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A Paipo Interview with Charlie Schuster

From boat floorboards and real estate signs to kneeboards

A Paipo Interview with Charlie Schuster
August 14, 2012- Hawaii
E-mail interview by Bob Green

From boat floorboards and real estate signs, Charlie recounts his experiences and observations of paipo boards from the 1950s to the 1970s. His surf craft of choice over the years have been finned, foam boards - everything from kneeboards to paddleboards. Also an extended Note on "The Bagman" bag surfing.
1. What are your first memories of seeing paipo boards being ridden? When and where was this?
I probably first saw paipo boards in the mid-1950s, at Kailua Beach on Oahu, Hawaii. My grandparents had a house on the beach but we lived about a half mile away. We spent a lot of time at the beach, particularly because my grandfather was an avid fisherman and diver and always had at least one boat we'd go out on.

In those days there was a lot of skimboarding on the beach, mostly using circular home-made plywood boards. These would double as paipo boards. I didn't have one but with my grandfather's or uncle's permission we could use one of the floorboards from the boat. This was a section of 1/4-inch plywood probably 30 inches long and 18 wide. It was a simple painted wood rectangle with one advanced feature: the paint on the top side had some beach sand in it so it was non-skid when wet. Early days Slipchek! My brothers or I would carry the board down the beach to get some Kalama or Oneawa shorebreak.

Back then we also had two pretty nice surf mats made from coated heavy canvas, one side was dark blue and other side red. These would give you a pretty good abrasion rash after a bit so wearing a t-shirt was mandatory for other than a quick dip.

2. How old were you when you first rode a paipo? What was the board like?
My first experience with a paipo (the boat floorboard mentioned above) was probably when I was four or five, so in about 1956-57.

3. Where were the major places you would find paipo boards being ridden? Did different areas have different styles or was this a more individual thing?
As kids we went where our parents went, usually to my grandparents place at Kailua Beach. In the 1970s, I was at the University of Hawaii and got to spend a lot of beach time all around Oahu. Makapu`u, Sandy Beach and Point Panic were the major paipo breaks, but you would always find a few guys out all over. I never paid much attention to the style thing because the wave largely dictated what you'd do.

4. Riding paipo boards is usually associated with kipapa-style prone surfing (prone riding), however, many people rode paipo boards kneeling. What difference did kneeling make to how a paipo board was ridden?
Kneeriding a finless paipo or finless anything usually resulted in a lot of sideways motion immediately before a minor disaster. I had a crude homemade spoon kneeboard (a la George Greenough) with a too-small fin and clearly remember taking off on overhead Velzyland, going sideways down the face and having to prone out at the bottom to try turn around the lip. No workie! It would have been the wave of the day if I'd had control.

I never got the hang of finless. I was a kneerider for several years in the early-1970s, all over the North Shore, using a home-made foam and glass board with deep knee wells and two large glassed-on fins set well back.

Left: Log Cabins, a beachbreak on the north shore of Oahu. Right: Kikila, a spot on Oahu's east side, ca. mid-1970s.

Left: Log Cabins is a short, intense wave over a sandy/coral reef bottom. A wipe-out here happens in less than chest deep water and you're only 50 feet off the beach. Sometimes when the sand is washed off the beach, the inside is a forest of pinnacles that stick out of the water in front of a wave. Right:
Kikila was photographed by a pal with a Nikon 1000 mm lens. Kikila breaks along the edge of a long deep channel and the wave has a lot more power than a still shot indicates. There are three bowls that break at different sizes, each one jacking up and pitching over a ledge, then reforming further inside. This shot is from the innermost part of the wave.

Photos courtesy of Charlie Schuster.

5. What was the attraction of riding a paipo board? What waves stand out that you rode on a paipo board?
There are several significant attractions to riding small boards. One, you could hitchhike pretty easily and I was at Makapu`u or Sandy Beach almost every day. Two, you never really get caught inside because you can duck dive (we didn't call it that, then) and swim along the bottom. This was really useful at places like Pipeline. Three, you could pull out of smaller waves by punching through the face if it closed out. Stand-up surfers caught on years later and then when leashes came out no one cared any more, just pull into the closeout or fall off and your board would be right there. No one really cares to realize that the pull-out is a maneuver and can be executed with some style in itself.

Left: Outside peak at Makapu`u, March 8, 2009. Right: Bud Scelsa kneeriding a paipo board, ca. 1985.

Photos courtesy of Bud Scelsa.

