably still sizable waves below the lighthouse near the rock reef break known as Killers. Thought briefly about hiring a local fisherman for a run out there, then decided to spend the day getting my rig-La Casita and the bruiser of an F350 Ford 4 X 4 diesel-powered pickup upon which it sits-ready for the rude ride down the Baja peninsula.
Five days at the San Miguel campground were more than I'd planned, a result of my long-standing traveling rule that dictates that one should never drive away from good surf. Now, with the deterioration of lineup conditions and a worsening crowd factor, I was itching to get on with it. Ensenada, being little more than an hour's drive south of San Diego, is in many ways an extension of the United States, a place and a state of mind I have decided to put behind me.
Odds are Christopher passed this way, may have in fact camped at this very spot overlooking the break. It depends mainly on surf conditions the day he made the Tijuana crossing just to the north-the San Miguel point is in clear view of the highway southbound; at shoulder high or better it's a toughie to pass by.
There's a longtime expat here who lives in a cottage overlooking the point, a guy named Tony, Big Tony. He looked at the photo of Christopher I carry and said Christopher looked familiar, although not from any recent encounter. Which made sense. Christopher had south on his mind back in February of '92, that much I know. South being the natural direction of vanishment, a compass course of no return for the seriously committed.
I'll tell you what: Things are tough up north, and getting tougher.
Mornings toward the end back at Montauk, I'd wake up maybe with a bad feeling about the day's loomings, and go down to the beach, to my beach, to ponder what the ocean had to offer, a surf check.
There's a wave, let's say, chest high and glassy, nothing epic but a head-clearer, a gift from a deep low pressure system bouncing along the Carolinas. It's not even a weekend and what am I confronted with? Investment bankers and corporate lawyers with surfboards, another noxious trend of the trendy and an overall sign of deteriorating times. The sun's barely cracked the rim and there they are, a cadre of eastbound Hamptons émigrés, cell-phones-with-modems plugged into surf-racked Beemers and Rovers, uplinking and downloading in the parking lot, blights on the seascape and a last straw of sorts.
And now-after 3,000 hard-driven miles, and having weathered two mechanical breakdowns, an anxiety attack while camped at a defunct railroad station in Pumpville, west Texas (POPULATION 0, the sign said, plus WELCOME); a dissipated hoodang with some unbalanced rodeo cowboys in the border town of Del Rio, Texas; a nocturnal molar explosion and subsequent emergency root canal outside Tempe, Arizona-after having coped with all that, I'm now a foreign country and a new life removed and still the bullshit continues, in the form of certain overly aggressive SoCal types who come down through Tijuana on day trips and weekends to litter the surf lineup and provoke aggravation.
The afternoon of my arrival, for example, I was involved in an extended session in some shoulder-high zippers in front of my campsite, a form of "seahabilitation," as my commercial fishermen friends refer to time offshore, its cure-all therapeutic effects. I was still shaky from the weeklong cross-country road trip, plus the residual effects of my Pumpville anxiety attack; a sweeping rush of unreality that came out of nowhere while I was slopping together a sandwich in La Casita.
For an already edgy, landlocked waterhead, the endless purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain of the heartland I'd spent interminable days traversing amounted to little more than claustrophobic time and distance between two oceans. By my arrival at that crumbling relic of the old New West, my yearning to gaze upon the infinite, calming perspective of the sea horizon-to reconnect with Big Blue-had become a desperate need. White line fever and too much thinking had taken a severe psychological toll.
I always find the surf lineup a good vantage point from which to objectively review my situation and options. The enlightening perspective out there is partly a result of the inviolate solitude (interlopers are obvious on approach), and partly the effects of an aqueous environment womblike in its security, its easy, pacifying motion, its gently calmative murmur; circumstances that I believe put you in closer touch with the wisdom of the subconscious. And so it is with sadness, depression, angst, call a lowness of spirit what you will. When I hit the water with a surfstick, a lift is in the offing, along with a clarification of my thought processes.
The seahab effect of that marathon surf session was just kicking in when this newly arrived West Coast itinerant stroked on out and immediately proceeded to take off on a wave to which I was already deeply committed. He appeared out of nowhere right on my projected track and an instinctive effort to avoid headlong collision resulted in my going assbackward into a rocky shallows where the San Miguel inside section tends to freight train at low water. I let this unacceptable behavior slide, but when he did exactly the same thing two waves later, I paddled over and, using the still-serviceable Spanish left over from my pot-smuggling days, rambled something to the extent that if my riding waves behind him in the faster and hollower and altogether more interesting part of the wave was a problem, maybe a shoreside discussion on the matter was in order.
As I'd already suspected, the fellow spoke no Spanish, so when he said something surly to that effect, I replied in obviously mock surprise that I assumed he was Mexican since he behaved as if the wave here was his property. Just as the situation was on the verge of deteriorating completely, Big Tony paddled over and hastily introduced me to the guy; Harry or George or Dickhead, who knows, or cares, what the asshole's name was. Tony had been observing the developing confrontation and was seeking to defuse it before it got physical. A former real estate executive in his mid-forties, Tony had experienced his own up-and-bolt epiphany after losing his job for refusing to participate in the selling of a toxic waste landfill to unwitting housing developers. His longstanding surfing residency in the area plus his strapping 6-foot-something frame has made him a sort of de facto keeper of the point break. Although the tension subsided with the cool-your-jets-boys subtext of Tony's intro, a measure of residual disgust lingered, augmented by a cantina brawl I witnessed in Ensenada two nights later, precipitated by an incident in the water.
