“Hi, [name redacted]? Flynn Novak gave me your number, we know each other from Bali. I’m calling to ask you about Ricky Rasmussen, Luke Moore told me that you guys were close friends.”
“You should get in touch with him. You know what I mean. You should talk to him personally.”
“How would I get in touch with him?”
“I don't know, he’s a hard man to get ahold of. Ricky Rasmussen.”
“Follow up on it, and you might have the story of your life. Ok?”
“Ok yeah, do you know anyone, do you know….”
Rick Rasmussen won the US Surf Championship in 1974 at age 19 and was dead by 27, shot in a drug deal gone wrong in Harlem. Still New York’s most prominent surfer, and one of the best surfers of his time, Rick combined the soul surfing of the past era with the aggressive power surfing of the future.
In addition to being at the top of competitive surfing and the first East coaster to win the Men’s US Championship, Rick was among those who elevated surfing to more than just a sport or an activity. Rick helped make surfing into what we recognize today, an art form, a spiritual practice, something worth sacrificing everything else for, something to chase alone with just a board. Rick pioneered waves from the Caribbean to Indonesia, sometimes living alone for weeks in the jungle, born with a world-class talent that came out of nowhere and was incubated in an Atlantic surfing backwater. Armed with an omnipotent charisma and a gentle nature yet unacquainted with fear, Rick was ultimately bowed by drugs.
Living free and surfing the best waves around the world before sponsorship and large contest prizes required both free time and money. Rick shaped boards and imported clothing and other goods from Indonesia, but turned to the quick money of scamming to fuel his lifestyle. As filmmaker Greg Weaver put it, “the only people who could support the artists were the Catholic Church, then the gangsters.”
Rick moved into heroin smuggling with his connections from Bali and started using as well. Soon he was addicted and a darkness settled over his life, paralleling the disintegration of the sixties counter-culture dream that surfer-scammers had helped fuel by providing marijuana to the masses into something much different.
Heroin and cocaine marred the outlaw spirituality of the seventies, changed surf culture, and twisted the American dream to new heights. After his death, the story of Rick’s life and his contributions to surfing were wiped clean due to the nature of his death, a drug-related murder. Mainstream surfing, always hinged on good old American athleticism, was increasingly enamored of competition and allergic to its darker side. It didn’t dare touch Rick or even remember him and his contributions to wave-riding, shaping, surf culture, surf exploration, and the enormous positive influence Rick had on the people around him, and his singular style.
Rick’s death in August 1982 came just the week before his sentencing on charges of selling four ounces of heroin, charges he had accrued at his trial a year before in October 1981. Part of the folklore around Rick’s life and his death included information that he had worked as a criminal informant for the FBI, leading some to believe that he didn't pass away as reported, but disappeared into witness protection. Old friends swearing that they’ve caught glimpses of him and whispers of his existence, beg the possibility that he is still alive somewhere, surfing. And very hard to get ahold of.
“What are these questions you’re asking? Someone is going to put a fucking bullet in your head, man,” said filmmaker Mike Oblowitz during an interview with him about Rick on January 11, 2016.
“Ok,” I replied. He continued later on,
“The thing about surfing is that it rises to the level of an art form. I give respect to Rick Rasmussen. There were just a handful of surfers who took it outside of just a sport that people do and transcended that, where it becomes a form of yoga or ballet on water. Rick Rasmussen, to watch him surf, he was absolutely one of those guys. There are a handful, there is Gerry Lopez, Rory Russell, Reno Abeillera, Jeff Hakman, Andy Irons, Kelly Slater, Ricky Rasmussen was one of those surfers. And he was the first and one of the only from the East Coast.”
(See the full story in The Surfer's Journal issue 26.2)