Mr. Sunset Rides Again
In the nearly four decades since Jeff Hakman first rocketed down the face of a 20-foot wave at Oahu's Waimea Bay, he's been on a dazzling and harrowing journey. There were his golden years as the sport's premier competitive superstar. He went on to make millions as cofounder of the surfwear juggernaut Quiksilver USA. And then he almost lost everything to heroin
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In 1956, the novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Peter Viertel traveled to the Basque country of southwestern France to watch location shooting for director Henry King’s The Sun Also Rises. Viertel, a friend of Hemingway’s, had written the screenplay, but it wasn’t long before his attention started to wander. Standing on the promenade in Biarritz, watching the perfect rollers churn past the Villa Belza, he decided to send home for his surfboard and, as legend has it, became the first man ever to surf France.
Viertel might not recognize La Côte Basque today. There are McDonald’s now, and shopping malls as hideous as any in Orange County, and an autoroute, the A63, that rumbles with trucks headed north from Spain. And of course there are surfers, so many that in the summertime you can forget about finding an uncrowded break.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap, and all that.
And yet in the fall, if you drive just south of Biarritz on the old Route Nationale, it is sometimes still possible to stumble upon the swells of yesteryear. At least that’s the way it feels when I pull into the parking lot at Lafitenia, a woodsy, secluded cove with a long, hollow, right-handed point break. Back in the midseventies, Lafitenia was a mandatory stop for American and Australian surfers on the Endless Summer circuit, a hard-partying band who eventually morphed their vagabond act into today’s World Championship Tour. A quarter-century later the place is, fittingly, the site of the Silver Edition Masters World Championships, a ten-day-long blowout that’s part surf contest—it’s the official world championships of seniors surfing—and part class reunion.
Sponsored by Quiksilver Europe, whose headquarters is nearby, the early-October event features 32 of the biggest names from surfing’s storied past. The two favorites, for instance, in the 35-to-40-year-old “grommet” category (“grommet” being a mildly derisive term for an adolescent surfer) are Aussies Tom Carroll and Cheyne Horan, who not so long ago were starring on the regular circuit. (Carroll, 36, won the world title twice; Horan, 39, was a four-time runner-up.) But the real royalty here are the men competing in the over-40 division, the ones who launched pro surfing as a viable sport in the late 1960s and 1970s. They’re a mostly Australian bunch that includes Wayne Lynch, the 47-year-old mystical guru whose preference for surfing on unorthodox board designs back in 1968 helped kick off the shortboard revolution; Peter Townend, 46, whose methodical compilation of contest outcomes from around the globe resulted in the crowning of the sport’s first world champion (himself, by sly coincidence) in 1976; and Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, 45, the brash loudmouth who led the Australian Invasion of Oahu’s North Shore in the midseventies, and got most of his teeth knocked out in the process.
But if you had to pick one über-kahuna out of this august lineup, it would probably be a diminutive 51-year-old American named Jeff Hakman, otherwise known as Mr. Sunset. As a teenage surf prodigy on Oahu’s North Shore in the mid-1960s, Hakman mastered the fearsome break at Sunset Beach. He eventually became one of the premier big-wave riders and a tireless competitor who pushed the sport into a new, contest-oriented era. His real legacy, though, began after he retired from professional surfing in 1977 and founded Quiksilver USA, an offshoot of the surfwear brand that originated in Australia, thereby blazing the path for the marketing juggernaut that is today’s surf industry. Hakman might have ridden that wave forever, all the way to tens of millions of dollars and a big house in Del Mar. But the need for an intense physical rush stayed with him after he’d left pro surfing behind, and when heroin and the high life replaced big waves as his ride of choice, the result was a 15-year off-and-on struggle with addiction, during which he nearly lost everything, including his life. It’s a very different kind of legacy—with many semipublic wipeouts—and one that is still unfolding.
The past seems both near and far away as Jeff Hakman trots down to the beach at Lafitenia, a board under each arm. His hair is gray and close-cropped now, and there are some worry lines at the corners of his eyes, but he’s the same height and weight as in his prime (five-foot-seven, 150 pounds), and he’s still got the flat stomach and bouncy legs of a kid. And the smile, too: a big, boyish, gummy grin.