This morning's coffee in hand, I glanced down at my dog, Shiner, sacked out in her usual spot under the right rear corner of the rig, where my spare Goodyear All Terrain is secured under La Casita's overhang. One eye, the one with the black patch, was open and she acknowledged me with a feeble vibration of her tail-a combination "good morning" and indication that in spite of appearances she was on top of things-then the eye shut down and she was back asleep.
Three new rigs had arrived during the night, beefy pickups with full off-road kits and surf racks affixed to their roll bars. Classic southern Baja cruisers traveling together, the safety-in-numbers theory. They were covered nose to toes with a thick layer of red Baja dust, meaning the fleet was northbound from deeper down the peninsula. Surfboards and sleeping-bagged bodies were scattered across the scree-strewn coal-black beach between an old stone-and-chain wall and the wrack line; as soon as the crew was coherent I'd inquire about surf and road conditions to the south, as well as the prevalence and moods of both bandidos and federales. Although the two are opposite numbers, an encounter with either can have the same result: an up-close gander at a large-bore orifice followed by a lightening of your resources, or worse.
I'd also ask about Christopher, whether they'd run across him in their travels, although my working theory is that his love of warm water, plus the affinity for the rain forest he developed as an infantry grunt in Vietnam, will have sent him into the far southern latitudes, to Central America.
Christopher had seen heavy combat and returned wounded, but rather than dwell on the horror of Nam he'd reminisce about the Edenic beauty of the jungles there, describing with a beatific smile how artillery and mortar fire would light up the rain forest at night in dazzling and surreal displays, like a fireworks celebration.
This is a key to Christopher Conner, to understanding him. It is both his strength and his weakness that he will somehow find a positive aspect in some appallingly untenable situation. He had had his face shattered in a mortar barrage, but in looking back on that ghastly experience he tightly tunnels his vision to exclude all but the tiny aspect that pleases him. The drawback is that while he's dwelling on some preposterous silver lining in an outright horrific cloud, a means of extrication from the situation may get overlooked. I know this to be the case from unnerving personal experience.
My friendship with Christopher goes back to my discovery of surfing in the summer of 1966. I'd made a Manhattan run from the landlocked suburbs to see a documentary movie called The Endless Summer, the tale of two young California surfers who circle the globe looking for the perfect wave. The movie so astounded me that I stayed and watched it again, then returned a couple days later for another double viewing. Up until that time, my only exposure to surfing was through Hollywood's ditzy takes on the early '60s California beach scene and the surf music of the era, the goofball totality of which left this East Coast boy profoundly unimpressed. (I've since grown fond of it all as nostalgia.)
But this . . . this was altogether something else.
The activity itself was mesmerizing in its surreal beauty, the speedy grace and unbridled joy of the wave riders, the delicate power and dreamy elegance of the medium; the latter's kaleidoscopic mutability. I also sensed that there was more to the life of it than the vagabond travelers in the flick were letting on. There was something truly amazing happening here and I wanted in.
By walking into the Kips Bay Theatre on Second Avenue, downtown Manhattan, the die of my life was cast. I'd known since the day I'd followed my father into the water to spear a fish off land's end on Long Island that the sea would somehow play a central role in my life. Suddenly, I knew specifically what that role would be. I scraped together enough money for a used surfboard and returned to Montauk Point.
Christopher, like virtually all the local Montauk surfers, had come from somewhere else to the little fishing village, drawn not only by its unspoiled physical beauty, but its unique geographical circumstances. Thrust out onto the continental shelf with deep water just offshore, the tip of Long Island is ideally situated to pick up incoming groundswells from late summer hurricanes roaring up from the Caribbean, as well as wave-generating low-pressure systems spiraling off the continent. Unlike the straight sand beaches of the rest of the East Coast from western Long Island to New Jersey and on south to Florida, Montauk is blessed with rock bottom points and reefs, irregularities of coastal topography that sculpt incoming waves into rideable form. The pristine stretch of coastline between the town and the point at land's end some five miles to the east is capable of producing waves of similar quality to those of the West Coast. And the seasonal tourism economic base of the area afforded 1960s-era immigrant wave riders night employment at restaurants and bars, leaving days free to pursue that object of great desire rolling in from offshore-surf. Others found berths in the town's fishing fleet; a natural vocation for those with an ingrained affinity for, and knowledge of, the sea.
Being a newcomer not only to the area but to the activity of surfing itself, I found it rough going in the beginning. The muscling I was subjected to in the water and hostile vibes on the beach were my introduction to the territoriality that is so deeply ingrained in surfing's tribal mind-set. At 20, Christopher was three years my senior. We hit it off, and under his tutelage, by mid-summer I'd been accepted as one of the crew. And by God, I was actually surfing.
