INTERVIEW BY JEFF HO
INTRODUCTION BY JEFF HO
PHOTOS COURTESY OF LARRY BERTLEMANN and MICHAEL BREAM
Larry Bertlemann – a surfer ahead of his time – was responsible for influencing surfers and skateboarders all over the world. He’s an innovator of a fluid style of surfing that nobody had ever seen. He was into quick, smooth direction changes, which gave him a unique technique that was far ahead of its time. He was doing insane layback turns in the tube that would blow your mind. He was responsible for the infusion of skateboarding surf-style used by my team, the Zephyr competition team, which brought surfing full force into the skateboarding scene. His influence can be found in many of today’s surfers and skaters that share his aggressive, flowing, surf style in the water and on the concrete.
“I REMEMBER STANDING UP AND DOING SPINNERS AND GOING BACKWARDS. I STILL REMEMBER THE WATER HITTING THE SIDE OF THE BOARD. IT WAS UNREAL. I’M STILL LOOKING FOR THAT SAME FIRST WAVE, THAT SAME FEELING.”
Larry Bertlemann. Jeff Ho here.
What’s happening, Jeff?
I’ve just been trying to track you down.
[Laughs] I made it kind of easy, actually. If it were 10 years ago, you’d have never found me. Now, I’ve made myself accessible to the world.
Right on. How are you doing?
I’m alive and kicking.
That’s good. I heard you had some medical problems. I didn’t know exactly what happened to you.
I was actually crippled. In 2001, I couldn’t even walk.
I had a degenerated disc. I was going too fast and too serious for too long. The disc pinched my nerve between my C4 and C6 vertebrae. So they had to cut my throat. I had to pay someone to cut my throat. How’s that? Usually they pay me.
Oh, my God.
Yeah. So they operated. Then I had an aneurism, so they had to operate on my brain, too.
You can’t keep me down. I’m still going. I haven’t surfed yet, but I will.
I’m glad to hear that you’re doing better. I want to start off with where you born.
I was born in Hilo on the Big Island.
What year was that?
Where did you grow up?
I was on the Big Island until I was 11 1/2 years old.
What was it like when you were a kid?
I think I got kicked out of all the schools I was in over there. My dad was an auto mechanic. He owned a carburetor service. He used to take me out fishing all the time. Some days, we’d go out right after school. We’d go out on Friday and come back on Monday morning and go back to school. We’d be out on the ocean all the time.
Did you live close to the beach then?
No, it was a few miles from the beach. We used to go hunting and fishing and all kinds of shit. I thought that everybody knew how to survive, until I moved to Oahu. My father was a survival instructor for the United States Air Force. He taught me how to hunt and kill and live off the land and the ocean.
Did you have any brothers or sisters that would go hunting and fishing with you?
No. I had four sisters that were all younger than me. I had to take care of them. I’m the oldest.
What do the sisters do?
[Laughs.] They just do sister stuff.
[Laughs.] Did you have a good relationship with your sisters?
I used to tear up all their stuff.
[Laughs.] Were you skateboarding then?
I was skateboarding with metal wheels over there. Remember those metal wheels?
Yeah. I started skateboarding on metal wheels, too. Is that your first memory of skateboarding?
Yeah. I had one of those Duke Kahanamoku skateboards. Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to win the Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic. In 1974, I got my chance.
How old were you when you first started skateboarding?
I must have been young. It was right around the same time the Duke Kahanamoku skateboard came out.
That was probably the mid ’60s.
Were you surfing, too?
No, I didn’t surf on the Big Island. I didn’t start surfing until I came to Oahu. My parents got divorced, so my mom and all four of my sisters and I moved to Oahu when I was 11 1/2 years old. My mom had to work two jobs just to keep us all going.
Where did you live?
I lived right by Ala Moana. Kaiser’s and Ala Moana were my stomping grounds. I started surfing at The Wall. When I got better I moved back to Ala Moana. By age 12, I was traveling the world already.
Do you remember the first time that you went surfing?
I remember the first wave I caught, man.
Where did you catch your first wave?
I rented a board in Waikiki. I rented it for an hour, but I stayed out there all day. They had to come out there and chase me back in.
I remember standing up and doing spinners and going backwards. I still remember the water hitting the side of the board. It was unreal. I’m still looking for that same first wave, that same feeling.
How did you decide to go rent that board?
I was just exploring all of Waikiki. I was walking up and down the beach and checking out the waves, and the guys out there riding them. Then I thought, ‘I’m going to try that.’ I just rented a board, and that was it. I was hooked. I only surfed for six months before I started traveling.
Did you go to school in Oahu?
Yeah. I went to Washington Intermediate. All the good guys went to Washington Intermediate. We never lost one contest. Dane Kealoha, Mark [Liddell], Buttons [Kaluhiokalani], myself, Reno [Abelira], Ben [Aipa], and I think Barry [Kanaiaupuni] went to that school, too. Even The Rock went to Washington.
Where did you get your first surfboard?
I found my first surfboard in the bushes on the way to school. I had that board about a month, and then it broke. It broke in the middle, so I put a fin in the middle and glassed the tail part and rode that.
Do you remember what kind of board it was?
No. It didn’t even have stickers on it. It was actually my friend’s board, but he didn’t want to tell me, because he was a haole. He thought I might strangle him. He didn’t tell me until a while later.
So the board broke and you rebuilt it??
