A surfing god rides again

Times Staff Writer

SOONER, not later, some screenwriter or producer will seize on the story of surf legend Bunker Spreckels. Shocking that it’s yet to happen. Set in a string of golden locales -- Hollywood, Santa Barbara, Oahu -- peopled with kings, sugar barons, movie stars, surfer gods, skate punks and all manner of bell-bottom- and Qiana-clad marginal types, it’s a tale made to be shown on the widest of widescreens.

Until then, you can more than make do with an evocative new picture-book version of his life: “Bunker Spreckels: Surfing’s Divine Prince of Decadence.” With striking rise-to-wrung-out photographs by veteran surf photographer Art Brewer and an extensive rap-session-cum-interview by C.R. Stecyk III (who co-wrote “Dogtown and Z-Boys”) conducted just weeks before Spreckels’ death in 1977 at 27, the book channels a sort of “Boogie Nights” on water feel.

The heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune, stepson of Clark Gable and a gifted surfing “natural,” Spreckels would seem to have been destined for a road paved with green, but that didn’t make his life simple. Nor was his relationship with Brewer. They met in late 1969 while Brewer was shooting the winter surf in Hawaii for Surfer magazine. Spreckels caught sight of him, and at sunset over the Banzai Pipeline asked if he’d shoot a few frames of him and his board. Then, as quickly as he appeared, the surfer simply “evaporated.”


A year later Modern Photography wanted to use the Bunker shots on its cover, but Brewer had neglected to get Spreckels’ permission. He tracked him down in Kauai, sending along a model’s release. Spreckels’ unequivocal “no way” set off a contentious volley of letters between the two.

Then in 1973, out of the blue, Spreckels turned up on Brewer’s doorstep with an equally unexpected request: Not only did he want to let Brewer into the fold, but he wanted to give him the dubious distinction of being his personal photographer. That came with access, sure. First-class flying, of course. And a new wardrobe to complement it all. The only hitch was that Brewer was retained on the young man’s whim. “If I was fired I’d receive a first-class ticket home. If I quit, I was on my own. No salary, but all expenses paid.”

In time, Brewer saw his share of parties, knife fights, rifle-brandishing, drug-taking and poetic surf-riding that can be described only as transcendent. At least that’s what you see within the frame, in the look of the younger Spreckels before the mutton-chops and big, black ‘70s shades totally obscure him -- the spirit of him.

Torn between two lives

Stecyk’s interview is looped through Brewer’s deeply in-the-moment photographs, and the two elements work together like tricks of memory: one image, one thought catapulting a thread far into the future; another opening like a trap door and landing you deep in a past that seems more like a conjured adventure tale than a page from someone’s daily life.

Spreckels’ great-grandfather arrived in New York from Germany and traded up from grocery stores to beet farms. The family eventually landed in Hawaii and befriended Hawaii’s last absolute monarch, King David Kalakaua. From childhood Bunker Spreckels was a constant presence on the beach, and because of his lineage, some experienced beach boys at Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel taught him maneuvers, tips and secrets that others were not privy to. Back on the mainland, he began to refine his moves, practicing, writes Steyck, “in the manicured perfection of the private access beaches of Point Dume.” In time he added Malibu, Santa Barbara’s then not-so-well-known Hollister Ranch and Channel Islands as well as San Diego’s Sunset Cliff and mainland Mexico to his rotation.

At 18, Spreckels attempted to distance himself from his family and its fortune, returning to Oahu, where he became an itinerant surfer and literally lived off the land -- avocados, macadamia nuts and stalks of bananas. He survived by making surfboards and spent what was left of his time experimenting. Not only was he an expert and inventive rider, he crafted radically short, hard-edged boards that he rode lying down, on his knees and standing up, often changing position several times during a single ride.


Ultimately, there wasn’t any way to square the almost ascetic life he lived as a surfer in his early years with what awaited him at home -- the society columnists, the white-collar life his family hoped for him. Money, as it does, complicated things. And a not-so-unexpected turn occurred when his inheritance entered the picture. Surfing went from 24/7/365 passion to calling card, a vehicle to gain entry to other worlds. He evaporated again -- this time into a sped-up life of money, drugs, women and guns.

But even at the end of his too-short, lived-to-the-edges life, he never stopped surfing, never lost sight of the “why” hovering out on the horizon. It never evaporated. Those waves, those curls, were: “Something beautiful to look at, something beautiful to think about in a society that’s pretty [messed up]. Something that you can still do that’s just beautiful, aesthetic.”