Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Larry Bertlemann

Jason Borte updated his biography of Larry Bertlemann for Surfline, in December 2009. View the original, with images and links, at: Surfline: Larry Bertleman:

Larry Bertlemann (August 7, 1955-)

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.

The only son (he has four sisters) of a former survival instructor for the U.S. Air Force, Lawrence Mehau Bertlemann was drawn to adventure at an early age. Born in Hilo, on Hawaii's big island, where his father ran an auto shop, Larry spent his early childhood hunting pigs and fishing with handlines, without so much as a thought on surfing. At age 11, he came to Oahu with his mother, putting Larry in proximity to Waikiki and the forces that would shape his life. "I still remember my first wave at Queens," he reflects. "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 '70s. 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 professional.

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. "Visualization," he insists, was what separated him from the pack. "A friend of ours used to take Super 8 movies of us, and I would watch them thinking, wow, I could cut that line shorter. Anything is possible. I knew what I wanted to do; 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. As he 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.

From the time he was a cheeky grom, hanging out at Sparky's Surf Shop, Bertlemann was interested in design. He shaped his first board inside a friend's house, much to the dismay of the boy's parents. After watching Sparky and working with Aipa, he began shaping regularly, collaborating with Town and Country, George Downing, Hawaiian Pro Designs and others. A driving force in creating the swallowtail, Bertlemann also helped in the revival of ultra-short twin-fins around 1980. Donald Takayama, who runs the Hawaiian Pro Designs label, has a retro Bertlemann model on the market today.

Despite his distaste for the conformity of competition, Bertlemann became one of the most popular and well-paid professionals of the early pro era. He managed to finish in the IPS Top 16 in both 1976 and 1979, but his focus remained on progression and visibility. "I surfed for myself and the public, not for five judges," he insists. "How do you score a maneuver you've never seen before?"

His popularity, including a starring role in Hal Jepsen's 1975 film Super Session and nine cover shots between 1974 and 1984 -- the most of any surfer -- enabled him to attract lucrative endorsements outside the industry. With no managerial assistance, Bertlemann struck deals with Op, Toyota, United Airlines and others, enabling him to dictate his own schedule so long as he remained in the public eye.

Staying visible was simple for a surfer of such caliber, so long as he wanted to. Somewhere during the mid-'80s, Bertlemann vanished from the surfing radar, with rumors of his whereabouts fluctuating wildly. Says Bertlemann, "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 Air so I could go surf in Mexico, Puerto Rico or Rio on the weekends. I've surfed places nobody has ever seen."

Finally, around 1998, his need for speed and adventure got the better of him. The years of bodily abuse from skateboarding, surfing and motorcycle and truck racing resulted in two degenerating discs, leaving the right side of his body paralyzed. He has since regained motion through surgery and therapy, but he is far from the Rubberman of old.

After returning to Oahu, he began tinkering with computers and shaping as much as his body would allow. Twice divorced with three children and as many grandchildren, he never planned for his roots to sink too deep. "Home is wherever you leave your bags," he contended. But in the summer of 2001, he was arrested on robbery and firearms charges and spent the next xx years in jail, resulting in a popular "Free Bert" Campaign of bumper stickers and t-shirts.

Upon his release in xx, Bertlemann began making surfboards again - even forming mass-production deals with Rebel Boards and Santa Cruz. But, ironically, his biggest influence in terms of numbers may be on skateboarding. 2001's award-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, which chronicles the rise of vert skating begins with names like Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta and Jay Adams trying to take Larry's approach on a wave to streets and parks; they even call their slide-out turns, "Berts."

As for himself, the most progressive surfer of his generation still gets in the water occasionally, but he adds, "Only cruising." Perhaps that's for the best. When asked about alleged contemporary surfing in 2001, he contended, "What they're calling maneuvers, we called mistakes."

-- Jason Borte (updated, December 2009)

Some reflections from Larry Bertlemann at the 2009 ASR show in San Diego, California:

From "Standing Room Only" (Produced by Allan Main and Hugh Thomas in 1978), features Rabbit Bartholemew and Larry Bertlemann:

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