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Running Like God

Inventor and Black Butch descendant Tyler Reid is on a heater.

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Tyler Reid and I are sitting on the floor at LAX, waiting for a flight to somewhere hollow and remote. The 36-year-old is fishing through his backpack. Most experienced travelers carry standard items with them: earplugs, an eye mask, a toothbrush, a water bottle, maybe a book. Reid has all of those, but he also has a few extras. The one he’s presently searching for is a stack of stickers that look like power outlets, which he found on the internet and now takes everywhere he goes to slap on the walls of airports when things get tedious during layovers. Then he flies off to wherever he’s headed, cackling to himself at the thought of zombie-eyed travelers with dead iPads and smartphones rushing over to claim his fake electrical sockets.

These stickers aren’t the only gag Reid has found online over the past few months. As a friend of his recently warned me, Reid has always been a real-life Dennis the Menace, but now that he has unlimited free time on his hands, things have gotten downright devious. He has slips of paper printed to look like $100 bills, which he strategically places in urinals and on beer-covered dance floors. Fake surveillance cameras with blinking red lights get mounted in outhouses at festivals, along with signs that say, “Smile, you’re on camera.” In addition to a quiver of shortboards and step-ups, his bag contains 20 tennis balls and a Chuckit! that he uses to whip the green orbs at unsuspecting friends as they pump down the line. 

Perhaps the only thing Reid enjoys as much as planning pranks is surfing—a trait he shares with his infamous late grandfather. In fact, the two have quite a lot in common: an affinity for dogs, tumultuous childhoods, the ability to ride switch, and a propensity for tube riding. Reid could also just about pass as his grandpa’s doppelganger. The one major difference? Butch Van Artsdalen wasn’t a successful entrepreneur.

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Reid never met his maternal grandfather. Butch wasn’t really involved in his daughter’s life, and for a long time Reid didn’t even know that his mom’s father had been a famous waterman. Growing up in the San Diego area, Reid was more interested in skating and riding bikes, and didn’t find out about the family connection to surfing until an endless run of injuries motivated him to look for a softer alternative to concrete. But that isn’t to say that his home life wasn’t reflective of Butch’s storied history. 

For Reid, barrel riding seems to be in his genes. Photograph by Sarah Lee.

Reid’s mom was a bit of a loose cannon in her younger years, adopting an illicit lifestyle for much of his childhood. By the time he hit high school, Reid had lived in over 30 houses and attended more than a dozen schools. He, his mom, and, for a while, his half-sister Morgan were always on the move and crashing in drug pads until Morgan was removed and taken to live with her dad. Reid and his mom ended up living in a tent in Elfin Forest, trying their best to stay one step ahead of the authorities. 

It was often feast or famine. When his mom was able to “appropriate” credit cards and IDs, she’d put on wigs and go on massive shopping sprees at Costco, stocking up on food, supplies, and expensive items that could be returned for cash while Reid served as a lookout for police. In leaner moments, they got by on what they had, which usually wasn’t much. For a while, they lived on bags of potatoes that they’d cook in the microwave, until Reid got so tired of those that he wandered down to an Oceanside 7-Eleven and swept the parking lot in exchange for hot dogs and snacks. When Reid’s mom was in jail or rehab, he’d bounce between various members of his extended family, scaring his cousins with his pet lizards and his propensity for hiding in treetops. At one point, the two relocated to Oregon, where Reid spent his days net fishing for crabs as their main source of food. At 9 years old, he was spending more time stalking black bears through the woods than he was studying in school.

Those were wild years, colored by his mother’s destructive drug and alcohol use—not unlike the infamous drinking revelries of Grandpa Butch. But, through it all, the two were inseparable. No matter the circumstances, Reid’s mom made sure he never missed a bike race or skateboarding contest. He ended up ranked in the top of his age division in California for BMX and won the Vans Warped Tour skate event, which qualified him for the World Amateur Triple Crown and earned him much-needed shoe and clothing sponsors. 

Reid recalls one instance where his mom decided that he needed the structure and moral guidance of church. The two weren’t religious, but she dragged him along to a service and sat him down with orders to behave. This for a boy who spent his days hunting critters with his slingshot, so the reverence of church was about the farthest thing possible from his young reality. As the service progressed, Reid looked around at all the serious, stuffily dressed people staring doe-eyed at the minister and was struck by the hilarity of it all. As he started to giggle, his mom poked him in the side and tried to shush him—but that only made him laugh harder. Soon she was laughing too, and eventually the two had to flee the building under the stern looks of the faithful, tears streaming down their faces at the thought of them actually being church-going people. Needless to say, that was their only attempt at religion. A structured, socially acceptable existence wasn’t exactly their style.

Fortunately for Reid and his mom, she ended up escaping the cycle of addiction before it was too late. While Grandpa Butch’s alcoholism killed him before he turned 40, his daughter was sober by 35, attending support programs with her irascible son, and landed a steady job as a manager at a beach resort, which she held down for 20 years. Today, she remains sober and active in the support community, mentoring those struggling with addiction and sharing her time and experiences with women in the local jail.

