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A Paipo Interview with Robert Moynier and Malcolm Campbell

The Bonzer paipo: two classic designs revisited

A Paipo Interview with Robert Moynier
September 22, 2011 - Cambria, California, U.S.A
E-mail interview by Bob Green

A Paipo Interview with Malcolm Campbell
October 24, 2011 - Oxnard, California, U.S.A
E-mail interview by Robert Moynier

Robert Moynier was interviewed a year ago and at that time was riding stand-up and at times prone, on bonzer boards ranging in length from 7'8" to 9'. In his collection he had a short paipo from the 1980s made by Gordon Theisz. He decided to revisit the design of this board with the assistance of Malcolm Campbell. The result: two bonzer paipos. Robert describes his surfing experiences and thoughts on these new boards which, while modern designs, also have strong links to the past, going back to Wally Froiseth. Malcolm provides insights into his board design experience and Moynier's boards.
The surfer's story - Robert Moynier

1. Originally you were a bit wary about riding and damaging your classic board but I believe you had been surfing it exclusively before you got some new boards. What happened?
You're right that I really don't want to ding up that board! It's such a great piece of functional surfing archeology and although it's 30 years old, it's still in "as new' condition. As you know, it is based on the Wally Froiseth paipo design from the mid-fifties and was built by Gordon Theisz for Candy Calhoun in 1980. There is a real connection there. I believe Gordon and the Calhouns may have been riding these specific kind of boards for about 20 years at that point.

In any case, we received the board pretty soon after it was made, never really rode it, and so remarkably, it's stayed in its pristine condition ever since then. That potentially could have changed about a year or more ago when I randomly swam out with it at a glassy little beach break, and somehow immediately lucked into a freakish "Crystal Voyager" type tube that essentially blew me away and left me both shaking my head and totally stoked. The damn board felt really speedy and sensitive in a unique way, and using the handle to manoeuver was definitely a real trip. It felt less like a surfboard and more like a very fast go-cart, or maybe a bob-sled!

Similarity of boards that served as a baseline for Robert Moynier's Bonzer paipo.

Wally Froiseth's Board, ca. 1956. Candy Calhoun's Board board built
Theisz, 1980. It is 3'10"

Board lengths are not to scale. Photos courtesy of Wally Froiseth and Robert Moynier. More photographs may be found throughout the website.

Whatever it was, that was my first wave, and from then on I became progressively more intrigued with trying to understand and experience what the board was all about. There is a lot of information in that little vehicle, and you really just can't sit there and look at it to figure out what it's trying to tell you. You have to take it out and ride it, experience what it was designed for.

So that's what I did for about 6 to 7 months. Took me about a month to get serious and break down and buy some swim fins, and from then on it was just a constant discovery adventure. It's all I rode, and I went out in everything that came my way locally, as well as a couple trips to some point breaks when they were breaking. Clearly, I had become "paipo possessed," which was the last thing I expected to happen at this stage of the game. But wow! This stuff is fun, and really, really interesting. So I just kept going with it. And, by the way, apart from a few little deck "pukas" from elbow pressure, I never dinged it up at all!
2. How has it been rediscovering paipo boarding?
I think "rediscovering paipo" might be a bit of a generous description in my case. I started surfing in 1959, and like a lot of people began on skim boards, paipos, foamies, mats, and body surfing. After about 3 years of that it was on to "real" surfboards, and the prone experience, while never forgotten, and always respected, was nonetheless random and definitely an exception to my day-to-day surfing happenings. Things began to change about 3 years ago as mentioned before and the actual paipo discovery is only about a year's worth, so it's a relatively brand new phenomena for me.

Having said all that.. how has the "discovery" been? Well, pretty mind boggling for a start. Kind of like taking a trip to Mars or stepping into a parallel universe that exists just slightly hidden from most others' point of view and reference.

First of all, you are basically swimming most of the time, immersed in the ocean, not on top of it, so there is a whole other set of skills required in terms of the paddling out, catching the waves, knowing where you are and where the takeoff zone is, as well as the fact you are primarily looking around from a sea level perspective. It's simultaneously a very intuitive, but physical experience. And of course, you do feel a little bit more a part of the aquatic food chain, but that's not something I dwell on too much.

Having fun on the Theisz paipo

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.

