Phil Jarrat reflects on the Hawaiians who held court in the late 70s.
Having handed the reins of Tracks to the illustrious Paul Holmes, I had become a contributing editor of Surfer Magazine, where I was given the weight of producing the lion’s share of profile pieces for the year and told to report for duty at the Surfer house on the North Shore for a month each November/December. Although Gerry Lopez, Rory Russell and Reno Abellira were far from spent forces, it was clear that something new was happening, and inevitably and not for the first or last time in my surf journalism career, I wrote an article called “Changing of the Guard”.
In many ways it was a stupid piece – I even wrote off MR as inconsistent, just as he was about to start his unprecedented four-year reign as unbeatable world champ – but I did hit a few nails on the head when I suggested that the future lay with the likes of Dane Kealoha, Michael Ho and just possibly Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani. Astute students of history will note that none of the above was ever to win a world title, but my god, they were where the excitement was that season.
I don’t know if today’s new guard of young Hawaiian surfers are as colourful as these guys were, but I do know that the difference in these seasons more than 40 years apart is that in 1978 performance in Hawaii was career-defining, whereas today it’s just another brick in the wall around the house you have to build to make the CT. Sure, if you blow up on the North Shore you can make the cover of the few remaining surf mags and be all over Instagram and Youtube, but if you want to be on the big tour you have to smash it in places Buttons never heard of.
The 1978 guys could pretty much call the shots from their own backyard. I interviewed most of them that winter, but because Michael Ho was already an established rising star, I focused on Dane and Buttons, and threw Larry Bertlemann into the mix because even though I thought he was too erratic to be a real threat, on his day he was the most amazing surfer in the world.
Here’s a sampling of short takes on the New Guard of 1978-9:
“I want to try and do everything. As much turning and as much radical maneuvers as I can do… you know, just overpower the wave.”
Dane Kealoha speaking. He of the Charles Atlas physique and Bertlemann school of rip and tear. The dark kid with the muscles on his muscles. The one that surfs like a wingwalker on speed… He’s on the tour even though he’s not too sure where it’s going. “Right now, it’s like I’m getting married: I think it’ll be all right, you know what I mean? I think surfing right now doesn’t really show any possibility of you making a career out of it. In time I think it will, but right now I just want to do it. I want to win, I want to have an income… I’m just gonna try and push, and I know I’m not gonna look back. Just go floorboard all the way.”
That’s what we called the 14-page article – Floorboard All The Way.
Kaluhiokalani. It’s a lovely, lilting Hawaiian name that drives me crazy with desire for a moonlit outrigger ride from Kaisers to the beach with a cool mai tai in hand. But Buttons is in fact “half-Hawaiian, half-black, little bit Chinese”. He’s also half-fast, half-slow, little bit all over the place. He explains it thus: “I’m Hawaiian, man. We don’t care. We just surf and cruise. I need someone to tie me down.”
At 20, Buttons is now an outside chance to crack the pro circuit. He has the ability, but neither the patience nor the aptitude…and that might leave him skating around the periphery of big-time surfing. Blowing people’s minds wherever he goes. Buttons still lives on the Waikiki street he moved to with his mom (when his parents split up) when he was five years old. Born on the North Shore, his roots are firmly in the Town tradition of go for it, whatever it is. “Those Town kids are crazies,” says a friend, “but Buttons, he’s the craziest of them all.”
It didn’t take Buttons and his brothers long to get surf crazed. “We used to get so many beatings and lickings. We’re up in the apartment, right? An’ five o’clock in the morning we’d throw this rope down and take off for the beach, just run, man. An’ my mom, she’s yellin’ and screamin’ at us. We never needed no father, man. My mom, she’s kinda half-man, half-lady, you know? She’s a righteous person, but back then she didn’t know what was happening with us.”
Ah, Buttons. Five years gone. We had some times.
To hear Larry tell it, he’s doing rather well. In fact, to hear Larry tell it, he’s doing somewhat better in the field of professional sport than Ali, Jimmy Conners and OJ Simpson put together. To hear Larry tell it, you better sit down and order a drink or three because it’s gonna take a while.
Modest is not the word that springs to mind in connection with Larry Mahau Bertlemann, 24. Unassuming doesn’t fit either. Bertlemann has—and he’ll be the first to admit it—an outrageously overblown ego. He also has an overblown, almost weird ability to set new standards in performance surfing. Erratic and often just plain ugly to watch, Bertlemann will occasionally explode into an aerial rotation that defies not only gravity but rational expectations as well. He is a truly gifted surfer who will stand out in the history of the sport as one of the originals, and yet he will never grace the record books.