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A Paipo Interview with Bryan Hayden

Surf Coast bellyboarder before the crowds and legropes
January 13, 2010. Torquay, Victoria, Australia
  e-Mail and phone interviews based on questions by Bob Green

Some introductory comments by Bryan.
Well in 1956, they had the Olympic surf lifesaving championships in Torquay. That was the key to the whole thing because the Yanks came out with three boards and I think they got first, second, and third in the board race. They taught the Australians a few tricks because their equipment was so much better and then they introduced the malibus. Greg Noll, Mike Bright, Tommy Zahn, and Sheridan Byerly bought these boards out that were 10’ long and they were surfing them on the point at Torquay and the whole crowd’s gone “what the hells this all about.” Then they were able to commandeer one of the boards, copy it and start making them. Vic Tantau then got into it. That was the beginning of the start of new thinking, new technology, new equipment, new product and that’s where it all started. Bellyboards followed on from there.
Bryan making the drop at Winkipop, July 1970.
Photo courtesy of Bryan Hayden
1. How did you get into surfing and when was this?
In the early-1950's, after being taught to swim, body surfing and surfoplane riding was the next thrill. Hanging around the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club led to longboard riding and so on.
2. How did you get into bellyboards? Who was riding them at the time? Where was this?
All the surf club guys had a crack at one time or another as it was regarded as a tame but fun thing to do if you didn't own a 16-foot board. Usually at Torquay, sometimes Jan Juc, Ivan Orbuck and his wife, Shirley, were prominent along with the late Tony Johansen (Victorian 400m freestyle champ.) and Jim Bell who introduced the hand plane.
3. What were the boards like when you first started and who made them?
There were belly board riders, men and women, at Torquay right back in 1920, but the sport really stood still all those years. The 1956 Olympic Surfing Championships at Torquay was the catalyst for all forms of changes relating to surfing and surf equipment. The old turned-up narrow ply boards prevailed until the 1950's, then with the introduction of balsa and fiberglass things changed. Vic Tantau produced balsa lamaroos - one well preserved one is in the Torquay Surf Club owned and ridden by the late Alan Coulson. Not many were made as balsa was scarce. Once Bell's Beach came into the picture they were tried but didn't live up to performance.
4. I’ve never met anyone that has seen one of those old narrow turned up nose boards ridden – were they able to be ridden out the back or were they predominantly ridden in the shore break?
No. Definitely not out the back.
5. So you had to be able to launch them form the shallows?
Pretty well, I suspect the odd person in later years used flippers with them, but they were really, for want of a better word, a woman’s attempt to catch waves. They were of very little use in any respect as far as modern surfing was concerned. They just didn’t perform.
6. Had Bells and Winki been surfed on bellyboards for long before you started there? When did you first surf Bells and Winki?
I first surfed Bell's on a borrowed balsa board in 1962. Winki really didn't feature until 1964, as the boards couldn't cope. I kept surfing all styles, board, body, ski, belly right through. Bellyboards became a logical winter option when the swell got large as without leg ropes you did a lot of swimming in freezing water, or you didn't venture out at all.

If you understand the whole surfing history of Victoria the embryo of the whole thing is the Torquay surf club. Because, with the difference between Sydney, Queensland and Victoria, is that Victoria’s waters are so  cold that you just can’t be a body surfer in the normal sense in the way you would have been in Sydney or Queensland, 12 months of the year. All the rugby players in Sydney all bodysurfed during winter, but you couldn’t do that here because the water is so cold and so, what happened was the surf club was the haven for any winter surfing. It didn’t develop elsewhere in the state until probably, I suppose, the earliest winter surfing here of any real renown was 1956-57. It didn’t sort of really take off anywhere else in the state until well into the 1960s. So the information of that early history is all contained within that group of older people that hang around Torquay and there is still a few of them alive.

