Progressive obsession: Ted Robinson to be inducted into the Hermosa Beach Surfing Walk of Fame
By Ed Solt
Ted Robinson has never stopped progressing. The 53-year-old surfer has yet to peak and exhibits strong skills on all types of surf equipment. With his motto, “The right board for the right time,” his eclectic quiver allows Robinson to surf nearly every day.
The 2016 Hermosa Beach Surfing Walk of Fame inductee was introduced to the ocean at the age of five after moving to Manhattan Beach with his mother and brother from his birthplace Alhambra.
“I remember buying a styrofoam kneeboard/kickboard from Johnny’s Toy Store in downtown Manhattan Beach. I caught a few waves and knew from there I had found my calling — the ocean is going to be my life,” Robinson said. “I stood up in the white wash. After 20 minutes, it snapped. I was devastated.”
Robinson’s family home was located off 36th St., walking distance to all the surf spots in Manhattan Beach.
“I grew up surfing all around Manhattan Beach,” he said. “Around 12, I’d seek other opportunities, riding my bike to the Hermosa Beach Pier, the Breakwall, PV.”
His first new surfboard was a Phil Becker shaped, 6-foot-8 Rick wing round pin single fin.
“It was a blessing that I learned how to surf and progress on a single fin,” he said. “A single fin teaches you how to turn and surf properly. Many kids today focus only on big airs without really learning to bottom turn.”
By pedaling The Strand pavement, Robinson was inspired by many of the local surf crews at the different breaks.
“Mike Purpus and the Hot Lips Team, Chris Barela, Mike Benavidez, and Terry Stevens, Mark and Derek Levy, man there’s so many…Dennis Jarvis, Rocky Sabo,” he said. “At the Breakwall, Bobby Warchola and Don Brisken, who was also a shaper and instrumental in making the fish surfboard popular around the South Bay.”
Robinson attended Mira Costa High School. He would have been a part of Costa’s Class of 1981, but took an alternative route popular among surfers at the time, graduating from Redondo Beach’s Pacific Shores continuation school.
“Costa enacted a zero tolerance policy on missing school, 15 days and you were shipped,” he said. “Those days add up real quick surfing.”
Robinson’s amateur competitive career sort of just happened — a career that included winning the Western Surfing Association Malibu Open in 1981, National Scholastic Surfing Association Cayucas Open in 1982, and earning a spot on the 1982 NSSA National Team.
“All my friends were competing in the the ASA [American Surfing Association], WSA and the NSSA, so I got into it,” he said. “I found that results came easier to me than most. I was surprised.”
A contemporary pro surfer can be a “free surfer,” embarking on trips to exotic locations and living off photo incentives and salaries paid by brand sponsors. Although Robinson made a few prominent magazine covers and inside spreads, in his day, pro surfers led a more battle-hardened life.
They relied on contest results.
“I went to many different extents to prepare for a contest,” he said. “I’d surf prior to the contest during the same time of my heat, either at the contest site or near it, to get a feel for the swell, tide, beach contours, and wind.”
Robinson was a part of a South Bay NSSA competition crew that included fellow Hermosa Beach Surf’s Walk of Fame 2016 inductee Kelly Gibson, Chris Frohoff, and Nick Christensen that was honored in the surf press by Surfer Magazine editor and surf historian Matt Warshaw. After going pro, Robinson earned a spot on the Association of Surfing Professional World Circuit Tour known today as the “WSL” or the World Surfing League.
“Ted, along with Chris Frohoff and Kelly Gibson, accomplished a very rare trifecta, all three earning their way onto the elite World Tour comprised of a Top 16 best surfers,” said legendary surf photographer Mike Balzer. “To have three surfers from the South Bay qualify onto the World Tour was rare and proved the talent they had honed in the waves of the South Bay. To qualify for the Top 16 puts them in very rare company. No other South Bay surfers have competed at this elite level.”
Gibson was Robinson’s travel mate on the WCT. In the ‘80s, the WCT was geared more towards an audience on the beach than today’s WSL dream tour of 11 events at premier surf spots. The tour consisted of 40 to 50 stops a year.
“I’d wake up not knowing what city I was in. I had a lot of pressure to succeed to keep qualified on the tour. It was a whirlwind,” Robinson said. “We went all over — South Africa, Japan twice, Australia twice, England, Europe, Brazil. Traveling gave me firsthand experience of other cultures, religions, customs, and traditions. It was priceless.”
