Bertlemann, Larry

Dynamic regularfoot surfer from Honolulu, Hawaii; winner of the 1973 United States Surfing Championships, and often cited as progenitor of today's high-performance shortboard surfing. "A truly gifted surfer," as described by Australian journalist Phil Jarratt in 1979, "with an outrageously overblown ego."

Bertlemann was born (1955) in Hilo, Hawaii, the son of an auto mechanic, and began surfing at age 11, just after moving with his family to Honolulu. Three years later he placed fourth in the boys' division of the Hawaii state championships, beginning a successful amateur career that included a win in the juniors division of the 1971 Makaha International and a fourth in the 1972 World Championships. In 1973 he won both the state and national titles. As a professional—the line between amateur and professional surfing was almost nonexistent until the mid-'70s—he placed third in the 1972 Pipeline Masters, third in the 1973 Smirnoff Pro, first in the 1974 Duke Classic, second in the 1975 Lightning Bolt Pro, and first in the 1978 Katin Team Challenge. He was world-ranked #13 in 1976 and #12 in 1979.

Nicknamed "Rubberman," the kinetic and hyper-flexible Bertlemann surfed in a low, springy, open-knee crouch. He worked his board constantly, but the motion was blended and synched, and he brought a smoothness to even the most explosive turns. Some of Bertlemann's best surfing was done on the Ben Aipa-designed split-railed sting boards of the mid- '70s. A hardcore skateboarder, the 5' 9", 160-pound Hawaiian regularly practiced his high-torque turns on asphalt and concrete. Bertlemann permanently altered the body dynamics of surfing, which in turn opened up the range of on-wave lines, angles, and arcs; his style was imprinted directly on a slightly younger group of Hawaiian surfers, including Dane Kealoha, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, and Mark Liddell. In the late '70s, borrowing a move from the skateboard world, Bertlemann began working on aerials—what he immodestly called "Larryials"—and became a forerunner to high-flying Kelly Slater and the rest of the early '90s New School surfers.

Bertlemann's obsession with image and commercialism, meanwhile, put him on the wrong side of surfing purists. Always fashion conscious, instantly recognizable by his neatly tended Afro hairstyle, Bertlemann frequently surfed and skateboarded in color-coordinated outfits, and at one point took to the waves at Pipeline wearing a customized blue-and-red bell-bottom wetsuit. A pioneer in surf world corporate sponsorship, Bertlemann by the late '70s was plastering his boards with oversize stickers from Pepsi, United Airlines, and Toyota, and even adopted the Pepsi swirl emblem for his board's design motif. "I get off on promoting things," the easy-smiling eighth-grade dropout once said. "I keep my sponsors happy, and they keep me in business."

Bertlemann, who also worked as a surfboard shaper, was featured eight times on the cover of Surfer and Surfing magazines in the 1970s. (Gerry Lopez had five covers; Shaun Tomson and Mark Richards each had four.) As crass as he was popular, Bertlemann at one point was "signing" autographs with a rubber stamp.

Bertlemann dropped off the surf scene for 15 years, beginning in 1985. In 2001 he resurfaced, and was featured in the Surfer's Journal/Opper Films cable TV series Biographies, and profiled at length in The Surfer's Journal, where it was revealed that he'd been unable to surf since the late '90s due to a series of back injuries and surgeries. Long associated with the Honolulu underworld, Bertlemann himself was arrested on robbery and firearm charges in the summer of 2001.

Bertlemann appeared in more than 25 surf movies, including Going Surfin' (1973), Fluid Drive (1974), Super Session (1975), Free Ride (1977), and Tales from the Seven Seas (1981).