The golden era of surfboard smuggling was brief, coinciding with what many consider to be the definitive American decade.
By Cedar Hobbs
Light / Dark
Like a garishly colored board stuffed with 20 pounds of primo Afghan hash, the 1960s were packed with indelible cultural happenings.
The youthful and impossibly handsome John F. Kennedy replaced the stern-looking, military-trained Dwight D. Eisenhower. The hippie was born and the use of drugs, particularly hallucinogens, became more mainstream. Civil-rights movements swept across the country, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Woodstock and the Summer of Love provided fodder for subsequent generations of dreamers. The assassination of JFK and the moon landing consumed conspiracy theorists for decades to come.
Meanwhile, surfing was in the throes of its own cultural revolution. Overnight, the stability and trim of longboards were crudely excised in search of speed and new lines. Long hair replaced crew cuts in the lineup. Boards donned new and imaginative colorways. Far-flung waves previously deemed unrideable were quickly conquered. Headlines like “Conversations with Spirit Forms” permeated the newly minted magazines, and a fondness for marijuana and other drugs laid the groundwork for the birth of Jeff Spicoli.
“There was a hell of a lot of energy going on,” says Jeff Hakman, winner of the inaugural Duke Kahanamoku Invitational at Sunset Beach and co-founder of Quiksilver. “Everything was sort of happening [during] that 1965 to 1969 era. It was part of the culture—the music [was changing], the boards [were] changing, and along with that was a lot of smuggling.”
Smuggling drugs allowed surfers to live out their own version of The Endless Summer. Those who were there speak fondly of smuggling, describing it as a way to chase the surf before sponsors and contest winnings provided viable alternatives. “I went where the surf was good,” says John Parten, smuggler and one of the first Americans to ride Supertubes at J-Bay. “And everywhere I went, the weed was good.”
For many surfers, boards were somewhat obvious smuggling vehicles, presenting a type of hidden-in-plain-sight cover.
“Surfboards are perfect,” one of the original board smugglers, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “You’re wearing a cowboy hat, you’re a cowboy. You have a surfboard, you’re a surfer. It doesn’t matter if you’re in India. [There is] no better vehicle than a surfboard.”
“It [was] kind of a no-brainer,” remembers Mike Ritter, surfboard smuggler and one of the original pioneers of G-Land.
Dave Hall and Mike Hynson were the first to conceive of the idea of smuggling drugs via chambered-out surfboards. Both were members of the Southern California–based Brotherhood of Eternal Love, founded in 1966 and described by the New York Times in 1972 as a “sex and drug sect.” In reality, the Brotherhood was more akin to a loosely affiliated group interested in enlightenment and giving away LSD. (It even received its charter as a legal church from the state of California in 1966.)
Hall was one of the Brotherhood’s original members. Hynson joined the organization soon after him, having recently attained stardom alongside Robert August in Bruce Brown’s iconic film. Hynson shaped the first board, which Hall promptly packed and shipped to India. He returned soon after with the board filled with Indian black hash.
After the success of the trip, Hall and Hynson resolved to quickly return to the subcontinent. According to Hynson’s book, Transcendental Memories of a Surf Rebel, Hynson snuck into the Gordon & Smith shaping room after dark and prepared “three huge Clark Foam blanks” to be filled with hash. The boards were sent to a New Delhi hotel in August 1967 at the Brotherhood’s expense. Hall and Hynson arrived soon afterward, having flown from Los Angeles with stopovers in London and Amsterdam.
Once in India, Hall secured the hash, which was called Nepalese Fingers, and returned it to Hynson in his hotel room. Sitting on the floor, Hynson split the boards in half and used a “spoon and butter knife” to chamber out space for the hash. The boards were then “stuffed to the gills with hash,” resealed, and sent back to Los Angeles.
The score was promptly divided and distributed to members of the Brotherhood. Travis Ashbrook remembers receiving a pound of it. “I had never smoked Nepalese hash before and [I got] so stoned. I ended up smoking the whole damn pound. Didn’t sell hardly anything.”
Ashbrook was another of the Brotherhood’s original members. He grew up surfing Seal Beach and by high school was shaping under his own label. He also retains the unenviable title of being one of the few to have been caught and prosecuted for smuggling hash via boards. He’d discovered hash at 19 years old. “I loved it,” he says. “So I finally decided one day, ‘I’m going to go get some of this myself.’”
