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A Paipo Interview with Bob "Kit" Carson

Kirra Point, 6-8’ and inside out on a piece of ply

Bob “Kit” Carson Paipo Interview
May 5, 2010, Updated May 13, 2010 - Stradbroke Island, Queensland, Australia
Questions and phone interview by Bob Green
(Click on images for a larger view - photos courtesy of Kit and Kerrie Carson.)

1. How did you first get involved with riding ply bellyboards and when was this?
I'd have to guess the year, it was probably 1965. How it happened - I grew
up in Coolangatta and I surfed around Kirra. I was involved in Kirra Surf
Club. We all started off as clubbies. It was a day that was quite
legendary called "Big Wednesday." It was a cyclone so it must have been,
I'd be guessing, February. Word got around and we all took sickies. We
were working in Brisbane. Jeff Callaghan and I were going bodysurfing
Kirra Point. It was as big as Kirra Point gets, 8 or 10 foot or something.
There were a couple of guys out - Bogangar Bob, who is now dead, a legendary
surfer -- and I can't remember who else. I was with Jeff Callaghan -- there are
a lot of stories about his life. He was a fairly fearless surfer, probably
helped by the fact that his eyesight wasn't too good. He (Jeff) finished
up being one of Queensland's leading experts on storms and meteorology.
Whenever there was a cyclone he would be asked to comment.

We saw this guy come up, he had been sitting in his car looking for
somebody to surf with. He said, "Do you mind if I join you?" Jeff and I
looked at him. This guy had a hunk of ply under his arm and a pair of
flippers.

I think I went and spoke to him about surf prediction once.

That’s him. He’s the guy. Jeff and I had bodysurfed together from way back in the late 1950s. We started off just catching waves to the beach and I guess about the same time that surfing movies started, we realized that you could body surf across waves and in tubes, barrels etc. We were content to be doing that. There were no legropes. Boards were nowhere near the same problem. They weren’t as short and as manoeuvrable as they now are. So Jeff and I were going out in this big cyclonic surf at Kirra Point, and this guy came up. His name was Robert McDermott.


Kit Carson and ply bellyboards,.

Gold Coast bodysurfing in the 1960s.
Unidentified bodysurfer.


John Cunningham at Kirra in the mid 1960s.




Kit Carson bodysurfing Kirra February 1965.


Kit or Mark Green bodysurfing Kirra.


Photographs courtesy of Kit Carson.

So that was Bellyboard Bob McDermott?


Yes, that was Bellyboard Bob, my future brother-in-law as it has since transpired. He had this thing and Jeff and I looked askance, “What’s he going to do on this?” We were reasonably impressed with what we saw. It was early days for him, too. You’ll have to talk to him, but my understanding is that Midget Farrelly, or someone on the North Shore, knocked some up. They started playing around with this bit of marine ply and that’s where he got the idea. He came up to Queensland chasing the surf. He got a job on a prawn trawler and just surfed. We were pretty impressed with what he could do but in those days, it was pretty much just a straight power drive across the face of the wave. Then it was ‘good night’ because nobody knew what to do next. Before you know it we were around at Joe Larkins, saying “Joe can you knock us up a couple of these.” It was just marine ply. Initially we had two skegs, at the back on each side. We played around over the years with single skegs and went back to that model of two. That’s how it all started.


Once we became reasonably proficient Kirra Point was just a monty for them, because they had huge speed at the take-off in particular. They weren’t that manoeuvrable because they weren’t buoyant as such. But they were easy to get out in the surf because you could get under waves where surfboards would get caught in the foam because they couldn’t get down deep enough. Whereas with these you could power down like a scuba diver. You could get into big seas where a board would struggle, especially without legropes. Snapper Rocks was just an absolute blast, it was fantastic for them. You could just sit right inside, almost on the rock and take off at the very last second and they were just brilliant. I possibly have some photos of the early days at Snapper Rocks – I wouldn’t have many.