It’s a sunny, blustery afternoon on the Bay of Biscay, and the swell, though sizeable, is bumpy and confused. Hakman deliberates for a few minutes before choosing the longer of his two boards, a gun-shaped seven foot, two inches, and then launches himself through the nasty shore break. He sets up a bit outside the normal takeoff, hoping for something bigger and cleaner to roll through. After missing the first wave, and then the next, he settles for a choppy, flat one that backs off suddenly. It’s a dicey takeoff, but he pops quickly to his feet, takes the step in stride, and pulls a deep, classically round bottom turn, his trademark.
“Et voilà c’est parti!” says the French emcee over the public-address system. “C’est Monsieur Sunset même, Jeff Hakman.”
A little cheer goes up in the hospitality tent, and the monster-lensed photographers down on the beach start to fire away. But Mr. Sunset doesn’t do much with the wave. The judges are looking for snaps and big cutbacks, all the showy point-scoring maneuvers of professional surfing today. Hakman just swoops easily down the line, pulling more classical curves, his long arms winging wide and his hands dangling loosely.
No one in the crowd seems disappointed with this performance. Indeed, there’s a smattering of applause as Hakman kicks out at the end of his ride. “He doesn’t rip anymore,” notes one French journalist admiringly. “He floats now. But underneath, you can still see the same style.”
Masters surfing has only been around for a few years and isn’t nearly as big a phenomenon as, say, the Senior PGA. In spirit, it’s closer to seniors tennis—less an opportunity for a second career than a chance to do some character acting. Still, it is entertaining to watch yesterday’s heroes disport themselves on the waves, and most of them can still rip. In the over-forties, Rabbit Bartholomew and Michael Ho, the quiet Hawaiian Pipeline specialist, handily win their first-round heats, as does Oahu-raised Bobby Owens, who now runs the Patagonia store in Santa Cruz (and who apparently spends a lot of time on the water, testing product). Six-foot-four Australian Simon Anderson, who was the first to market the three-finned surfboard, astonishes the crowd by throwing his legendary snaps on a board no longer than he is. Also drawing cheers is 49-year-old Reno Abellira, a former Hawaiian champion who has such a low center of gravity that he can still fit his slipper into extremely tight tubes and exit clean. Even the amiable Australian Ian Cairns, 47, a one-time big-wave star known as Kanga, who now sports an extra 30 or so pounds around his midriff, has no problem taking off in a mean beach break. Moreover, he seems to enjoy himself when he does. His wife videotapes him, and his old mates slap him on the back and offer him a “tinnie” of beer when the session’s over. It’s a feel-good experience all the way around.
From a spectator’s point of view, however, the most interesting competition at the Masters probably takes place off the water. A lot of attendees refer to the event as a “gathering of the tribe,” and the opening-night dinner, at a rustic Basque inn up in the foothills, has the feel of a giant potlatch, with old friends table-hopping, the Hawaiian contingent strumming away on their guitars, and heartfelt, boozy toasts to and by the hosts from Quiksilver Europe.
Still, as the days go by, it’s hard to dismiss the idea that there are two overlapping clans within the tribe. Most conspicuous are the guys with haircuts and mortgages and good jobs, usually in the surf business. After a period of wondering what he was going to do with his life, Rabbit Bartholomew, for instance, wound up running the Association of Surfing Professionals, the sport’s world body. Cairns is a surf-contest promoter who lives in southern California. Others are entrepreneurs, like Paul “Smelly” Neilsen, president of one of the biggest chains of surf shops in Australia. Then there are the apparel executives. Peter Townend is the global marketing director for Rusty, a California board and surfwear maker. Michael Tomson, a skinny 44-year-old guy who favors fatigues and T-shirts, is a former South African star who founded his own clothing company, Gotcha, 22 years ago in a rented house in Laguna Beach, California. Today, Irvine-based Gotcha is consistently ranked in the five top-selling surfwear brands internationally.
