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, there’s no need for advance 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 footpaths 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,” it’s a mere figure of speech, but the Captain has called this isolated corner of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast home for nearly 20 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 it was: 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 14 years later, only to be torn apart again by his draft notice for Vietnam, where the small, scrappy and perpetually stoned 19-year-old soldier dodged bullets and took shrapnel but returned 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, running 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 its 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 lockup 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 that eventually led to Puerto Viejo, where hard times had shipwrecked his old partner-in-crime.
Occupying the crossroads between the coca fields of Colombia and the golden noses of America, tiny Costa Rica—a reluctant middleman—suffered through some serious drug problems in the ’90s, 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 Weisbecker 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 stream 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 30 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 expat who’s still hanging ten.
READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE JULY 2008 ISSUE