A Tale Of Smuggling, Bad Grace & The Best Wave Of Lord Ted’s Life

The following is an excerpt from Surf, Sweat & Tears, a biography chronicling the epic life and mysterious death of British surfing legend Viscount Edward William Deerhurst, otherwise known Lord Ted. In this chapter, author Andy Martin recounts a trip to Bali in the early ’80s that would prove seminal not only for Ted’s surf career but also his alleged demise, for it was on this trip that he first encountered the man, dubbed ‘Pit bull,’ who would be later be linked by some to his murder. Click here to grab a copy of the book from the Wavelength Shop.

Surfing magazines have two favourite questions in their interviews. “What was your best moment?” and “What was your worst moment?” The highs and the lows of surfing. Intense either way. If I’d had the opportunity to bowl these two classic questions at Ted, he might well have replied “Bali” to both. Bali contained both the best and the worst moments. The strange thing is that it was the same moment. It was “unreal,” it was flat for a week, it was beautiful, it was terrible, he got ill, he killed a scorpion. But, specifically, there was that one wave, the one that contained everything, to the point of madness and melancholia. And you can see it all right there in Asian Paradise, if you look closely enough. But there is a mystery here: why was it that Dan Merkel turned off his camera? After all, he was getting paid–by Dick Hoole–to shoot the film. But, in this particular case, he didn’t.

The friction between them had started well before. They were a large crew of people, maybe there was bound to be some kind of aggro. There was the Japanese contingent, a dozen or more. Which, considering they were funding the film, was reasonable. The director/producer was Hideaki Ishii. Surfing was a growth industry in Japan, and the young Japanese surfers were kitted out like advertising hoardings. Everybody was advertising everything. And Ted was part of that. While surfing in Japan, a Japanese company had taken a shine to him. They thought he had a classic surfer look. In Japan, Ted was king: he was the archetype. They didn’t care whether or not he was world champion. He just walked into a shop one day, and walked out again half an hour later with a huge smile on his face and a cheque for $10,000 in his pocket. Ted had dreamed of sponsorship and now his dream had come true. He knew that this was the beginning of great things for him. Hence Bali. In Bali, Ted was like an honorary Japanese guy. Filming by Dick Hoole. And Dan Merkel (credits also include Don King and Greg Huglin and Randy Rarick).

Dan Merkel drove a gold Mercedes and wore a two-ounce gold chain around his neck. He was then–and still is– probably the most famous water cameraman in the surfing world. For one thing, he had worked on Big Wednesday, the all-time classic surf movie, scripted by John Milius, and shot in 1977 and ’78. Merkel’s speciality was to get right into the heart of the action. He didn’t shoot from the beach, he shot from in the water, using a waterproof housing around his camera. And he used a boogie board, so he would duck and dive just like the surfers themselves. He captured not just the look of surfing but what it felt like to be inside the tube, hear- ing the roar, speeding down the line, getting smacked on the head by the lip. Every now and then it could go wrong. If you look at a few frames of Big Wednesday very carefully, you can see that, in a shot of the biggest most destructive wave in the whole film, there is–in the corner of the screen–the image of a very small boat about to get crushed by a wave and a couple of guys hurling themselves overboard. Merkel was one of those guys. The boat was not such a great idea that day.

And now Merkel was the go-to guy for water shots. Which is why he was in Bali.

Bali was not virgin territory where surfing was concerned, but close to. It was certainly, in those days, relatively uncrowded. Bali had first shot to fame thanks to Morning of the Earth, filmed in 1971, Australia’s first big-budget surf movie, and one of the most influential of all time. Bali was the Garden of Eden in this film. It felt like they had found paradise. Obviously the fall of man couldn’t be far behind. In Byron Bay, I stayed with Rusty Miller, originally from San Diego, who was one of the small crew of surfers who were filmed pioneering Ulu Watu, the beautiful but supremely dangerous break on the southern tip of the island where the huge left-hander breaks into cave-mouths under the shadow of a Buddhist temple high on the cliffs above. No one had ever surfed here before, at that time. Now in the eighties, it was a magnet for visiting Australians (“We ruined it!” lamented Rusty Miller.) Even I had surfed there, or tried to. Which perhaps explains why most of the filming for Asian Paradise was done at Padang Padang, still relatively unknown and uncrowded, the next bay down from Ulu Watu. An almost virgin wave. Perfect for Ted and his Japanese crew members.