In the winter of 1967, Ashbrook hatched a plan to fly to Europe, buy a car, and drive it to Turkey. He, along with a friend named Ricky, purchased a vehicle in Germany and set off. On the way, they met a “couple of French hippies” who told them that what they really wanted, instead of Turkish hash, was Afghan hash.
Ashbrook and Ricky continued on to Istanbul to sample hash from Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Turkey. “The next morning, we headed for Afghanistan,” Ashbrook says.
The pair had intended to fill the panels of their van with hash, but instead they sold the vehicle in exchange for 50 kilos of the stuff. “Then,” Ashbrook remembers, “we went into the bazaar and bought a bunch of old antique musical instruments. They were probably worth a fortune. Fuck, I know they were worth a fortune. We ended up packing all [the hash] in these instruments” and flying it back to Los Angeles.
By 1969, Ashbrook was regularly returning to Afghanistan. As he made last-minute preparations for one of those trips, a friend handed him two custom-made boards and told him, “Hey, man, take these boards along. You’ll get an extra 40 pounds.”
Ashbrook flew the two boards to Germany, bought a Volkswagen camper van, and strapped them on the roof. The boards saw much of Europe atop that van. Chuckling, Ashbrook says, “Can you imagine driving through the Alps to Switzerland and Austria in the dead of winter with two surfboards strapped to the top of the car?” The boards were “thick, clunky.” He pauses. But “they would have [went].”
Eventually, they were filled with close to 40 pounds of Afghan hash and shipped from Karachi, Pakistan, to New York. Then, “fucking United went on strike,” says Ashbrook.
The boards were delayed for two weeks in New York due to the strike at the airport. “They sat in New York in the heat,” Ashbrook says. “They were in denim bags…made out of blue-jean material. And they got overheated.” The hash started to mold, swelling up the hidden compartments until they were loose. “That’s how they found it.”
Warped and rattling, the boards were shipped to Los Angeles, where a United Airlines employee notified Bureau of Customs Special Agent George Corley that “he had two surfboards ‘which he thought possibly contained narcotics.’”
According to court records, Corley “lifted both boards and noted that they appeared to be about twenty pounds heavier than other boards he had handled of the same length.” Corley cut into the glass with his pocketknife and “there was a rush of gas from inside, with an odor which he recognized as that of marijuana.” Not knowing to whom the boards belonged, Corley “replaced the plug, filled the holes with candle wax,” and placed them back in their denim bags.
Having beaten the boards home, Ashbrook drove to Los Angeles International Airport to retrieve his cargo. The baggage handlers were remarkably polite, he remembers. “They helped me load [the boards] on my car. [Even] strapped them on the racks.”
Ashbrook drove the hash-laden boards back to the Brotherhood’s private ranch. After passing through the locked gate, he looked back and “saw this whole parade of cars barreling up the road behind us. And then I looked up and saw that there was an airplane circling above.”
Special Agent Corley later testified that “a total of 39 pounds of hashish worth $100,000 was removed from the two boards.”
Ashbrook was charged with transportation of narcotics. He entered a plea deal and promptly appealed. After almost two years of litigation, in 1971, his attorney told him that it was time to turn himself in. “I think that’s when we took off to Honduras,” Ashbrook says. “I’d been planning that all along. I wasn’t going to give them any time.”
Ashbrook was on the run until the late 1970s, when he was caught trying to carry $3.8 million in “a couple of suitcases” to the West Indies. He was indicted in 1980 for allegedly smuggling 40 tons of hash. He served 11 years in prison, five of which he owed for the original transportation charges stemming from the board smuggling.
Meanwhile, like LSD and marijuana, surfboard smuggling was quickly finding more and more disciples.
Plastic Fantastic Surfboards was founded by Danny Calohan, Jack Cerrito, and Dave Garner in Huntington Beach in 1968. The label boasted a who’s who of legendary shapers and team riders: Dick Brewer, Joey Cabell, Gary Chapman, Bill Fury, Jeff Hakman, Bruce Jones, Jim Turner, Jock Sutherland. It also sported one of the most iconic logos in surfing history: an immediately recognizable, likely acid-inspired, flower that is somehow juvenile, groovy, and dignified all at the same time.
Hakman remembers the label fondly: “Plastic Fantastic just happened to be a group of people in Huntington Beach that were on the cutting edge of everything.”
Unlike the Brotherhood, the label was not underpinned by drug consumption, but many of those affiliated also happened to regularly smuggle hash via surfboards.
