A Paipo Interview with Charlie Schuster
August 14, 2012- Hawaii
E-mail interview by Bob Green
From boat floorboards and real estate signs, Charlie recounts his
experiences and observations of paipo boards from the 1950s to the
1970s. His surf craft of choice over the years have been finned, foam
- everything from kneeboards to paddleboards. Also an extended Note on "The Bagman" bag surfing.
1. What are your first
memories of seeing paipo boards being ridden? When and where was this?
I probably first saw paipo boards in the
Kailua Beach on Oahu, Hawaii. My grandparents had a house on the beach
but we lived about a half mile away. We spent a lot of time at the
beach, particularly because my grandfather was an avid fisherman and
diver and always had at least one boat we'd go out on.
2. How old were you when you first rode a paipo? What
was the board like?
In those days there was a lot of skimboarding on the beach, mostly
using circular home-made plywood boards. These would double as paipo
boards. I didn't have one but with my grandfather's or uncle's
permission we could use one of the floorboards from the boat. This was
a section of 1/4-inch plywood probably 30 inches long and 18 wide.
It was a simple painted wood rectangle with one advanced feature: the
paint on the top side had some beach sand in it so it was non-skid when
wet. Early days Slipchek! My brothers or I would carry the board down
the beach to get some Kalama or Oneawa shorebreak.
Back then we also had two pretty nice surf mats made from coated heavy
canvas, one side was dark blue and other side red. These would give you
a pretty good abrasion rash after a bit so wearing a t-shirt was
mandatory for other than a quick dip.
My first experience with a paipo (the boat floorboard mentioned above)
was probably when I was four or five, so in about 1956-57.
3. Where were the major places you would find paipo
ridden? Did different areas have different styles or was this a more
As kids we went where our parents went, usually to my grandparents
place at Kailua Beach. In the 1970s, I was at the University of Hawaii and
got to spend a lot of beach time all around Oahu. Makapu`u, Sandy Beach
and Point Panic were the major paipo breaks, but you would always find
a few guys out all over. I never paid much attention to the style thing
because the wave largely dictated what you'd do.
4. Riding paipo boards is usually associated with kipapa-style prone surfing
however, many people rode paipo boards kneeling. What difference did
kneeling make to how a paipo board was ridden?
Kneeriding a finless paipo or finless anything usually resulted in a
lot of sideways motion immediately before a minor disaster. I had a
crude homemade spoon kneeboard (a la George Greenough) with a
too-small fin and clearly remember taking off on overhead Velzyland,
going sideways down the face and having to prone out at the bottom to
try turn around the lip. No workie! It would have been the wave of the
day if I'd had control.
5. What was the attraction of riding a paipo board? What waves
stand out that you rode on a paipo board?
I never got the hang of finless. I was a kneerider for several years in
the early-1970s, all over the North Shore, using a home-made foam and
glass board with deep knee wells and two large glassed-on fins set well
Left: Log Cabins, a beachbreak on the
north shore of Oahu. Right: Kikila, a
spot on Oahu's east side, ca. mid-1970s.
Left: Log Cabins is a short, intense wave over a sandy/coral reef
bottom. A wipe-out here happens in less than chest deep water and you're
only 50 feet off the beach. Sometimes when the sand is washed off the
beach, the inside is a forest of pinnacles that stick out of the water
in front of a wave. Right: Kikila was photographed by a pal with a Nikon 1000 mm lens. Kikila
breaks along the edge of a long deep channel and the wave has a lot
more power than a still shot indicates. There are three bowls that
break at different sizes, each one jacking up and pitching over a
ledge, then reforming further inside. This shot is from the innermost
part of the wave.
Photos courtesy of Charlie Schuster.
There are several significant attractions to
boards. One, you could hitchhike pretty easily and I was at Makapu`u or
Sandy Beach almost every day. Two, you never really get caught inside
because you can duck dive (we didn't call it that, then) and swim along
the bottom. This was really useful at places like Pipeline. Three, you
could pull out of smaller waves by punching through the face if it
closed out. Stand-up surfers caught on years later and then when
leashes came out no one cared any more, just pull into the closeout or
fall off and your board would be right there. No one really cares to
realize that the pull-out is a maneuver and can be executed with some
style in itself.
6. What do you recall of the paipo contests of the 1970s,
and people you recall?
Left: Outside peak at
Makapu`u, March 8, 2009. Right: Bud Scelsa kneeriding a paipo board, ca. 1985.
Photos courtesy of Bud Scelsa.