I was in front of my house trying to put the fin on that board, and I didn’t know how to do it. I was out there struggling and this Japanese Hawaiian guy came up to me. He said, ‘Hey. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m trying to put this fin on.’ So he helped me put the fin on the board. I didn’t know until a few years later, but that guy was Donald Takayama.
His brother used to live close to me. He saw me struggling with that board and he helped me.
Do you remember the first manufactured board you had?
Well, on the way to school and back from school, I would pass two surf shops. One was called Surf Research. Sparky was making the boards there. The other shop was Surfboards Hawaii, and Ben Aipa was making the boards for them. I’d go hang out and watch them shape boards. Sparky was the first one to give me a board. I won the Waikiki Classic with that board or maybe I got second. I don’t remember. It was either first or second, but I never got less than second place in the H.S.A. after that.
You started surfing contests at what age?
I was in the seventh grade.
Did you win a lot of contests?
I won almost everything. It was either Michael Ho or me winning everything. I was supposed to be surfing in the Boys divisions, but I’d win all the Boys’ divisions and then I’d go win the Juniors division. After I’d win the Juniors, I’d win the Men’s division, too.
Did you ride for Sparky?
Well, that was only one board. I had that for just a short while. After that, I was hanging with Ben at Ben’s shop. Then they moved up to First Avenue. I used to live right behind the shop, so I was there every day. Ben gave me a Greg Noll board. Ben was shaping with Greg Noll at the time, and Craig Sugihara was glassing. Then we all left and went down to Town and Country.
What kind of boards were you riding then? Were they longboards?
No. It was a 7’2′ actually. The first picture I got in the magazine was on that board. It was called the Aipa ski. It was a green 7’2′ with a clear top. Colonel Benson shot that first picture. It was in my biography deal in ‘Surfer’s Journal’.
What year was that?
It was the early ’70s, or maybe even ’69.
Did Ben start sponsoring you with boards?
After you did the Greg Noll label, you moved on to Town and Country?
No. The guy that owns Town and Country is Craig Sukiyara. He was doing the glassing for Ben. Then he went and did Town and Country. Ben went to Wave Crest, which was George Downing. In fact, I’m looking at one of the boards that I used to ride. I’m looking at one that I won the Duke with in 1974.
That was a Wave Crest?
Was Ben making the stingers yet?
He was doing the stingers in ’74 and ’75.
That’s when you started with that layback style?
Yeah. I started doing stuff different than everyone else.
You were ahead of your time. How old were you then?
I was 16.
Did you guys party a lot?
I did. [Laughs] After I started getting money from surfing, we started traveling around the world and then the partying thing went nuts. Can you imagine someone handing you $15,000 and all of a sudden you’re in another country? And you don’t even know how you got there.
Do you remember your first big paycheck?
Yeah, I think it was when I won the Duke. That was big money for those days. It was only $1,200 or $1,300 bucks. After that, we partied. Do you remember the 1972 World Contest in San Diego?
That was a gigantic party, too. Michael [Ho] and I were going nuts.
I remember all that. Were you getting endorsement money from other companies at the time?
That’s when I started doing the exposure contract. To get the big companies, I had to get them exposure. I had this idea when I was watching the race cars go around in the ’60s. I went, ‘What if I could put logos on my surfboard?’ I went up to these guys and said, ‘You should sponsor me. You don’t have to pay me anything until I get published in a magazine, and until then you get free advertising.’ That whole thing just shot off. It was perfect. I think I went to Hawaiian Airlines first. Then I went to United Airlines. I got Toyota cars. I got Op. I got all these big sponsors.
How much were they paying you then?
It was only like, $1,500 a month, but that was big money in those days.
Then you started traveling around?
Yeah. I was getting to fly for free, so it was perfect. I still can. They give me a stack of passes. I could write my own ticket and go anywhere I wanted to go. It was pretty cool. Sometimes I would get so twisted that I would end up in a whole other country. Usually, I ended up in Peru or Columbia. They called me the ‘Monster of Punta Rocas’. I was only 13 or 14 years old.
What did you do?
I was out there in Peru surfing Punta Rocas. I was surfing with George Downing, Gerry Lopez and Jeff Hakman. I just got twisted over there. They had a drink called the pisco sour that was made out of something from a cactus. It was like mescaline. I think it had a truckload of blow in it. I was gone for a week up in the mountains. It was really funny.
Did you find some good waves down there?
Yeah. There were some really nice waves there. There were also a lot of young girls down there. I remember flying back and when I got to San Diego, the FBI came up to me at the airport. They said, ‘Are you Larry Bertlemann?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then they showed me a photo of a girl. They asked, ‘Do you know the girl in this photo?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t know her.’ They said the girl was missing and had supposedly run away to America with me. I don’t know who she was, but she was a nice looking girl. Her parents were rich. That was really funny.
That’s crazy. So you were having a good time, surfing and making money. Who were you surfing with?
Michael and I stayed up at Colonel Benson’s house. In the summer, we’d stay in town. In the winter, we’d stay at the Colonel’s house. I don’t know how we survived, but we did.
Did you go to Makaha also?
Yeah. There was the Makaha Open and the Makaha International. Those were the first contests right after Thanksgiving.
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.
Did you ever get married?
Yeah, I was married for a while. I was married to Ann. We had two daughters, Liko and Hoku. In 1990, I got married again and had my son Christian. Then I got divorced and came back here to Hawaii.
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.