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A Paipo Interview with Paul Gannon

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Paul Gannon Paipo Interview
March 14, 2011. Coopers Shoot (NSW), Australia
E-mail interview and questions by Bob Green
Photos courtesy of Paul Gannon, Gary Clist

Little Avalon was a favorite spot for bodysurfers and bellyboard riders. Paul was one of a group who surfed Little Avalon before traveling around Australia. He started on ply boards made by Robert Hosking and after many years on other surfcraft has recently begun riding one of Dick Ash's new bellybogger models.
1. How did you first get into riding a bellyboard? When and where was this?
I guess it was an easy transition from surf mats (surfoplanes) when I was in Primary school. I used to ride at Cronulla when in primary school and then we moved to Avalon as I began sixth class (1959). We used to watch the guys from Maroubra body surf little Avalon in the early 1960s, and wished we were game to do that. A guy named Peter Sobels in Avalon surf club then made a bellyboard based on a paipo design that he saw in Hawaii. He was older than us but it didn't take too long before we attempted replications. Robert Hosking led the way and he began to make boards from marine ply similar to Peter Sobel's designs. The first board Robert made was a single fin (see Robert holding his first board many, many years later with the fin removed in the included photos….. he subsequently used it as a skidboard). Robert became the principal designer and manufacturer of nearly all the bellyboards made in Avalon during the 1960s.


Paul at Whale Beach, circa 1970

Photo courtesy of Paul Gannon.
2. Were there other bellyboard riders around at the time?
I surfed a lot at Little Avalon with my mate, Jim Murdoch, who was and remained a body surfer. Robert Hoskings came out of course but Dave Flatt and I were the main bellyboard riders with others like John Bridger, Donald "Ducksie" O'Brien and Malcom Robertson riding belly boards at the time.
3. Who made your first board? What was it like?
Robert Hosking made my first two belly boards. The first one was like his first with a single fin. It didn't handle Little Avalon's tube too well so Robert advanced his designs to twin fins.


Paul's second board on top of Dave Cairn's GT Cortina packed for a trip to Noosa, ca. 1970.

Photo courtesy of Paul Gannon.
4. How did you meet up with Robert Hosking? Did Robert make and ride bellyboards? What were his boards like?
There was a large group of us at Avalon who went to Narrabeen Boy's High School which was the closest High School at the time. Robert was a Cranbrook Boy and had to travel to the other side of Sydney to go to school so it was a credit to his sociability that he was able to gain access to our tightly knit group. He was an electronics nut and so was "Ducksie" so the two of them made contact on that, which progressed into surfing, as Robert became part of our group.
5. Where did he make his boards? Do you know how many he made and if their was much variation in the boards he made?
Robert was innovative with a quick and inventive mind. He was the least like a surfer in looks (and ability) but his agile brain turned successfully to many things. He later became an architect! His boards developed away from single fin paipos to a shape of his own that was very successful at Little Avalon. He made all of his boards in a small shed in the backyard of his parent's home in Avalon Parade. Initially they were varnished, with later boards coated with resin of different colors. His twin fins were angled and turned outwards, pretty much how twin fins have turned out on surfboards of today! Robert also made some delta shaped boards that went very well also. 

Robert Hosking in 1998, with a finless board from ca. 1963.

Photo courtesy of Paul Gannon.
6. You mentioned going to Narrabeen High and that the school was full of surfers. What was it like going to school there? I gather you wouldn't even make it to school some days?
Narrabeen Boy's High school was a buzzing hive of surfers. Kids attended all the way from Dee Why in the south to Palm Beach in the north. Going from Avalon to and from school in the bus we passed six beaches, all of them with good surfing breaks. We knew by the time we got home from school what the surf would be like at Avalon from our glimpses of all of the other breaks. We often missed the school bus in the morning because we were out at Little Avalon and had to hitch to school. Many times we "knicked off" from school to surf North Narrabeen during the school day. We always made it back to school in time to catch the school bus home.

It was the same with many others at school……. all with their minds on surfing. Nat Young went to Narrabeen at the time, as did Mark Warren and Ian Cairns. There were many others too numerous to mention.


Paul, Robert Hosking and Dave Cairns, 1998.