I entered the Ehukai contest in 1972, on a windy,
Contest organizer Jerry Vasconcellos won my prelim heat and the
contest. The guy who eventually took second was also second in my
prelim heat, so I didn't advance. I really thought I could have done
better, but you get the waves you get, and do what you can. After this,
I didn't enter any more contests.
7. Did you ever buy paipo boards, such as a Paipo Nui,
or were your
boards homemade? Did you experiment
much or stick with the same design?
Aside from the wood stand-up board my grandfather made for me as a kid,
"This is the way we used to do it in Waikiki." and my first longboard,
which he also made, I never bought or rode a board I didn't make myself.
8. I’ve heard of building sites being a source for
paipo boards. What is the story behind Bud and the "real estate paipo?"
In the late-1960s, I started to work with foam and glass and there
were a few beautiful Newport Paipo designs. The first boards I built
were from a broken Surfboards Makaha longboard that a pal gave me. I
stripped, reshaped and glassed a 4'2" and a 3'10", both intended for
prone use. The longer one was with me in 1969, on day that is still
probably the best day of my life, alone for five hours drilling glassy
tubes at Hapuna Point. That was a full circle because the original
longboard had been broken in half there. The 4'2" came into frequent
service after stepping on wana (sea urchin) one Christmas vacation. I
couldn't stand up so I became a kneeboarder for several years.
After the 4'2", I liked the Newport "Shoe" style design with twin fins and a
knee well. I made maybe five of those, usually about 4'10" x 22" with a
14" diamond tail and a deep knee well in the middle. I rode all over
the North Shore in the early-1970s, especially Velzyland, Rocky Lefts and
Rights, Gas Chamber, Pupukea, Ehukai, Gums, Log Cabins, Pipe, Sunset a
few times and even a small day at Waimea.
noted that his self-built boards, compared to Newport Paipo's Knee
Vector and Shoe models shown below, didn't run the knee wells as far
forward, featured deeper or more pronounced knee wells and did not
incorporate board handles.
Commenting on the Shoe model, Charlie noted, "I didn't think
embedding both ends of a bit or rope was an elegant solution to
handles, but I never got around to figuring out (or spending the time
to) make better handles. Result: never had handles. Always just grabbed
a handful of rail. Really, handles were not a requirement when your
center of gravity is so low but they could be a help when you were
bouncing along the chop. I recall one ride at Waimea... three feet in
the air, board off the water and all crossed up, hoping that when
gravity exerted more force over my trajectory that I'd come down
together, rather than crash and burn. I did, but the increasing wind
out of the valley suggested I would do better to hit one of the
beach breaks where chop wasn't such a factor."
Left: Newport Paipo advertisement. (1976, November). Surfer Magazine, 17(4), 100. Right: Newport Paipo advertisement. (1971, March). Surfer Magazine, 12(1), 98.
In the 1960s, the Paipo Nui was pretty popular, but they cost $15, a lot
of money for a kid then. A few guys had them. One guy had a beautiful
Newport Paipo in foam and glass, but he wasn't much of a surfer and I
never saw him use it. Long story short, I've never owned a board I
didn't make, other than my first wood board (a whole 'nother story) and
my first 9'6" longboard made by my grandfather.
The Shoe-style models were a favorite of Charlie's because his knees tended to stay onboard in choppy waters.
Newport Paipo advertisement. (1971, May). Surfer Magazine, 12(2), 114.
Back in the 1970s, and probably earlier, kids didn't have the resources,
nor were there as many boards on the market. We needed raw materials
and what's better than the typical real estate sign? It was on every
corner, unguarded, about the right size piece of 3/4-inch-thick
plywood and it even came with a free paint job. So there I was,
hitchhiking to Makapu`u in the early-1070s, from Kailua. The paipos there
were of two kinds - recycled 3/4" plywood real estate signs, or the
molded plywood "guitar pick" types. I never found out where the latter
type were made (I wasn't about to buy one and didn't much care). But
anyone could grab a real estate sign and go surfing.
9. I’ve heard several people refer to Primo and
Royal Richards – what do you know of them?
Some Makapu`u paipo surf
craft and riding styles in the 1960s.
Valentine, Val. (1965, January). It's Smaller, Faster and 300 years
Old: The Paipo Board. Surf Guide, 3(1), 17-19. Also see in the MyPaipoBoards.org magazines section.
one of the regulars at Makapu`u, lived in Kailua, and would give
me a ride if he saw me hitchhiking -- I never knew his last name. He
me try his plywood one time. I swam it out to the point and got a
good-sized wave, probably a five- or six-foot face, and got to my knees
top. After side slipping like a skipping stone for what seemed forever,
I ran out of shoulder and that was that. Bud was a little alarmed at my
lack of control, and I had to pass the board back to him pretty soon.
