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Pipeline to Heaven: Recalling ‘complicated’ La Jolla surf legend Butch Van Artsdalen

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Butch Van Artsdalen was a sweet man, mean brawler, alcoholic and probably the best big-wave surfer who ever lived, according to biographer Doug Cavanaugh.
(Ron Church / SHACC
)

Butch Van Artsdalen was the kind of person who would have excelled at anything he chose. Surfing is what he chose.

At La Jolla High School, he lettered in baseball, basketball and football. He was even offered a contract as a catcher with the San Diego Padres (when the team was still in the Pacific Coast League). But surfing is what he chose.

And he excelled. The willingness Van Artsdalen displayed to take risks, to push physical limits to the brink of probable self-destruction, served him uncannily in the water.

“In his mind, a true surfer didn’t slide demurely across a wave, praying timidly that he didn’t get killed,” wrote Doug Cavanaugh in “Remembering Butch,” an as-yet-unpublished book he spent six years researching and writing. “A surfer had to find the way to harness the power of the wave. Like the bullfighting he had so long studied, he wanted to get as close to the danger as possible and manipulate it to create something beautiful and flowing.”

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In the early-to-mid ’60s, Van Artsdalen was ranked among the world’s best surfers, achieving stellar status as a member of the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team and the star of several surfing documentaries. He was the original “Mr. Pipeline,” a title conferred for riding the 25-foot waves of Oahu’s treacherous Banzai Pipeline.

This story should include quotes from Van Artsdalen as a senior citizen, kicking back with his grandchildren in a trophy room brimming with golden testaments to his surfing prowess.

But Van Artsdalen’s willingness to push physical limits to the brink of probable self-destruction didn’t serve him well out of the water. He died at 38 years old from self-inflicted liver failure.

“To drink yourself to death at 38 years old — what kind of demons could have been haunting him?” Cavanaugh asked. “His story is like ‘Big Wednesday’ meets ‘Leaving Las Vegas.’ ”

Windansea legs

Born on Jan. 31, 1941, Charles Van Artsdalen — “Butch” was a nickname given by his grandfather — was the first of four children born to Edwin, a nails-tough Navy chief, and his homemaker wife, Hazel, in Norfolk, Virginia. (Two sisters and a brother would arrive later.)

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When Van Artsdalen was 14, the family moved to Navy housing in north Pacific Beach and he entered La Jolla High School as a freshman. Football, basketball and baseball became his life and just about every week, his name appeared in the La Jolla Light for some on-field heroics. (Incidentally, the cheerleaders leading the chants for Van Artsdalen included Raquel Tejada, who would later become a movie star and change her last name to Welch.)

“As a catcher, he had no peer in all of Southern California,” according to Cavanaugh, “and it seemed only a matter of time before the constant local media attention he’d received began to get him noticed.”

It was Carl Ekstrom who altered that trajectory when both he and Van Artsdalen were 15. Ekstrom, today a successful surfboard shaper, made the introductions between his school chum and the surfing community at Windansea which, after Malibu, was the epicenter of ’60s surf culture. Ekstrom had been surfing there since age 11 due to the influence of his popular older brother, Woody.

“There was almost no surf that day,” Ekstrom recalled. “I got him out on real small waves on a big board and his balance was so good, he could immediately stand up. And he could ride right-foot forward. He immediately wanted to stand up and get on the nose, before he ever learned how to turn. He was a real performer, a showman, and he advanced at a remarkable pace.”

As Murphy’s Law would have it, Van Artsdalen wasn’t approached by his first pro baseball scout until his interest in baseball was completely replaced.

“He was a free spirit,” said Van Artsdalen’s sister, Annette Lucas. “He just wanted to surf. By then, my dad was gone, and I would say there was not a great deal of communication between my mother and him about what he should do with his future.”

By then, Van Artsdalen had also developed something of a chip from a broken heart. He had fallen in love with a fellow Viking named Marsha, a wealthy girl whose father insisted that Van Artsdalen take a sales job at Marvin K. Brown Cadillac in order for the relationship to progress.

“That was just never going to happen,” Lucas said.

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Melinda Merryweather, a good friend who said she dated Van Artsdalen once or twice, described him as “troubled — one of those guys that was super tough but super emotional.” She said he was “always torn between his image and his heart, I think.”

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Butch Van Artsdalen does his thing at Windansea Beach.
(Ron Church / SHACC
)

Off the rails

Surfing at Windansea at that time was also inseparable from alcohol and mischief. One of the sights Van Artsdalen took in — as he walked down Nautilus Street with Ekstrom that first day — was a man tied to a stop sign near the parking lot that Tom Wolfe would soon make infamous in his book “The Pumphouse Gang.” The man was stripped completely naked with his underwear placed over his head.

Merryweather recalls that she and Van Artsdalen once stole a tiny Volkswagen, which was parked outside a typically crazy, mostly underage Windansea drinking bacchanal. He drove it down a stairway to the beach from Prospect Street next to the La Valencia Hotel.

“We got to the bottom, it got stuck on the stairs, and we just walked away,” Merryweather said.

Although he didn’t arrive until the ’70s, Bill Fitzmaurice — current president of the Windansea Surf Club — has heard all the stories and described La Jolla in those days as “like an insane asylum if the walls fell down and nobody left.”

Lucas, viewing all this from the eyes of a small child, never gained an appreciation for what her brother had gotten into.

