The Larry Bertlemann legacy isn’t in laying the groundwork for mega-sponsorship deals for today’s professional surfers—though he did that both inside and outside the industry by brokering his own agreements with airlines, soda companies, and carmakers. It isn’t in single-handedly inspiring Santa Monica’s “Z-Boys” to revolutionize skateboarding, although he did that as well. And it isn’t in his pioneering use of video for training, his use of shorter boards in big waves, or his aerial trailblazing while way past his prime in the mid-’80s—all undeniable accomplishments. Nope, the Rubberman did his most groundbreaking work when he was barely a man at all.
A teenaged Larry B.S.-ed his way into surfing’s epicenter in 1970 by telling Colonel Al Benson and wife Blanche that he lived in a box on the jetty at Ala Moana. They fell for his act and provided him a ready-made North Shore palace complete with an instant, loving family and access to the best waves and best surfers on the planet. In the Benson household, Bertlemann inherited not only a handful of competitive brothers and sisters but also a photographer/mentor dad in the Colonel and a revolving trail of visiting pros as roommates. For a dyslexic eighth-grade dropout who had only recently been infected with the surfing virus, it proved the ultimate prescription.
The sport, at the time, was suffering through what would later be described as its “dark ages.” Competition was floundering, board design was going backward, and the color of surfing was washing out to sea. Not to take anything away from Gerry Lopez, but what he was doing at Pipeline was lost in translation to kids at their local beachbreaks. “Soul” trumped substance, and the fun seemed to disappear. SURFER founder John Severson expressed the growing disenchantment of the day when he wrote, “We’re surfers, and it seems strange, but we can’t agree on what we’re doing or why.”
Enter the Rubberman.
After a few years with the Bensons, coupled with shaping and coaching from progressive-minded Ben Aipa, Larry was primed to turn surfing on its head. Of course, he didn’t see it in those terms. Like any 18-year-old, he just wanted to go off. “It was so easy to go straight, and I didn’t like that,” he recalls. “I seen guys surfing, but I didn’t wanna be like one of them. Gerry was just the Adolph-Straight-Off guy, which anybody can do. I wanted to make Figure 8’s and he was making capital L’s…I was the anti-Gerry.”
Bertlemann’s distinctly low, springy crouch was a slap in the face to surfing’s status quo, as were his ridiculously tight arcs and lines that seemed to come from comic books. He never got off the ground competitively, despite coming of age alongside the birth of pro surfing. Judges fail to appreciate things they haven’t seen before. What Larry did in movies and magazines—and if you were lucky, in person—was verbalize, as well as demonstrate, what could be done on a wave: anything. “It’s possible,” the young prodigy assured us. “Anything is possible.”
Every one of today’s superstars heap praise for early inspiration to Tom Curren, Martin Potter, or Kelly Slater. And here’s those gods’ take on LB. Curren: “I tried to surf like Larry Bertlemann…I just couldn’t do it.” Potter: “He is the godfather of high performance surfing.” And Slater: “Bertlemann was the first New Schooler.” Perhaps more importantly than showing us what surfing would be like in the future was the way Larry went about his one-man insurrection. With a good-time ’fro, a colorful character and appearance, and a perpetual grin of aloha, he never forgot that it was all a game. Surfing, he reminded everyone, is fun. —Jason Borte