Skateboarding legend Tony Alva’s longtime friend Chuck Ames unearthed a rare 8mm film he made of Tony Alva, Ted Deerhurst, and John Davison surfing, and skating at Linclon Jr. High School, the Santa Monica Jetty, and Bixby Ranch in Santa Barbara, back in 1971.
Above Ted at Pipeline Photo: Divine
There were clearly defined periods in Ted’s life. Each had a name, a brand. The Lightning Bolt era gave way to Sabre; Sabre gave way to Excalibur. Which gave way to Lola.
In a way, Excalibur had always been there.
Everyone remembers the legend of Excalibur – the magic sword that Merlin places in the stone (or anvil), and which can only be removed by the true King. All the young wannabes, the pretenders, troop up and confidently grasp the hilt but are unable to take possession of the sword, no matter how hard they try. Only young Arthur, quite unexpectedly, but effortlessly, can grasp the sword and make it his own. Thus he is the One, divinely appointed and sole heir to Uther Pendragon. “Whoso pulleth Out this Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England” (Thomas Malory). Some say that the sword in the stone and Excalibur are two different swords, some say they are one and the same, but either way, Excalibur is a magic sword. That sword is like a crown, bejewelled and engraved with mystic messages. If you own it, you rule. A weapon of immense power, but also an instrument of peace. Even the scabbard in which the sword rests is itself magical and can heal the wounded. In the end, as Arthur lays dying, and is spirited away downriver on a transcendent barge, he commands one of his attendants to cast the sword into the water, where a mysterious hand – belonging to the Lady in the Lake – rises up to receive it and from whom, one fine day, it is destined to be reclaimed by a descendant of Arthur, who will recreate the Round Table and the wonderful land of Camelot. Recovered from the water. From the hand of the Lady of the Lake. A second coming. On a par with the Holy Grail.
Excalibur. Everyone knows it, no one believes it, except for poets, novelists, and Walt Disney.
Ted at Padang Padang Photo: Hoole/McCoy
Ted believed. He had faith. Excalibur was real. And if it wasn’t, well, then he would make it real. He would take a myth and insert it into everyday life and thereby transform the world. He would, in a way, become Arthur. Or at least Merlin. Perhaps he was indeed, if Arthur had any substance to him, through the ancient Coventry family, a descendant of Arthur. He surely had a drop of Arthurian blood running through his veins. Maybe every true born Englishman did. In the absence of a handy stone that he could miraculously draw the sword out of, Ted talked Paul Holmes, an expatriate Brit who was then editor of Surfer, into funding a real sword, to be forged by the jeweller Mitch Nugent in England. A blade made of steel and a hilt cast in bronze and silver and encrusted with sea creatures set against some trop- ical backdrop. “A treasure any king would be proud to wield,” Ted announced to the world. Engraved with the words, “The Spirit of Surfing”, it was to be awarded to the winner of the Excalibur Cup, a charitable surfing competition dreamed up by Ted. “According to legend,” he recalled, “Excalibur could not be defeated in battle, as long as the user would only fight for right and justice, a noble concept.” Only Queen Guinevere was missing – but surely, reasoned Ted in his mystic logic, once Excalibur existed then Guinevere could not be far behind. As it once had been, so it must be again: the present moment appeared as only a temporary falling away from perfection, a transient and intermediate state that could not endure.
The idea first came to Ted in Australia, he said, when he was having a game of tennis with Rabbit Bartholomew. Singles. Man-on-man. In a classic lightbulb moment, Ted realised that the very same man-on-man concept could be applied to surfing. Eureka! A very fine idea. So fine, in fact, that it had already been espoused by the ASP, the Association of Surfing Professionals. The Excalibur Cup would therefore, in effect, be a rival to the ASP tour, the grand prix circuit. And, to some extent, an antithesis, almost an antagonist. It was Excalibur vs the ASP. Because the ASP was, as its name implies, “professional” and surfers expected or at least hoped that they could earn a living – or at least pay their expenses and keep the wolf from the door – by surfing under its auspices and participating in its contests.
Whereas Excalibur was all about charity.
As Paul Holmes, then editor of Surfer magazine, put it, “Ted was going in the opposite direction”. As was his wont.
Nobody would win any money, nobody would be paid a penny, all proceeds would go directly to good causes, entirely omitting the shrewd and well-paid middle man. Excalibur was a vision of how the world might be. The ASP was simply an extension of the way the world is. Surfing as myth and legend – or surfing as a form of materialism, a career, in which you could work your way up the greasy pole. Ted tried to belong to both worlds, but his heart was really in Excalibur, the chivalric code. Chivalry was not yet extinct.