Then Jeff went down to Macquarie Island. He got a job with ANARE (the National Antarctic Research). He went to Melbourne, where he had to train 6 or 12 months. I actually took a job in Melbourne about the same time. We teamed up with a guy called Rocky Hall, a New Zealander who is now quite prominent in the life saving movement over there. The three of us started to surf the Torquay area, Bells, Winkie etc. When Jeff went to Antarctica, there was just the two of us, but we were soon joined by a few locals.

Kit, Jeff Callaghan and Robert McDermott at Kirra in 1965.


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.
2. When did you move to Victoria?
1965, end of 1965. We started around 1965-1966. I’m a bit hazy now. Jeff came back from Antarctica and then we had a couple of fabulous years surfing, particularly Winki-Pop, because leg-ropes hadn’t come in. A few of the other locals down there, Bryan Hayden, Ian Seeley, John Olson and Bruce Morgan, whose funeral we went to the other day, got involved to various degrees. Also, Colin Taylor had moved from Coolangatta to Melbourne and joined the scene. Jeff came back from the Antarctic and stayed in Melbourne before and after another trip to Antarctica and we had a few years, as I said, at Winki that were just sensational. I have some good photos of some of those days. Then legropes came. At the lowish tides, when Winki-Pop in particular gets a bit critical, the boards were in big trouble. Lose your board and the next minute they have half a board. You get smashed – you know the setup at Winki-Pop. It was near Nirvana as a bodysurfer or bellyboarder could ever get because the boards actually didn’t trouble you, except at different times like the Easter comps when the Nat Young’s and those blokes arrived. We had a fairly unimpeded sort of run at it there for a couple of years. Then the legropes and the boards got popular and we all sort of had to take a back seat and I gradually drifted away to a career.
When was that then?

It must have been around the early 1970’s, I suppose.


Kit at Winki, Winter 1969.


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.
3. Can I just go back a minute. Who were the guys you were surfing with down along the Gold Coast before you moved down, between 1963 and 1965?
Jeff Callaghan, Mark Green was around, Bellyboard Bob, Graham Dunn, Vinne Ford, Jimmy Purdon and Mick Potter. They were probably the main ones playing around on bellyboards. Most of the other guys were riding conventional, as they were those days, surfboards.

Were you mainly surfing Snapper and Kirra point?

Snapper and Kirra Point. Rabbit Bartholomew and that generation were still kids. Boards weren’t quite as numerous. They were still an issue but you got a reasonable go then. Why would anyone surf anywhere else than Kirra Point or Snapper Rocks when they were working?


Graham Dunn told me he had surfed Currumbin a bit.

We used to surf Currumbin. Currumbin not being quite as critical, it was easier at Currumbin for boards in a sense. I mean Currumbin took a bigger swell and could be great as could Burleigh, but Kirra, I mean the beauty of bellyboards is that they had this huge initial acceleration. You could get inside boards and compete better. Until boards got really manoeuvrable you could beat them at the takeoff. As time got on you couldn’t. In those days you’d sit right inside and just take the drop at the last minute. You’d get the box seat.

4. You’ve described surfing two of the world’s great waves, Kirra and Winki. Did you have to ride these waves differently?
Probably not a lot different. Kirra is a much more inside-out wave. Winki was a little bit more gradual in its build up. Kirra just sort of sucked up and stood up out of nowhere. You had to get just right in the spot. The only difference was timing, that was about all, although Winki was longer and perhaps a bit slower (relatively) so we had to work the middle section more whereas Kirra was pretty much pure speed.

You rode the same sort of boards at both spots?

We never really got that sophisticated. We played around a little bit. We really just stuck to the basic model. They were about a metre long. Probably 18 inches wide I think, and two skegs. We had a chrome door handle, up the front on the left because we mainly surfed righthanders. So you’d hold them with your left hand and you’d tuck them right under your chest and then you’d lean your right shoulder, your inside shoulder virtually into the wave, and that’s how you got your balance. You drove, you’re just sort of locked in – all the bellyboard was, was a slightly smoother planing surface than your body. It ran from about your chest down to your thighs. The trick to riding them most efficiently, I think, was almost to be back to the wall of the wave. You actually get some balance in the wave with the weight of your inside shoulder. On a really steep wave it’s a bit like body surfing. You almost roll so your outside shoulder is up into the wave.

