In Cold Blood meets Hawaii Five-0 in the mysterious case of UK surfer Lord Ted

In his biography of British surfer Ted Deerhurst, Andy Martin paints a heartbreaking portrait of a journeyman competitor who never quite made it, and creates a convincing narrative around his puzzling demise, writes Roger Cox
Surf, Sweat and Tears, by Andy MartinSurf, Sweat and Tears, by Andy Martin
Surf, Sweat and Tears, by Andy Martin

​As previously noted in this column, since the sport of surfing first started to spread around the world at the beginning of the 20th century, it has generated surprisingly little in the way of quality literature. Sure, there's no shortage of books about surfing out there, but put "surfing books" into Amazon and you'll mostly find travel guides telling you where to go surfing, instruction manuals telling you how to go surfing, glossy interior design tomes telling you what your funky surfer home should look like and, of course, countless volumes of surf photography.

​If you're on the hunt for books with a bit of intellectual heft, though – books that transcend their subject matter – you'll struggle to find more than 20. Fiction-wise, your list will almost certainly feature Breath by Booker-shortlisted Aussie Tim Winton and a couple by Surf Noir writer Kem Nunn (the latter's novel Tapping the Source was the inspiration for the film Point Break), and in terms of non-fiction, you'll probably have William Finnegan's acclaimed memoir Barbarian Days, Dan Duane's insightful California travelogue Caught Inside and David Rensin's innovatively structured Miki Dora biography All For A Few Perfect Waves. And you’d definitely want to include Stealing the Wave, the brilliant psychological portrait of the intense rivalry between big wave surfers Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo, written in 2007 by Cambridge University academic and surf journalist Andy Martin.

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Given that the list of serious surf scribes is so short, a new book by any of them is a big deal, so it was a treat, over Christmas, to be able to sit down and read Martin's latest, Surf, Sweat and Tears (OR Books, £16). Subtitled "The Epic Life and Mysterious Death of Edward George William Omar Deerhurst", the book is an odd mixture of surf biography and Hawaiian Noir – and while that latter expression sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is one that's central to the story.

"I wanna stay in America and surf with my friends" - Ted Deerhurst, aged 15, leaving California with his father."I wanna stay in America and surf with my friends" - Ted Deerhurst, aged 15, leaving California with his father.
"I wanna stay in America and surf with my friends" - Ted Deerhurst, aged 15, leaving California with his father.

To say that Deerhurst was an anomaly in the surfing world is to understate the case: even in a sport full of self-styled misfits, he stood out like a sore thumb. As the son of the Earl of Coventry, he was styled Viscount Deerhurst from birth and was destined, on the death of his father, to become the next earl and inherit an enormous Neo-Palladian stately pile in Worcestershire to go with the title.

As Martin makes clear, though, Ted's upbringing was anything but privileged; when his parents divorced, his American mother gained custody, but only on the condition that Ted should grow up in England. After a period at a boarding school which he hated, his mother took him to Califorina to live with her and it was here that he fell in love with surfing – for a while he was even best mates with the skateboarding legend-in-waiting Tony Alva. The British aristocracy was not going to have one of its own Americanised, however, and Ted was eventually forced to return to the UK, very much against his will. When he turned himself in to the cops after a brief period on the run, the 15-year-old Ted told the waiting TV cameras: "I wanna stay in America and surf with my friends."

Ted's time in California may have been cut short, but it had sparked an intense love of surfing, and as soon as he could he turned pro, travelling around the world full-time in order to compete.

Trouble was, Ted never quite had what it took to break into the sport's elite. In 1978 he made the semi-finals of the Smirnoff contest at Sunset Beach in Hawaii – a notable achievement – but even though he kept competing until he was 40, he never cracked the top 100.

Author Andy Martin with one of Ted Deerhurst's Excalibur surfboardsAuthor Andy Martin with one of Ted Deerhurst's Excalibur surfboards
Author Andy Martin with one of Ted Deerhurst's Excalibur surfboards

Martin, who met "Lord Ted" on various occasions while writing about surfing for a UK newspaper, frequently casts him as an idealist – someone who lived by an almost chivalric, never-say-die code and was always trying to better himself. At one point in his career he became obsessed with finding the perfect board; then, latterly, he became convinced that if he could just find the perfect woman things would click for him out in the water. Unfortunately for Ted, his idea of a perfect woman was also someone else's, and this is where the book starts to become what the author Lee Child has described as "like Truman Capote with shorts".

Hawaii, Martin notes, is supposed to be paradise, but he does a convincing job of sketching out the island chain's dark underbelly – a complicated tangle of organised crime and post-colonial grievance. As intimated by the book's subtle cover design, which sees Ted standing on a sun-kissed, palm-fringed Hawaiian beach, yet with the sky Photoshopped from eggshell blue to an ominous, brooding indigo, as perfect as it may seem, this is no place for idealists.Martin's conclusions about what may have happened to Ted on 4 October 1997 sound reasonable enough; what really sticks in the mind, though, is a sense of profound sympathy for a doomed, somewhat delusional Peter Pan figure, constantly denying reality, constantly striving to achieve something just beyond his reach. Which, in the end, is all of us.

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