‘Remembering Butch’: Book tells the stories of late La Jolla surfer

"Remembering Butch: The Butch Van Artsdalen Story" is about the surf legend who lived in La Jolla during his teens.
“Remembering Butch: The Butch Van Artsdalen Story” is about the surf legend who lived in La Jolla during his teens.

“Everyone has a Butch story.”

So says author Douglas Cavanaugh about surfer Butch Van Artsdalen. And so says Carl Ekstrom. And Mike Hynson. And Hank Warner. And Melinda Merryweather. And members of the Windansea Surf Club.

To share their stories, Cavanaugh wrote and recently published “Remembering Butch: The Butch Van Artsdalen Story,” a biography about the surf legend who rode the waves at Ehukai Beach in Hawaii known as the Banzai Pipeline and lived in La Jolla for five years and surfed at Windansea Beach. He died at age 38 in 1979.

“When I get into something, I get into the history,” Cavanaugh said. “In the mid-1990s, I watched a surfing documentary that had a small segment on Butch. At the end of his part, it said he died at 38 from alcoholism. To drink yourself to death at 38 is jaw-dropping, so I wanted to know more about how he got to that point.”

He found Van Artsdalen’s friends and people he surfed with and collected a lot of stories.

Butch Van Artsdalen
Butch Van Artsdalen “got to know everyone. He was a good boy and a bad boy,” friend Mike Hynson says.
(Ron Church)

Van Artsdalen lived in La Jolla during his teens and surfed at Windansea during that time.

“Butch’s father was an abusive alcoholic, so he looked for older surfers at Windansea to be his father figures. But they were nuts, too!” Cavanaugh said. “He took everyone’s mentality and took it a quantum leap forward. When he conquered the Banzai Pipeline, people started to realize not only could you survive these waves but crush them if they had the right mentality.”

Van Artsdalen moved to Hawaii after high school to continue his surfing career, but grew frustrated with the competitive nature of surfing as contests started to grow in popularity.

“He hated the fact that people were focusing on winning surf contests more than surfing,” Cavanaugh said. “The thing about surfing is, you are a total individual. When contests started becoming the focus, judges decided what they liked or didn’t like and surfers would lose their style. He liked the fame, but at the same time he didn’t like where it was going. He very much thought like a Hawaiian.”

As the culture changed, Van Artsdalen delved deeper into drinking and eventually died of alcohol-related illness.

Butch Van Artsdalen surfed at Windansea when he lived in La Jolla.
Butch Van Artsdalen surfed at Windansea when he lived in La Jolla.

In his heart, “Windansea was his family,” Cavanaugh said.

Ekstrom, a surfer born and raised in La Jolla, took Van Artsdalen to Windansea for the first time. “Butch immediately took to the waves,” he said. “He was an athletic guy and very talented. I grew up with him and there was a lot of wild times with him. He was a real good friend. He got along with everyone really well at Windansea. It was a lot of fun to be around him. It was a great time for him to be there.”

Ekstrom recalled when some teenagers from Clairemont went to La Jolla to fight Van Artsdalen. “We were all at a dance up at the La Jolla Rec Center. This guy and his buddies showed up, and the main guy probably outweighed Butch by 40 pounds. The police officer that was watching the dance sent us across the street when it looked like we were going to fight. I thought Butch was in trouble. Butch knew how to move, so they boxed for a while. The guy grabbed Butch and I thought he was done. But somehow, Butch came up on top and the other guy hollered for him to stop. He acknowledged Butch was the toughest guy they had ever seen.”

Hynson, a surfer who knew Van Artsdalen during his Hawaii years, said: “He got to know everyone. He was a good boy and a bad boy. Butch and I were really good friends, but I was cocky and a wise [guy]. So we had some encounters.”

One time Hynson got caught in the surf at Waimea Bay and lost his board. He was stuck in the ocean for what felt like hours.

“It took me awhile to get back,” he said. “I got up to the beach and onto the highway to catch a ride home. I was exhausted. And who pulls up? Butch Van Artsdalen. Of all people to come find me, it was Butch. But we were really good friends, so he didn’t give me too much of a hard time for it.”

Warner recalled a trip on the California coast down to Mexico in which Van Artsdalen’s sentimental side came through.

“We were driving back, and halfway, Butch yells ‘Stop the car! My hat blew out the window!’ I had to turn the car around, drive around really slowly, find the hat and get it back. We headed back and he yelled again, ‘Stop the car!’ The hat band that matched his dog’s collar was missing. So we had to go back and get it. People know Butch as a rough and tumble guy, but he was sentimental and sweet.”

Similarly, Merryweather, a lifelong La Jollan, said: “I had many good adventures with Butch. One favorite was when we borrowed someone’s VW ‘Bug’ and he drove it down the stairs next to the Colonial Hotel from Prospect Street to Coast Boulevard at Scripps Park. And another favorite story is that he loved to drink Scotch and water with my grandmother Michael Lavender. I lived with her in the summer and would come home to find them talking and drinking in her lovely den.”

“Remembering Butch: The Butch Van Artsdalen Story,” with 182 pages of stories, is available at ◆