The other clan consists of the guys who are still mainly surfing, paddling, and “living the life.” For the most part they’re the seekers, slackers, and free spirits who tend to avoid the straight life, such as it is, for as long as they can. One day, talking to Reno Abellira, I ask him what he is planning to do after the contest. He’s going to California, he says vaguely, “to clean out an apartment and maybe sell a car.” Glen Winton, the notoriously reticent Australian star who became known as Mr. X, is disarmingly candid about his career ambitions. “Right now I’m working as a security guard at a shopping mall,” he says, “but what I really want to do is to become a judge.”
“So you’re going to law school and all that?”
“No, no,” Winton says, laughing. “I mean a surf judge.”
Hakman is the one guy who doesn’t quite fit into either category. Between heats, he moves through the competitors’ enclosure, mingling easily with members of both clans. There’s a lot of smiling and shoulder slapping, remembering swells and epic parties. But you also see an extra beat of watchfulness from his fellow surfers, an uncertainty as to who exactly Hakman is today. Sure, he’s now got homes in two of the world’s most beautiful places (Biarritz and Kauai), a lucrative but not-too-demanding job as the marketing guru—his actual title—for Quiksilver Europe, and, even more remarkably, a reborn career as an advertising icon for the company. But you still get the sense that, for some people, Hakman may have gotten a little too far out there to ever really come back.
In the contest program, Hakman is listed not as American, but Hawaiian. Although he was born in Southern California and learned to surf in Palos Verdes, his father, an aeronautical engineer by profession but a passionate “waterman” at heart, relocated the family to Makaha, on the North Shore of Oahu, when Jeff was 12. Makaha was a rough town in those days, and haoles like Hakman could face a brand of hostility that made the “Valley go home” localism of Palos Verdes seem tame by comparison. “Even today,” Hakman says, “the tourist board will tell you, ‘Uh, don’t go there.'” But Hakman had no problem mastering the vibe. “I’m not aggressive,” he explains. “I always try to bend and flex around.”
Within a year, Hakman was a regular in lineups up and down the North Shore. But he created his first real sensation in January 1963, when he and his father decided to paddle out at Waimea Bay on a 20-foot-plus day. Waimea is the North Shore’s biggest regular break—double-high freight trains of moving water that, should you blow the takeoff or get caught inside, can hold you under for 30 seconds—and at that time only a few grown men had dared to surf it. It’s impossible to overstate the raw courage of that moment: Hakman was barely 14-years-old, and small for his age to boot, weighing in at under 100 pounds and not yet five feet tall. He shakily rode one wave, and wiped out on the second. Then, with the rest of the lineup looking on in disbelief, he paddled into another one, rocketed down the face, and made the bottom turn, and then kicked out into the channel. “It really wasn’t that hard,” Hakman recalls nonchalantly.
The wave that truly appealed to Hakman was at Sunset Beach, a notoriously hard-to-read break halfway up the North Shore. “It intrigued me and scared the shit out of me at the same time,” he says. “Things move around a lot, depending on the size and direction of the swell. It’s not like Pipeline, where there’s one definite takeoff spot. It’s faster and steeper, and there’s so much more water. You can’t halfway commit. You gotta put yourself right in the guts of it.” By the time he was 15, Hakman knew the wave as well as anyone; it was, he says, “my backyard.”
Two years later, in 1965, Hakman was invited to compete at Sunset in the inaugural Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. Dreamed up by a Honolulu nightclub promoter, the Duke was a new kind of surfing competition. It boasted an international field consisting of the 24 best surfers in the world. There was a television crew from CBS to film the event. And there was cash—not prize money, but appearance fees—for the contestants. It was, in other words, the precursor of modern professional contests.
The surf was an unruly eight to ten feet the day of the finals. Paddling out to the point, Hakman caught the first wave and then realized that the next set was coming from much farther left, on the outside. He got there first and came away with what one of the judges would later recall as the best ride ever seen at Sunset: a screaming tube that went on and on through several different sections of the wave as Hakman crouched in a cheater-five—the toes of one foot wrapped over the nose of the board. A few waves later, he pulled a similar stunt, and the judges had no choice but to give the world’s first pro tournament title to a 17-year-old kid.
