Captain Zero Interview

HIGH TIMES MAGAZINE (JULY 2008)

RIDE, CAPTAIN, RIDE

A legendary surfer, smoker, and smuggler tells his tales of high adventure.
BY DAVID BIENENSTOCK

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Captain Zero wants to be your leisure consultant. But first, you have to make your own way down to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, because this travel package includes neither flight, nor accommodations. Once you arrive, however, the Captain will be more than happy to help you find a nice place to stay, in any price range, not to mention a secluded beach, gnarly waves, hiking trails deep into the jungle, the best cheap eats, and an out of the way, seaside cantina where you can sip a rum and puff a fat joint at sunset, while a reggae band plays to a packed house of irie locals.

By the way, no need for advanced reservations. You can locate the Captain almost any time of day or night in this small surfer hideaway, whether he's taking his coffee and scouting out the breaks first thing in the morning from the shade of the lifeguard stand, coasting through the two-street town on his iconic yellow bicycle (conveniently outfitted with a machete holder), or leading his entourage of semi-stray dogs through the narrow foot paths along the shoreline by the light of his trusty flashlight. Track him down all on your own, or ask just about anyone you meet along the way for help.

Everybody here knows Captain Zero.

Now, usually, when you say someone knows "everyone in town," that's a mere figure of speech, but the Captain has called this isolated corner of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast home for nearly twenty years, and greets everyone he passes by first name, from the town drunk and the local ganja dealers, to little old grannies and wealthy gringo hotel owners. His arrival in Puerto Viejo predated electricity, way back when English, not Spanish, was spoken by the largely Jamaican-born residents, who called their adopted home Old Harbor and catered exclusively to the kind of tourists that hang around town for however long the surf stays up, the beer stays cold and the grass stays green.

Meanwhile, not-so-mild-mannered Patrick--far better known these days as Captain Zero--became not only a local legend, but also an iconic hero to wave riders on all seven seas, made famous as the subject of the book In Search of Captain Zero, in which his former marijuana smuggling partner scoured the surf spots of Mexico and all points south in a quest to find his long lost amigo. Along the way, author Allan Weisbecker recalled the duo's glory days of escorting multi-ton shipments of high-grade ganja home from Africa, Colombia, the Cayman Islands, and any other port of call that combined surfing and sativa.

A year ago, this cult classic tale of paradise lost and found was on the fast track for the silver screen, with Sean Penn in the starring role. And what a story: Captain Zero, raised as a ward of the State of New York because his Mom conceived him with another man while her husband fought World War II in Europe. Mother and child reunited fourteen years later, only to be torn apart again by a draft notice for Vietnam, where the small, scrappy, and perpetually stoned 19-year-old soldier dodged bullets and took shrapnel, returning home in one piece, with his first satchel of smuggled marijuana.

"Thank God the government sent me to Vietnam," The Captain often reflects. "Otherwise, I might have fucked up and lived a normal life."

Instead, he set out in search of his own Endless Summer, with a small-time smuggling business on the side that at first simply subsidized his far-flung surfing trips, but soon flowered into a high-flying international enterprise all it's own. Whether piloting specially hollowed out boats through the Virgin Islands, or flying into Miami International Airport with a planeload of fragrant cargo and a duffle bag full of cash to pay off the authorities, El Capitan never lost his cool, even when his luck ran out to the tune of almost two years in a tropical prison.

An insatiable intellect and practical philosopher, Patrick used his time behind bars to read and reflect, while learning all he could from his fellow inmates, life lessons as diverse as woodworking, meditation and mastering the stock market. Not that he ever gave a damn about money. While other smugglers lived the high life of flashy toys and fancy women, Patrick always kept a low profile, more concerned with completing the mission than spending the loot. Still, cash somehow burned a hole in his pocket, and he left lock-up indebted to the decidedly more professional criminals who'd put up the bread for his adventures in contraband trafficking, and never received their last shipment.

Upon release, the Captain found himself riding a curl he knew wouldn't hold, and so, simply vanished--initially sending a series of cryptic postcards to friends and family back in the States, but eventually washing out completely, like a huge wave pulled back by the undertow. More than three years passed without any word before Weisbecker finally set out on the search and rescue mission chronicled in In Search of Captain Zero, following a series of false leads and hazy recollections until they eventually led to Puerto Viejo, where hard times had shipwrecked his old partner-in-crime.

Caught in the crossroads between the coca fields of Columbia and the golden noses in America, tiny Costa Rica, a reluctant middleman, suffered through some serious drug problems in the 90's, a scourge that eventually caught up with Captain Zero, and left him strung out, broke, and living on the beach with his loyal pack of dogs. That's how Allan Weisbecker found him, and that's how he left him, after a brief, self-serving attempt at rehabilitation that included verbal abuse and a mutual drug spree, before he finally split town to finish writing his book.

