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A Paipo Interview with Bud Scelsa

Paipo knee-rider  

April 9, 2010. Honolulu, Hawai`i
e-Mail interview based on questions by Bob Green
Interview organized by John Clark
Photographs courtesy of Bud Scelsa and others as noted

1. When and where did you begin surfing? When did you first ride a paipo board?
I began as a kid growing up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s in Newport Beach, California. (I graduated high school in 1964). I think the first board I noticed was one my uncle Don Donaldson built in the late 1930s, in the wood shop at Newport Harbor High. The board was a Tom Blake style hollow plywood board about 12 foot long. I had two brothers and we’d drag it around the yard pretending to surf. I think we had the board taken to the water for us only a few times. The board disappeared sometime in the 1960s.

As grade school kids we had air mats, and we body surfed places like the Wedge, Corona del Mar, and the Newport Pier. During high school years we’d drive up and down the West Coast as far north as Half Moon Bay and south into Northern Baja Mexico with our surfboards.

By 1960, board surfing was exploding in popularity in Orange County. As typical kids we begged our dad to get us surfboards. We had no more than two boards between the three of us. Using the formulas for size at the time, I think they were between 9’2” and 9’6”. All the famous builders we know today were making boards in and around Orange County. Our boards were a Velzy and a Weber. Later on my brother Greg got a Gordon & Smith pin tail.

We all wished for a Joe Quigg board but never got the money together. The way we’d deal with the Quigg problem was to ride our bikes down to his shop near the cannery and hang around while his shaper, Moyer, worked.

Bud holding a board made of redwood and
pine, 52" long, 24" wide nose, and
a 21 1/2"
tailblock (Sept. 2007)
Photo by Kai Lyons
During this time I crossed-over a lot between surf styles. I was board surfing as much as possible in high school but it was hard to carry a board under my arm riding a bike up and down the hill between Newport Heights and 32nd Street. At the same time I was becoming a body surfing regular at the Wedge, as well as trying to build “belly boards.” The belly boards were about 4'6" feet and shaped like a small Malibu style board with a laminated wood fin. I was able to make these for very little since I’d get scrap blanks from Clark Foam and then do the shaping and glassing at my uncle’s custom boat building yard nearby (Dittmar & Donaldson). I am still looking for the only picture I have of that time with me and a board stuck in the sand at the Wedge. The swim fins I used then and for the next 20 years were brown UDT Duck Feet.

The first time I rode a paipo was about 1966, at Makapu`u and Sandy Beach. I was in the USCG and just passing through on a ship from LA to Japan. I hitch hiked out to Sandy Beach and Makapu`u with my fins to surf the motherland. I met some locals who were more than happy to let me give it a try. In the beginning I was riding prone on a homemade plywood board shaped like a hyperbolic curve. I have forgotten the names, unfortunately, of the locals.
2. What do you recall about paipo or bellyboards at Newport?
The belly board scene was tough. The board surfers didn’t want to be near you, nor did the body surfers at the Wedge. Since I was a Wedge bodysurfing regular, I got some slack sometimes, but that place was too dangerous for mixed surf tools. The Wedge was too dangerous for any kind of imperfect style. For example, one morning it was breaking about 6-8 ft and a few of us were out. Joe Quigg and his buddy Carter Pyle got in and started going at it. After a few waves another regular, a big guy named Terry, took off on Joe on a fairly big wave. Joe went over the falls and landed on his shoulder, which twisted his back. Carter had to help him out of the water. Joe Quigg was never the same. He seems to always be in back pain.
3. When did you leave Newport for Hawai`i?
I enlisted in the US Coast Guard in 1966. After a few months, a shipmate got orders for Hawai`i, so I put in a request to take his place, since we had the same job anyway. (I think they called that a sea-going janitor.) When I arrived in Honolulu by plane in May 1968, I was picked-up by a friend I had met a few years earlier in California, Auwae Noa Kepoikai Lyons Jr. Noa was a yacht sailor I’d met in Newport. We’d bodysurfed the Wedge together many times until I enlisted. Noa went back to Hawai`i shortly after that, since his gig on the yacht was up.