Hakman was characteristically modest about the moment. “I was overwhelmed,” he says in Mr. Sunset, a recent biography written by Australian journalist Phil Jarrat that includes a portrait of surfing’s formative era and selections from Hakman’s extensive photo archives. When Hakman was pressed by his surfing pal Fred van Dyke to make a speech, Jarrat writes, he only managed to get out, “Ah, thanks everybody. I’m ah, stoked! Is that OK, Fred?”
Thus began a ten-year period when Hakman was arguably the best competitive surfer in the world. “They called him Surf Chimp because of his short legs and long arms,” says Gibus de Soultrait, editor of the French magazine Surf Session and, as the French often are, an avid student of obscure American subcultures. “He always took a high line on the wave that gave him a lot of speed, and being so small and having a low center of gravity, he never fell. That helps when you’re surfing Sunset with no leash.
“Hakman was more competitive than his main rival in those days, Gerry Lopez,” de Soultrait continues. “Gerry was a soul surfer, into the mystical side. Jeff was always a guy who wanted to win. The two of them were at the heart of the old debate about surfing—is it a sport or is it an art?”
If it was a sport, it wasn’t a particularly organized one at the time. There was no official circuit, no overall points title, and very little prize money. Income, such as it was, came from endorsement deals with surfboard manufacturers, travel stipends from surf filmmakers, and all the other scams that enterprising world travelers dream up. In Hakman’s case, that occasionally meant small-time drug-trafficking schemes—something that seemed like little more than heart-pounding capers at the time but, in retrospect, ultimately helped grease his slide. “It was acceptable to take a couple of ounces with you and sell them when you got somewhere, to pay for the plane ticket,” Hakman says matter-of-factly. “The people who were doing it weren’t bad people. Now it’s much more organized, and the street scenes are so hard, but back then I thought those people and that life were glamorous.”
Yet as Hakman worked the “international beach scene,” both partying and purveying, he was mulling more conventional business ideas. One day in 1975, at a contest in Queensland, Australia, he had to borrow a pair of board shorts at the last minute. They were of a tight-woven poplin and cut with a much wider yoke than anything he’d worn before, and they closed with Velcro and a snap instead of ties. Plus they had a cool name—Quiksilver—and a catchy logo in the shape of a wave. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these are pretty good,'” Hakman says. “Gerry [Lopez] and I took ’em back to Hawaii and told Jack Shipley, Lopez’s business partner [in a surfboard and sandal business], to import some.” Shipley did, and even though he had to sell the Quiksilvers at $17 a pair—$5 more than the going rate for board shorts—he sold out all 100 pairs in two weeks.
That winter, still pondering the boardshort business, Hakman wound up at a place called Ulu Watu, in Bali, then the hot new surf spot. Drugs were a big part of the scene in Ulu Watu; the surfer who showed Hakman the place liked to quaff psilocybin mushroom milkshakes before every session in the waves. Hakman was taken aback when he found a bunch of his friends smoking heroin through foil, but by the time he left Bali, he admits in Mr. Sunset, he too “had a nice habit going.”
Jeff Hakman’s apartment in Biarritz is half a block from the Côtes des Basques, the clifftop promenade where Peter Viertel got his big idea back in 1956. It’s an austere neighborhood of high walls and carefully trimmed topiary, a bit sedate, perhaps, for a surf legend and a legendary partyer. Then again, Hakman is a family man now. Six months a year he and his Australian wife of 12 years, Cherie, and their two children, Ryan, 17, and Lea, 7, live here; it’s just a few minutes’ drive to Hakman’s office at the Quiksilver Europe headquarters. The other half of the year they’re in Hanalei Bay, Kauai, where Hakman doesn’t do much except surf.