I was going to ask you if there was any connection between bodysurfing and the technique used on bellyboards?  

There’s any affinity. If you are a body surfer it becomes a bit instinctive -- a lot of similarities. Because you’re planing higher in the water you have got more manoeuvrability but you don’t have the same manoeuvrability as Boogie boards – I never got into boogie boards. They were much more manoeuvrable down the bottom of the wave and round white water but didn’t have the initial takeoff speed. That was the thing about the ply bellyboards. They were incredibly fast. You’d take off inside at places like Winki, and you’d go screaming past guys on boards. But once you hit the bottom and you started to do your bottom turns and stalls and climbs and that, they had the flotation and they’d just outmanoeuvre you easily because you lost speed and couldn’t pick it up again as quickly. Initially, you could go faster than anything I’d seen in surfing. That was the thrill of them. But no one got to the point of developing them any further because boogie boards came in and more importantly, legropes just opened up the floodgates for conventional board riding. Board riding just went ahead in huge leaps and bounds then. The legropes made board riding accessible to ordinary competent surfers. Whereas before that it was only the real experts, the Nat Young’s of the world and the like who could surf these places. When I say Nat Young, there were a lot of other guys as well. That level of surfer.


Uncrowded Winki lineup.


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.
5. So you never tried foam boards? Joe Larkin described making balsa bellyboards at one stage that sound very similar to Vic Tantau’s bellyloomer or Fred Pyke’s boards? Did you ever try these boards?
Not really. I tried boogie boards but they just didn’t turn me on as much. Their asset was buoyancy but it was also a huge disadvantage trying to get out and didn’t make me feel as close to the wave. The ply boards were just so easy for what we did. I couldn’t see the point as it was a whole new skill to learn. At one stage we were tempted but then my career took me away from surfing, and I had kids and all that sort of stuff.

Life takes over.

Life took over and I got sidetracked and I never really got fully back into it. George Greenough was well established on his kneel board, which is a forerunner of the boogie board I suppose. He was doing some incredible stuff and you could see what was going to happen and you look at some of those boogie boards now and some of those guys can make those things talk.

6. The other thing I was going to ask, people have described you as pretty fearless in big surf. What was your attitude to riding big waves?
I don’t know where you got that from.

I think Bryan Hayden said ….

I don’t know.


Well it takes some nerve to take a small ply board out at 10’ Kirra.

Yeah, well Winki, Bells were much bigger. Bells got big, Bells and Winki. We used to surf Bells as well but Winki was a better shape I thought, for a bellyboard, a bit steeper for longer although it did section in the middle. It was just more of a driving wall. It was also less crowded and more accessible for bellyboards. We were in that generation where we saw the first surfing movies, Endless Summer, etc., and you see guys like Greg Noll and these fellas, and you think “shit, they’re doing stuff at Waimea Bay, Pipeline and all that, bigger than what we get here” and you think “if they can do it, we better try it.” You respect it. To say fearless would be wrong. You say “shit” you know, but you just think “it’s now or never. I better try.” You don’t want to die wondering, “do you?” I think fearless probably over-estimates the whole thing. The first few times, your heart is in your mouth, you say “Christ.” You look at guys now at places like Teahupo`o, that’s just insanity. It’s just like a building, as if you’re in a car park in a building and what if it collapses? I suppose it’s like bungy jumping the first time, you almost close your eyes and hope. Once you do it the first time and you get a sense that you can do it and you sense the timing and the whole thing, it gets easier and easier. You are reasonably fit and you get wiped out and you know it doesn’t kill you. It’s just what you get used to. Look at these guys riding this stuff off Tassy and off Western Australia. I look at some of these things and see waves that are five times the things we rode.