Noa’s family was incredibly kind to me. Without asking me, they had prepared a room for me at their house up on Wilhelmina Rise. I went from the airport to my new home. Noa’s father was Auwae Noa “Kepoikai” Lyons, or “Splash.” Splash was one of the first beach boys on Waikiki Beach. He had come from Maui in the early 1920s to attend Kamehameha Schools. Splash was also a professional musician.

Splash worked with Panama Dave, Chick Daniels, Turkey Love… all the regulars at the beach. Of course Splash and Duke Kahanamoku were close friends. They even took a trip together to New York City in the early 1930s. I have a diary of the trip as well as a picture of this group of Hawai`ians standing at the top of the Empire State building in winter coats. I was always impressed to see Duke’s phone number in Splash’s phone booklet as well as all the photos of them together around the house.
4. When you first arrived in Hawai`i where were paipo being ridden? Any paipo riders from that time stand out?
Paipo were commonly ridden in the mid-1960s at all the good surf spots. All of them were plywood boards, either painted or even bare. The more common places to ride paipo were Makapu`u, Sandy Beach, and Point Panic in town. No boards with fins were allowed at these spots. I was not too conscious of who was riding where around the island.
5. When did you get into riding paipo on your knees? Who or what influenced your approach to riding paipo in this way?
John Wilkie, one of my friends, had a board I’d made. John was a knee rider and body surfer. In the earlier days I made two-piece boards of either cedar or redwood, glued them with Resorcinol, then glassed them with 6-ounce e-glass and polyester. I was still riding prone, but one day John took me out to a place called Erma’s, near Sandy Beach, and encouraged me to go “knee-down.” That was probably 1968 or 1969, and that’s the way I’ve been riding ever since.
These are examples of Bud's original boards that were made out of two 12" redwood planks. The board in the middle broke in half, which is why there's a crack visible in the nose. The yellow and black material was an experiment in deck padding, which didn't work. ca. 1974



Photo courtesy of Bud Scelsa.


Bud riding his paipo “knee-down” style at Makapu`u, ca. 1969



Photo by Lt. N. Scarborough, who was in the Coast Guard with Bud.
6. How do the boards required to knee ride a paipo differ from a paipo board ridden prone?
I think the big difference is when riding knee-down, all of your weight is on the board, and the trim point is dictated by the weight. Kinda like a water ski. When the waves are small, it is not possible to get up on my knees without causing the board to bog down and lose the wave. This happens in about two foot or so surf, depending on how steep the wave is. Small waves can easily be ridden prone because of the change of trim and the longer waterline added by your legs and fins. For me riding knee-down is more fun because I see the wave from a little higher position and no spray is thrown in my face, a big problem on big days, especially on the drop.
7. How is the riding a paipo knee style different to riding prone?
Prone riding seems to favor more of a straight, down the line style. Knee-down allows for more turning and cut-back manoeuvres. With knee-down it seems to be easier to find the perfect part of the wave without over-shooting the active part of the shoulder due to the high speed.
8. How many paipo boards do you estimate that you have made over the years?
I guess I’ve made at least 30 boards over the years. I wish I knew where they all went… although I do still have two of the early two-piece style.

Six paipo boards (2006)

From left to right: 1. 1971. This is one of Bud's oldest boards. It's redwood and cedar. 2. First new. This was the first new board Bud made when he moved from Maui back to Oahu in 2005. 3. Fran to Bud. Bud made this board in honor of his friend legendary surfer Fran Heath. Fran had a solid redwood hot curl board with double pine stringers, so Bud duplicated the look in this paipo board and had Fran sign it. 4. Fran to Kai. Bud made this board out of notty pine and redwood for his nephew, Kai Lyons, and had Fran Heath sign it to Kai. 5. Bud. A redwood and pine board that Bud made for himself. 6. John Kelly. Bud made this board in honor of his friend, legendary surfer John Kelly, who designed the first hot curl board. Bud pulled in the nose of this paipo board to duplicate the look of John's board and to make the board ride better in steeper sections.