Robinson is tone and fit from a lifetime of surfing and stands 6’2”. While surfing the Katin Team Challenge in Huntington Beach, fashion photographer Bruce Weber took notice of Robinson’s physical attributes. At the urging of Shaun Tomson, another surf legend specimen, Robinson modeled for Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein and was featured on a Maui and Sons billboard on Sunset Boulevard. Robinson is bashful when he talks about this part of his life.
“The checks coming in were too good. But I thought to myself ‘Wait, I am a surfer!’ I kept missing good waves and swells,” he said. “The final straw was in New York City. I was asked to shoot one extra day. The problem was I had to be in South Africa to compete. I misjudged my time. Staying that extra day caused me to miss my heat. That was it.”
After his WCT career Robinson surfed the more locally based tour, the Professional Surfing Association of America or the PSAA tour (later referred to as the Bud Surf Tour in the 90s. He took a marketing job with Redondo Beach’s Body Glove International.
“Under Scott Daley, I managed the surf team and handled marketing and promotions,” he said. “I have nothing but love for Body Glove and the Meistrells. I have lots of gratitude for the wisdom and knowledge shared to me by Bill and Bob.”
One day in the 1990s, during doldrums of South Bay summer surf, Henry Ford, then manager of Stewart Surfboards and a fellow Hermosa Beach Surfing Walk of Fame Member, lent Robinson a longboard.
“Longboarding freed me to surf more days. With my competitive background it was a natural transition. I began competing in the longboard divisions and in the PLA (Professional Longboard Association),” he said. “I extended my surfing career another five years, away from a desk job.”
Besides finding himself in the pages and on the cover of Longboard Magazine, longboarding took Robinson’s back to exotic locations–including a Jim Russi photographed surf trip to Tavarua in 1994 with the world’s best longboarders. Fellow South Bay legend Tyler Hatzikian, who’s ten years younger than Robinson, was included. As a sign of respect, every time Hatzikian heard Robinson’s “hoot” while paddling into a heavy wave, he dropped in. Robinson honored him with the nickname “Butch” after the original “Mr. Pipeline” and legendary big wave surfer Butch Van Artsdalen, known for his fearlessness.
“At the end of the trip, Ted was caught inside on the reef. I was sitting on the outside when I heard Ted’s hooting,” Hatzikian said. “It was a big shifter. I barely made the drop, dipping the rail in the barrel. Somewhere inside the barrel I found myself upside down and landing right on dry reef, giving me a permanent reef scar.”
Robinson was crowned the overall PLA Champ at San Onofre in 1999. Once Robinson retired the competition singlet (he occasionally puts one back on and mops up the South Bay Boardriders Club Series), he moved down to the OC 12 years ago to live in his sales territory, first for O’Neil and then for Rip Curl. He still has many friends and family in the South Bay. This will always be his hometown. To this day when the South Bay swell is good, chances are Robinson is on it.
“When a certain left does its thing, Ted is still on it today,” said Balzer. “That spot he even had a hand in naming, Hammerland.”
As an always progressing surfer, Robinson is open to trying new ways to appreciate the ocean. Twenty years ago, fellow surfer Jim O’Brien purchased a ski and the two began towing into the heavies. Their towing expeditions having taken them to big wave locations in Mexico, Orange County spots that only break on big swells, and a spot outside El Porto called “Tankers” because the wave breaks near the oil tank shipping lanes.
“Towing really is a thrill and gets the blood rushing,” he said. “Growing up seeing Tankers break made surfing it very special. We were the only ones out there.”
Between longboarding, shortboarding, SUPing, towing in, and towing out, his many options grant Robinson more chances to ride waves everyday. In February 2015, Robinson won Surfline’s “Go-Pro of the Month” by capturing his perspective zigzaging through a Mexican tube with a camera strapped to his surfboard tail, beating a field of much younger, technology-inclined surfers.
“Ted is the most dedicated South Bay surfer of all time,” said Hatzikian. “He’s probably caught the most waves in a lifetime of any other South Bay surfer. His ability to ride everything well makes him one of my favorite surfers of all time.”
Robinson feels fortunate that he has a career that he can schedule a daily surf around. Most important, he credits his family for understanding his passion.
“The ocean is an important part of who I am,” he said. “I love my family, my wife for letting me be myself, letting me live my ocean obsession.” ER