As for the movie, after selling the film rights and writing the screenplay, Weisbecker so severely annoyed Sean Penn and his production company with a series of irate complaints and unreasonable demands that they eventually decided to cut their losses and shut down production, a series of events described in the author's self-published, Can't You Get Along With Anyone?

And as for the Captain, he's never seen a dime from In Search of..., but he has cleaned up his act and parlayed his strange bit of fame into a thriving leisure consulting business. For thirty bucks a day (plus expenses), he'll take you along on the "inside track" for a private tour of paradise with the ultimate freewheeling guide. No set itineraries, tourist traps or overpriced "excursions," no well-worn paths or souvenir T-shirts--just life lived in the moment, riding the waves of existence with a man who's turned the eternal balancing act of the surfer into his own higher calling.

After a triathlon of biking across the hard packed sand of the beach, climbing muddy trails to the uppermost point overlooking the sea, and finally diving into sweet mother ocean for an afternoon swim, HIGH TIMES finally convinced Captain Zero to sit still long enough for an interview. Finding a comfy hammock and a bit of cool shade at Echo Books, an oasis of literature literally surrounded by the jungle just outside town, we spent an hour discussing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with an exiled ex-pat who's still hanging ten.

Did you smoke herb first, or surf first?
Surf.

When you started smoking pot, did it affect the way you surfed?
No doubt about it. I was trying to enhance my communication with nature, seeking a harmony that brings it all together. Maybe that's what marijuana does, sensitizes me so that I feel reality, instead of the mind tricks that can make you a little nervous on a surfboard, because life is so valuable.

What was the pot like when you first started smoking, compared to now?
It was mostly oregano, probably. But I think we got high off it anyway. Someday, we may not need marijuana, because we already have it in our heads.


Like the early jazz musicians, surfers were among the first subcultures in America to take up marijuana smoking as a rite of passage. Why do you think that is?
Because we're playing music too. Surfing is like ballet, music and Zen Buddhism all in one. Surfing isn't about rip, tear, and lacerate, it's about symmetry organization, and flow, when the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual come together with all the elements of the tides and the wind. Let's just say that there's always waves, and just because you stand up doesn't make you a surfer.


When did you start smuggling cannabis, in addition to just smoking it?
My first enterprise smuggling marijuana was on the way back from Vietnam. But I wasn't thinking about that on a commercial basis. It was just a private stash and gifts for some friends.


How often had you smoked before shipping out to Vietnam?
Only two or three times in my life.


And how long after you arrived did you realize that it was readily available?
Almost immediately. We had heard that it would be around, that was the talk of my little group. We were going through orientation the first week when two guys whipped out some joints in the barracks. And so right away I put in my order. You see, I was a radioman, and the Ziploc bag that we now take for granted had just been invented to keep things dry in the jungles of Vietnam. The batteries for my radio were very sensitive, so I always had a few extra Ziploc bags. That made me very popular with my people.


How did surfing prepare you for the life of a smuggler?
The two lifestyles went hand in glove. Certainly it's a symbiotic relationship. Surfers can't work because we have to go surfing, but we still need to earn a living. We were among the last of the free people. Marijuana teaches you to be in the moment. Be here now. You almost become molecular when you smoke good ganja, part of your surroundings, at least it seems so. Otherwise, there's all this distraction.


Isn't that the main skill of a smuggler? To become an unnoticed part of your environment?
Hopefully, yes. It was also my cover story. If someone asked me what I was doing, I always just said "surfing."


What advice would you have for a young person who wanted to get into smuggling?
Nowadays, I tell you, it must be tough. But somebody's still doing it, obviously... Grow your own, that's the best advice I can give you


When did your smuggling business get serious?
Sometime in the early 80's things got a little hot, so I went to Africa to chill out with a wildlife photographer named Peter Beard. I'd been doing little things on my own, but nothing on a large scale. I never wanted to be big, by the way. Having too much too soon is as bad as having too little too late. I never wanted to accrue anything, because all my friends that accumulated a lot of money went down for taxes.

But I had a friend in Jamaica, and I asked him if anybody needed someone to do a job. It took some time, because it's all an inside trust thing. You've got to go there and see if you're compatible. Yeah, you can do a job with people you don't like, or wouldn't otherwise associate with, but I didn't want that. I wanted it to be more than just smuggling. I was really interested in making everybody we worked with happy

I was a novice, and there were so many variables. Of course, that's the beautiful thing. You would never attempt anything like that if you knew what you were up against. Instead you've got to deal with these things as they happen.

Money is very liquid, like oil. It just greases those wheels. And when you're working with people, and you're really concerned with their welfare, they know that. We had a very interesting group of people, and we had a lot of fun. There was a lot of laughing, a lot of optimism and idealism--which America could use a good shot of right now.


Do you think it was more of a gentlemanly pursuit back then?
Absolutely, positively. First of all, we were marijuana smugglers, never cocaine. That was never in our realm. We didn't like the vibe. We evolved slowly, and we weren't greedy. It was like getting paid to go on vacation, basically. It was so relaxed, almost respected. We thought it was a wonderful thing. Everybody was making money, and buying things for their families, and it was mellow, man.