Bellyboarding around Torquay.

Kit at Winki.


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.


Local surfer John Olsen at Winki.


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.


Kit at Winki, 1969.


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.


Kit at Bells or Winki with surfer in foreground 


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.


Unidentified bellyboarder.


Photograph courtesy of Kit Carson.
7. I was also told that you’d also won at least one Australian surf lifesaving title. What event did you compete in and when was this?
That’s slightly inaccurate. I was in Kirra. The team I was on came second. It was in R and R and old fashioned bloody event that is irrelevant I think with anything to do with surf these days. In those days it was a team thing and I swam in surf teams as well, and we also got a third in a team race. I was a competent journeyman type of swimmer, a fairway short of the elite. Reasonable. That’s what we all did before surfing took over.

I grew up on the Gold Coast and we saw the evolution of surfing, as the guys at Torquay did, because they were there for the Olympics in 1956. That’s when the Yanks came over with their shorter boards. In those days everyone had their hollow bloody 16-footers. Everyone saw what the Yanks were doing and things evolved from there. Really, most people who got into surfing started through the lifesaving movement and it was only around about the 1960s that guys realised that you don’t need to be part of surf clubs to connect to surf. So an alternate sort of approach to surfing started which is now the mainstream surfing movement. But when we got to Torquay they were pretty enlightened, they spanned both. All the clubbies were all surfers as well. Guys like Peter Troy, Bryan Hayden, Rod Brooks, and the Rip Curl guys were all in the surf club as well as regulars at surfing Bells. They were doing both.
8. Over the years you have surfed some pretty good waves, are there now any that really still stand out for you?
For me, and again my surfing was limited to bellyboarding and bodysurfing, we were there in the fairly early days. We surfed cyclones at Noosa. That was sensational. We surfed Byron Bay on good days, Kirra and Snapper. Kirra is almost without parallel, I think when it is inside out and 6 to 8 foot. There is probably nothing better. It is one of the world’s greatest breaks. Some of those beaches down the coast, Lennox and some of those sorts of places. Certainly, I think the best time for consistency and big wave thrill was Winki before legropes. We’d go there and there would be three of us, much as you could stand the cold, you’d just have it for the whole tide. Half tide or whenever it was the best, you’d be all on your own. On the good days you’d see the guys on boards around at Bells and they wouldn’t bother coming around to us. I’ve got photos. It’s just unbelievable.
9. What was the attraction of bellyboarding?
For someone who hadn’t evolved onto riding conventional boards it was the same attraction everyone has in surfing. The nature, the peace, the quiet, the speed, the adrenalin, the silence of just blasting across a steep wall and hearing, on a big day in particular, that roar like a washing machine just behind you, with the barrel crunching over. It’s there but you’re beating it. It’s just this big bloody vertical wall of glass. It’s almost like you are breaking the sound barrier going through it, but I’m sure you’re not. You’re probably just going 35 kph or something, but it’s the whole nature thing, the solitude, the whole ambiance of the place. I think you have to surf to understand it, don’t you? I guess the difference to surfing with boards and (surf) skis is that you are closer to the wave, if that makes sense. You are actually in the wave, not on it. I lost some of that sensation when I was on boards or skis.

It’s a bit different these days.

We’d get aggro if there were two board riders out there or they would get aggro with us. There was a different sort of aggro. There was still respect in those days. It was a friendly aggro. How do you explain the thrill of surfing? It’s instinctive. For everyone who likes surfing, that’s it. There’s something primal about it.
10. When did you last ride a bellyboard?
I’m on Stradbroke Island as we speak, I’m just looking out on Cylinder Beach. I have a place here. There’s probably a metre and a half swell and there is bit too much west wind on it at the moment. I probably last surfed out here 4 to 5 years ago on a bellyboard. I’ve still got an old bellyboard, I think it is down in the shed. I’ve now got a pace maker and I’ve had a bit of a heart condition. The effect of the pacemaker, it responds to what my body tells it to do and tells my heart to pump how many beats a minute that it senses I need. Just purely lying on a bellyboard, working off my feet it doesn’t get the same message because it’s relying on chest tension to rev it up. My pulse rate doesn’t get high enough just kicking a bellyboard so it gets too bloody hard. You get a six-foot surf here and you need plenty of oxygen in your thighs to kick your bellyboard and my pacemaker is telling my bloody heart to go at 60 beats a minute, that’s hard work. So I’ve given it away the last few years and just bodysurf if it is not crowded and the rip is manageable.