The big sun-drenched apartment is empty today. Cherie and the kids have gone back to Hawaii so as not to miss the start of the school year. Hakman will rejoin them in a few days, when the contest is over, but in the meantime he’s alone with a stack of surf videos, a big bowl of vitamins and food supplements in the kitchen, and on the dinner table, a copy of a book titled Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Recovery Meditations for Hard Cases.
Hakman is a fundamentally shy man, but part of the recovery process, he knows, is being able to share one’s story. And so, half-reluctantly, he begins talking. A year after that fateful stop in Bali, he explains, he made his bid for the Quiksilver name. It happened like this: Preparing for his annual Australian swing, he asked his board shaper to install an extra-thick fin, hollowed out to keep down the weight. Shortly before his departure, he filled it with three ounces of cocaine—not to use himself, but to trade for heroin, which was much cheaper than cocaine in Australia. By the time Hakman showed up for the 1976 Bells Beach Classic, the preeminent surf contest of the Australian season, he was already strung out. Yet two amazing things happened that week, although Hakman is a little shaky on the details. Not only did he win the tournament, the first time a non-Australian had done so, but he also somehow persuaded the owners of Quiksilver Australia to grant him licensing rights to their name, logo, and board-short design for the U.S. market, in exchange for 5 percent of the new U.S. company and 5 percent of its sales.
Hakman had been talking to a surfer friend he’d met in Ulu Watu, a USC business school graduate named Bob McKnight, about the Quiksilver idea. With the license secured, the two of them set about building a business. They began a series of mad drives up and down the coast between their makeshift factory in Orange County, the fabric suppliers in Los Angeles, and all the surf shops they could talk their way into. There was no time to surf, and Hakman forgot about heroin for a while, too. But then the old urge returned, and before he knew it a friend was showing him how to shoot it intravenously.
For the next couple of years, insists McKnight, now the CEO of Quiksilver USA, in Huntington Beach, California (the new location of its headquarters), he had no idea about Hakman’s heroin habit. “Either I was naive,” McKnight says, “or he hid it incredibly well.” Whatever the case, the company grew, slowly at first and then with startling speed. By the early eighties, annual sales were approaching five million. Hakman began to have a lot of pocket money, and his taste for heroin grew apace; at one point, he says, it was costing him $500 a day.
Hakman is surprisingly unemotional as he tells the story. There’s no self-recrimination or wistfulness. Instead, there’s almost a sense of wonder, as if he were describing a particularly phenomenal day on the North Shore. He doesn’t look to blame his addiction on anything, and he won’t take the easy way out and say it was a need for adrenaline inherited from his big-wave surfing days.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say letting go of the belt is like dropping into 30-foot Waimea,” he says. “That instant of dropping down a big gnarly face—it’s very close, equally potent, but not the same. On the other hand, the same thing that got me addicted definitely made me a good surfer. You know, once you get a direction, you go and commit.” He pauses again. “I thought I could handle it,” he says. “But every addict thinks that—that they’re different.”
Early on, Hakman had begun selling small numbers of shares in Quiksilver USA to pay for drugs. After 1980, though, the trickle became a deluge. “At 30, I thought I was going to live happily ever after,” he says, his eyes moistening for the first time. “I still had about a 33 percent share in the company.” He stops and rubs his face with his hands, regaining control. “By ’82, it was all gone. The third partner in the company finally said, ‘Jeff, you gotta leave. This isn’t working at all.’ I went, ‘That’s understandable.’ I had a six-month-old son and about $3,000, total.”
Hakman stops again, thinking it over. “The last 10 percent I sold for $100,000,” he says, the barest note of regret in his voice. “It’s worth at least $15 million today.”
Midway through the third day of the Silver Edition competition, the swell begins to drop, from eight feet to five feet at first, and then all the way down to three. Even so, the men compete that day, and the third round turns out to be a good outing for Hakman; he finishes second to Wayne Lynch. But day four dawns sunny, calm, and flat, and the contest is postponed until further notice.
What do old surfers do when there’s no surf? Pretty much the same thing young surfers do. They play video games, smoke pot, and laugh their way around the hotel golf course, and they eat, drink, and tell stories—competitively, of course.