With this newfound sobriety came a more stable home life, and the two eventually settled in Encinitas, a few miles away from the site of the raucous Stone Steps Invitational, which Van Artsdalen won in 1969. Reid had fully embraced surfing by then, and dedicated himself to spending as much time in the barrel as possible. Initial forays into Baja led to bigger trips to Indonesia and beyond, funded by odd jobs whenever he was back in California. 

For more than a decade, Reid’s life consisted of working part-time gigs—lifeguarding, delivering pizzas, electrical work, and shooting photos—until he could afford to disappear on a surf trip, then come home and do it all over again. He did rotations as a surf guide at Kandui Villas with his friend Zach Keenan, and winters were always focused on his beloved Baja. He was also tinkering with just about anything he could get his hands on, and ended up building water housings with Eric Hjermstad for both himself and early POV tube hounds like Brian Conley, Mikala Jones, and Anthony Walsh. 

By the time he was 28, Reid had never had more than $3,000 to his name—a fact that never really bothered him. Instead, it was just part of the identity he had created. He was a hard-core, blue-collar surf rat—the farthest thing from the bourgeois trust-funders who were steadily taking over the Encinitas area. But with his twenties rapidly dwindling, Reid began to feel the need for more security. He wanted to be able to look back and say that he’d accomplished something with his life, and decided that he needed to get things together before he turned 30.

In 2011, Reid was gifted a membership to a self-help seminar, which focused on empowering people to recognize the stories that they tell themselves and that ultimately shape their identities and life choices. During the program, he was surrounded by people from all walks of life, and he watched them sort through the various issues that had led to broken relationships and unhealthy decisions. As he talks about this seminar, Reid reveals a serious side of himself that most people don’t get to see. It was clearly a formative experience—one that appealed to a spirituality that his 12-year-old, church-laughing self hadn’t realized existed. In addition to uncovering the events and beliefs that had shaped him over the years, the seminar also helped Reid discover the importance of consciously focusing on the things he wanted to achieve.

As Reid set about making sure that he had no bad blood with anyone from his past—contacting estranged friends and ex-girlfriends, repairing relationships that had been damaged by meaningless trivialities—he also began focusing on what exactly it was that he wanted out of his life. He set up a vision board in his room, covering it with abstract goals such as “happiness” and “contentment,” as well as more practical things like “a house,” “a solid Baja rig,” and “the ability to travel and chase more swells.” By his 30th birthday, he had all of that and a hell of a lot more.

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Reid is fishing through his backpack again, this time on a deserted Baja beach in front of back-lit barrels. He has all of his normal prank fodder in the bag, of course. But today Reid isn’t looking to fuck with anyone. Instead, he’s searching for the invention that changed his life.

Seven years ago, Reid was staying on the floor of a friend’s house in Australia. He had a couple hundred dollars in his pocket, a handful of boards in the corner, and a dirty old mattress that he had decorated with a life-size drawing of his host’s sister. He was running amok Down Under, camping and surfing and getting up to his usual shenanigans, but an idea was percolating in his mind, and it was one that he couldn’t shake. 

He was flashing back to his work with water housings and early POV angles, and wondering why no one had figured out how to turn one of the newly popular tiny POV action cameras into a convenient, remote, hand-held still camera for surfing. The solution seemed pretty obvious: Allow the user to actuate the shutter of the camera one-handed. Somehow, with all the action-camera focus over the prior decade on POV video, no one had taken the time to sit down and figure it out. 

Total commitment in outer Indonesia, far enough away from medical treatment to make the coral consequences real. Photograph by Sarah Lee.

Reid spent the rest of his trip in Australia drawing up plans, then headed dead broke back to California, where he crashed at his friend Ryan Considine’s house and started tinkering with a bunch of used parts from eBay. Before long, he had a working model. 

Next, Reid educated himself about the production process and general business principles by watching YouTube videos, and further beefed up his manufacturing knowledge by attending free industry workshops wherever he could find them. Then he dictated a patent on an iPad and ran it by Mike Sertic, a patent lawyer. In the meantime, he was offered a loan from his Aunt Geri, who then helped facilitate a more substantial investment from a friend of the family, to develop a marketable model of his creation. Within a few months, he had overseas investors firing up the production line. Throughout this period, Reid was operating out of a makeshift “office” at his local coffee shop, talking with manufacturers in China via Skype from the porch and practically pulling his hair out with stress. 

This wasn’t a life Reid was used to living—heavy with responsibility and light on play. He hadn’t been on a surf trip in over a year, but he had a plan, things were happening, and that vision board of his was starting to look more and more attainable. Various parts of the invention were being produced in a number of different factories around the world to prevent the development of generic rip-offs, partners from China flew in for meetings at the coffee shop, sales strategies were being put in place, and several thousand units were stockpiled and readied to ship. And that’s when things started to get really crazy. 