How old are you now?

I’m 68.


Additional questions: Kit Carson (with Col Taylor in the background)
Stradbroke Island -- May 13, 2010


11. Can you tell me a bit about the boards you rode?
They were quarter inch marine ply. They were about a metre long, about 18" wide at the base, tapered and rounded at the front 12 inches, just rounded and they had two skegs, about 100 mil, whatever that is (Col Taylor was in the background assisting). They were parallel and right at the back, just about an inch from the end, by memory. We might confirm this. There are still a couple in existence on Straddie. The handles, for a right hander, going right are actually on the outside, on the left hand front side, because we mainly surfed rights. So you hung onto it with your left hand side and tucked it right down under your chest and you got purchase on the wave with your right shoulder, just like bodysurfing like how you roll your right shoulder into the wave.

What were they finished with?

They were finished with fibreglass.

 
So they were fibreglassed, they weren't varnished?

Just resin, not glass (Col in the background).

 
And how long would one of these boards last?

We've still got some. They were fairly durable unless you smashed them on a rock. They lasted more or less forever, didn't they, Col? Joe Larkin made them and Keith Hollingsworth. Joe Larkin was probably the main one.

 
Who was Keith Hollingsworth?

He was the local cabinet maker, builder, joiner. He made surfboards too, down the coast.

 
So you never made then to sell, you just made them for yourselves?

Exactly.

 12. So in Victoria, you just brought your Queensland boards down?
Yeah. I can't remember what happened down there. Maybe Rod Brookes made them. I can't remember where Ian Seeley and all those blokes, John Olsen and Bruce Morgan, got them. Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer were just starting Rip Curl, maybe from them. We got our wetsuits from them. Very early models!
13. So there were no other bellyboarders when you got down there?
No, no, not like ours. We were bit of a bloody phenomenon. We even got mention in the Melbourne press at one stage, as I recall, for breaking new ground.
14. Did you tinker much with length, go shorter/longer?
Not really. We may have dabbled, but we quickly came to the conclusion that the length was about right, that corresponded to the distance between your chest nipple down to thigh length. We got 4 out of a sheet of 6 x 3 (Col). We did play around with single skegs.
15. When did you experiment with skegs?
In the early days, we realised that twin skegs made them less manoeuvrable down the bottom turn. We even played around a couple of times with no skegs, so we thought we could skim around the whitewater at the bottom, to do your cutback and that sort of thing. But that tended not to be as stable across the face of the wave, although Jeff persevered and seemed to see merit in the finless option.
 
But I found that riding finless was not as stable and that a single fin didn't work better than the twin fin because it didn't give you as much purchase on a really critical, inside-out wave. With the twin fin, your inside fin was right on the edge, so it would just lock into the wall. However, with a single fin, the fin was 6 to 8 inches out and you just didn't have the grip -- it would slip a bit.
 
You might record that the expert advice came from Col Taylor, prawn fisherman and surfer.
16. Any final comments you’d like to make?
I can’t think of anything except that I’m looking at some nice right-handers peeling across. You’re still filled with awe every time you see a nicely shaped wave. It’s just something that gets in your blood.

Some more pictures

Possibly Kit, Torquay area.



Kit at Winki.




Unidentified at Winki.




Unidentified at Winki.



Photographs courtesy of Kit Carson.


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Last updated on: 11/18/10