One day after breakfast, Joey Buran, a stubble-headed Californian who became a minister about 15 years ago, regales a small but appreciative crowd with tales of an epic day at Waimea Bay when he barely escaped death by scratching his way over set after set of monster waves. Once he found himself safely outside, however, he realized there was no practical way to get back in. The sun beat down. Buran started to have sharky thoughts. Eventually he began sobbing and praying for a miracle, whereupon a lone figure on a jet ski appeared. “And you know what the guy did?” Buran says. “He came speeding up, turned and threw me a shaka”—Buran rocks his outstretched thumb and pinkie in the Hawaiian salute—”and kept right on going.”
A day later, at a raucous competition dinner, Hakman, sitting midway down the table sipping mineral water, ventures a story of his own. It’s about a hitchhiker he once picked up in the midseventies, driving a lonely road in the Australian countryside. The guy was, without a doubt, one of the rudest people he’d ever met; every time Hakman tried a conversational gambit, the hitchhiker came back with the same response: “None of your fucking business.” Suddenly there were flashing lights and a siren—the police. Hakman pulled over. Panicking, the hitchhiker dropped his bag, jumped out of the car, and sprinted into the woods with the cop in hot pursuit. Hakman looked at the suspicious package lying on the seat next to him, considered the delicacy of the situation, and took the only reasonable course of action: He peeled out and sped off into the night.
There’s a brief silence. “OK, OK,” says Dave Kalama, a Hawaiian tow-in star who’s been flown in by Quiksilver to do water safety for the contest. “What was in the bag?”
“None of your fucking business,” Hakman says, flashing that big gummy grin.
Everyone laughs, less out of amusement than relief that Hakman isn’t dropping some real-life bombshell from his past. This is, after all, a guy who got hepatitis from dirty needles in the late seventies and who was high for the birth of his son in 1982. Two of his shooting buddies subsequently died of AIDS. One day around the same time, when he was at work at his Quiksilver office in Costa Mesa, California, a Mercedes pulled up out front and six gun-packing gangsters stormed upstairs into his office, not so gently inquiring as to the whereabouts of several ounces of missing drugs. All good stories, perhaps, but not particularly funny. For some, the tales bring back memories of those in the old circle who died from drug overdoses, a not insignificant number that included several of Hakman’s own friends, his brother-in-law, and, in the early seventies, two of the best young surfers in Hawaii, Rusty Star and Tomi Winkler.
There are a couple of reasons why Hakman didn’t join them. “He wasn’t ultimately self-destructive,” says Bob McKnight. “Every time he got to the bottom, he had that instinct to straighten out. Hakman’s very street-smart, instinctual, with a total survivor mentality. His dad is like that too—the guy is a frickin’ aquarium diver, out in deep water every day still. Jeff was trained to be like that.”
The other reason Hakman survived is that his friends and family members watched out for him. And he found a savior—or a savior found him.
Half a mile up the road from Lafitenia, just across the A63 autoroute, is the Quiksilver Europe “campus.” One look at the tasteful, neomodernist lines of the new corporate offices and you know that surfing’s mystical power to sell stuff has only increased by crossing the Atlantic. For the most part, what Quiksilver sells is clothing—casual sportswear with a youthful design flair. (Its “technical” pieces, like the trademark board shorts and wetsuits, actually constitute a small fraction of its business.) According to EuroSIMA, the industry’s trade association, surfwear is now a $1.2 billion business in Europe. Quiksilver Europe’s share is about $150 million, which makes it about half the size of Quiksilver USA. For now.
“Europe has more surfable coastline than Australia,” says Harry Hodge, the 50-year-old man who brought Quiksilver to Europe and the company’s president. “There’s Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Spain, Portugal—even Sardinia and Italy now. And I can tell you they need board shorts in Italy. Badly.”