All surfing in almost every respect goes back to the Torquay surf club. In winter, you couldn’t body surf because there were no wetsuits. You’re talking very cold water. What you did, you rode boards in a footy jumper, tee-shirt and a pair of footy shorts. That’s how we cut our teeth at Bells, in footy jumpers.
7. You were pretty hardy guys?
Well, to a degree, you always got to remember there’s a percentage of surfers who go to the mountains in winter so the numbers thin out pretty well. Even getting into the mid-1960s, the wetsuits weren’t all that good – they were cumbersome, thick things, the sort of things Rip Curl started-up making, it was like being in a strait jacket. It was a big effort.

Surfing developed here in line with the equipment. The equipment was the thing that allowed surfing to develop. The will to do it was always there.

But before we had balsa surfboards we used big long toothpicks, and they were used at Bells, and you had 16-foot surfboards being used at Bells in the very early days. You certainly wouldn’t use them in very big surf. However there was a fellow named Paddy Morgan, who now lives on the Gold Coast, who used to ride a cut down 16-footer at Bells, and that was well into the 1960s. He surfed a board that I reckoned was about 14 to 15 feet long,
8. Who were the other people you remember bellyboarding with? Were you all riding similar boards?
Circa summer of 1966, there was some body surfing and hand plane surfing at Winki, but only in small to moderate surf. After that, bellyboards of faster design came in, and in the big surf we had a ball as there was no competition. None of us could cope with Winki due to no leg ropes. If you lost your board it got smashed, maybe never seen again. So the circumstances were perfect for the development of this new concept.
9. Bells and Winki are quite different waves. Did you have different boards for these waves, or just the one board? Did these waves require a different approach?
Same boards. In big surf Winki has a great wall and the thrill is in making all sections until you literally run out of water, and you are never really far from shore. Bell's is a heavy wave when big and if you make it to the bowl you are in for a thrill, as long as you get through.
10. What do you remember of the day featured in the 1996 book on the Torquay SLSC by Ken Pollard?
I can’t say I can remember that day specifically. They were my photos. They were taken either by Cam Seward or John Duffin, and they were taken off a movie. The movie is still available as far as I know but it certainly wasn’t the best of the days.
11. Any waves or surfs still stand out for you? What was the attraction of bellyboarding?
1970-71 was fantastic, Bell's and Winki. August 1970 was magic. The attraction was the friendship, the fear, the challenge to have a crack at something scary, that magic when you hit top speed. The best day we ever had, or the one that stands out in my memory, was in August 1970, that was a sensational day.
12. What was special about that day?
Well, it was clean, it was big, it wasn’t stormy. It was just a thumping big groundswell. You were able to get from Uppers through Lowers, right into the bay. That was the big challenge at Winki to get through a flat spot between each of those and you were absolutely flying. When the tides right, and the swells right and the winds right and everything else happens. Winki is pretty well hard up against the cliff and the wind doesn’t play as big a part of it perhaps as it does at Bells. But if you get the perfect conditions there it’s a hell of a long ride even though most of the time you are just 50 metres from the shore.

It comes in along the reef and sucks into a very shallow reef. If you really got into trouble there you’d just get swept down the line and probably get in all right. But at Bells it’s a different story. If you get caught at Bells you’re in serious trouble because you’re heading toward the headland but you can’t land there, you have to get the hell away from it. That doesn’t happen all the time. In fact, a very, very well known and well-loved surfer by the name of John Pawson was killed on that headland.

