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A Paipo Interview with Charl Van Rensburg

My Life In Water

A Paipo Interview with Charl Van Rensburg
October, 2009 - Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
Autobiographical magazine article

Charl discusses his introduction to surfing, the stoking feeling he found for riding prone while watching a surf movie, Follow the Sun, riding his local spots and taking regular trips to Jeffrey's Bay and Cape St. Francis, drifting away from surfng in early adulthood, and then rediscovering his love for waveriding during bodysurfing sessions. The desire to ride prone on a wavecraft prompted him to start riding paipos and surf mats, and regularly building new wooden paipos to enjoy and experiement my modifying designs and test riding in differing wave conditions.
It was a Friday evening, early in 1984, a year that would later be remembered for the introduction of the first Apple Mac Computers, the first CD players, the AIDS virus was identified for the first time in ‘84, and we all were singing along to WHAM’s “Wake me up before you Go Go”.



And that is the song that was playing over the PA-System as I followed my brother Jaco into the Holiday Inn Hotel where the lounge had, for that night only, been converted into a Movie Theatre. The lights were low, cigarette smoke was hanging thick in the air and young teenage eyes were looking around nervously and sipping surreptitiously on beer bottles which were hidden beneath their chairs.

The occasion was the screening of the latest Surf Movie to be released and all the who’s who of our town’s surfing talent was there. At the time I was oblivious to most of this and stoked simply at the fact that my older brother had invited me along: for me, it was a big occasion.

In the Lounge itself, on that night, Wake me up before you Go Go, would never be allowed and instead someone had brought along their Ghetto Blaster with a 60 minute TDK cassette recorded full on both sides with the songs that would be the anthems of our generation. We listened to songs by Bob Marley, The Cure, New Order, Sonic Youth, U2 and The Clash.

The lights were switched off as the last lines of “Rocking the Casbah” faded and everyone hurriedly found their seats and, for a moment, all you could hear was the whirring of the projector. Then the screen lit up and we were all taken on a journey around the world to places I didn’t know existed, seeing people and coastlines I had never heard of. As the screen exploded with the best surfing action from around the globe, I sat there transfixed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the thing that probably most impressed me that evening was the sense of brotherhood that existed in that room.

We were watching Follow the Sun, a film by Scott Dittrich, featuring Surfers like Tom Curren, Mark Richards, Simon Anderson and Cheyne Horan. As awesome as it all was, the thing that riveted me that night, was a few seconds of footage showing some guys riding bodyboards, doing 360’s, El Rollos and pulling into some pretty big tubes. Seeing that footage on that night, and for the first time realizing what was possible on a bodyboard changed me forever.



Up until seeing Follow the Sun I had very often interrupted my walk down to the beach with my bodyboard to chat with some friends and ended up using my bodyboard as cricket-wickets, never even making it to the beach. This all changed though after watching Follow the Sun and soon I was begging my folks to buy me a new board. Reluctant that this might just be a passing whim, they agreed to help me pay for a second-hand Mach77 by Morey Boogie. I bought the board from Andrew Dicks who, I learnt later, was regarded as one of the best bodyboarders in our town. He, and his brother Bobby, were early pioneers of the sport and they, together with a hand-full of mates pretty much ruled the bodyboarding scene. The board I bought from Andrew had a black slick bottom which was quite unique and red fins. Soon I was not only bodyboarding on weekends but sneaking off after school and later started joining my brother for “dawn patrols” in the morning’s before school. I also quickly removed the board's fins.

I was hooked. There is a quote I remember hearing long ago about surfing which sums up how my life changed at that time: “The feeling you get after a good ride is so intense and personal that you have to hang around other Surfers because only they can understand.” I gradually stopped participating in all other sport, no more tennis, cricket was on Saturdays so that’s out, and the swimming team had to do without me.



Pictures of bodyboarders from around the world doing all kinds of amazing moves replaced the BMX posters on my bedroom wall, and the Tycoon owning most of the real-estate space on my walls was Mike Stewart. In the 1980’s and through to the 1990’s Mike Stewart dominated the international bodyboarding scene. We all wanted to be like Mike.

I was in the fortunate position that my brother was older, didn’t mind having me around and had a car. So I went along whenever he went on surf-trips. Our hometown is located in a bay and we lived on its right-hand corner. This allowed us to relatively easily travel into the bay when conditions were right, surfing spots like The Pipe, Blackbottoms, Avalanche, Millers, Baked Beans and my favourite bodyboarding wave, The Fence. Then, when the winds blew cross-shore in the bay we’d make our way to the Wild Side which was out of the bay, where it would be off-shore and we would surf at spots named Non-Com, Bullets, Lookout, Main Rights and Craters. Travelling to the Wild-Side holds the best memories for me. At least 4 of us would cram into my brother's “Beach Buggy,” which is a Volkswagen Beetle chassis and engine fitted out with a fiberglass body, making it light enough to travel effortlessly over dunes and beaches. This was the mid-80’s in South Africa and there were no restrictions on protecting sensitive vegetation, or if there was we were oblivious. The fiberglass body would greatly amplify whatever music was blaring through the speakers and we would all sing along to UB40’s Baggariddim or Midnight Oil’s Diesel & Dust to get us amped for the surf.