If there’s one person responsible for the resurrection of Mr. Sunset, it’s Harry Hodge. Born and raised outside Melbourne, “Hollywood” Hodge (he bears a passing resemblance to the actor Don Johnson) was a surfer and a journalist whose lifelong dream was to make a surf film “as good as Endless Summer.” In the end, he did make his movie, Band on the Run, but it cost him everything he owned and was, he admits, “a complete commercial failure.”
Hodge fell into a yearlong depression, but he eventually rallied and found a marketing job with Quiksilver Australia. In 1984, offered a chance to launch a new license in France, Hodge did the unthinkable—he looked up Hakman, with whom he’d partied during the glory days in Costa Mesa, and asked him if he wanted a chance to start over as a one-quarter partner in a new company called Quiksilver Europe. “I had no reservations at all,” Hodge says. “Hakman knew the business. And I was young.”
Hakman was nearby, at Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast of Queensland, where he and Cherie had retreated after the debacle at Quiksilver USA. He had come a long way down in the world, clerking in a surf shop and teaching Australian kids and Japanese tourists to surf on his lunch hour, and when his old peers from the pro ranks came through, they could barely look him in the eye. But Hakman wasn’t unhappy.
“I loved teaching the kids,” he remembers. “I’d take an eight-year-old out, and after two hours he’d be laughing and smiling and riding waves, just stoked…
“So when Harry said, ‘Do you want to do this Europe thing?’ I didn’t know. It wasn’t like I was over the addiction. I was healthy and I’d cleaned up, but those little sensations were still prickling.”
Armed with a war chest of $200,000 Australian that they’d raised themselves, Hodge, Hakman, Hodge’s girlfriend Brigitte Darrigrand, and a fourth partner, John Winship, set off to conquer Europe. “Brigitte’s parents put their house up as collateral, and then a banker here was somehow convinced and gave us a loan,” Hodge says. “Two years later we had a line of credit of 70 million francs, with no tangible assets.” Meanwhile, Hakman was slowly slipping off the wagon. “I was good—well, so-so—for about a year,” he recalls. “Then you just run into certain people, and sooner or later you’re in trouble.”
In late 1986 the company accountant came to Hodge scratching his head. “I’m looking at these gas receipts of Jeff’s,” Hodge says, “and he’s bought enough fuel in the last three months to have driven around the world a couple of times.” Hakman had been putting $20 of gas in his car but charging $100 on his card and pocketing the difference. Hodge and Darrigrand, furious at the betrayal, told Hakman that if it happened again, he was finished. “I got caught with the gas cards, then I got clean,” Hakman says. “It’s always the same cycle.”
In 1988, unable to pay off their line of credit, the four partners started looking for help. They found a bittersweet solution in a buyout offer from Quiksilver USA. “We basically sold the whole company, with an earn-out clause which we hit, for ten million,” says Hakman. “We got stock options, but it’s not the same as owning it. People say, ‘God, you sold the company, how stupid!’ But it was that close to being nothing. We had the fashion and we had the image, but none of us had a financial background.”
With the sale complete, Hakman found himself with about $800,000 in the bank and not quite the same interest in running the business. Soon he was looking up old friends. “I was functioning, but it was a schedule from hell,” he says. “I had to see my contact twice a day. I couldn’t go to work without it, so I had to get him out of bed in the morning. Then I had to find him again at lunch. The problem wasn’t when you were high. It was when you couldn’t score. You’re sweating, your nose is running, your voice is cracking. You’re falling off your chair.”
Hakman shakes his head, remembering the day the end came. “May 10, 1990,” he says. “I got up, and I felt horrible. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I don’t think I’m in control.’ I broke down and admitted it: I was scared.” Cherie went to Hodge and told him Jeff was using again, and neither of them knew what to do. Rather than fire Hakman, as he’d promised, Hodge got on the phone. “I remember him yelling,” Hakman says. “‘Where’s the place Elton John went? I want that place!'”
In his six weeks at Galsworthy Lodge, outside London, Hakman was subjected to an unsparing scrutiny and, perhaps more important, allowed to see the spectacle of other outwardly assured men and women paralyzed by their addictions. “Really elegant, refined people, guys in nice suits with good accents, who were helpless,” he says. “Way worse than me.”