From left to right: 1. 1971. This is one of Bud's oldest boards. It's redwood and cedar. 2. First new. This was the first new board Bud made when he moved from Maui back to Oahu in 2005. 3. Fran to Bud. Bud made this board in honor of his friend legendary surfer Fran Heath. Fran had a solid redwood hot curl board with double pine stringers, so Bud duplicated the look in this paipo board and had Fran sign it. 4. Fran to Kai. Bud made this board out of notty pine and redwood for his nephew, Kai Lyons, and had Fran Heath sign it to Kai. 5. Bud. A redwood and pine board that Bud made for himself. 6. John Kelly. Bud made this board in honor of his friend, legendary surfer John Kelly, who designed the first hot curl board. Bud pulled in the nose of this paipo board to duplicate the look of John's board and to make the board ride better in steeper sections.


These are the same boards shown in the group photo above, plus one, and a new unglassed board on the far right. Shot on location at the Waialua Sugar Mill on the North Shore (July 2007).


Photo by Cher Pendarvis.
9. Have you also made fibreglass boards or do you only make wooden boards?
I made a foam belly board with a laminated wood skeg when I was in California. That board was ridden at the Wedge and other spots around Newport Beach. In Hawai`i, I’ve only made wooden boards.
10. What woods do you use in your boards?
I made my old two-piece boards by laminating two 12-inch wide, 3/4” redwood planks together, cutting a round nose with a square tail, and then glassing them with single 6 oz cloth. Those boards were heavy compared to some of the later ones because I only ground the shape and thickness with a grinder down to about ” or 5/8”, whereas the boards I’ve made in the last 10 years have been thinned with a planer down to about 1/2 inch.

The boards I’ve made since 2004 have taken on a totally different look and feel for a variety reasons. Each one is different due to the wood sources and the end-user. I look for used redwood, mahoganies, spruce masts, old pianos, as well as very old fir from tear downs. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get some native wiliwili, via Ian Masterson and John Clark, that I laminated with koa stringers. The koa was purchased. My newer boards usually have at least 20 pieces of wood.

John Clark wanted to get the feel of riding prone on a traditional Hawaiian board, so he designed these two boards and asked Bud to make them. Both of these paipo boards are alaia shapes, 5' 2" long, 3/8" thick, flat-bottomed, and do not have fins. The board on the left is redwood with pine stringers. The board on the right is all native wood, wiliwili, which is like a Hawaiian balsa, with koa stringers. Standing next to the boards is John Clark, at Publics, in Waikiki.


Photo by Bud Scelsa.
11. What are the design features and dimensions of a typical board that you would make?
The basics are simple. If it’s fits under my arm and will fit sideways in the back of my car, it’s perfect! As silly as its sounds, that’s about it. Some time ago, George Downing sketched a rail shape for me to try, and I softened the straight rails to a more tapered shape, making the wide spot about mid-board. Those boards have ridden and manoeuvred better than any I made before. I learned early on that the nose needs to be cut away enough for steep barrels. I always add a tail block to the new thinner boards to help prevent cracking. The rest is the singer more than the song.
12. What sort of waves are your boards made for?
The boards I used to make in the 1960s and 1970s were really for Makapu`u. I would go to other spots in the country like Pipeline and Laniakea and the west side spots such as Tracks and Makaha now and again, but mostly I liked Makapu`u. It’s a strong, steep, thick wave that has a well shaped shoulder and ends in an exciting brush with death at the point or the shore break.
Now I shape for Publics, but when I go to Makapu`u, it’s still all good. Makapu`u has a pretty steep take-off and on the bigger days you go from zero to 25 in a flash. Publics is a harder take-off for several reasons. First, if the tide is out going, you need to use more energy on the take off. And when the Trades are blowing hard that also adds a degree of take-off difficulty. The best size for Publics is between 4 to 10 feet Hawai`ian.

I had lived on Maui for about 15 years, running snorkel excursions on a 120-passenger catamaran from Ma’alaea Harbor to Molokini Islet, and when I moved back to O`ahu in 1995, I started bodysurfing Point Panic again. I dragged out my 25-year-old paipo after several years back on O`ahu, and after a few sessions, I decided it was time to make a new board and update the design.

