Friday, July 11, 2008

Surf Fridays!

"The Bert"

Is everybody ready for some live Jimi Hendrix, sick groundbreaking maneuvers and one awesome afro? From the archives...Larry Bertlemann, "The Rubberman" came across my radar from Surfsister. I didn't know anything about him but I really like what I've learned, especially his modern message to "be yourself".

Surfer's Journal said Bertlemann's low-rotation skateboard maneuvers seeded the new surfing school of the '70s, redefining surfing performance while inspiring the paradigm-busting pool riders of Southern California's Dogtown skate scene.

Dogtown skater Nathan Pratt told Jay Adams, "Everyone skated up at Stacy Peralta's house every night. We got a lot of practice riding those hills. We would pretend we were surfing, doing big bottom turns and cut backs. One night Stacy and I were skating in Bruno's parking lot on the corner of Venice and Centinela. We decided to go over to Mar Vista school and session.

At the time, Larry Bertlemann was our inspiration with his trademark cutback that was super low and tight. When we were leaving I did a cutback on the curb next to Stacy's car. Stacy said, 'That looks like a Bertlemann cutback'. We called that skate move a "Bert" ever since. It was also known as the Zephyr slide, but we always called it a Bert amongst ourselves."

Lawrence Mehau Bertlemann was born in 1955 in Hilo, on Hawaii's big island. His father was a former survival instructor in the U.S. Air Force and ran an auto shop. Larry's life started with adventures of hunting pigs and fishing with handlines without a thought of surfing, until he went to Waikiki with his mother at age 11.

"I still remember my first wave at Queens. I rented a board for an hour and stayed out all day. They had to chase me in. Rabbit Kekai was up there yelling at me, but then my mom told him who I was. Our family had a lot of pull at the time - on both sides of the law, so he left me alone".

Longboards were still all that was known, and Bertlemann borrowed anything he could get his hands on. He eventually found a 9'6" in the bushes and rode it for a month before snapping it. Rather than mend the hulking plank, he glassed a fin on the front half and set out for some serious fun. By this time, school had become a nuisance, so after eighth grade, he dropped out in favor of the beach. The only graduating he was interested in was going from the bunny slopes of Waikiki to the bowl at Ala Moana.

Without conforming to the restraints of competition, he experienced success by the early '70's. In the 1972 World Contest in San Diego, he finished third, followed by a victory in the 1973 U.S. Championships. Contrary to advice from his shaper, coach and mentor, Ben Aipa, Bertlemann turned pro.

At the time, Gerry Lopez' subtle, zen-like approach was considered the quintessential style, meshing with the wave being the ultimate goal. But Bertlemann, an avid skateboarder, envisioned translating his land-based repertoire of tricks to the water. Larry would say that visualization is what separated him from the pack. His buddy would take Super 8 movies of them surfing and when he watched them he'd think, "Wow, I could cut that line shorter. Anything is possible, I knew what I wanted to do, now I just had to get the boards to do it".

The forward-thinking Aipa was the perfect match, creating wide, short (less than 6-foot) swallowtail and stinger designs that offered Bertlemann total freedom of movement. Always running at top speed and on the verge of spinning out, Bertlemann's low gravity cutbacks, 360s and switchfoot antics were spontaneous, yet completely functional.

Photographer Warren Bolster met Larry in Leucadia, SoCal in 1973 and was blown away by what he saw. Bolster said, "Besides switch-footing with ease, Bertlemann boosted airs (and calling them 'Larrials'), carved 360s, threw tailslides - essentially he was Hawaii's first real shortboard 'hotdogger'. In terms of his presence in his era, he was more remarkable than Slater or Andy Irons. I can't think of anyone else in his time who was so far ahead of everybody."

In his experimentation, Larry was joined by fellow test pilots Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Mark Liddell and later his cousin Dane Kealoha. Ala Moana and the more rippable North Shore venues became ground zero for progressive surfing.

Bertlemann was also interested in shaping. He was a driving force in creating the swallowtail and helped in the revival of ultra-short twin-fins around 1980.

Despite his distaste for the conformity of competition, Bertlemann became one of the most popular and well-paid professionals of the early pro era. His focus always remained on progression and visibility. "I surfed for myself and the public, not for five judges".

Somewhere during the mid-'80s, Bertlemann vanished from the surfing radar, with rumors of his whereabouts fluctuating wildly. Bertlemann said, "I wanted to see how the world is without water. I went skysurfing in Arizona, lived in Palm Beach, Florida on the PGA National Course, but kept my deal with United and Southwest so I could go surf in Mexico, Puerto Rico or Rio on the weekends. I've surfed places nobody has ever seen".

Some fun tidbits from Juice Magazine...

Do you know how many titles and contests you've won?
I have no idea. In fact, I wouldn't even keep the trophies. The first one that I won was the only one that I kept, and I gave that to my dad. All of the rest of them, I gave away to girls.

You gave them to girls?
Yeah. I'd be like, "Here. You can have this." They only collect dust. I kept the check though.

Did you save any of your surfboards?
No. I never saved any of them. I'm kicking myself in the head now. They've all disappeared. The only one I have is the one that I won the Duke with.

After the contest days, you got into other hobbies?
I got into marital arts so that I could enjoy surfing more. Surfing had gotten kind of stale. I got tired of people chasing me all over the world. I had to have my own little privacy time. I started getting into martial arts. Then I started getting into motorcycle racing, cars, jumping out of airplanes… I did everything.

Well, all of the years of adventure did take a toll on Larry's body and in 1998 it resulted in two degenerating discs, leaving the right side of his body paralyzed. Thankfully he recovered with therapy and does get out in the water, but as he puts it, "Only cruising".

Make sure you check out this short interview from Larry in 2006 and we'll end with this famous quote: "The Rubberman opened the door. Arriving amid a period of flux, he demonstrated that no limits exist beyond our imagination. He didn't invent the shortboard; he just showed us how to ride it. No one had a greater influence on the way people surf - from the best in the world on down, than Larry Bertlemann".

A cut from the 1978 film "Standing Room Only", featuring Rabbit Bartholomew and Larry Bertleman. The track is Jimi Hendrix doing "Red House" at the New York Pop Festival in July of 1970.

Have a stoked weekend!


Mrs.French said...

Awesome...I would do anything to have a sweet afro like that for just one day!

Surfsister said...

I couldn't even grow a perfect afro like that. My hair doesn't have enough kink in it. But I will be rockin' a huge 'fro at the Doo Dah Surf next week.

I recently found a picture of myself at 20, I think, on a skateboard doing a Bert. Who knew I could do a Bert? I didn't even remember I could skate that well!

Great blog post!