Another aspect of the paipo experience so far is the fact that, for the most part, I really don't know what's going to happen during any given surf session. While I can gauge conditions fairly easily enough, and mentally suggest to myself the best lines to take as I look at the waves, my conditioned frame of reference for decades has been based on so called "normal/real" surfing, not paipos, so it's really a discovery, wave-by-wave, as to what the board is doing, what I'm doing, what works, what doesn't, along with the occasional out of the blue "I don't know what the hell just happened, but I like it, let's try that again!"

That entire feeling of a beginner's mind, learning how to surf again, and leaving the water in a state of wonder is as big a draw as anything else, maybe the most attractive thing about the entire experience. Right now there is very little that is predictable about my surf sessions, and that runs the gamut from how I look at waves, where to place myself in the line-up, dealing with other surfers, paddling, and of course, riding the waves themselves. All things considered it is really a fun trip. Even riding the soup can turn into a blast and like I say I generally leave the water mumbling something like, "damn that was interesting... can't wait to do it again!"
3. What are the design features of the new boards and how do they ride?
The new boards are pretty intentional, pretty specific, and came about after that 6 months of riding the Froiseth/Theisz board in all kinds of waves. At that point I felt I could appreciate at least some of the boards potential and characteristics and I wanted to see if there was a next step with these things.

What it came down to was really fundamental and general to most surfers regardless of what they ride: how to take this board and increase its speed and in this case, not just it's planing speed, but it's acquired speed as a result of turning velocity, turning radius, and it's ability to get into the "race track" ramp, or curl line where the board really excels.

As a planing surface, from template, to foil, to rails, the Froiseth/Theisz board is really a quite sophisticated and functionally sound high performance design, but very soon after getting into it, my thought was "this template... it's tailor made for a Bonzer bottom and fin system. Keep everything else the same, add some length to increase turning circumference, and this could be really interesting." That was the deal.

From Theisz to Campbell

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.

There was no doubt in my mind that the fundamental hydrodynamic principles embodied in the Bonzer bottom/fin systems would translate seamlessly and efficiently onto this type of board, and to test that out was pretty simple: build one, or in this instance, build two, and see what happens.

It helped just a bit that my closest friend (along with his brother, Duncan) is Malcolm Campbell, co-creator of the Bonzer and considered by many knowledgeable people to be one of the very best shapers going today. Malcolm had been listening about my paipo obsession (with some amusement I think) since it started, and we had surfed a couple times with me on the paipo, so he had a pretty good idea what I had in mind.

Malcolm Campbell and his son, Jacob, with the 4'6" paipo. Jacob was the "creator extraordinaire" of the artwork on the boards. Malcolm with the 5' paipo.

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.

With some input from others, we settled on two boards to put together: a 4'6" with the traditional Bonzer 3-fin setup, and the other a 5-foot with a contemporary Bonzer 5-fin setup. Each board followed the Froiseth/Theisz design as closely as possible, from template, to foil, thickness, rails, and rocker. Everything duplicated with the exception of length (the Theisz board is 3'10"). And, of course, the most important difference: the Bonzer double-concave and fin system.

Robert happy with his new boards

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.

The 5-foot board came first. By comparison to the Theisz paipo, this board has close to 25 percent more surface area and volume. As an example of what that means, if the Theisz board was 7-foot, then the new Bonzer with the same template etc., would come in at around 8'8'. That's a big jump, and in fact, that is a whole lot of planing surface and foam flying around for a paipo. This was the primary reason to go with the 5-fin system: it tends to have a bit more snap off the turns, and it also provided the opportunity with the bigger board to go to a 4-fin setup depending on conditions and see where that might lead. [See the board specifications in this Note.]

Five- and three-fin bottom contours.

Click on images for a larger version. Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.

From the time we measured and calibrated out the Theisz paipo, to the finished Bonzer board, around 4 months had passed. Malcolm is singularly meticulous in his craft, and as the shape revealed itself he wanted to review the original design to make sure we were headed in the right direction before he completed it. Add to that the making of the mahogany handles, glassing, the "amazingly smooth and intricate" artwork, and you end up with quite a little collaborative project. These things take time. When I picked it up, I was amazed, a little stunned, and totally stoked! It is a unique example of paipo surfcraft to say the least. It's both one of kind and derivative, something on the level of "future history" or, as someone else aptly described it "a space time overlap." Beyond that, and most importantly, I knew right after my first handful of waves that this thing really works! It was clearly very fast, gets up to planing speed right away, pivots on a dime but projects down the line when required, held into the section "tighter than a tin tear drop" and felt remarkably smooth and powerful coming out of a turn. In other words, it seemed to do exactly what we hoped it would, and then some.