Indonesia, as the eighties unfolded, gradually revealed itself as a constellation of glittering new breaks. But none, I think, could have thrown up a better wave than Padang Padang on the day that Ted and his crew blew into town to surf it. And the miracle of it was that Ted had the wave of the day, “the backside tube of his life,” as Dick Hoole described it. It wasn’t like Croyde when he had surfed some good waves and yet Panda had had the better of it. No, Ted had the wave of the day, no question about it. “The best wave of his life” according to Greg Huglin. This was a wave that was as close to perfection as it was ever likely to get. And the light was just right too. So perfect for filming. Because the two things inevitably went together. The idea of “soul surfing,” where the surfer would just go off on his own and surf his heart out and then return to civilization and regale the audience with tale of his exploits, was dead in the water. A mere surf bard, town- crier style–as in Hawaii of old–would no longer suffice. Ted was employed by his Japanese company. They wanted good pictures of him surfing and showing off their brand at the same time. It made perfect sense. So Ted had to not just surf well, he had to be seen to surf well.

And on this particularly perfect day at Padang Padang he really was seen, and filmed, by Dick Hoole on the beach. Ted was on it. He was right in position. The light was good for shooting. For some reason, everything fell into place. He had the biggest, most perfectly formed wave of the day coming right at him and everybody else was out of position. He stroked into the path of the beast, leapt to his feet, and flew down the face of the wave, and span back up towards the crest. Which is when the lip jutted right out over his head and came roaring down beyond him, embracing him, engulfing him in the great churning vortex at its core that surfers call the tube. So easy to lose the line and be thrown over. But Ted didn’t lose the line. Perhaps he had learned from hours of watching Shaun Tomson how to steer a line through the tube and keep ahead of the curl. Like walking a rope over Niagara.

I don’t see how Ted could have surfed any better. I don’t see how anyone could have surfed that wave better than Ted. Here he was sponsored by the Japanese and now he was effortlessly dropping into the wave of his life. And he was being filmed. Everything was working out exactly the way it was supposed to. For once, all of those adjectives on the heroic side of the surfing lexicon would apply: classic, awe- some, epic, all-time. There was Dick on the shore and Dan in the water. Both of them filming. Stick the two together and you would have the best ever footage of a tube ride, starring none other than good old Ted Deerhurst himself, tube-rider extraordinaire.

But take a close look at Asian Paradise. Watch what happens at the end of Ted’s ride. In order to explain it we need to backtrack a little to the scene with the drugs in the hotel. This isn’t in the film. But I heard about it from two sources, Dick and Dick’s wife, Carmel. It sort of explains why Carmel and Dick agreed to go their separate ways not long after this too.

In this behind-the-scenes scene, a surfer is on the floor in their hotel room stuffing hashish into a surfboard. He had hollowed out the fins and the stringer and was pressing little bags of resin into the gaps. Later on he would seal it all up. And smuggle the drugs back to Hawaii or Australia. Mostly Hawaii. It was considerably cheaper than the Hawaiian equivalent, so there was a margin to be made on shipping it over, in quantity. A small network of pipelines was being set up, not just Bali. Surfers were being used as willing mules. It was how they made money.

Pit Bull could therefore be considered some kind of mogul behind the film, off-screen. Even if he was mainly there for “business.” He was “investing,” making “transactions.” Behind his shades he smiled a lot. The kind of smile that chills you at ten paces.

“You have to respect Pit Bull,” said Dick.

“Do you?” I said.