When Winki is really big, sometimes you can jump in at Bells and follow the drift around but if you don’t make it, well you’re in trouble – then you’re hard up against the cliff.
13. What’s the biggest waves your boards would go in?
That’s a subjective answer really. We reckoned those waves that we had there were 15 foot. But what the hell is a 15 foot wave these days?
14. When you are lying down they look bigger.
Frightening. That Kit Carson, he was the guy who really set the pace. He knew how to handle those boards. The key to it was not to try to pick them up on the outside because you were actually at a disadvantage. The further on the inside you could get the more instant speed you’d have and although it’s frightening at the takeoff, he was an absolute hero. He would put himself over anything and he proved that the principle with those little boards – we would kick off in the take off and then immediately after you got the momentum you’d push the board right back under your thighs, so you weren’t lying on the board at all. What you did was catapulted your body beyond the front of the board so where you were holding the handle, you pushed that back so that would be back where your hip was, your hand was holding onto the board with the handle on the nose of your board back underneath your hip and you’d arch your back. If you were going to the right you’d put your right arm out directly in front of you so as to get as much weight out as much as possible and they would absolutely fly. Your whole body was cantilevered out over the front of the board and you were planing on a surface that was akin to your navel down the board.
15. You just didn’t go in straight lines – you mentioned climbing and dropping?
Winki is that wave – when you make one section and get through it, then you say, “righto, if I’ve got to make a flat spot here I’m going to have to plane straight through.” But it was always just making sure that you had the highest elevation at the critical time and you could always beat the drop. At Winki, if you took the drop at the appropriate time, you go down and just go underneath and come out the other side. It’s a fantastic wave, it really is.
16. Was there much cross-over between bodysurfing and bellyboarding technique?
The steeper the takeoff the more likely you would survive, if the takeoff was flat you would not get through 'lowers.' With bodysurfing you don't get the opportunity to climb and drop to the same extent. The sheer speed and acceleration on the board
is what counts, not the tricks used in body surfing.
17. It was all about speed?
It is all speed. We were hooked on speed. That was the key to it. When you hit the water doing that you would find your speed. That Kit Carson was absolutely brilliant. He was a Queenslander. Kit was pretty good and his mate, Jeff Callaghan, was good too.
18. You previously mentioned Dennis Hall, a Kiwi.
He was a funny bloke, very insignificant, almost a timid sort of fellow. You’d get to Bells early in the morning and he’d get nervous and stutter – “it’s a bit big for me today” – but he’d always go in.
19. From those first boards was there much progression in the designs or did you stick with a basic shape and design? What worked best for you?
Kit and Ian experimented but kept coming back to what produced the most speed. Large fins were a failure, small twin fins were best. Boards were best kept short, dead flat, with one only extra large handle to protect your knuckles.

Close-up of the copper handle.

Photo by: Bob Green
20. I’m curious about how the handles protected your knuckles.
Originally they were little door handles. You’d hold onto those – the clearance between your knuckles and the board itself would maybe only a centimetre. What we found if we took a tumble or got into real strife that your board would be all but ripped out of your hands, flipped over it would tear your knuckles on the board.
So, what we did, Ian Seeley designed it, what he did was get copper pipe, he designed a handle that would be about 3” high and 4” long – instead of being low and curved shape, it went up, across and down.

The clearance between the top handle and the board was enough for your whole wrist, fist to swing around, so if the board got flung, your knuckles would clear the board. We learned the hard way on that. We always had bare knuckles.

The other thing that we found about it, we were able to hang onto our boards better. Because we used copper pipe 30 mm thick so you could actually grab onto it. The previous ones were little thin chrome door handles and they were too thin to hang onto, to really get a grip on, they’d rip out of your hands.
21. How long and wide were your boards?
Well I’ll tell you, I have got a couple here. Three feet long. At the rear it’s about 15 inches wide, rounded at the front the actual width would have been about 17 inches. 3 ply.

Ply boards ridden in the Torquay area

Bryan's original twin fin, deck view.
Bryan's original twin fin, bottom view.

A later single fin. Note where the twin fins
have been removed.

 Bryan with his two boards, July 2010.

Photographs by Bob Green.
22. So it was wider at the nose than at the tail.
23. Parallel rails and about 6mm thick – what’s that in inches?
The handle was at the front on the left-hand side. The reason for that was because they were all right hand breaks down here. You used your right arm to throw out as far out in front of you as you can. I have one here the handle would be 2” high and 4” long. I’ve got here one with two small twin fins, that was the best one I ever had and I’ve got one here with a larger single fin.

The twins were better than the singles?

Singles wouldn’t hold. That’s why we made them bigger and bigger. We tried everything with single fins, bigger and bigger single fins to get them to hold, but the thing was they slowed them down. What we had was two small fins barely 3” long and 1.5-2” deep. Having twin fins you’d hold with the right hand fin.