On that basis, the 4'6" design was a go, and went more quickly. This is the mid-range board between the 3'10' and the 5-foot boards, and utilizes the Bonzer 3-fin keel runners setup. I wanted foremost to maximize the turning velocity and radius as much as possible on this one, and I think that's exactly what happened. The 4'6" is nimble, achieves planing speed remarkably quickly, is uber fast, and absolutely loves the barrel. Like the 5-foot board, it can hold a very tight trim in the top third of the wave for what seems to be an extended time.

Robert on a glassy left

Photo courtesy of Robert Moynier.

Of the three boards so far, it may well be the most "go to" vehicle on a day-to-day basis, but only more water time and experience will tell. As a rough automotive analogy as to how each of these boards ride, you could think of the 5-foot board as a full throttle Ferrari, the 4'6" as a fuel-injected Bugatti, and the 3'10' as some kind of hopped-up high performance go-cart. With each board you will more than likely make any given decent wave--the question is, "How do you want to ride the wave during that process and, what is the board doing, what is it telling you as you ride the wave?" That's the fun part and makes each go out an adventure.
4. What is the function of the handgrip at the front? Is it just to hang on to during wipeouts, etc., or does it assist turning? If the later, how? I'm generally interested in the technique you use to turn and gain speed on these boards.
The handles are integral to these types of boards and have little to do with wipeouts, although I guess they're useful in some of those situations. I'm riding the boards with no wax on the deck. A glossed, relatively slippery surface that allows your body to both pivot around the board, following it after a turn and then pull up on it (with the handles) when adjusting into trim and also allowing the board to become a kind of a lever that you apply pressure to through body english to do a whole range of things... turn,stall, control or release drift speed, or whatever is appropriate.

Robert demonstrating use of the handles

Photo courtesy Robert Moynier.

In some ways it's similar to using a handplane while bodysurfing, but there's more to it than that. When pulling up into a section, you might be doing a number of things. You can have your inside hand on the handle, outside hand anywhere on the outside rail, applying pressure as needed, then when in the curl or speed line both hands squarely on the handle for the drive. In some instances, both hands on the handle allow a kind of "slalom" or circular, type of surfing, or depending on the wave, you can grip both hands on the handle for a "gouging" type of bottom turn, and after the pressure is off, release again, with the body following the turn, briefly off the board, attached only by the handle.

Late takeoffs might be both hands on the handle, early takeoffs you can fade in with two hands driving, pivot the board with one hand and, again follow the board after it gets to planing speed and adjust from here. Absolutely great for controlled drifts, side slips (stalls), and kind of mind altering for what I call "riding side saddle with the lord." That's where you basically push the board at a certain angle away from your body while in a section, just attached to the handle and follow it for as long as it makes sense, then pull yourself back on the board and away you go.

I've had some great kinds of foam ball experiences with that one and you don't seem to lose any speed which seems odd given your body is just following the board. Lately I've been riding the 5-foot board without the center fin, and have found that the lateral drift (in the power part of the wave) seems to generate its own kind of unusual speed characteristic. When you release the torque, it has the same effect as a very long bottom turn with a definite increase in speed coming out of it; maybe more than if you were just holding a straight line trim. In this instance, the body is generally (not always) squared up on the board. Couldn't be doing that, or at least I couldn't, without the handle to help control velocity and speed, and this is another interesting thing to explore with these boards. Bottom line at this point, is that the combination of slippery deck and handle, while maybe a bit counter intuitive, is a totally functional approach to surfing these craft, and opens up some unique and unexpected wave riding experiences. And that's good enough, for now.
5. What's Next?
More surfing, that's for sure. I'm definitely looking forward to this winter for some point break surfing, can't wait to stretch out the Bonzers and see where they go. I would love to see some other paipo riders, and their boards, in the flesh. See what they are on about and have them ride my boards and hear what they have to say.