“The best thing I can actually say is that the surfing era then led to a lot of alcohol being around and I think Butch fell into that,” Lucas said. “I know he had another life with the surfers, but I wasn’t involved in it. He didn’t want me around the surfing crowd. He was very protective.”

The alcohol led to fights, as it’s wont to do — occasionally brutal and bloody ones over territory, ego and girls. Often, Van Artsdalen started them. But not always. Standing six-foot-two, all torso and good looks, he was a natural target for less-strapping bullies. (In the 1960 Vikings yearbook, classmates voted him “Best Physique.”)

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“His reputation as a fighter spread almost as fast as his reputation as a wave-rider and with far less beneficial results,” Cavanaugh wrote.

Ekstrom recalled one day at the La Jolla Recreation Center, when this truck of a man and his friends showed up just to challenge Van Artsdalen.

“He outweighed him by a lot,” Ekstrom said, “and he said he wanted to beat Butch up. The cop who was on duty said they had to take it across the street, in front of the (La Jolla Presbyterian) church. And I thought, ‘Wow, Butch is gonna get killed.’ But Butch would duck a punch and counter-punch. Pretty soon, Butch ended up on top. And then the guy was yelling, ‘Stop! You are the toughest!”

Because of the fights, and the nightly underage drinking on La Jolla’s pitch-black beaches, police cars had become an ever-increasing backdrop.

La Jolla resident Doug Moranville, who called Butch “my absolute idol,” spotted him one day being walked down Fay Avenue by two of San Diego’s finest. He had just been in a fight in the stands at some La Jolla High School sporting event.

“In those days, they used to cuff you with your hands in front, because they didn’t know better,” Moranville said. “As I’m talking to the police, trying to convince them to release Butch into my custody, he breaks free and starts climbing the fence to get back into the game and fight the guy some more.”

A mutual antagonism society had developed between law enforcement and the Windansea kids that occasionally threatened to boil over into a full-fledged riot. Prison was starting to look like a possibility to Van Artsdalen if he hung around for too many more years.

All over La Jolla at Waimea Bay

The seed to one day split for Hawaii was already planted by two good Windansea surfing buddies of Van Artsdalen’s. Ronald Patterson moved to San Diego from the islands in 1953 and never stopped talking about how much better the waves were there. And Mike Hynson, who married Merryweather, preceded Van Artsdalen to Oahu’s North Shore and greeted him there with a brand new board sculpted just for him.

“Holy moly mama, it was a whole new ballgame,” surf journalist Corky Carroll wrote of Van Artsdalen’s appearance on the Hawaii surf scene in a 2010 Light article. “He drew from his years of surfing the big, thick peaks out at Windansea and other La Jolla reef breaks and just out-and-out charged it. He set the bar. He was Mr. Pipeline.” (For the record, others would later earn that title — John Peck, Jock Sutherland and Gerry Lopez — but Van Artsdalen was the first and, most agree, the best.)

For a day job, Van Artsdalen worked as a lifeguard at Waimea Bay, probably one of the most dangerous posts on the planet.

“We have letters from generals thanking Butch for saving military guys from the Pipeline,” Lucas said. “I think Butch just was a gem. But I think he had so many different facets to his life that it made him very complicated.”

When longboards and beer became short boards and narcotics, Van Artsdalen felt lost.

“He had nothing in common with these new people,” Cavanaugh said. “Things changed so radically overnight. He lost his identity.”

Van Artsdalen returned to Windansea three or four times in his life, to reconnect with his roots. And he was celebrated — but mostly by a bunch of unfamiliar, much-younger kids who also followed the latest trends in board size and drug ingestion, so the adulation didn’t mean much to him.

“I don’t think Butch ever knew how much people at Windansea looked up to him and told stories about him,” Merryweather said. “He was so loved.”

Crestfallen

Lucas suspects her older brother may have suffered from depression as well as alcoholism.

“I think he did have some issues with sadness,” she said, “but depression wasn’t a thing back then. Neither was rehab for alcoholism. When he came back and he was trying to quit, all they gave him was Valium.”

Van Artsdalen attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 1975, Lucas said, after being told he would die if he didn’t quit booze.

“He tried really hard,” she said, “but they didn’t have the tools back then to help people that they do now.”

Van Artsdalen promised the doctor at Wahiawa General Hospital that he would make appointments to keep tabs on his damaged liver. Somehow, however, he always found more important things to do. The shock of coughing up blood just made him grab for the bottle faster. His next admittance into Wahiawa was his last.

Lucas believes a botched transfusion also contributed to his death on July 18, 1979.

“They called my mom and said that Butch needs a transfusion and he needs someone to go over there and take care of him,” she said. “And she said, ‘Be careful, he has a very rare blood type.’ So I got ready to go and the next phone call we got was, ‘If you want to see Butch alive, you better come to Hawaii now.’

“How can that be?”

Legacy

Butch Van Artsdalen has been dead for 40 years. But a part of him still hangs out at Windansea.

“His name comes up all the time, when we’re all down at The Shack or surfing or looking at images of Hawaii,” said Fitzmaurice. “The guy was and still would be a gnarly surfer, taking on challenges that very few people would ever consider taking on.

“He truly was a big-wave pioneer, and we’re still inspired by his passion, his love of life, and his love of surfing.”


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