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A Paipo Interview with Gordon Simpson

Waimea on a bellyboard

A Paipo Interview with Gordon Simpson
December 28, 2010: Sydney, Australia
Telephone interview by Bob Green

Gordon was a standup surfer who also rode a bellyboard. During a 1961 trip to Hawaii he was talked into riding on his bellyboard at Waimea, after earlier breaking his standup board at Haleiwa. It wasn't until years later that Gordon learned that his ride was featured in Bruce Browne's film, Surfing Hollow Days.
1. What is your surfing background?
A bit of everything. I was brought up in Freshwater, down here in Sydney, a 100 odd metres from the beach. This was when we only had the big long ply boards, the 16-footers and the 14-foot hollow ply boards. I used to knock around with Midget and all that crew when the Americans came to Manly and Freshie, too. I was on the beach the day they arrived.

I've heard they had a bellyboard with them?

They may have. I was more interested in their 8', 9' malibu. We were riding the other boards then. We were out there trying to show how we could ride these things and they came out and started cutting across the waves and we just sat there with our mouths open.
2. Where did you first see bellyboards being ridden? Where was this?
This chap from just up the road from my place, he used to live at Freshwater, a fellow named Greg McDonagh. He made these boards for us. There was another chap in the club and myself. It was foam, fibreglass, about four foot long and had twin fins at the back. I don't know what the foam was made from at that stage. It was rounded at the front and square at the back. We used to even stand up on these things. Before short boards were invented we used to stand up and do all sorts of tricks and things like that on them. We used to get up on the face of the wave and do 360s and things on them. I then decided to take it to Hawaii. We were the first surf team to Hawaii.
3. So it was the McDonagh board you took to Hawaii?
I took a board and I took this short board with me as well.
4. What prompted you to get a bellyboard in the first place?
My dad, Len, was a lifesaver and was a good swimmer. Between us, we had something like 30 or 40 club championships in the Freshie surf club. We used to do a lot of bodysurfing as well. It was a natural progression from bodysurfing on to the bellyboard. This was 1960. McDonagh made them up for us and then I decided to take it with me to Hawaii.
5. Had you surfed Waimea before that day?
No.
6. So what prompted you to do it?
I was talked into it. It was the first day that Waimea came up while we were there. We had been surfing Sunset. We lived at Sunset for quite a while. Haleiwa. That's where I was surfing on a pretty big day and my board broke in half. It was a foam board and it broke in half. I was left with the bellyboard. They tried to con me into going out at Waimea Bay on the bellyboard because I didn't have a board. I did that and that was the story. There was another chap in Surfing Hollow Days who also made movies in the states. He happened to be there on the day.


Gordon before he broke his standup board. Hawaii 1961.

Source: Evans, Bob. (1962, September). Hawaiian Adventure. Surfing World, 1(2), p. 16. Photo by:Bob Evans. [Note: need to verify that Bob Evans is the author and photographer.]


So who actually talked you into going out?

The guys I went across with.

Did they go out as well?

No.

So how did they manage to talk you into going out when they didn't go out?

I don't know.

Did they go out as well?

I don't know. I was the only one with a short board, a bellyboard. They used to call me "Big Seas." I used to like a big wave. I used to surf the bombora here at Long Reef and one thing or another, Fairy Bower when it was on.

So had you ridden those waves on your bellyboard.

No.

So this was a bit of a first taking it out in big Waimea?

Yes, it was a mad dash off the shore with flippers on. Jump into the water and paddle out. It took a while because it was my first time out there and to push across to where the waves stood up. Because a bellboard is not like a bigger board where you can paddle on to it. I had to actually be right in the bin, to pick it up. It took a fair while to get into that and finally I got one.
7. So how big was the surf that day?
It wasn't 30 foot. The wave I got was probably 18 or 20 foot, something like that.

Was that the only wave you got?

I went back out in the afternoon when it got a lot bigger but I just free-fell down a wave and that was it. The power of the wave and the wind and all that, it just sucked me. I couldn't hold onto it, I just fell.
8. Bob Rose told me that the McDonagh board he rode was a bit bouncy in chop. How did the board go out at Waimea.
I only hit the wave about three times. In Surfing Hollow Days, if you see it, I just fall, hit the surface of the wave. I have these Duck feet flippers on and they're stretched to buggery out the back of me. Fell again, hit the wave, fell again, hit the wave and then across the face of it and out the end of it. I threw my hand up and Bruce Brown said he wasn't sure whether I was saying, "Help!" or "Too much!"


The take-off

    


Source: Surfing Hollow Days. Directed by Bruce Brown. Torrance, CA: Bruce Brown Films, 1961. Photo by permission of Bruce Brown.

The commentary was a bit corny. At one stage it looked like you were just about hanging off the back of the board?