What's really going on is an exploration of the capacity and potential of these boards. It's unknown to me where this may lead, but there is a lot of information to be uncovered, and really, how great is it that that can only be done by surfing them? No doubt other boards will come, but at present I'm really stoked and grateful to have the "Froiseth-Campbell Bros. Bonzer" paipo to surf with. They represent a unique link from the past, direct to the future, that allows a taste of both during each present surf session. Back to that "space time overlap," or "future history" theme. I guess all I can say is "surf on," and thank you Wally, Gordon, Candy, and Malcolm and Jacob Campbell!

Wally Froiseth and his paipo, ca. 1956.

Photos courtesy of Wally Froiseth.

The surfcraft designer and innovator story - Malcolm Campbell

The first bonzer boards were made by Malcolm and Duncan Campbell  in Oxnard, California in December 1970.  The design has been refined over time but the core components remain. Malcolm provides insights into his board design experience after being asked to revisit a classic paipo design.

1. The approach to shaping these paipos was essentially to duplicate the Froiseth/Theisz board while incorporating the Bonzer bottom and fin system. What were your impressions of the Theisz board in terms of what it represents, it's apparent performance potential, and how that would mesh with the Bonzer system?
To me the Theisz-design paipo is a example of, and represents a long, storied history of an approach to wave riding. Things don't hang around, and remain in use for decades, unless the essential design principles are strong. This fundamental shape, with small variations, has been consistently used for wave riding vehicles longer than any other. paipos, belly boards, body boards have utilized the basic concept. Obviously large differences exist within this extended family. The consequential differences arise in the materials they are constructed with, and the fin and bottom contours they incorporate.

When Robert approached me with the idea of a Bonzer paipo I had no doubts. For 40 years we have 'Bonzerized' kneeboards, the entire range of surfboards, tow boards, sailboards, and even one bellyboard [see Note 1]. In every case we achieved enhanced performance capabilities. The key here would be integrating the tried and true aspects of the paipo with what we have learned working with the Bonzer bottom and fin concept.

Malcolm Campbell at the 2011 San Diego Sacred Craft meet with new additions to the broad paipo family. [See Note 2
for more information on board specifications.]

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.
2. Did you feel the Bonzer system would, or could, improve the surf capacity of the basic Theisz template and foil? How so?
As far as whether I felt that the Bonzer system would "improve" the basic paipo concept, I don't mean to be wishy washy, but things can get a bit subjective when entering this territory. Different people want different things out of their equipment. Duncan and I have always approached surfboard design with the idea of maximizing speed, maneuverability and control as a holistic unit. We look toward getting the maximum performance with the least amount of energy input. In this respect, the Bonzer-paipo combo, would be a slam dunk.

The Bonzer concaves combined, with the wide base, low-profile side-fins, efficiently utilize the energy created by the water passing under the board, especially during turns. The long base of the side fins, combined with the degree of the cant, also provide great "edge control" that enable the board to maintain speed and hold its line when driving around long, crumbling sections, and tube riding.

The 5-foot paipo on the stands.

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.
3. You shaped the 5-foot paipo first and during the process had some concerns. What were those concerns and do you feel they were resolved?
My basic concern with the 5-footer was the amount of planing area in relation to being able to maintain enough control and maneuverability at high speed. I knew the board would, as my Dad used to say, "Go like Jack the bear," but the question was, "Would you be able to make the fine adjustments necessary to effectively navigate the wave in tight situations?"

The Theisz board was 3'10'', so doing a 5-footer was a big leap. Since our aim was to stick with the Theisz template there were was only a couple of adjustments I felt I could do to address this potential problem. One was to make the tail slightly narrower and the other was to make sure that the tail was not too thick. Hopefully this would allow a bit more control at high speed. By your description of how the board rides it seems that we were relatively successful. This being said it seems that the 5-footer occupies a niche different to the shorter versions.

