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Saturday, April 21, 2007 | Butch Van Artsdalen was the quintessential La Jolla surfer: Tough, mysterious, troubled, gifted and cool. He lifeguarded on the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, dominated the peak at WindanSea and set sporting records at La Jolla High School that have never been beaten.
Tifani Swink is Van Artsdalen’s daughter. She never knew her famous father, but she inherited his emerald green eyes and his trademark stare. She also inherited his passion for the ocean and her home beach of WindanSea.
This year, Swink became the new president of the WindanSea Surf Club, one of the oldest and most venerable surf clubs in the United States. We talked to her about surf localism and surviving cancer, about where the surf club’s headed and where it came from. We also talked about what happens when the surf dude in charge of the club ain’t a dude.
How would you define WindanSea’s reputation in the surfing world?
We’ve always just been the best surfers, having the best fun.
There’s the reputation of having a lot of fun, of a tight-knit brotherhood. Surfing was different back in the day. If you were a surfer then you were a renegade, an outlaw. These days it’s evolved into something so different. WindanSea is extremely proud of its history and a lot of the guys like to live up to it, they like to keep it going. They don’t want a bunch of people coming into the surf break unless they’ve paid their dues.
You just can’t paddle out there and be a jerk in the water without some repercussions. You’ve got to earn your position out in the lineup. And yeah the reputation is … well, it’s not a place I recommend for someone to just go out with an attitude and just surf.
It’s a dangerous spot, just the wave itself makes it a dangerous place.
But we’re like a family. We’re a dysfunctional family. If somebody in our family is falling down, or something’s happening — an illness or something with their family — we all pull together and help them. We take care of each other.
You called it a brotherhood, but you’re a woman. How did you get your position?
I joined as a “booster” — that’s someone who donates money to the club. Then there’s a process, you can’t just show up and say “Hey, I want to be in the club.” You can show up and do a lot of contributing, but you can’t just decide you want to be in the club. It’s invitational only.
Someone in the club offers you an application and it’s about a two-year process. I helped with the Menehune event (an event for young surfers) and paid my dues. I met some incredible friends — friends for life.
Then, I was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. I was secretary of the club and I was unable to really fulfill my duties. But getting sick was one of the best things that ever happened to me, it changed my life for the positive and I stayed with the club and got involved with the Special Olympics event — helping homeless children.
Then someone said “We should have Tifani as president.” You just pay your dues — you participate and it just happens. Somebody just said “You should do it, because you boss all the boys around.”
Have you met with any resistance from the guys?
None to my face. None to my ears. Maybe, but honestly I have been so supported because my No. 1 goal for this year has been the kids — the groms — and I have about 10 to 12 hot, and I mean phenomenal, surfers.
I looked at this and said my goal is, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to focus on the future. The ex-president said “Do the math — no new members, no new kids equals no club.” So that’s my main focus.
How would you say the stretch of coastline — La Jolla — from Bird Rock to Black’s Beach, compares to other parts of the United States for surfing?
I think definitely WindanSea is one of the most beautiful and best places to surf. But I think if you get out there and you go to Costa Rica or to Hawaii, you come back and I think you have a better appreciation for how beautiful WindanSea is. It is the most beautiful stretch of beach.
But I don’t even surf Windansea. I like warm water and I have a secret spot in Costa Rica that I love. My stepfather has a house at Lanikai (on Oahu’s North Shore). I like surfing in places where there’s warm water.
I think WindanSea’s better left alone. The boys are just so territorial over those spots. But my girlfriends, they just rip. The women in the club, they’re not only gracious and classy, but they rip, surfing.
Do you think the surfing crowds are getting out of control in San Diego?
Well, look at Malibu.
I think when you get more people together in a group, you’re going to get more conflict, because you’re going to get more opinions. I think when there’s less people around, everyone’s apt to be less judgmental and more giving.
When I went through the cancer what I learned was to relax more. It is what it is. Derek Ho (a legendary Hawaiian surfer) said it best. He said “It’s not only that I’ve got to think that I might die from the wave, but I’ve got to think about some guy being all macho and spearing his board at me.”
When my dad’s generation was around, there was a level of respect. I’d like to hope that maybe the next generation will grow up like that.
Describe who your dad was, for someone who has never surfed and knows nothing about surfing.
To me, he was just my dad.
But, Butch was a phenomenal athlete. Not only was he a great athlete playing baseball, football and basketball at La Jolla High — there are still records there that have never been broken, but he was somebody who most people would just envy to have a portion of what he had.
When he got into surfing, he was somebody who I think connected with Pipeline (a famous surfing spot in Hawaii). He was a waterman, he was genuinely a waterman. He was a lifeguard for 25 years on Sunset Beach and he saved more lives than anyone. He was on the tower with (legendary Hawaiian lifeguard) Eddie Aikau. It’s been told to me by the Hawaiians that if there was ever anything to go wrong in the water, as long as they knew Butch was around, they knew they were safe.
Unfortunately, Butch was an alcoholic. As with any of the great Greek characters or anyone we know of in history who has been bigger than life, there’s always been an ironic twist to their downfall. I’m 38 now and he died at my age. I think it’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.
Ninety-nine percent of the people I’ve met that knew my dad get this twinkle in their eye. When he walked into the room he was infectious. They loved him, he had an energy and people wanted to be around him.
But there were some people who looked at him and said “He doesn’t look that tough.” But if you pushed him, he’d clock you. He was amazing, he was an amazing person.
What events are the WindanSea Surf Club working on this year?
We’re starting the Butch Van Artsdalen paddle race, on June 2, that’s from the (WindanSea) shack to Crystal Pier and back.
Then we have the Special Olympics, which we’ve been doing for about seven years now. That’s for people with Down Syndrome and autism and also the Day at The Beach for homeless kids at the St. Vincent de Paul’s Center. We have the kids come down to La Jolla Shores and we have a big barbecue for them, then we take them out surfing all day.
We just give them a day at the beach.