What made you decide to leave the United States?
I'd been busted with a thousand kilos of weed in the Grand Cayman Islands. Everything went well on that trip except we broke a rudder off the coast of Jamaica. Still, we never knew how they intercepted us. All kinds of shit went down in that 24-hour period.

Anyway, I did 22 months for the Queen, since the Caymans were a British protectorate, and it was all quite proper. No guns. No one was predatory or hostile. Full dental, mental, and optical mandatory. They did your wash three times a week and they fed you three times a day.

In fact, they were very kind. We had ten acres of tropical land. They unlocked you at six in the morning, locked you at ten at night, and didn't demand anything of you. Of the sixty inmates, twenty-two were Americans. It was like being at a smuggler's college. We had a big huge wall map, and every once in a while someone would point at the map and say, "If you would have done thisÉ"


What else did you learn from prison?
I learned that you can't buy time like that in the middle of your life. That's why I came to Costa Rica, because I'd been out of the water for 22 months, and I vowed I would be surfing in the tropics on my 40th birthday.

I happened to mention to an old friend that I was going to Costa Rica for the winter, and he told me he had a place there. I said, "Jesus Christ, you never told me that." He said he couldn't, because we made a pact that he would have a place to hide and I wouldn't' know about it and I would have a place to hide and he wouldn't know about it. If the government puts pressure on you, you might tell. Anyway, he asked me to look in on his place, since he hadn't been there in five or six years.

I had surfed all over the world, and I thought maybe it was just my imagination; maybe this was just another tropical town, instead of a special place in time. Or maybe I was having that mid-life crisis they talk about... But it did turn out to be a special place in time. I came for ninety days and haven't set foot on American soil since. No regrets


How have things changed since your arrival?
There was nothing here. There was one telephone within fifty miles. It was actually fun to make a phone call. You looked forward to it, because you knew you were gonna be gone for the day. You're going to meet friends you haven't seen in a couple of weeks. So you bring a small bottle of rum, a book to read, and some joints. It turns out to be a party.

And then all hell broke loose. People started showing up with digital cameras, email, faxes, laptopsÉ and I felt like Rip Van Winkle. I woke up and the whole world had changed. But it's still a really cool place, man. I look at my time here as if I've been renovating. And now my whole physical, mental, spiritual and emotional being has kind of come together. I'm 63 years old, and I feel pretty God damned good. And I'm surfing really good too.

Now, during this new period, I've started composting my life. And you readers of HIGH TIMES magazine, whether you know it or not, are also compost people, fertilizing the soil around you as you go


When was the first time you met Allan Weisbecker?
Allan and I met at a campground in Montauk, LI, a couple of young surfers. Back then, Montauk was kinda like here. A really free vibe.


What were the dynamics of your partnership?
We're different, because he was an only child, kind of pampered--compared to me, anyway. And he was always a pessimist, to my optimist. Probably should have been the other way around, but when things are handed to you, I think you can become too soft. Adversity builds character.


How has your life changed since the book was published?
I've become kind of like mythology. If I was having an identity crisis before, at least I have another identity to fall back on now. Look, I want to thank Allan. I have people from 18 to 80, from Oklahoma to Berlin, come and find me, and I'm humbled by it. I'm also having a lot of fun trying to live up to the legend. I meet people from all over the world, with different philosophies, ideologies, religions, occupations, and everything else. I call them my living libraries. I learn so much and I'm so grateful. Every day I feel like I must have done something wonderful in a previous life to deserve all of this.

I don't think Allan is even aware of how I've perpetuated Captain Zero just by being Captain Zero. I've met thousands of people down here, and if they haven't read the book already, after they meet me they want to buy a copy.

He's sent me so many messages over the years, most of them emotionally incoherent. One moment he says, "What's your bank account, I'm gonna send you some money," and the next he's like, "You can't sue me! My attorneys have looked into your character and it's in question."

What really pisses me off is that he doesn't want to share a little of this beautiful thing, like a good friend. Power, money and cigarettes are the worst drugs, and Allan suffers from all three. Meanwhile, I'm a millionaire. I just don't have any money.


What do you know about the film project based on the book?
Well, I don't know much. I'm only Captain Zero, why should they tell me anything? But if Sean Penn and I could sit together like this, I'm sure he would see the beauty of this story.


Would you treat him to some leisure consulting? What does that entail, exactly?
Leisure consulting surfs by the senses. We're experts in relaxation. Every time we go, it's always different, and it's always wonderfully different. We meet different people, lounge on the beach, collect shells, visit breathtaking vistas, swim, snorkel, drink and laugh with locals at tucked away cantinas, walk down country roads, ride bikes, chase monkeys, and Lord only knows what else. As we go along, we inspect and dissect everything. And I love to do it. I think that's a big thing. I just take people along, and let them rediscover what I've already discovered. I point out a few highlights, and then just hide in the background.