Reid then met with representatives of a Europe-based camera company, who offered to buy him out and make him a millionaire on the spot. He wasn’t convinced. To someone who had squatted in shanties and hidden from cops as a boy, what really did he have to lose by looking for something bigger? While the overseas firm continued to court him, he proceeded with the plan he’d developed, taking his product to trade shows and preparing to put it on the market. 

Soon after, Anthony Walsh—whom Reid had worked with on early POV camera housings years before, and who’d given him an early injection of capital and helped with prototype research and development—suggested that Reid meet with the CEO of a certain domestic action-camera company. Reid walked into the meeting with a healthy dose of confidence, strong in the knowledge that he had a viable product and a substantial offer from a competing firm in his back pocket. When the company threw out a number, Reid told him he already had an offer for more, and that they’d need to multiply their bid by four. 

(Top Gallery) Whether whipping down Baja back roads or cobra pulse-checking in India, Reid exudes a “when in Rome” ethos near home and far afield. Surf-wise, while he’s adept in the smaller stuff, it’s his hard charging in tropical locales both known—like Nias (above)—and unknown that keeps Reid continually in the mix and his passport heavily stamped. Photograph by Corey Lebore.

Reid had spent his entire life with less than a few thousand dollars in his bank account, and now two major companies were in a bidding war for a product he hadn’t even put on the market yet. He might not have been an experienced negotiator, but he was smart enough to know when he had leverage. Sitting in his girlfriend’s car between phone meetings

with the acquisitions team, he sipped cheap coffee and listened to audiotapes about negotiation techniques while watching his friends drive by on the 101, boards strapped to the tops of their cars. Reid knew how much time and effort he’d invested in the project, and he’d decided on a specific amount he wanted to take home after paying off his investors and the IRS. He wasn’t going to settle for any less.

He wouldn’t have to. In the end, the US company gave Reid more than he was hoping for, along with a one-year paid consultancy and an offer of a full-time job. But Reid had no desire to work a corporate gig. He had more important things to do with his time, like setting his mom up with a new truck and making up for lost time in the ocean. 

While many in his position might have gone spend-crazy, Reid bought himself only two toys (or tools, depending on your perspective): his dream Baja rig and a new jet ski for increased access to waves south of the border. Then he bought a house in his hometown, just up the road from the waves his grandfather had pioneered. He’s spent the past five years renovating and improving the place with the help of a few friends so that he can generate passive income through Airbnb rentals, which his mom manages. 

How would you play it if your hard work and ingenuity meant you weren’t sweating next week’s paycheck before turning 35? There are lots of corners to roll the dice into, but extended forays south of the border with a fully kitted-out rig searching for empty lineups is a good look. Photograph by Rick Avena.

Other than that, life for Reid hasn’t changed much—a fact that may be more important to him than the actual sale of his company. His hands remain dirty from projects around the house. His garage holds little more than a bike, a poster of his grandpa surfing, and a handful of boards. His truck stays busy with trips down the Baja peninsula. 

Far too often, a person’s success can become a point of contention with friends, especially when people change or jealousy rears its ugly head. But Reid is the same mischievous kid he’s always been—a kid you might not trust with your Facebook password, but you’d certainly trust with the important things in life. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Encinitas who isn’t happy for him and the success he’s found. In the small coastal town where Van Artsdalen is a household name, the last thing anyone wants to see is Reid fall into the same traps as his grandfather. The fact that his path to stability was born from his love of surfing only makes him that much more of a success story.

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Late at night, freshly back from an exploratory swell chase in the Indian Ocean, I’m lying on the floor of Reid’s office. Wide awake at three o’clock in the morning, plagued by jet lag and still coming down from the high of discovering a new world-class setup, I take a look at the vision board posted on the wall. It’s decorated with the artifacts of recent successes—a short-term rental license from the city, and the plans for the new unit he’s building in the backyard—as well as brochures reflecting long-term goals, including one for a pilot’s license to open up even more of Mexico. 

But there are also a couple of unspoken goals that the vision board doesn’t reflect—things that I know are swirling around in Reid’s mind all the time, even if they aren’t pinned to a wall. One is providing mentorship to others like him—people with ideas that could change their lives and help them attain the lifestyles they’ve only dreamt of. Selflessness is another trait he shares with Van Artsdalen, who, despite his personal struggles, would give the shirt off his back to someone who needed it and saved countless lives in heavy surf throughout his time on the North Shore. 

The other? A never-ending list of waves to chase and pranks for his friends to suffer. After all, what good is a bunch of money if you don’t have people to chuck tennis balls at?

Reid’s success allows him chase swell to wherever in the world happens to be the best, and not miss the A-plus days at home Photograph by Todd Glaser. 

[Feature image by Tyler Reid]