“We didn’t start the business to [smuggle],” says Fury, a 2011 inductee into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. But, after smuggling Lebanese hash into California in 1969, “we were out of the red and into the green.”
Those who were involved used massive, hollowed-out balsa boards modeled on Mike Diffenderfer’s popular model at the time, the Balsa Pocket Rocket. “They rode good,” remembers Hakman, chuckling.
Fury, one of Plastic Fantastic’s shapers, made chambered balsa boards for three trips to Lebanon. The boards were shipped to the country’s hash fields, filled with blond Lebanese hash, flown to Mexico City, and then driven back through the San Ysidro border crossing.
It is worth noting that Lebanon was, and still is, not particularly regarded for its surf. The arrival of tanned surfers, massive balsa boards in tow, often piqued suspicions.
“But we had pictures of us in [surf] magazines and stuff,” remembers one team rider, who wished to remain anonymous. “We [told them] the boards are like golf clubs: They come with us [wherever we go].”
The trips did not always go smoothly.
In one instance, during a trip to the Lebanese fields, hash farmers, tired of sharing their profits with middlemen, tried to organize the shipment themselves. Gunshots rang out, and a farmer was shot. The surfers abandoned their boards in the desert, burying them on the off chance another group of surfers wanted to try their hand at smuggling.
On another trip, a different group was almost caught at the Mexico-US border. “There was one load coming back from Mexico—four balsa boards [with] about 80 or 90 pounds of blond Lebanese hash,” remembers the same team rider.
The boards were strapped to the roof of a Volkswagen camper, but one of them had been improperly glassed after being filled. The pintail “was cracked, and all the hashish was falling on the back of the window.”
They stopped at customs and started chatting up the border guard. Meanwhile, hash continued to drift like snow from one of the boards.
“You [could] write your name on the window,” remembers the aforementioned team rider.
Impossibly, the camper was waved through.
By the late 1960s, the federal government had begun to focus its attention on international smuggling and the consumption of illegal drugs, due in large part to the election of hardliner President Richard Nixon, who would later declare the War on Drugs. In 1969, Nixon unilaterally implemented Operation Intercept, officially described as “the country’s largest peacetime search and seizure operation by civil authorities.” It effectively shut down the Mexico-US border. Vehicles crossing were delayed up to six hours, and suspicious-appearing tourists “were stripped and body searched.”
By then, braving any customs line with surfboards in hand, even for non-nefarious reasons, was treacherous. Corky Carroll—the extent of whose smuggling experience was an attempted crossing with a ham, which he promptly disclosed to the border agent—remembers customs officials wanting to saw his board in half after a trip to Cabo San Lucas.
“Evidently they were onto that means of transporting drugs by then, and I must have looked like a likely suspect. I told them that I was the national champion and that board was worth thousands of dollars.”
His board was spared only after he showed agents the latest copy of Surfer magazine, where Carroll adorned the cover.
Meanwhile, a myriad of surfers turned draft dodgers were exporting the smuggling business abroad.
John Parten was born in Santa Monica in 1951. At 12 years old, he worked at Harbour Surfboards, sweeping the floors and fixing dings. By high school, he was a salesman for the label.
In 1969, as the Vietnam War ramped up and men registered for the draft, Parten split. He registered as a conscientious objector and took off to Morocco in search of waves. There, he scored hash and took it to Portugal and hollowed out two blanks he happened to have with him. Those were the first boards Parten used to smuggle.
“[They were] crude,” he says. “They probably shook, and if you held them up to a light [you could see the hash]. But those were the days that life was pretty mellow.”
In 1970, Parten arrived at Jeffreys Bay. It was sparse and undeveloped. There were “probably 30 people,” but they had “this amazing campground.” Parten was immediately struck by the quality of marijuana the local surfers enjoyed. “It was just fantastic. We were used to Mexican pot and California pot [and] this stuff was, you know, beautiful pot.”
The strain of choice was called Durban Poison. The buds were wrapped in newspaper and smoked out of a clay pipe called a chillum. “That was the way they supported themselves, you know, to stay in J-Bay,” Parten says. They could buy them for 50 cents and sell them for $1.50 or something.”
Parten quickly began sourcing and smuggling his own Durban Poison. He started small, sending custom paperweights. He would press the marijuana into “2- or 3-inch-thick doughnuts” and “cover them with [the] putty” used to fix dings, then press seashells into the putty.