Didn't ride it again but I had learned a lesson about the importance of
having a skeg.
Not much later I had my foam and glass twin fin kneeboards and they
gave great control even in the typical onshore trade wind chop. I'd
hitchhike out at dawn and surf Makapu`u or Sandy Beach, whichever
looked better. I tell you there were some absolutely flat days, and
some great days. Having the place all to yourself just after dawn, with
the sun coming through the back of the wave was unimaginably rewarding.
I can only relate the line Eddie Aikau used some years later in an
interview, "It's that feeling you get… when you get that
feeling." And that's it.
When the Makapu`u lifeguards arrived the law was - no fins - so I would
come in. If the day was uncrowded, and weekdays usually were, they
would let you stay a while if you weren't greedy or a hazard. It was no
fun if you were a bodysurfer and got a fin hack. I hit a guy once at
Sandy's and he was not happy, but he dropped in on me and…. That
was a a long time ago. I always tried to avoid contact because as both
a bodysurfer and kneerider I could so easily be on either side of the
Primo was mostly a Sandy Beach regular and I don't remember seeing him
elsewhere. He was pretty much the hot ticket on an El Paipo plywood -- I
don't remember anyone being close -- at least at Sandy Beach. Didn't know
he had a brother. I never knew him personally but we saw each other
10. When did you last ride a paipo board? Do you have any other
memories of your days riding a paipo?
Often these interviews keep sparking memories.
The thought just struck me - there was one guy in the early- to mid-1970s, who
would show up at Makapu`u with, literally, a big pillowcase. He would
catch the wind, the thing would inflate and he would twist the end and
keep it blown up, and ride waves with it. Just straight off, of course,
but the guy was totally unique and should be remembered somehow. I
never met him personally or knew his name, but again, the regulars all
knew each other at least by sight. (See Note 1
for more on "The Bagman.")
I really never rode prone on a paipo other than as a little kid. My
observation of the paipo guys, mostly at Makapu`u, was that finless
paipo surfing was surely the fastest way to cover a lot of water. The
advantages were obvious: speed, ability to get under closeouts,
portability, and for some the low cost. For me, though, pretty early on
I had made my foam/glass "shoe" boards with two deep fins at the
corners of the tail. I liked the flotation and they were still small
enough to duck dive pretty well, they were fast and could turn almost
anywhere without spinning out. The fins meant that they could turn more
sharply and carry speed through the turn, so there wasn't any
attraction in the finless arena for me. I never rode any of the knee
well boards in the standing position, but I did stand once in a while
on the first flat deck 4'2" board I made. I got stuffed on the reef for
my trouble and still have a 5-inch long scar on my right side.
Meeting John Clark in the water recently on one of the flat
redwood/pine laminated boards pictured has got me thinking... I still
like the aspect of some flotation and maybe a flat bottom 3/8-inch lauan
plywood (for some small amount of flex) with the wide point maybe 2/3
back, with some EPS stuck on the top around the rails -- that would give me
flotation and thickness there which would allow actually shaping a rail
rather than just rounding off the edges. A tapering vee cut in from the
nose, then bent and glassed together would allow some primitive rocker.
Maybe I would try this out with door skin first as it is cheap and
accessible. Would need some thought to dial in the correct nose rocker...
It would have to be epoxy glassed - a big negative in my book with the
cost of epoxy resin.
I've been looking at a photo of John Clark. The shot shows him
standing with two wood paipos made from 2-inch strips of redwood and
pine (I'm guessing by the color). (See Note 2.) It stirs the imagination because I
walk by Publics in Waikiki some days and watch guys just screaming
across the (still pretty shallow) reef at high tide. I just KNOW that
wave would benefit from a flat-bottomed twin fin wood paipo with me
aboard... but maybe I'd end up with more scars to reshape my
I think the "guitar pick" paipos that Harry and others rode at Makapu`u
(I still rarely see one of those boards around) are the fastest thing
on the water, and carry speed out and across the flats the best. They
smoke the spongers, but the cost and weight of them probably keeps them
from being more popular. There may be advantages to sponges, but for
speed and carry, the flex only slows you down. The downside of wood is
that it's heavy and thus dangerous. I think, too, of the terrific
rib-busting bounce that one always encounters at speed on plywood. I
suspect a speed paipo could be made a good deal narrower, say under
20", and cut down the bounce. This hasn't been tried that I am aware
of. Almost every wood board appears to be 22 to 24 inches wide. But surfboards
used to be that way too, and now they are much narrower and faster. I
think the wide point belongs well back similar to the guitar pick
I think flex is a great thing on the other guy's boards.