It's a bit hard to say, I was trying to hang on to it. That was the main thing. It wasn't a monstrous wave. In the afternoon it came up a lot bigger.

It was still a fair size.

Yeah, it was a reasonable size.


Heading for the inside

    


Source: Surfing Hollow Days. Directed by Bruce Brown. Torrance, CA: Bruce Brown Films, 1961. Photo by permission of Bruce Brown.
9. Were there other bellyboarders out?
No.

Did you see any other bellyboarders in Hawaii?

No.
10. So it was a real experimental, give it a go?
I'd been there for a little while and surfed Haleiwa and Sunset when they were pretty big . You got used to the larger surf so it wasn't like I just went up and went out in a big sea.
11. How the board handle these other big waves.
Not too bad. You sort of hung in there. Waimea is more up and down. Sunset is more of a peaky type wave and you could drop and come out the end of it. Whereas Waimea was more like a straight drop and you try and get out the end of it.
12. After returning to Australia, did you ride the bellyboard much?
Yes. I still do. I have got a board that I have had for years now. Its still got the little fins on the back. It's just a standard bellyboard, one of these Mach type bellyboards. I still ride that because I naturally rode standup for a while but my knees are gone a bit. I'm 70 years old now. With my knees going on me I just go out on the bellyboard, when the bombies are on or the bigger surf is on.

So you still ride fair sized wave?

Yes. I still hang in there
13. How long did you ride the McDonagh board? Bob Rose thought you went back to a stand-up board fairly quickly.
Yes, that’s right. The boards started to change. The smaller boards started to come in. I’m not talking 6’ boards, I’m talking 8’. They were starting to get smaller. The tri-fins and twin fin boards didn’t come in until quite a bit later.

So you rode the McDonagh and stand up boards for a while?

That’s right. We used to have fun. A mate he was in the surf club with me and a good mate of mine, we’d take them down the coast and up the coast. Stand up on them and do all sorts of things on them. You could ride them up into the face of the wave and be glued to them.

Were you wearing the duck feet when you stood up or were you paddling the board?

When you were standing up it was more smaller type of surf. When it got any bigger you‘d go to the standup board.

So you mainly rode the bellyboard in smaller surf?

Yes, except if it was a really big sea I’d go out on the bellyboard and still drop into a reasonable size wave.
14. When did you start to ride the Morey Boogie board?
In my 30s, I suppose. Sometime in the 1970s. I got another one in the 1980s, and I’ve still got the same board. The bellyboard wasn’t much different to what they are putting out now, to tell you the truth.

Do you still have the McDonagh board?

No.

Any photos of it or you surfing it?

No, only on the Surfing Hollow Days. That’s the only one I know of. That was even a surprise to me. It only came out later on, somebody actually pointed it out to me. That was years later. They said, “Did you see Surfing Hollow Days, you’re in it?” I said, “Am I?”

So you didn’t know at the time?

No.

How much later did you find out?

Someone told me about it. “You know when you were out on the bellyboard, someone filmed it”.

It must have been someone on the trip who recognised you?

Oh yeah. There were also a few guys from the Freshie surf club who knew I’d taken it there.
15. Did you see any other bellyboarders in Australia?
No, not a lot, not like on the boards we had.
16. What technique was involved in riding a bellyboard? Any parallels with bodysurfing?
I’d don’t do the tricks like they do now. I was more into going back into a wave. To throw it, throw my body into the wave and get inside the barrel as best you could. And do a barrel roll out the end of it or fly up the face of a wave or try to get up high into the wave. It’s a matter of having fun that way. I didn’t do the little flips that the kids are doing now.

So you rode mostly fairly high up in the wave?

I’d go back, I’d always try to get the best out of a wave. You’d either drop down and go ahead or you’d go back outside and turn back into it and shift your body to try and get inside of it and back out of it.

When you say, flip your body, what sort of manoeuvre were you doing?

You hold the board and you just go back into the wave. When you see the wave about to collapse and you throw your body back, you flip your board with your left hand if you are going right, you shift it into the face of the wave and try and beat the wave before it breaks and get back out into the green water before it collapses.

So flipping the board is like a cutback?

A cutback type thing. Only I used to really throw it back as hard as I could using my body and my arms.
17. Any other waves that stand out for you over the years?
Probably the biggest has been Long Reef, out on the bombie. I haven’t been back to Hawaii or anything like that. Long Reef has probably the biggest of the waves that I’ve caught on the bellyboard. Twelve, I suppose fifteen feet or more, when it’s a big day. Then you get the very good day when it’s offshore and the bombie is working. That’s really good. A drop and hang on. Dee Why Point. I’ve done that a few times when it’s big.

Bob Rose also mentioned Dee Why Point.

