A one-of-a-kind surfboard from Santa Barbara’s own master shaper Reynolds “Renny” Yater hits eBay’s auction block this month, with all proceeds feeding a wilderness retreat program that helps war veterans battle posttraumatic stress disorder. The sleek, nine-foot-long pintail — an exact replica of the Yater Spoon from the Charlie’s Point surf scene in 1979’s Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now — is the last of a limited run of 90 such remakes built and sold by Yater since early last year.
But this charity board stands apart from the rest — it’s the only one autographed by Robert Duvall (the film’s crazed Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, who orchestrates a surf session under heavy enemy fire) and Martin Sheen (the film’s Captain Willard, who steals the board from Kilgore in Apocalypse Now Redux, the 2001 expansion that includes several minutes of previously unseen Charlie’s Point footage). Duvall’s autograph includes “Charlie don’t surf,” while Sheen’s commands “Never get off the boat.”
To uncover the board’s provenance, dig way back to Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, a reading of which can clarify the story line and symbolism found in Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic. Connecting the dots between Conrad’s river jungle and Coppola’s Charlie’s Point is fairly straightforward, but from there the history takes a few uncanny twists.
Enter Ben Katz, a Conrad buff and Tulane-trained intellectual property lawyer based in Los Angeles. After watching Redux, Katz marveled at Kilgore’s willpower to surf in the midst of war. Katz doesn’t surf, but he wanted that surfboard — or one just like it — to hang on his office wall.
“Yes, Kilgore’s insane,” Katz said recently. “He’s bombing a village just to go surfing and that’s just obscene. But to me, that napalm-crazed colonel’s Yater Spoon symbolizes determination. Kilgore’s bombing-cum-surfing raid is pure determination and tenacity. It’s that same determination I tap into to execute a difficult project for a client — even when everyone around me keeps reminding me it’s Charlie’s Point and I have no chance in hell to make it happen, I look at that board to remind myself that anything can be done.”
After Katz tracked Yater to his Santa Barbara shaping room, he soon discovered that Coppola had never sought the surfboard maker’s permission to display the Yater logo onscreen. Katz is in the business of helping companies protect and promote their intellectual property. “But,” he said, “we figured, why fight, why litigate, why create a big mess when we could do something positive? The aim of any good lawyer is to find a solution, not to bomb the tree line.” So they pushed forward with Katz’s idea to produce a limited reissue of the famed board. Katz took care of permissions and paperwork, while Yater modeled the new line after an Apocalypse original from Jim O’Mahoney’s now-defunct Santa Barbara Surfing Museum.
While pushing through the licensing deal with Coppola’s cadre of lawyers, Katz also asked Apocalypse screenwriter John Milius to sign off on the project. “I told Milius that I was working on this and that I’m donating my cut to charity,” Katz said. “And Milius said he had the perfect charity and told me about this rehab program that [retired Green Beret] Colonel Robert Rheault had created to help returning soldiers.”
Launched in 1983 by Rheault, the Outward Bound rehabilitation excursion sends small groups of veterans into the wilderness to work through the stress, insomnia, flashbacks, suicidal tendencies, and other mental and emotional torments they’ve brought back from the battlefield. Guided into the Rocky Mountains outside Leadville, Colorado, and decked out in combat gear — minus the weaponry — veterans team up and draw on rock-climbing, orienteering, trekking, shelter-building, and other soldiering and survival skills without having to worry about getting left behind or killed. At the same time, they’re encouraged to spend time alone in the vast solitude to reflect on their new lives back home. “What we hope,” said Outward Bound’s Meg Ryan, “is that they [find] a renewed sense of connection to civilian life, that they’ve learned more about what’s going on internally with their struggle and stress, and that they’ve had the opportunity to have some camaraderie.”
For Katz, it seemed all along that an unseen hand had guided his push for the board reissue and charity auction, especially when he learned from Milius that a much-publicized event from Rheault’s military history in Vietnam — he was accused of killing a Vietnamese double agent, and though the charges were later dropped, his reputation suffered — served as a building block when the screenwriter penned the film’s Colonel Kurtz character.
“Everything’s connected,” Katz said, “an invisible string tying this whole thing together. And it was very inspiring to me that there’s this man who dedicated the rest of his life to helping veterans heal from the horrors they had seen in war. My dad was a Holocaust survivor. He suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. That impacted him deeply his whole life, and it impacted me, too, because I cared for him. It was tough.”
Milius added, “I just wish Yater would make another 90 boards and auction off a whole bunch of them so Colonel Rheault would get more money for his program.”
eBay.com is expecting to launch the auction on its homepage in January.