Hawaii '71 - hollow places can be be found." (Photograph Caption in
Surfer Magazine.) Pictured is Charlie at Sandy Beach inside point.
probably the first I made with knee wells. It was an ugly house-paint
green color with blue kneewells and a shameful attempt at a yellow
pinline around the blue. There were two deep
wood-core fins (probably 8-1/2 inches) glassed on about an inch from the corners of a 14-inch
wide diamond tail. I made it in spring 1971, while living at my aunt's
place on the beach in Kailua. Well actually I shaped and glassed it in
my grandfather's garage, also on the beach, up near Kailua Beach Park.
The dust irked my granny quite a bit, but I hosed out the garage and
didn't hear much more about it. This was pretty early in my
board-building career and I was still getting the hang of things."
Source: Author unknown and no photograph credit. (1971,
October). Our Mother Ocean: People Not Profits: HULI. Surfer
76. According to Bob "Jens" Jensen, Surfing
Historian/Archivist, the likely authors of the article are
John Kelly and Mike Moriarty, who were both heavily involved with the "Save Our
Surf" organization back in the day.
Note 1. "The Bagman." For a full account of bag surfing see: Clark, John R. K. 2011. Hawaiian surfing:
traditions from the past. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi
Press, pp. 86-88.
surfing is described in John Clark's book as peaking in popularity
after World War II. Clark identifies the bagman as Albert "Al" Santos
(personal e-mail from John Clark, August
23, 2012), a paipo rider and sand slider, who rode bags sewn by his
wife, Kitti. He referred to his surfing as "belly bagging." Santos
was featured in the Curt Mastalka 1973 surf movie, Red Hot Blue.
Al "The Bagman" Santos preparing a surfing bag and bagging a wave.
Photos courtesy of Al Santos.
Craig Matthew, former Makapu`u lifeguard, in a personal e-mail, August 21, 2012:
remember the guy [Al Santos]. He'd actually taken a sheet, folded it lengthwise,
and hemmed it. It looked like a pillow case or a big bag. He'd ride it
as described below. Kind of roll up on top of it, so that most of him
would be out of the water. Knees down in the water, so that he could
kick and propel himself. He'd usually hold both ends of his sack and
more often the waves caught him rather than vice versa, but he had good
body control, and would twist or turn 180 degrees to be riding face-forward.
He had some directional control and when he wanted to bail out, he
would simply let go of hand holding the twisted, open end of the
bag. Instantly deflating and dropping him."
Al Santos aka "The
Photos courtesy of Al Santos.
Stan Osserman, in a personal e-mail, August 22, 2012:
"Actually I still have my "bag", but I don't use it any more (I will
sometime though just for fun!) and I didn't invent it. Someone had it
pretty well figured out (I don't remember who though) and I tried it a
quite a few times at Makapu`u. It's actually a lot of fun once you got
the hang of it, but there wasn't any maneuvering involved, just take
off and hold on until you wanted to get off, and then it was just let
go of the open end of the bag. Basically you took a single sized, flat
bed sheet with a high
thread-count (for strength and to limit air escape). You fold it
head-to-foot and stitch it along two sides so you have an extra large
pillow case. You swim out into the surf with the bag, when you see a
wave coming that you think will break about when it gets to you, you
hold the open end of the bag into the wind and fill it, twist it off
and hold the twisted end in one hand and then grab the opposite end
with the other, then hop on as the wave pushes through. Let go when you
want to stop, and that's it. The key was not to over inflate the bag,
or you would usually flip over the front as you tried to jump into the
bag while catching the wave."
Al Santos, bag surfer in
Photos from Curt Mastalka's 1973 surf film: Mastalka,
Curt. (Producer). (1973). Red Hot Blue [Motion picture]. USA:
2. John Clark's paipo partner, Bud Scelsa, built the two alaia paipo
boards Charlie mentions in Question 8. One board was made out of
redwood with pine stringers and one out of wiliwili with koa stringers.
Both boards are about 5'2", 3/8" thick, flat-bottomed with no fins.
Learn more about these two boards here.
Other info: Covers for Surfer Magazine,