Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Awesome Dude Series: No. 5 - Larry "Rubberman" Bertlemann

I was about 12 years old when I and some buddies were riding our bikes down to the river jetties (the most consistent spot to surf in Newport Beach, CA) to check out the surf action. In those days (the early 70's) the short board had just arriving on the scene, although most surfers were still riding larger or mid-size boards. Back then attempting to mimic more of a Gerry Lopez style of surfing - being more in harmony with the wave was more popular. Kind of like a team, rider and water, working together to create a sense of oneness.

Well on this summer morning, some DUDE was breaking all those rules. In fact, this guy wasn't into peace and harmony with water at all, this dude was going out of his way to cut each wave he caught into pieces. This wasn't oneness, this was man versus beast, and MAN was winning. All of us on the shore just stood there watching this guy, and we ooh'ed and ahh'ed at every maneuver he did to continue his assault on one unsuspecting wave after another. He shot upward, forward, backward, downward, slicing the bottom of the wave with a violent slash,  then tearing the lip off the wave with a powerful rising burst.

"Who is this guy" we shouted? He was hawaiian looking for sure with two distict features I remember; a stronger build than most of the slimmer surfers in the water, which gave him the strength to do what he was doing to each wave he attacked, and a giant, unforgettable, and awesome, brown fro so intimidating that even the ocean water couldn't knock it down on his head, or tame it.

Then someone shouted, "It's Bertlemann!"

"Whoa, Bertlemann ( I still use that same expression when I think of him today)!" This was the guy who in my estimation single-handedly changed the way surfing was done back then, at least for me and all my friends, and he was here in our backyard! This guy was the best, and that's why he makes my Awesome Dude Series for sure...dude!!
His full name, Larry Bertlemann. His nickname, "Rubberman"! Why? Because he could turn himself and his body in such obscure directions while riding that you thought at times, "That's not possible! No one with a  skeleton could ever bend like that!" But Larry could and he did; and he changed the way an entire generation of surfers surfed. Out went the longer boards and in came the short boards. Out went one fin and in came boards with twin fins, tri fins, whatever it took to be able to maneuver a surfboard on water in any direction desired, and all being done so someone could say they pulled a "Bertlemann!" Larry Bertlemann Footage
There were two defining factors that made Larry surf the way he did. One: As a youth he found a 9'6" board in the bushes near his home, and he surfed it night and day until one day when he snapped it in two. Instead of chucking it, he took the smaller front of the board, glassed a fin on it, turned it backwards and "tada" the short board, for him, was born. Two: Larry was an avid skateboarder and longed to attempt the maneuvers he could pull off on land in the water. This new short board finally made that possible and so he would invision himself skateboarding while attacking waves. His moves were so influencial, that even in the 2001 Award-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, with legendary skaters Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta and Jay Adams referred to their slide-out turns as "Berts."

Though he didn't dig the competitive side of surfing much, he knew that was where the money was and so he turned pro and finished in the Top 16 in 1976 & 1979. He also was seen on 9 cover shots for surf magazines between 1974-1984 (most by any surfer), and the endorsements came in which not only made him not only a household name to surfers everywhere, but also very rich (Sponsors included Op, Toyota, United Airlines, Southwest Air).

Another thing that truly makes him a "Dude" is that in 1980, at the peak of his popularity and success, he vanished off the surf radar. Rumors of where he might be fluctuated throughout the surfing community, with no one actually sure where he was, or if he was even alive.

He was alive alright, hiding out in Florida, surfing in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Rio and being a totally, kickback, don't hassle me, "Where can I get a good fish taco?," Dude!

"I've surfed at places no one has ever seen!" He stated, once he resurfaced.

Today, he continues to shape surfboards and skateboards, having contracts with Rebel Boards and Santa Cruz. He also continues to get in the water and surf, but does more "cruising" than "slashing." I can't picture that! The most progressive surfer of our time will never just ride waves, he will always own them...dude!

Who's your surfing legend?

Keith Poletiek is the creator of "Dude and Dude," a daily comic strip distributed throughout the nation by United Feature Syndicate. Check out Dude and Dude at
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