Along with a cadre of hardcore cohorts, Christopher and I bivouacked at the public campground just east of the village that summer, and off and on for the summers to come. I came to respect him for his intellect, his wry, irreverent, often wacko wit and his love for the sea. Generous to a fault and forgiving of the imperfections of his fellows, he was at once action-oriented and of deeply philosophical inclinations, a rare combination.
People of disparate worldviews and walks of life were drawn to Christopher. A favorite drinking buddy of the town rowdies, he was also popular with intellectual types like Dick Cavett, whose home overlooked the next cove east of the campground. He and Cavett had many an extended beach gab over the years. Christopher became close enough to notorious photographer/artist/adventurer/bon vivant Peter Beard that in the early 1980s he was invited to stay at Beard's Kenya retreat. In Africa, Christopher also holed up for several weeks as the sole companion to hermetic conservationist/writer George Adamson (of Born Free fame) at Adamson's remote compound. Christopher's 1982 photographs were likely the last taken of Adamson before he was murdered by terrorist/poachers.
Christopher's philosophical leanings and beguiling good humor were all the more impressive considering his sparse formal education and the traumas of a childhood spent in orphanages, foster homes and reform schools. It was surfing that saved him, he avowed, and we all smiled and nodded and said amen. It was so clear to us what he'd meant. Surfing indeed was a lifestyle. No, more than that: a life. It deeply influenced every aspect of our existences, from where we lived to the cars we drove to who our friends were to the temperament of a prospective mate to our career goals, if any managed to surface through the turbulence of our single-minded passion for the water. But more than anything, surfing forged our perception of ourselves and of our relationship to the world around us.
One time in 1970, Christopher and I were in Tetuán, Morocco, looking to score some kilos of hashish to smuggle back to the United States. (An exploratory surf trip to Europe and Africa had evolved into a criminal enterprise.) We'd gotten separated in the confusion of the souk and I wound up in its labyrinthine bowels. Suddenly from nowhere there loomed these three burly, turbaned thugs-leathery skin bedecked with tattoos and self-inflicted scars, silver-handled daggers hanging around their necks-bearing a sheepskin bag filled with hashish slabs. I warily checked the product, then informed them that the deal was not going to go down. Christopher and I were looking for primo blonde and their stuff was low-grade green.
During the stony silence that followed, a nervous little interior voice piped up, pointing out that these goons knew I had money in my boot; I'd had to show it to the shifty-eyed street connection who'd brought me there. Since it therefore followed (continued the little voice) that they might be inclined to simply cut my throat and take it, perhaps the prudent move would be to cordially agree to the deal then get the hell out of there.
But I'd spent the past two years surfing serious waves in Hawaii and another voice, loutish and arrogant and brashly overruling, spoke up. "Those bastards can't do anything to you," boomed the voice. "They never rode big Sunset Beach." I stuck firm in my demurral. The upshot was that they'd nodded and produced the blonde they'd been holding back; the deal went down.
And so it went. My introduction to the wave-riding mind-set that seminal summer on eastern Long Island amounted to a rite of passage; its aftereffects would be far-reaching indeed. But as the summers since '66 rolled on, the years, then the decades, gradually, for most of our crew, things changed: interests, obligations, lifestyles, commitments, attitudes, loyalties. Of the dozen or so of us from that era, and there wasn't a one who didn't swear on his very soul he'd remain among the surfing faithful, the devoutly committed, it was only Christopher and I who were truly left, living the life.
Since Christopher's bolt from Montauk, there were at first sporadic postcards from Down South. Rambling, arcane, disjointed but ultimately insightful, his missives, like his life, contained flashes of brilliance but no discernible structure. Then came that last one, three years ago, with a faded tropical seascape on front, smudged, undated and illegible scrawl on back (postmark likewise indecipherable), the signature in Christopher's hand: "Capitán Cero"-Spanish for "Captain Zero."
Then, nothing. Poof, Christopher was gone, a desaparecido, one who "is disappeared."
Unlikely as it was that Christopher is this far north, I'd ask these Baja boys about him, as I will all the picaroons I meet along the way. Because if I've learned one thing over the years, over the decades, it's that with Christopher, with Captain Zero, you just flat never know.
You fly past flats where water has arisen from the deep earth and, guided by the toil of men, fashioned the desert into flowering and prosperous rows of beans and peppers. A lorry-load of farmhands blurs by, northbound to those labors, shoulders hunched against the hot wind in back, sombreros doffed, bandannas shrouding swarthy, sunburnt faces.
Reprinted from In Search of Captain Zero by Allan Weisbecker by permission of JP Tarcher, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Allan Weisbecker, used by permission.
Meet the Author
Allan C. Weisbecker is a novelist, screenwriter, lifelong surfer, and award-winning photojournalist whose work appears in Smithsonian, Men's Journal, Popular Photography, American Photo, Sailing, Surfer, Surfing, and The Surfer's Journal. He is the author of Cosmic Banditos, a novel said by reviewers to "out-gonzo Hunter S. Thompson." Weisbecker lives on Long Island, New York.
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