Since 2004, I’ve been riding almost only Publics in Waikīkī. This spot is very special to me. I took my first old board out to the Kapahulu Groin before moving out to Publics. I really first decided to paddle out to Publics just to get more exercise, but after a few sessions it became very clear that this was the spot for me. Steep shoulders, waves that evolve and reform during the ride, and shallow, hollow walls as the wave concludes, breaking on the exposed reef. The reef works on all sizes. At 12 feet the wave breaks like a canoe wave, and at sizes under 6 feet it is good for long shoulders.

Taking off high riding "knee-down" style at Publics, in Waikiki, in September 2009.



Photo by Ken Patton.
13. Do you see many paipo being ridden in Hawai`i? Who are some of the standouts? Where would you see paipo riders these days?
I only ride a few spots these days, mostly Publics. The people I see are there or over at the next break called “Cunha’s.” Cunha’s only breaks when it’s over six feet or so. And the Wall at Kapahulu. As for the entire island of Oahu… Makaha, Makapu`u, Laniakea. Some of the stand outs are Harry Akisada and his nephew Mike, John Clark, Kimo Kealoha, Nate, and Big Ed. The sad thing is, I’m horrible with names.
14. Any surfs or waves still stand out for you?
The best wave is the one you remember while driving away from the session, but my spot currently is Publics. I’ve had a few injuries requiring stiches from that reef and some serious board damage, but overall it’s worth it. The reef at Publics is both gnarly and exciting. I love Makapu`u when it’s over six feet and breaking in the middle of the bay, and Laniakea over six feet. I wish the Pipeline wasn’t so choked with all sorts of people or I’d go there again. Off the Wall is good when the swell is from the right direction.

Riding Makapu'u on a smaller day, January 2009. 



Photo by Leilani Logan.
15. What is the attraction for you of riding paipo?
One is the ability of being able to ride reefy locations. Another is the high speed. I will pass anything out there on a big day. There is a big advantage in being able to duck dive any size wave with ease, never getting pushed back. On crowded days I have even ridden over the tail of a surfboard or two when they insist on sitting on the inside at the bottom of the break. On the rare occasion of somehow loosing the board, it will only go 10 to 20 feet inside, so it’s easy to recover. There are also some mundane advantages: I can make my own boards, and there’s always a board in my car so I can adapt to a change of work schedule and get in the water.
16. Any other comments?
My fins used to be the big brown UDT Duck Feet. They were very stiff. I used to have to swim laps in Newport Harbor to keep in good enough shape to use them effectively since the take off at the Wedge required a short strong back stroke or even an underwater take off. They stopped making those fins, although I see them on eBay now and again. What I now use are a pair of modified blue Duck Feet. I sewed some neoprene to the straps to help keep them on, and I wear full neoprene booties to not just protect my toes but to also protect my heels. I got a 3 inch gash in my heel when I finished a wave on a moderate day at Publics and the following wave threw me back-first onto the coral head I had been treading water next to. That injury needed a lot of stiches. The other way I’ve modified my fins is that I totally sanded off the ridges on both the top and bottom sides of the fins. You can barely see the word Duck Feet.

Regular and modified Duck Feet swim fins



Click above image for a larger view and click here for a larger image of Bud's modified fins.
Photos courtesy of eBay advertisement and Bud Scelsa.

That shape really has helped when knee riding as the fins lay very flat on the board and do not tend to move or slide around. The alterations also reduced some weight as the newer Duck Feet use a different, denser rubber which is not as flexible. I love the fin system I’m using now. I have seen no fin design, at any price, that would convince me to change. The only real drawback is I am unable to get the tips of the fins around when I try to stand up. I’m still working on how to do it.

Addendum:
  • Paipo board construction of a mostly old fir board for Dukie Duvauchelle - click here.
  • An article about Bud Scelsa:  Pendarvis, Cher. (2013, October). Captain Bud Scelsa: an inspiration across generations and cultures. legless.tv. Accessed on October 14, 2013, at legless.tv/.


RIP Bud Scelsa


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



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