“To gain, one has to be willing to give.” Such was the founding principle of Excalibur. The idea was to encourage or enable underprivileged or disabled kids to get to the beach and enjoy the “spirit of surfing”. A non-profit foundation was formed, its mission “to promote the sport of surfing, teach its participants the chivalrous concept of doing for others, and to raise funds for less fortunate individuals so they may enjoy their lives.” At first, Ted’s idea took off. He found established surfers willing to give of their time and energy and prowess in a quest for virtue and altruism. It was true Round Table stuff. These were one-day events involving the top eight surfers in the world. They pulled in the crowds and they raised thou- sands of dollars for youngsters. The inaugural event in 1982 at Burleigh Heads took place amid six-foot barrels and was won by Hawaii’s Michael Ho, beating Australian Cheyne Horan in the final. Perhaps the result could even heal the wounds inflicted by the Bustin’ Down the Door war and thus usher in everlasting peace. Ted recruited Australians who were towering figures in the sport such as Derek Hynd and Mark Richards to do the live commentary. Not to mention Australian “Playmate of the Year”, Lyn Barron.
When Ted moved back to America in 1986 he took the Excalibur Cup with him. The “Excalibur Cup Foundation” was formed, “an independent non-profit corporation”. He had a vision of “getting the attention of all America” and raising at least $50,000 for good causes (“Special Populations”, “Monmouth County Seals”). Events took place, with reasonable success in Florida (three-foot barrels and offshore winds) and further north in New Jersey. “Much like in the legend of old,” Ted wrote when 15-year-old Kelly Slater – the future many-times-over world champion – took the title, “the youngest proved the most worthy.” They picked up celebrity support from actress and old flame Heather Thomas (by then the star of a TV show, Fall Guy) and Jack Sonni, guitarist with Dire Straits, who was a recent convert and enthusiast. Ted even invited the Prince and Princess of Wales (ie Charles and Di) to hand over the prize (a very pleasant letter from the Palace in response regretfully declined).
Above Author Andy Martin. Photo: Courtesy OR Books
However, putting on surfing contests, as Ted discovered, also requires the cooperation of Nature. After one particularly flat, cold, surf-free day in New Jersey (previously described in Ted’s hopeful notes as “a natural amphitheater” and a “consistent beach break” a mere hour and a twenty minutes train ride out of New York), Ted took the whole event off to the West Coast. Ted wrote, in his Excalibur notebook, that “surfIng has always had difficulty attracting the attention of the general media in America and it was hoped that by including celebrities more interest could be generated and greater amounts raised for our worthy causes.”
To some extent, this theory seemed to be borne out in practice. “Heather Thomas was his Guinevere,” said Paul Holmes. Surfer paid for a whole page in Ted’s program wishing Excalibur CONGRATULATIONS. Ted wrote, “The long lines of fans waiting for Heather’s autograph in the cold weather of N.J’s spring proved this [the celebrity theory] true in 1987”. Surely on the West Coast this would be truer than ever, what with the proximity of Hollywood and Baywatch. Ted had visions of movie hunks and romantic interests desert- ing the set and taking to the waves in their droves. It would be a win-win. They had more to give and therefore more to gain. It was, to Ted’s way of thinking, only logical. But it turned out to be a Faustian pact. Excalibur became dependent on the whim of celebrities. Would they give a thumbs up or down? At the same time, surfing itself was becoming more than ever professional. And, reluctant though Ted was to admit it, something of the elusive “spirit” was being hoovered right out of it. Sponsors were energetically sought, and there was talk of Disney, and Universal Studios, among others, pitching in, but hard cash remained elusive. No Disney but only ‘FIJIAN TANNING PRODUCTS” and “Steve’s Breakfast and Lunch”. At the bottom of the cover of the Excalibur Cup program, 1988, there is a forlorn note: “A Contribution of any amount is appreciated to underwrite the cost of printing”.
Fast-forward to Hawaii, 1991. We are sitting on the beach at Pipeline, Ted and I, waiting for his heat. The waves are perfect, in a way, vertical and tubular, but also precarious and terrifying. They rear up like immense steely blue cylinders, almost industrial, rolling off the assembly line of the reef, then smashing down and pulverising anyone unwise enough to get in the way. As Pottz once said, there is enough skin on that reef to stick a couple of humans together. Ted is fully focused, replaying some tank battle from the Second World War. Alamein perhaps. The sand is the desert. He actually has some toy tanks and soldiers scattered around. He is pointing out that if only Rommel and his Africa Corps had done this or possibly that, then he would have broken through Montgomery’s lines and made it all the way through to the Nile, thus decisively affecting the course of the war.
“How did the Excalibur go?” I say.