Photo courtesy Paul Gannon.
7. How were bellyboarders viewed in those days? Did you have friends who rode bellyboards?
Bellyboarders around the peninsula at the beginning of the 1960s were the ones pushing the limits of surfing. The longboards caught waves that were more rolling than steep. If you fell off your board it most often went all the way in, maybe hitting a few other boards along the way! There were no leg ropes! Board riders weren't (and still aren't) good swimmers in the main. They paddled boards well, but didn't like a long swim after their boards. They weren't that adventurous in catching waves that they might get wiped off and the boards they rode weren't capable of easily riding steep tubing waves. Belly boards were KINGS of the steep hollow wave. Little Avalon was and is, on its day, one of the best steep and hollow waves around. Bellyboards and bodysurfers dominated Little Avalon then. If a board rider wiped out at Little Avalon their board was lost on the rocks! This was an inevitability in the days before leg ropes and light short surfboards. The only board rider that consistently rode Little Avalon with us was "Midget" Farrelly. He "never" fell off and he was a gentleman surfer who shared the surf.

In retrospect our bellyboards were the precursors of the modern short board with twin fins. Our bellyboards were there with the design innovations long before boardriders adopted them, i.e., shortness and twin fins. We were riding the steep and "locked in" part of the wave long before they could and they only could after they adopted our design features AND adopted LEGROPES!!! Bellyboard riders were always being ridden over and dropped in on by board riders. We were disadvantaged in the speed that we could move (paddle) through the water, our board size, and the fact that we nearly always took off inside the point where most boardies would. Of course, we were always outnumbered by the number of board riders in the surf EXCEPT at Little AVALON!

One final point about those days was the ability of some bellyboarders to ride on their knees. This enabled the rider to travel faster across the wave without leg drag. Those of us that could ride on the belly or the knee got the best of a Little Avalon wave. We were doing all of this BEFORE we had even heard of George Greenough or McTavish who have been acknowledged as the innovators of the "shortboard!"

8. Do you recall Dick Ash surfing his bellyboards? When was this?
I do recall Dick Ash riding Little Avalon. It had to be around the mid-1960s. Like Peter Sobels, he was older than the rest of us and the relationship was little more than small talk in the surf.
9. You've mentioned Midget Farrelly also surfing there. Why just Midget and when did Little Avalon change from a bodysurfing/paipo spot to a stand-up surfing spot?
Leg ropes, shortboards, and an aggro selfish attitude of the boardriders at the time marked the demise of bellyboarders at Little Avalon.
 

Aden Parsons at Little Avalon May 9, 1964, without the crowd.

    


Photo by Dennis Markson.
10. Where else besides Avalon did you ride your bellyboard? In your travels did you come across other bellyboards?
During the second half of the 1960s, I rode my board from Noosa through to the Sydney northern beaches, at Cactus on the Nullabour and to Margaret River, Western Australia (W.A.). Very rarely did I come across other bellyboards. I remember riding with two local bellyboarders at Yallingup in W.A.
11. What was the attraction of a bellyboard for you?
As a teenager with little money, cost was appealing. Most certainly the ability, like the "Enterprise," to go where no man had gone before! As mentioned earlier, surfers on boards were not at the time riding the hollow part of the wave. Nor were they  surfing spots off rocks like Little Avalon. On a bellyboard, it didn't matter where you were, you could get a wave away from the crowds!
12. Any waves or surfs on these paipo boards still stand out for you?
A day at Noosa, February 1969, on my little orange board taking off inside of everyone on boards and making 10-foot waves they could not! My first waves at Angourie in February 1969. Crescent Head, 1967! Every day at Little Avalon!
13. How long did you ride a bellyboard for? When did you start riding kneeboards? Any similarities between these surfcraft?
My bellyboards all became my kneeboards! They were both at the same time. I started riding them in my early teens in the early 1960s, and stopped by my early 20s. University, work, and the usual took over.
 

Copy of a Hosking board made by Gary Clist. 48 inches long, it differs from the original by having the sides rounded and concave in the bottom. Paul estimates his board was about 38 to 40 inches long.




Photo courtesy Gary Clist.
14. I believe you have recently tried one of Dick Ash's new boards. How did this board ride? How does this board compare to the older ply boards?
It was a "deja vu" moment to try one of Dick Ash's new boards… took me right back to my teens! After 42 years since, and having spent time with surf kayaks, windsurfers, and long boards, its hard to believe that the same "good fun" feeling comes right back… not to mention how my ankles, knees, and hips feel… so good! Thanks Dick. The board I have just bought from you is magic! 

Paul with the latest bellybogger.

Photo courtesy Paul Gannon

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Last updated on: 02/10/14