The 3'10" Theisz and the 5-foot Bonzer

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.
4. How about the 4'6" board... how did that feel to you while shaping it after the first one, and what about the choice of the different fin setup's (5-fin vs. 3-fin) for each board... what were your thoughts on that?
The template of the 4'6'' came together much easier. It seemed much more natural, and conducive to the paipo medium. After working through the mental space of shaping the 5-footer, the 4'6'' was a relative breeze. As far as the choice between the 3- and 5-fin systems, I think that you made a good decision to go with the five on the 5-footer and the three on the 4'6''. There is not a quantum difference between the two, but basically the 5-fin setup allows a bit more maneuverability in the hollow or critical spaces of a wave. This is more evident when moving at higher speeds. Since the five foot board has a naturally higher planing speed, it made sense to try to bring it under control with the 5-fin setup.
5. The choice of blanks was important. What did you use, why, and how long were they? What role did rocker play in deciding what length of blank was required?
I used the same style blank for both boards. It was a US Blank, 6'8'' RP with reduced rocker and "classic" weight foam. I went with the heavier foam to keep the elements of weight, volume, area and flotation somewhat in line with the general paipo concept.
6. If you were to shape a new paipo from scratch, with no reference to any other design, what do you think that board would look like?
That's a tough question. Honestly until making these boards for you I have not put much thought into the paipo realm. I have always been a "form follows function" kind of guy, so for me to venture out of the basic paipo form, I would have to put in some quality time riding waves in this manner to know what different direction, if any, I would take. Our design work originates out of trying to solve problems and overcoming inefficiencies. This requires experience within the particular medium that you are working. In terms of paipo surfing, I just don't have it.
7. Your thoughts on paipo in general... where do you think it sits in the overall context of surfing and surfcraft performance, past, present and future?
As a kid, bodysurfing and bellyboarding is what got me hooked on the sensation of riding waves. I think that the fundamental nature of paipo surfing, the closeness to the wave face, ensures that it will always be a part of surfing.
8. My guess is there may be 20 to 30 people on a global level who would love to have you shape a paipo for them. If they were nice, kind, interesting and patient humans... would you consider their request?
I am always open for shaping adventures, although I must admit that I have been severely dragging my feet, and not entered the world of SUPs. I would be up for doing some custom paipos. My approach would be to adapt the Bonzer system to what the particular person is riding. This way people can more accurately assess whether or not the Bonzer provides performance attributes that fit with their approach to wave riding. In many ways surfing is an individually creative experience, and we aim to maximize and integrate the use of the Bonzer within the context of that paradigm. [See Note 3 for information on where to find a fuller discussion on the Bonzer paradigm.]

The paradigm maximized

Photos courtesy of Robert Moynier.

Note 1: This bellyboard was about 4-foot long, had a 3-fin Bonzer setup, and featured an inverted arc tail. It was made for a friend who was at that time partially paralyzed on his left side. He was able to get out in the shorebreak shallows and and launch into the soup with it.The inverted arc was for body comfort while riding along.

Note 2: Selected board specifications are shown in the table below.

4'6" 3-fin Bonzer

5'0" 5-fin Bonzer
Widest point
21-1/2 inches
21-1/2 inches
20-1/4 20-1/4
20-1/8 20
Tailblock (pod)
16-3/4 17
1-1/2 to 1-11/16th maximum 1-1/2 to 1-11/16th maximum
Center fin (fin box)
6-inch True Ames Bonzer center fin
6-inch True Ames Bonzer center fin
Bonzer keel runner side fins
(glassed on)
10-inch length at base x 2-1/2 inch high trailing edge Front fins: 5-1/2 inch base x 2 inch trailing edge
Aft fins: 6 inch base x 2-1/2 inch trailing edge
Glassing (both boards)
2 layers of 6 oz. cloth, top and bottom, plus elbow patches running vertically below the handle
Handle (both boards)
Mahogany, resined on deck after gloss coat

Nose and tail measurements are twelve inches from either end and dimensions are within 1/8th inch or so.

Note 3: For more information on the Bonzer design paradigm, see the Campbell Bros Surfboards website and the following articles:
  • Barilotti, Steve. (2004, Spring). Belief System: The long, strange saga of the Bonzer. The Surfers Journal, 13(2), 94-109.
  • Buck, Simon. (2008, October). Opening The Door On The Quiet Revolution. Surfer’s Path, (68), 94-101.
  • Campbell, Malcolm. (2011, November). Forty Bonzer Years. Drift Surfing. Accessed on January 26, 2012. Read the article.

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

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