The last time I had seen him he was brimming with enthusiasm about the new Excalibur contest. “Chivalry is not dead,” he had written. The rise of the ASP (he was, after all, about to paddle out in an ASP sanctioned event at Pipeline, sponsored by Quiksilver) was an issue, but it was not insuperable. Ted had taken the view that if you can’t beat them, you join them, you hitch a ride on the back of the ASP. So rather than set himself up as Rommel to the ASP’s Montgomery he had wisely compromised and located the next Excalibur Cup in Santa Cruz, California, the day after the ASP contest that was taking place right there, a mile or two away. Ted had even set up an office in Santa Cruz to oversee the whole event.
It was a good plan: all the top surfers – Slater, Pottz and the rest – would fight it out on some classic Santa Cruz waves, they would earn their crust, they would get the accolades from the magazines, and then they would wander a mile or two along the beach and do their good deed, and dedicate a day – only a day! surely they could spare a single day? – to the young ones, poor, underprivileged, some of them disabled, who looked up to and idolised them. The program struck an optimistic note: “SOME OF THE WORLD’S MOST FORTUNATE PROFESSIONALS ARE PROUD TO BE GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO HELP OTHERS”. They would be role models to these kids. Inspirational. Sporting heroes who showed that they had a spark of decency and kindness and caritas. Now abideth faith, hope, and charity, but the greatest of these is charity.
“The waves were great!” Ted says. “Blue skies and off-shore winds the whole day.”
“So the pros turned up then?” I ask, pleasantly surprised. Not sceptical but relieved and reassured about mankind. I had previously dared to express doubts regarding the likelihood of pros exerting themselves for a week at Santa Cruz and then merrily trooping off to volunteer for a day. I would have to take that cynical thought back.
Ted drops a tank down in the middle of a whole bunch of toy soldiers. They are duly annihilated. They cease to exist. “Bastards!” A definite tinge of bitterness.
“How many?” say I.
“Not one,” says he. “Lots of local surfers. They were brilliant. But not one of these pampered, narcissistic super-stars could be bothered to haul their arses up the beach for the sake of the kids.”
I put an arm around his shoulder. Even if he does have a tank in his hand. “Look, man, I guess it was always going to be a big ask to get them to turn up after Santa Cruz. Maybe you could try it before next time? That could work.”
“Next time!” He adds something like “ha!” and kneels down and starts gathering together all the tanks and the soldiers and putting them back in his bag. Then he stops and looks up at me, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand. “Sometimes I am seriously disappointed by the attitude. What ever happened to the Spirit of Surfing?”
“Every man for himself?”
Ted gazes out mournfully at the break. Someone is doing something miraculous: pulling into the tube, disappearing behind the curtain, and then – seconds later – getting spat out at the other end, raising his arms over his head, Hallelujah. The quintessential move. “I used to think surfing was all about giving.” He remembers one of his own lines from a pamphlet he had put together about the Excalibur: “The satisfaction of helping others.”
“Yeah,” I say, sympathetically. “Overcoming the ego. Being at one with the planet, right? Feeling the force.”
“And now…” He doesn’t actually use the word “taking”, but he is clearly thinking it. Perhaps chivalry really is dead after all. Ted, visibly upset. He looks as if he is on the verge of bursting into tears. But then he stiffens his sinews and sticks out his chin and rests one hand on the board he has standing up vertically, neatly, like a soldier at attention, in the sand. Emblazoned with the sword of Excalibur. He is a knight in armour again, only without the armour. “There is a spirit of selfishness abroad,” says he. “We have to keep going and fight against it. For the sake of surfing.”
Any reasonable person would have quit. Ted refused to quit. He was the exact opposite of a quitter. Or reasonable. The more he got knocked back the more he would persist. The worse it was the better. It was like a last-man stand. It was like he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, dying in the desert sands. Ted reminded me of Gary Cooper, the Sheriff, in High Noon. All the townsfolk had deserted him. And the train was due in any moment. But he didn’t care. He had a duty to fulfil. He would face down the bad guys all on his own if he had to. And what if he were to be taken out? Then so be it. The more alone he was, the stronger he felt, the more empowered, a man with a gun in his hand.
The competition klaxon sounded. Ted’s heat was on. He dumped his soldiers with me and grabbed his board and ran down the beach and launched himself into the everlasting maelstrom that is Pipeline and paddled out.
In many ways Ted was ahead of his time. Teaching the blind and disabled to surf. Now every serious competition has a cancer program or a pink ribbon. As late as the summer of 1996, only a year or so before he died, Blackie Blacker reported seeing him in New York, living in the attic of someone’s house, surrounded by boxes of t-shirts, with a notion of getting a new sword engraved with the names of past winners, and all “fired up” about a new edition of the Excalibur Cup. And hoping to recruit Bruce Springsteen to the cause. “He was his old self,” Blackie said.
Undaunted, unbowed, unrelenting.
Copyright © 2020 Andy Martin. May not be reproduced in print or electronically without permission in writing from the publisher.
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