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Ryan Rustan 2019

At first glance, he’s the stereotypical surfer dude: sun-bleached hair, smile lines from squinting at the California sun, and tattoos visible everywhere his wet suit stops. But Ryan Rustan’s story is anything but that of a shiny, carefree California boy. 

Surf City USA beach volleyball net

I met Ryan just north of Huntington Beach, the epicentre of surf culture affectionately known as Surf City, USA. Ryan had come to Bolsa Chica Beach to do some surfing demonstrations with another famous resident, his rescue dog-turned-surfer, Sugar. Both were here to give our group of visitors a taste of surf culture, and as a land-locked Canadian, I was as curious as anyone to learn more about this California obsession and the people who make surfing their passion. I just wasn’t expecting Ryan’s story.

VW Van at Huntington Beach Surfing Museum
Huntington Beach is the epicentre of surf culture and even has a Surfing Museum here.

Ryan Rustan was born in Huntington Beach and comes from 3 generations of surfers who grew up on the waves. But as a young boy, he was a troubled, angry child whose volatile behaviour made him impossible for teachers to deal with and equally impossible for his own parents to raise. In his own words, he was “in and out of mental hospitals from the age of 7”. Life didn’t get much better living with what Ryan learned later was bipolar disorder. He ended up turning to drugs and alcohol, living on the streets and hanging with a tough crowd of hardcore ‘surf rats’.

Huntington Beach Pier Sunset
Huntington Beach Pier, Ryan Rustan’s backyard

Ryan’s life was on a downward trajectory until he met a little white dog living on the streets of Oakland, California. He took the young dog in, and named her Sugar.

Sugar was like a canine version of Ryan herself. Homeless, missing most of her front teeth and starved for food – and love – Sugar was as much in need of rescue as Ryan. Which might just be why they bonded immediately and found something in each other that had been missing in both their lives. 

Ryan Rustan with Sugar Huntington Beach
Ryan cuddles Sugar before giving us a surf demonstration

Ryan began bringing Sugar surfing with him, and whether it was her natural talent on the board, or her desire to please Ryan, Sugar took to it like, well, a dog to surfing. So well, in fact, that she began winning dog surfing competitions, taking home the dog surfing championships in 2017 and 2018. (yes, there is such a thing.)

Today Ryan Rustan and Sugar are an inseparable duo and Sugar has become a local celebrity in the Huntington Beach area, winning the hearts of the locals with her uncanny (un-canine?) ability to shred waves. But the most devoted of those hearts belongs to Rustan, who credits Sugar with saving his life – and he isn’t talking about drowning. 

Ryan Rustan Pensive
Open about his mental health issues, Ryan Rustan credits Sugar with saving his life

In Ryan’s words, he didn’t know the transformative power of love – until he found it with Sugar. “My own father never taught me how to love, the church never taught me how to love, the ocean never taught me how to love. Sugar taught me how to love.”

“I never had anything that really needed me before….and that means a lot.”

Today at 38, Ryan seems healthy and happy. He has a job at a local surf shop which he loves and says is helping him to “work on his communication skills”. He’s taken in two more rescue dogs, too, adding to his furry family. And even though he doesn’t have much in the material sense, Ryan counts himself lucky because as he puts it, “I got my Sugar, and I’m stoked.”

Which might just be the sunniest story ever to come out of Surf City, USA.

SweetiePie VW Van Huntington Beach

Special thanks to Visit California and Huntington Beach Tourism who hosted my visit to Bolsa Chica Beach where I met Ryan Rustan and Sugar.

Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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