Obituaries: Viscount Deerhurst

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The Independent Online
Edward George William Omar Coventry, surfer: born 24 September 1957; styled Viscount Deerhurst since birth; died North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii 4 October 1997.

Ted Deerhurst was a serious surfer. But being born the son of the Earl of Coventry and thereby acquiring the nickname of "Lord Ted" in surfing circles, he had his work cut out convincing the cognoscenti that he was anything other than a playboy. Sleeping in a beaten-up old car, being broke for long periods and having an American mother probably helped. His high point was reaching the semi-finals of the Smirnoff at big Sunset Beach in 1978. But even though he never hit the top 100 in the professional rankings, he was, in many ways, the most persistent and committed performer on the world circuit.

He had to be: Deerhurst always surfed his heart out in every contest he competed in and he was nearly always trounced. He was a hero of never- say-die optimism. He was the only surfer who read history between heats (his idol was Winston Churchill). Every now and then he would be cast down after another crushing defeat, but he would invariably bounce back. When he was seven, his horse threw him and stomped on him and his mother just put him straight back in the saddle: "I guess I've been getting back on that horse ever since," he said.

One December in Hawaii, at the end of his worst-ever tour, he discovered he had slid down the ladder from 189 to 235 in the world. It was the same year that Martin Potter, another Brit, took the world championship. Anyone else would have thrown in the towel - not Deerhurst though. While admitting he didn't have a realistic shot at the title, he still came up with the ingenious aim of winning the Most Improved Surfer of the Year award: he figured he would only have to jump up to around a hundred or so from his current lowly position to achieve the fastest rise in the history of pro surfing. Another time he switched to snow boarding with the famous last words, "At least you can't drown in the mountains". He spent the next six months in hospital.

Although he once surfed, as an amateur, for England, Deerhurst was a footloose citizen of the surf who lived at different times in Australia, California, and finally on the North Shore of Hawaii, where the mightiest waves in the world come to die every winter and generally take a few suffers with them. He masqueraded as a university student, but whenever the surf was up school was out. He became an adept of big-wave conditions and once described surfing a 20-foot wave at Waimea Bay as being like "jumping off a three-storey house - and then having the house chase you down the street". His ultimate dream was of finding sponsors in Britain to fund the equipment for tow-in surfing in 30-foot plus waves.

Even though he was approaching 40, he still competed. He speculated that the lack of a long-term girlfriend to accompany him on his travels might have been holding him back. He tried to rectify matters by falling in love with an exotic dancer in a night-club in Honolulu, but the extremely jealous gangster who was her boyfriend stood in the way of his plans.

Ted Deerhurst was an altruist among surfers. He set up the Excalibur Foundation (named after the boards he shaped with their distinctive sword logo) to enable handicapped and underprivileged kids to go surfing. Towards the end of his life, he was proud to have become a fully integrated member of the Hawaiian community and was in the forefront of the battle to prevent over- development of the North Shore. The hard-to-impress locals treated him with respect and called him "brother".

Many of them gathered to paddle out at Sunset Beach - the scene of his greatest triumph - in eight to ten feet surf and sprinkle his ashes upon the waves. "He wasn't on the fringe of surfing," said Michael Willis, fellow surfer and shaper, "he was right at the heart".

The motto of Excalibur was "sharing the spirit of surfing". Ted Deerhurst was the energetic embodiment of that ideal.

- Andy Martin