The fact is that Ted did not respect Pit Bull. He did have a soft spot for Sally though. Pit Bull was naturally built like a pit bull (a breed of dog he kept several of in Hawaii). And Sally was his girlfriend. And she liked Ted, too. Of course, Ted would never be crazy enough to get involved with Pit Bull’s girlfriend (at least, not back then). But that didn’t mean he had to like the set-up. Some of the surfers were recruited as couriers. Ted was invited to join in, but he refused on principle. He was not averse to having an occasional puff himself, in a self-medicating way, but Ted deemed the smuggling of drugs and the supplying of drugs–the whole half-secret, half-visible underworld that made it all happen– unethical. The early years of pro surfing were largely funded by a pervasive drug-running operation. Morocco, Columbia, California, it was a global system which, in effect, was sponsoring “professional” surfing. At a certain point in its evolution, surfing was more of a cover story for drug smuggling than anything else. But Ted didn’t want it to be a cover story for something else. Pit Bull smiled a lot, but Ted was suspicious of Pit Bull and kept his distance. It didn’t matter to Pit Bull, he was going to do what he had to do regardless of Ted, it was business after all, and he could do it because everybody else rolled along with the whole scheme.

Dan Merkel was annoyed with Ted because he thought he was getting on his high horse about it. Moralising like some Sunday School teacher. Whereas Ted thought he was trying to prevent young people from becoming junkies. Dan thought Ted was trying to tell everyone what they could and could not do. What was wrong with marijuana anyway? From his point of view it was all just part of the counterculture. Nobody was forcing anybody to smoke anything. It was up to them. Someone like Pit Bull was just providing a service. And if he could get away with a little financing, then all credit to him. It required balls and ingenuity, even if he was mostly getting other people to do the hard work for him. He wasn’t so much at risk as they were.

Consequently, Ted and Dan had had words. They had agreed to disagree. But with a bad grace. Ted would never back down in an argument and Dan thought that he was being like a typical English lord, treating everyone else like peasants. And anyway he wasn’t–so says Merkel even now–a “serious professional” and he, Merkel, would always save his film for the money shot (and of course this was all self-fulfilling, since had he taken the shot then Ted would have been “serious,” but since he didn’t he wasn’t).

And so we return to the perfect day and the perfect wave and Ted exiting, with supreme skill, from the tube. He didn’t make a single misstep. This is truly the wave of his entire life. And he knows that Dick is filming from his position on shore. But as he pulls out of the wave, as it loses energy and rolls on to spill its guts on the beach, Ted turns in the direction of Dan Merkel, who is sitting on his boogie board, camera in hand, poised. And you can see, in the film of Asian Paradise, that Ted is addressing a question to Merkel, now the wave has passed. Maybe he is nervous even asking the question. Perhaps he fears the answer. “Hey Dan, did you get it? You did, didn’t you? Because that was the greatest wave ever. Tell me you got it on film…”

But Dan merely shakes his head. No, he didn’t film it. He had the camera switched off. He can see Ted dropping into the wave of his young life and–despite being paid for precisely this job–he declines to film Ted on the wave. Just to punish him for being such a–as Dan thinks of him–“Little Lord Fauntleroy.” A spoilt brat and pushy too. A jerk. And not a serious professional. This will teach him.

It’s like a kick in the teeth for Ted. You can almost hear him sigh as he sinks down into the water. Almost as if he had been stricken, struck down by Dan Merkel’s voluntary failure, his refusal to film. “Uncool of Dan,” said Greg Huglin, who was on the beach watching all this unfold. “How crushing that must have been for Ted. He has his best wave ever, and he had the best water photographer right there, and he doesn’t take the shot.” Greg Huglin didn’t have the highest opinion of Ted as a rule, but on this day he did. “He was world-class–at that time.”

As it turned out, this was not just a high point for Ted, it was probably his highest point, ever. It was also his lowest. He was stoked and disappointed and depressed all at once.

Pick up a copy of Surf, Sweat & Tears here. Plus, for more on Ted’s life keep an eye out for a new exhibition opening at Croome Court in June 2022.

Cover photo courtesy of Dick Hoole, from the pages of Surf, Sweat & Tears.

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