I can’t think of Jay Adams without smiling or nearly crying. He was the toughest, most tender-hearted, brilliant, foolish, talented, fatally flawed surfer I have ever known.
Adams began life in Venice, California, on Feb. 3, 1961. Raised by his mother and his surfboard building stepfather, Kent Sherwood, Adams could not recall a time when he did not surf.
According to skateboarding legend and former teammate Tony Alva, “Some kids are born and raised on graham crackers and milk; Jay was born and raised on surfing and skateboarding.”
Besides being steeped in the twin sports from birth, Adams was also naturally gifted and ran at higher voltage than most.
At 13, he became the youngest member of the prestigious Zephyr Skateboarding Team. According to former Zephyr Team member turned filmmaker, Stacy Peralta, “It’s as if most people have 110 (volts) going into him and he has 220.”
While considered among the best skateboarders of all time, and, according to Peralta, “Clearly the archetype of the modern skateboarder,” Adam’s first love was surfing.
I first met him on the beach at Swami’s in the mid-1970s, and while I knew he was one of the greatest skateboarders in the world, I had doubts about his surfing ability.
All uncertainty vanished, however, once he caught his first wave, turned hard, hit the lip and cut back with a low rotational style he had learned from the now legendary Hawaiian surfer Larry Bertlemann.
By the conclusion of our surf session, he proved himself among the top of the Swami’s pack, while Hawaiian voyages would establish him as one of our state’s top power surfers.
Jay and I did not stay in touch after our first meeting, but most of the news I heard about him was not good, and came from the often-unreliable rumor mill unofficially known as the “coconut wireless.”
There had been talk that Jay and a friend had kicked a man to death in Hollywood. While this turned out to be true, it was nonetheless unintentional and led to his first stint in prison and a manslaughter charge.
Upon his release, Jay moved to Hawaii for several years where he became a regular at such spots as Sunset Beach and Pipeline. He also became a drug addict, falling so deeply for heroin, that, according to him, “I no longer cared if I lived or died and would shoot up with gutter water or toilet water, just to get high.”
Jay would go in and out of addiction for years, but we hooked up again in 2008 when Dennis Martinez, former skateboarding world champion turned drug addict, turned pastor, began working on a film called “D.O.P.E.” (Death Or Prison Eventually).
The clean and sober Adams signed up to be part of our project but was unable to be filmed when his past haunted him, and he was jailed for aiding a methamphetamine ring in Hawaii.
Upon his release, he began surfing and skating again and was to exhibiting the joy and energy of his high-powered youth.
Jay was headed to Mexico to ride Puerto Escondido, AKA, the Mexican Pipeline.
A challenging wave at any age, Adams, by then in his early 50s, reportedly distinguished himself by riding deep in the barrel on repeated seasons.
I still get chills remembering that phone call and hearing that Jay Adams had passed away.
I never asked about the details, but it was revealed that his big heart gave out on Aug. 15, 2014.
To learn more about Jay Adams, check out the movies “D.O.P.E.,” “Dogtown and Z-boys,” or the feature film, “Lords of Dogtown.”
Adams is survived by his wife Tracy, son Seven and daughter, Venice.