That’s right. It’s a big, fast right off the point. Go for your life and try and get through it.
18. You also rode standup. What was the attraction of riding a bellyboard?
I think what it was, I used to do a lot of swimming. I was there when boards as we know them today first came to Freshwater. Before that, we used to borrow these boards that were 16-foot. You’d get two waves and then spend half an hour emptying the things out because they were full of water. It was a matter of cranking it around to go one way and that was it. Then we saw these guys come out, Tom Zahn the movie star form the States. They started cutting back, turning and doing all sorts of tricks. We just couldn’t get over it. Midget Farrelly was with us when they came there. You know what he went on to do. I was caught up with the surf club, because of my father. He was one of the top people in the club, it was expected of me and I was a pretty good swimmer. We won quite a few club and state championships between us, in the swimming and other things. With the flippers we did a lot of bodysurfing. Barrel rolls in waves. When the bellyboard came I tried to do similar things and graduated to that.

Now, these small boards they seem to do the same thing, they could get stuck right inside. On the 9’, 10’ malibus you couldn’t do what they do now, whereas you could do what they are doing now on a bellyboard. Get inside the wave, you could get into a more critical section of the wave and flip around. With the big boards you couldn’t do that.

19. Where else did you ride a bellyboard besides around Sydney and on Hawaii?
A few places up the central Coast. In the 1960s, you couldn’t get around like you can get around now. Byron was like a week’s trip to get up there.

We used to go to Norah head up there on the Central Coast. It was a good spot that we used to go to and we’d take the boards as well.

Col McLean was the other guy from Freshie with a bellyboard. We also used to go down to the South Coast, to Stanwell Park, Wollongng way, to the beaches down there.

20. Any other comments or thoughts?
I really can’t recall the last time that I rode the McDonagh board. He was one of the ones who made many of the boards in the early days, along with Barry Bennett and Gordon Woods. They were all the board builders of the day down here, and the other guy from the Southside. In the same movie (Surfing Hollow Days) there was a day surfing Haleiwa before I broke my board. When I got back, I got into the standups for quite a while – I bought a Barry Bennett.

I gather Bob Evans featured that trip in the first issue of Surfing World.

I knew Bob Evans quite well. There was a spot on the southside around Botany Bay. I was also in the surf club with his brother, Dickie Evans.

He was apparently a good bodysurfer?

That’s right. He was one of the first to do layback with the arms back into the wave.

I’m talking 40 years ago. It was just one of those things that happened on a day. There was another time at the back of Waimea at the falls and we were talked into jumping off the highest height. That was Dave Jackman, who was a mate of mine. He rode the bombora at Queenscliff for the first time. [See Note 1.]


Dave Jackman - Queenscliff bombora, June 1961.

Author unknown. 1961. Teenage Weekly Supplement. Australian Womens Weekly, Septemeber 20: 5. Via Trove, the National Library of Australia's flagship discovery service for the public.


So you were in the company of thrill seekers?

Bob Pike was another one. [See Note 2.]


Bob Pike, Pipeline

Source: Young, Nat, and Craig McGregor. 1983. The history of surfing. Palm Beach, N.S.W.: Palm Beach Press.

Note 1: Details of Dave Jackman's ride at the Queenscliff Bombora and Outside Pipeline can be found in: James, Marcus (2011). A Waterman's Life: Dave Jackman. Pacific Longboarder, 14(4), 54-59. This article also features a photograph of a paipo Dave made after a trip to Hawaii and his recollection of Tommy Zahn surifng a paipo in Australia during the U.S-Hawaii Olympic team visit. Jim Growney, an Hawaiian paipo rider from the 1960s, confirmed that Tommy Zahn rode a paipo similar to those made and ridden by Wally Froiseth (Jim Growney, personal communication, March 14, 2011). However, John Clark spoke to Tim Guard from the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation (John Clark, personal e-mail, August 25, 2010), who advised Guard had ridden a paipo at Manly during the 1956 trip. John also spoke to Wally Froiseth who stated that he hadn't made Tommy Zahn a paipo and wasn't aware of him riding a paipo (John Clark, personal e-mail, March 26, 2011).

Note 2: Other surfers on the Bob Evans organised trip included , Midget Farrelly, Charlie Cardiff, Dave Jackman, Bob Pyke, Owen Pillon, Mike Hickey, Mick McMann, Tank Henry, Nipper Williams and Graham Treloar - a who's who of Australian surfing. Source: Young, Nat (1983). The History of Surfing. Palm Beach: Palm Beach Press.



Surfing Hollow Days poster and DVD




Poster from http://www.surfclassics.com/ and DVD from http://www.amazon.com/.

Feel free to send me suggestions, comments and additional information to: The Paipo Interviews


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