Profile shot of Bryan's board

Photograph by Bob Green.
24. That is an intriguing part of the story – your experiments and tinkering
I must admit that I wasn’t sort of scientifically-minded in those days. It was all done for me. Ian and Kit were the leaders, they would drag me along as a young bloke, and they said, “get into this, we’ll teach you a few things” and they did, they were very good.

Very proficient surfers. They were absolute animals on big waves. They just made me throw myself over the front. You only got to do that a couple of weeks in a row and you say, “Where have I been. That’s fantastic.” They were the ones that got me to do it.
25. They were a bit older than you.
I’m now 63, and they would both be 70.

Kit won an Australian title with Kirra in the early days – surf life saving. Ian was the same but I don’t think at the same level. They were both fantastic swimmers and water polo players.
26. Those very small boards and a decent sweep – you’d really need some power in your legs to move yourself along.
No, you’d hold them out in front, like a trainee swimmer with a kick board in a pool. You hold them right out, as far as you can. What you are doing is elongating your body and you can pick up a swell fairly quickly. Your body is twice the length it normally would be. When the moment you are on it, you grab the handle and pull yourself on. The moment you got anything like the drop, you’d slide it right back between your thighs. You cantilevered out, like a yachtsman leaning right out front of a boat.

Nothing is touching the water except that planing surface.
27. That’s explains why in one of the Pollard photos you can’t tell if you are on a board.
Yes, you’d never see the board.
28. Did you travel much? Did you come across many other bellyboarders in Victoria or elsewhere?
Yes we did move about, but did not meet many others. Winki was our spot and as we had little competition we were happy. Once leg ropes became popular that finished the party.
29. When did you and your mates stop surfing Bells/Winki? Why was this? Did you move to other waves or did bellyboarding die out in the area?
I went overseas in winter 1972, then when I returned I started racing surf skis. We did use small wave skis at Winki and Bell's but that was not popular with the other surfers. Legropes and smaller faster boards really finished our reign at Winki as it became crowded.
30. Preserving the film footage is important just so guys could see how you rode waves because no one is likely to ride waves like you did. You would be lucky to get a wave now.
When the surf got over a couple of metres we had Winki to ourselves. Because the first time I surfed Winki it was 1964, on a board that was 10’6” long, you had to really be careful. I surfed there with Peter Hayden, Terry Wall and John Gudgeon. If you lost your board you were going to the factory straight away to get it fixed. That’s what happened to them. If you lost your board that was it.

Because of the lack of legropes and it wasn’t until the 1970s that legropes became very,very popular that Winki really kicked on. By then the boards got shorter and better techniques and everything else. That was the end of us. When they got into the mid- 1970s, we could no longer treat Winki as our own. We had Winki to ourselves once when the swell got big.
31. No one would have the same experiences these days because it would be packed.
The difference is when a body surfer swims out through the break. A big wave comes and he just goes deep and stays down until it goes over him and pops up and keeps swimming. We could do that with a bellyboard, it’s only about 10 mm thick [Note: greater than 3/8 inch but less than 1/2 inch]. You didn’t do what you would normally do. What you’d do is kick out, kick forward, before the wave got anywhere near you, much earlier than a body surfer would do it, when the wave was a good 20 metres before you, you’d burrow down. These things would completely sink, you could stay down kicking underneath and when the wave went past, you’d finally come up and keep going. The board riders just couldn’t do that. They couldn’t get out. We would have gallery watching us. There was only a small number of us and we’d get a wave each – it was fantastic. We always went together. It was too dangerous to do on your own. We were pretty strict on that - we always had a minimum of 3 fellows with us.
32. When did you last ride a bellyboard?
Probably about 1977.
33. I've heard Fred Pyke, Vic Tantau and Jamie Farfor (from Portsea) made bellyboards in Victoria. Did you ever ride any of these commercially produced boards? I'm interested in anything you can tell me about these boards or other manufacturers.
Yes, I rode them but they don't compare. Those boards were harder to manoeuvre, heavier, and slower, and can be dangerous in big waves. Fred and Vic both made them but not in large numbers. I believe Jamie Farfor used one Easter, 1965, at Bell's, but I can't remember what type. I talked to a couple of fellows tonight and they reckon the number of lamaroos that were made you could count on the fingers of two hands. The best example of one is in the ceiling of the surf club at Torquay, it’s a ripper.
34. Do you know where the name bellyloomer (the name of Vic Tantau's bellyboards) or lamaroo came from?
I will try to find out. Mals were called okanouis and belly boards were called lumeroos. I’ve just spoken tonight to Dick Garrard, his memory is pretty good and he seems to think there is a bloke named Brian Trist, who I remember was involved, but I’ll have to follow that up because the lumeroo has us absolutely buggered, we’re not sure. I’ll follow that up for you. We’ll get to the bottom of it. If you’re going to get to the bottom of it anywhere, you’ll get it at Torquay.