We lived less than 90km’s from Jeffreys Bay so many a weekend would see us traveling to J’Bay for the day or even the weekend, camping in the Caravan Park. Got up to all kinds of mischief there, but mostly we just surfed our brains out. Later, when my brother went away to do his National Service in the Navy, I’d join my mate Grant and his family at their holiday home in a place called Cape St. Francis a few kilometers from J’Bay, riding waves up-to 4 times a day.

Malcolm Gladwell writes of the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers. He proposes that the single most common trait shared by people who excel, in any endeavour they choose to pursue, is the fact that they had all spent in excess of 10,000 hours honing their skills at it. In those years, I was clocking up serious hours in the water… I had an aptitude for bodyboarding and this, together with all the time I put into it, meant that I started doing well in competitions, from there I managed to secure some Sponsorships and became one of those privileged youngsters who was given boards, wetsuits, swim fins, clothing and the opportunity to travel to competitions in other parts of the country.

Back home, when the onshore Easterly winds raged for days on end, and whip up swell, Grant and I would grab our fins and head out to a spot called Clubhouse which would serve up churning close out bomb-barrels and we would bodysurf for hours, often being stung by blue-bottles and then having to go to the Life-Savers’ Clubhouse so they can put vinegar on it to soothe the pain, only to go back out again once the sting had gone. Once, while bodyboarding at Clubhouse, I duck-dived a wave and as I pushed through and broke the surface behind the wave, a mass of blue-bottles wrapped around my face and neck. Grant helped guide me up the beach and home and I remember being red and swollen all-over for days.

Our lives were pretty much dictated by the weather and days when the swell was flat, we’d watch surf-movies. Then, in 1989 I finished school and had a 6 month break before my own stint doing National Service in the Navy… and the halcyon days ended. I didn’t bodyboard or bodysurf for 12 months and ended up being sent to a base situated 800km’s from the Ocean. This was followed by 4 years at University and then my work-life started. During this time my water-time had decreased to one or two surfs a month and some months I would never even make it to the beach.

A number of years had passed and I moved to another coastal city called Cape Town, which is situated on the southern-most tip of Africa and bisects the warm Indian Ocean and cold Atlantic Ocean. We settled on the Atlantic Ocean side and with water-temperatures hovering at around 13C there was not much to motivate me to get back in the water. All this time my brother had continued surfing as often as he could, and we now lived around the corner from him. He’d often invite me along, but somehow I’d find more reasons not to go Bodyboarding than to actually paddle out, you know that “been there done that” feeling. Now in my Thirties, I realised that I need to do something to keep in shape. I’ve never really been into working out in Fitness Clubs though and running also does not really appeal to me, so I turned to the one place where I knew I’d get a good work-out but also feel at home.

I committed to myself to spend an hour each day bodysurfing, irrespect of what the waves were doing and that I would do so wearing only my swimming costume and fins, no matter what the water temperature might be. After just a week or so, something had been re-ignited in me. I had rediscovered the simple joy of riding waves, though this time it had nothing to do with performance and simply is about what I believe is the essence of true wave-riding. Feeling like you have connected with the ocean, being part of something that is at once bigger than you but also part of you. The benefit of experience and an understanding that this is not just something I do, it is who I am.

As one invariably does, I started seeking out others who share this passion and I’ve found there are many. Bodysurfing resides under the radar, it is a sport over-looked by the main-stream media and probably as a result has never really had any cash-injection from big name Sponsors or Institutions. The term bodysurfing is actually a much too wide brush and the fact that someone who once or twice a year wades in waist-deep in their local beach break and rides some foamies to the shore can stand alongside guys like the Wedge Crew, who are extreme Athletes and regularly risk life & limb at their local break, and all say they are bodysurfing seems almost bizarre. Or is it? Perhaps the fact that the simple joy of bodysurfing is available to such a wide demographic, and able to be enjoyed by people of all ages and aspirations is exactly why it is so special.

Soon I started looking beyond my local break and started surfing the Internet looking for other bodysurfers, I joined some forums and made contact with guys around the world who all share the same passion and on these journeys into cyber-space I have found some inspiration for my bodyboarding also, and with it have started exploring some alternative wave-riding craft… this inspiration has not come from line-ups packed with kids who have sun-bleached hair, industry Sponsorships and a lot of attitude. My lifeline for Bodyboarding came from the periphery, the edge, the place where Heretics, Hippies and Intelligentsia reside (or have been banished to).

