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Van Artsdalen, Butch


Gifted but self-destructive surfer from La Jolla, California, known as "Mr. Pipeline" for his breakthrough performances at Hawaii's most famous surf spot in the early and mid-1960s. Van Artsdalen was born (1941) and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, moved with his family to La Jolla at age 14, and began surfing the following year. A broad-shouldered natural athlete, he lettered in football, baseball, and track for three straight years at La Jolla High School; he meanwhile became a regular at Windansea, the area's best-known surf break, and was soon one of La Jolla's best surfers. 

Van Artsdalen was a drinker and a brawler, putting him in good stead among the rowdy local surfers who, in 1963, brought a kind of frat-house organization to their beach scene by forming the Windansea Surf Club—with the charismatic Van Artsdalen as a charter member. "Butch was a wild man," longtime Windansea local Carl Ekstrom recalled. "He never walked away from a fight or a party."

Van Artsdalen had a nondescript first visit to Oahu's North Shore in 1961. On his return visit the following year, however, he clicked everywhere he rode, including Sunset Beach and Haleiwa; he was the first surfer to ride switchfoot at Waimea Bay, pivoting casually in midride from goofyfoot stance to regularfoot stance.

At Pipeline he was on a separate and higher plane altogether. Hawaiians Conrad Canha and Sammy Lee were among a small number of surfers who already had a basic understanding of how to ride inside the tube, but it was Van Artsdalen who became the first surfer to make tuberiding a repeatable step-by-step process. His best rides were seen on the big screen a few months later in surf movies like Gun Ho!, Angry Sea, and Walk on the Wet Side, and three years later he was featured in Bruce Brown's crossover hit The Endless Summer.

Van Artsdalen moved to the North Shore in 1966 and became a lifeguard. He made dozens of heroic rescues over the next few years, but was already losing ground to alcoholism. By 1969 he was a background figure in surfing, and in the mid-'70s was fired from his lifeguarding job for absenteeism. After fellow California big-wave transplant surfer Jose Angel died in what some felt was a suicidal deep-water dive in 1976, Van Artsdalen went into an alcoholic depression. He died of liver failure on July 17, 1979, at age 38. Fred Hemmings, 1968 world surfing champion, eulogized Van Artsdalen on the beach at Pipeline, then led a group of surfers into the water to scatter his ashes.

Van Artsdalen was married twice and had two children. Windansea Surf Club has held the annual Butch Van Artsdalen Memorial Paddleboard Competition since 2007.