I’m a pretty avid historian in other respects, and not just about surfing, and I’m really, really conscious that if you’re talking about these things and don’t get it right, you are actually perpetuating something that is going down in generations incorrectly and you have to get it right and know it is right, before you put it down in print. Fortunately there are 3 or 4 guys down here who feel the same, unless you get it right, don’t write it down because you are going to actually perpetuate it forever.
35. Any other comments, observations or stories you'd like to share.
I’ll try to find some photos of females on them. Because when we were all surfing, the females were all using little bellyboards and things to sort of keep in touch with the male contingent because they were not into the mainstream of surfing. So in actual fact the women probably had a part to play. That Shirley Orbuck that I mentioned, she’s still alive today, I’ll tell you what - she wasn’t frightened - she would take off on anything.

In more recent times the most prominent Torquay names include Chris  Carey (third generation local surfer), Lee Slaven and Mich DeScasio.

Bells Beach, ca. 1969a

Ian Seeley cracking a ripper.

Bryan Hayden: Kit Carson is on the inside and me on the outside. Note my board pushed well out in front before takeoff, Kit's well under his hips with right arm protruding to try and get his weight forward.

Source: Pollard, K. (1996). History of Torquay Surf Life Saving Club: The first fifty years, 1945-1995. Torquay, Vic: Torquay Surf Life Saving Club, page 137, and retrieved from pods for primates: a catatogue of surfboards in australia since 1900,, on April 10, 2010.

aBryan told us the photos were shot around 1969. Pollards book states ca. 1970.

Bryan Hayden making the drop at Winkipop, July 1970. Bryan says, "probably the best wave during the best session for that year as I remember it."

Source: Bryan Hayden.

The others surfing that day were Ian Seeley (ex President Torquay SLSC) and Kit Carson (ex Kirra SLSC,Qld ) who in my opinion were the greatest of all the early “Bell’s’’ body surfing group. We used ply boards, dead flat, small twin fins seemed to work best. Ian and Kit were regarded by the Torquay surfing fraternity as courageous surfers and when the swell got really big we usually had ‘Winkipop” to ourselves due to the extreme drift and other difficulties experienced by the surfers. Many a day we launched at Bell’s on dawn and took the drift to Winki as the sun came up, taking off at’ Uppers’ through ‘Lowers’ and into the bay only to suffer the painful battle to get back to the take off. The boards were hand made by Kit Carson and Ian Seeley based on those used at Kirra and Snapper Rocks introduced to Kit by ”Belly Board Bob’’ Robert Mc Dermot (ex Maroubra). Experimenting on design was always interesting and on-going, but to quote Kit, ‘‘for sheer across the wall speed’’ the boards used are unsurpassed. The other bellyboard big wave junkies of the time included George Greenough (USA), ’Rocky’ Dennis Hall (N.Z.), and Big Jeff Callaghan (ex-Kirra ).

Each week we would nearly freeze to death in a little fibro Jan Juc shack and braced the winter water temperature as low as 8 degrees centigrade (46F). Jeff later did a stint in Antarctica where he is said to have had the odd accidental dip. It was great fun and excitement and a privilege to be with this ‘Universal’ group of guys, all of whom are still living.

Other references: TBD.

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