There is an interesting phenomena (which I call the “Centripetal Force of Popularity” – CFoP), which basically predicts that activities, practices, fashion, music etc. that were once scorned and banished to sideshow status is, over time, drawn into mainstream society to the point of becoming fashionable, popular and lucrative. Here are some examples: Tattooing was once regarded as vile but is now uber-cool, as are piercings. Punk-hairstyles can now be seen on 10 year olds in shopping malls, Heavy Metal Music is used in Bank Adverts, Rap Music, Skateboarding, Surfing, The Osborne’s I can carry on.



The point is that if you want to know what could potentially be the next big thing, you need to look at the fringe, and that is where I have come across some of the beginnings of what I believe could be the birth-canal for a new, more ‘holistic’ approach to the sport of Bodyboarding, a second life, so to speak, since in my view Bodyboarding has found itself in the doldrums since the 1990’s.

The first element then to deconstruct as it were when critically looking at the state of Bodyboarding, is the board itself. At present it is widely believed that Bodyboards must be made of Foam. The fact is, long before the invention of the Morey Boogie Board in the 70’s, guys were “Bellyboarding” on all kinds of boards made of all kinds of materials. Probably the most common of these was Plywood and other woods such as Koa or Paulownia. These boards were called Paipo’s and had radically different designs to the Bodyboards we now see, but were instrumental in its evolution. Boards made of surfboard-foam and sealed in resin were also common as was boards made of composite materials. Yes these boards were hard, sometimes uncomfortable, had hardly any buoyancy, but they were fast (very fast), very manoeuvrable, very durable plus very easy and cheap to make.

One of the most inspiring short-films I have seen recently is The Life of Ply by Ocean Motion Pictures.


I just love the stoke of the person in the clip, it resonates with wave-riders all over the world. Dot, featured in the clip, lives in the UK and I recently met someone who knows her, named Sally Parkin. Sally owns a company called ‘The Original Surfboard Company’ (http://www.originalsurfboards.co.uk), a UK based business manufacturing traditional plywood boards. Wow, they are amazing to ride. Not made for tricks, just down the line speed and pure joy. I now ride waves all the way to the beach.

Another alternative to the Bodyboard is the Surf Mat. This is an inflatable board usually made of rubber. On the face of it these boards are similar to Bodyboards due to their buoyancy and safe, comfortable construction. The key differences though are that Surf Mats do not have rails and that the rider is able to control the amount of buoyancy by how much air it is filled with and then further by exercising control over the Surf Mat while on a wave through compressing or releasing the Mat, thus increasing or releasing buoyancy. The idea is that you are “Riding on Air.” Watch this YouTube Clip of Surf Design Legend George Greenough and Paul Gross riding waves on Surf Mats:
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljNxUhRQWWM). This is way back in the 70’s, there are no flashy moves or tricks, just good wave-riding. I am especially amazed at the speed they generate and how well they are able to get through sections on the waves.



Check out this YouTube clip of George Greenough (respected wave-rider and surfboard designer/shaper) discussing the intricacies of Mat-Surfing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igN3FqwC29E.

Speaking of Surfboards…. there is one man who has become synonymous with wooden boards and also a drive to more sustainable practices in board manufacture. Tom Wegener is an American now living in Australia. He has made a serious impact on the surfing world and has one of the coolest websites around (http://www.tomwegenersurfboards.com/). Together with a small band of Surf Vigilantes, Tom has been heading up a revival in understanding surfboard manufacture and wave riding. In a project undertaken in 2007, entitled “Surfica Musica” Tom and 9 other like-minded Surfers (Tom Carrol, Derek Hynd and others) experimented with alternative ancient surfboard designs. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urtbRmPuLpk.

Of special significance is that Tom Wegener teamed up with the one and only Mike Stewart to produce a limited edition wooden bodyboard, which is also called an Alaia. The boards were released in 2008 and all were numbered and signed by Mike Stewart. Check out http://www.mikestewart.com.

Even if riding Surfmats, wooden Paipo or Alaia boards is not the Panacea for Bodyboarding’s woe’s, I love the fact that I can make my own board (very cheaply), make a bunch of boards each with a different design, know it is environmentally much friendlier than bodyboards and ultimately it represents a challenge to me because they are not easy to ride, but if you’re willing to work at it you may also find, as I have, that Wood is Good, as Tom Wegener would say, and that water is not only a source of life for your body, but it also gives life to your Soul & Spirit.

Note 1: The original magazine print version may be viewed by clicking on the images below.


Other items of interest:
  • Check out Charl's blog, My Life In Water.
  • Article originally appeared in: Van Rensburg, Charl. (2009, October). My Life In Water. XSport Magazine, 7, 56-63.
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Feel free to send me suggestions, comments and additional information to: The Paipo Interviews


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Last updated on: 08/03/11