“We both knew that we couldn’t keep living like that,” Cherie says. “I can’t look back and say that it was easy, but we know what it is like to be human. We’re lucky. A lot of people don’t survive. We got through it, and the other end of all this has been great.”
For close to a decade now, Hakman says, he’s been clean.
The final weekend of the contest is at hand, and thanks to his decent showing in round three, Hakman now needs only a second-place finish in the last heat to make it through to the quarterfinals. The flowing, powerful Bobby Owens takes the early lead, as he has all week. Then Reno Abellira, who’s been floundering at the back of the pack alongside Hakman, suddenly comes alive with a couple of nifty tube rides. But Hakman’s first few waves look pretty good, too. In the spectator enclosure, the Quiksilver crew follows Hakman closely. “If he’s not careful,” says Hodge sarcastically, “he could wind up in the main event.”
Abellira and Owens each get another wave, and Hakman slips into third place. Then, with two minutes left in the heat, a final set rolls in. Hakman almost takes off on the first wave, but it starts to break around him and then closes out entirely. He pulls back and spins to grab the second wave, but it’s breaking too far to the left, and he can’t quite paddle into it. The buzzer sounds, and that’s it—he’s out of the contest.
For Hakman, it’s a victory nonetheless—one more step in the rehabbing of a legend. First, there was his job, which he describes as “sort of being Mr. Quiksilver, internationally,” and which amounts to telling surfing stories at sales meetings, hanging out at trade shows, and offering an occasional design critique. Then there was the biography, which Hodge talked him into cooperating with as an act of therapy and as a way to recover his story.
Since its publication, the book has become something else—a strangely effective piece of marketing. (Though it has yet to find a U.S. distributor, Mr. Sunset has done surprisingly well, selling more than 20,000 copies overseas and over the Internet, and the Hollywood production company October Films has optioned it for the screen.) Just as Nike is quick to lap up anything that seems remotely cool about the NBA and The North Face leaps to outfit the next wave of mountain daredevils, Quiksilver can’t help but stake out its territory. That means signing up obvious stars, like Kelly Slater, and hosting events like the Silver Edition Masters. But it also means reaching out to subversive heroes and prodigal sons like Jeff Hakman, because there’s something authentic about them that no amount of white bread can match.
“We’re not just some guy who looks like Jimmy Buffet with a parrot on his shoulder,” says McKnight. “You get our guys together, Jeff and the other Hawaiians, and it’s really real, man.”
The next day, with Hakman looking on from the beach, the contest wraps up. Cheyne Horan edges out his old nemesis Tom Carroll in the under-40 finals, thereby claiming his first-ever world masters championship. (Later the same afternoon, he proposes to his girlfriend in a scene that he calls “way heavier than the final.”) In the over-40 final, Rabbit Bartholomew manages to catch the wave of the tournament, a perfect, near-closeout tube ride. After what seems like ten seconds, he bursts out of the far end, pumping both fists, making the claim. The judges do what they must—they give him a perfect ten, and the victory.
The awards ceremony is held at Lafitenia, and afterward there’s a pretty good party that doesn’t end until past midnight. It’s an idyllic scene: Hawaiian guitars, cold Buds (a delicacy in France), and the sun dipping low over the sea, just like in Southern California. One might expect Hakman to skip out on the party, especially as it gets loud, but he winds up staying, hanging out with Hodge and the Hawaiians on the deck. He even has a beer. Though Hakman never had a real problem with alcohol, you can almost hear 12-step people everywhere gnashing their teeth. A beer! It’s tantamount to starting up the heroin again! To the Aussies, though, it’s just funny. “Hakman’s having a beer!” Hodge yells. “Someone get a camera!”
Hakman has another beer, or two. He laughs at the jokes and tells a few of his own, but it’s hard to figure out if he’s truly having a good time. Maybe he is. But I have my doubts. Between jokes he gets a faraway look in his eyes, and soon he’s backing out of the party. It’s ironic, really. The guy who started the party is the first one to leave.