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DOING IT HIS WAVE : Life Always Seems to Be a Close Shave for Turbulent Pro Surfer Richie Collins

January 14, 1989|ELLIOTT ALMOND | Times Staff Writer

Last winter, Richie Collins, the born-again, anti-drug surf star who has a shaved head, fits of violence and a penchant for the bizarre, found himself in a precarious situation.

With dusk approaching, he and a buddy had lost their surfboards in 8- to 10-foot surf at Sunset Beach, Hawaii, the renowned North Shore surfing site.

Collins and his friend swam to shore, where Collins grabbed his rhino chaser, a 9-foot board designed for really big surf, and made his way toward the lost boards, half a mile out to sea.

Once he retrieved his board, and the two pieces of his friend's broken board, Collins began paddling toward shore. Close to the beach, however, he encountered a series of waves rising thunderously, forming a fierce riptide.

Collins paddled and paddled but could make no progress.

He paddled for about an hour, and it was so dark that he could barely see the blackened outline of the shore.

"I started just about crying because I was so freaked out that I couldn't get out of the water," he recalled. "I just gave up and started praying to God to help me get in."

Suddenly, the seas calmed, and Collins paddled in.

"I think it was kind of a religious experience," he said. "I was so scared out of my mind. I didn't want to die yet."

Perhaps Collins, 19, needn't have worried.

Don't they say that only the good die young?

Richie Collins of Costa Mesa was brought up to be good. His grandfather was a minister. His father, a famous surfboard maker, was a believer.

Collins, for his part, went to Christian schools and shunned the party scene. He denounces drinking alcohol and taking drugs. He and his Christian buddies may wear Mohawk cuts or shaved heads, but they have nothing in common with the skinheads who are known for violent acts against minorities.

Yet, the temptations surrounding surfing have tested Collins and his high-voltage personality.

When he was 14, he got his front teeth knocked out, fighting with a 27-year-old man over a wave.

Many more such skirmishes followed.

But last summer at 54th Street, Newport Beach, where the area's best surfers come to shine, Collins' struggles were never more evident.

He had just completed a session, a surfer's euphemism for catching some waves. Unlike most others, Collins always surfs as hard as he can, and it showed. He was beat.

As he laid his surfboard on the ground and prepared to peel off his wet suit, he was jumped from behind.

He didn't have a chance, and by the time the attacker had finished, Collins' face was rearranged. He spent 3 hours in the hospital, receiving 75 facial stitches. His lip had to be sewed on, and his body simply had to heal.

The attacker had been waiting 6 weeks to get even with Collins. They had gotten into a row over a wave at the Corona del Mar harbor mouth--the usual frustrations spilling over when there are too few waves and too many surfers. A lot of name calling and a little bit of pushing. Collins said he had planned to apologize the next time he saw the other surfer.

Perhaps for anyone else, the incident would have ended at Corona del Mar beach. But this was Richie Collins, whose loudmouthed, punk-like behavior has made him one of the most talked about--and disliked--surfers in decades.

His upbringing--including the study of karate--tells him to be respectful, but his adolescent body counter reacts.

If he is unhappy with his surfing, he may butt his head against a brick wall, punch a hole into one of his custom-made surfboards that he designs, "Or I will break down and just pray to God," he said.

"A Christian isn't laid back. They can really get . . . off. It's really hard for me because ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be the best."

He told Surfer magazine: "You don't have to be totally humble to be a Christian. . . . I follow my own way, but I know it's right. A lot of Christians, you won't understand where I'm coming from, and I'm sorry if I don't follow it the same way you do. But I'm just too aggravated and stressed to be humble."

From surfing?

Indeed, some Christians don't understand. According to Joey Buran, a retired professional surfer who is an assistant pastor at the Calvary Chapel of Vista, Calif., Collins has it backward.

"What he does is so contradictory as to what Christianity is," said Buran, who has known Collins for years. "He is trying to mold God to fit him. It doesn't work that way. The fact that he is young is not an excuse. He has been to enough Bible studies to know what to do."

What Collins does is take out his aggressions on himself, his boards, other surfers in the water, and the agitation continues into the night with violent dreams.

"One time, I woke up and weighed 5 pounds less," he said. "I have to conserve my energy when I'm on the world tour because I wear myself out when I sleep. When I wake up in the morning, I'm drained already."

Collins dreams he is in the jungles of Vietnam, fighting against impossible odds to annihilate enemy troops. Or perhaps he is smashing a gang of youths who challenge him at some local haunt.

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