Soon after, he was looking to ship more product. He and a friend made a couple of boards in a tent down the beach from Supertubes. They filled and glassed them, trying to “pigment them with anything [they] could find.” Still, “you could basically see the blocks.”
The boards were shipped to London. Parten expanded his quiver.
“There was a hollow board model [the Stratoglas] that Hansen [Surfboards] made,” Parten says. “You could cut the nose off and fill it up like you’re putting mail in a mailbox. And if you were lucky to have a Mike Diffenderfer balsa board, you could strip the glass off [and fill it with marijuana]. That was probably the pinnacle of surfboard smuggling.” Parten ended up sending a half dozen boards across the globe. “I did a couple from Morocco and several from South Africa.”
By 1973, for a variety of reasons, surfboard smuggling had largely fizzled out.
Political turnover meant sourcing Middle Eastern hash was no longer viable. The 1973 Afghan coup d’état saw Mohammed Daoud Khan usurp his cousin, King Mohammed Zahir Shah, ending the Afghan monarchy. The coup led to intense instability, culminating in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
“It got to the point where Afghanistan was treacherous,” says Ashbrook. “It was hot.”
The political turmoil forced smugglers to find other iterations of marijuana to smuggle, namely the Thai Sticks of Southeast Asia, most of which were not conducive to board smuggling, as they were less malleable than hash and tended to rattle against the fiberglass.
Further, stateside smuggling networks were in disarray. The Brotherhood was dismantled by the federal government in 1972. That August, federal law enforcement arrested or indicted 57 members and seized various “hashish oil laboratories.” The Plastic Fantastic label was also no longer the brand it had been. After numerous sales in the early ’70s and a mysterious factory fire, Plastic Fantastic’s original nucleus had split, with many of those involved going on to have fantastically successful careers. Hakman went on to become one of the most successful competitive surfers of the 1970s, winning, among other events, the inaugural Pipeline Masters and becoming the first non-Australian to win at Bells Beach.
Bill Fury went on to be inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame and continues to be revered for his influence on surfboard design. And Nixon, not content with his war abroad in Vietnam, was escalating the War on Drugs stateside.
In 1972, the unscripted psychedelic film Rainbow Bridge was released, depicting hippie culture on the island of Maui. Highlights include surfing, yoga, and 17 minutes of a Jimi Hendrix concert. In one of the most infamous scenes, Hynson and two other individuals lounge in a luridly psychedelic room. Various surfing paraphernalia cover the space, and a photo of Nixon admonishes the three from above. One of the individuals cuts into the fiberglass of a board and pulls out a bag of what appears to be loose dirt. As the three ogle the score, someone can be heard saying, “Afghanistan, primo pollen.”
In July 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration was founded. In October of that year, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing titled “Hashish Smuggling and Passport Fraud: ‘The Brotherhood of Eternal Love.’” The acting administrator of the DEA, John Bartels, described the hash smuggling techniques of the Brotherhood: “Brotherhood smugglers developed elaborate and successful means of getting the hashish into the United States. One of their earlier techniques was to hide quantities of 15 to 20 pounds of the drug within the interiors of fiberglass surfboards.” Other court records show that customs agents routinely and indiscriminately cut open boards in search of contraband.
By the mid-1970s, the optimism and high-minded thinking of the 1960s had given way to Watergate, crime waves, and hyperinflation. Marijuana was replaced by cocaine and heroin, ravaging communities around the world in a way that the drugs of the ’60s could not. Professional smugglers supplanted surfers. Loads became bigger and networks more intricate.
As the inevitable wheel of industry and capitalism thundered on, surfing became more self-sustaining. Money poured in, and it was no longer necessary to stuff boards full of drugs to visit some distant locale. Many surfers turned to contests and sponsorships to fund their surf exploration. Those lacking the requisite talent took advantage of the growing popularity of the sport to sustain their lifestyles, building boards or otherwise participating in the growing cultural market.
Surfing had become professionalized, and, with that, the golden era of surfboard smuggling was vacuum sealed, tightly packed, and glassed away.
[Feature Photo Caption: Double exposure of Brotherhood/surfer crossover session featuring (left to right) David Nuuhiwa, member/smuggler Johnny Gale, Mike Hynson, and Mike Haley (with Haley also appearing in the second frame). Photo courtesy of Surfer Magazine Archives.]