6. What do you recall of the paipo contests of the 1970s, and people you recall?
I entered the Ehukai contest in 1972, on a windy, stormy day. Contest organizer Jerry Vasconcellos won my prelim heat and the contest. The guy who eventually took second was also second in my prelim heat, so I didn't advance. I really thought I could have done better, but you get the waves you get, and do what you can. After this, I didn't enter any more contests.

7. Did you ever buy paipo boards, such as a Paipo Nui, or were your boards homemade? Did you experiment much or stick with the same design?
Aside from the wood stand-up board my grandfather made for me as a kid, "This is the way we used to do it in Waikiki." and my first longboard, which he also made, I never bought or rode a board I didn't make myself.

In the late-1960s, I started to work with foam and glass and there were a few beautiful Newport Paipo designs. The first boards I built were from a broken Surfboards Makaha longboard that a pal gave me. I stripped, reshaped and glassed a 4'2" and a 3'10", both intended for prone use. The longer one was with me in 1969, on day that is still probably the best day of my life, alone for five hours drilling glassy tubes at Hapuna Point. That was a full circle because the original longboard had been broken in half there. The 4'2" came into frequent service after stepping on wana (sea urchin) one Christmas vacation. I couldn't stand up so I became a kneeboarder for several years.

After the 4'2", I liked the Newport "Shoe" style design with twin fins and a knee well. I made maybe five of those, usually about 4'10" x 22" with a 14" diamond tail and a deep knee well in the middle. I rode all over the North Shore in the early-1970s, especially Velzyland, Rocky Lefts and Rights, Gas Chamber, Pupukea, Ehukai, Gums, Log Cabins, Pipe, Sunset a few times and even a small day at Waimea.

Charlie noted that his self-built boards, compared to Newport Paipo's Knee Vector and Shoe models shown below, didn't run the knee wells as far forward, featured deeper or more pronounced knee wells and did not incorporate board handles. 

Commenting on the Shoe model, Charlie noted, "I didn't think embedding both ends of a bit or rope was an elegant solution to handles, but I never got around to figuring out (or spending the time to) make better handles. Result: never had handles. Always just grabbed a handful of rail. Really, handles were not a requirement when your center of gravity is so low but they could be a help when you were bouncing along the chop. I recall one ride at Waimea... three feet in the air, board off the water and all crossed up, hoping that when gravity exerted more force over my trajectory that I'd come down together, rather than crash and burn. I did, but the increasing wind out of the valley suggested I would do better to hit one of the beach breaks where chop wasn't such a factor."

Left: Newport Paipo advertisement. (1976, November). Surfer Magazine, 17(4), 100.  Right: Newport Paipo advertisement. (1971, March). Surfer Magazine, 12(1), 98.  

In the 1960s, the Paipo Nui was pretty popular, but they cost $15, a lot of money for a kid then. A few guys had them. One guy had a beautiful Newport Paipo in foam and glass, but he wasn't much of a surfer and I never saw him use it. Long story short, I've never owned a board I didn't make, other than my first wood board (a whole 'nother story) and my first 9'6" longboard made by my grandfather.

The Shoe-style models were a favorite of Charlie's because his knees tended to stay onboard in choppy waters.

Newport Paipo advertisement. (1971, May). Surfer Magazine, 12(2), 114.

8. I’ve heard of building sites being a source for paipo boards. What is the story behind Bud and the "real estate paipo?"
Back in the 1970s, and probably earlier, kids didn't have the resources, nor were there as many boards on the market. We needed raw materials and what's better than the typical real estate sign? It was on every corner, unguarded, about the right size piece of 3/4-inch-thick plywood and it even came with a free paint job. So there I was, hitchhiking to Makapu`u in the early-1070s, from Kailua. The paipos there were of two kinds - recycled 3/4" plywood real estate signs, or the molded plywood "guitar pick" types. I never found out where the latter type were made (I wasn't about to buy one and didn't much care). But anyone could grab a real estate sign and go surfing.

Some Makapu`u paipo surf craft and riding styles in the 1960s.



Valentine, Val. (1965, January). It's Smaller, Faster and 300 years Old: The Paipo Board. Surf Guide, 3(1), 17-19. Also see in the magazines section.

Bud, one of the regulars at Makapu`u, lived in Kailua, and would give me a ride if he saw me hitchhiking -- I never knew his last name. He let me try his plywood one time. I swam it out to the point and got a good-sized wave, probably a five- or six-foot face, and got to my knees at the top. After side slipping like a skipping stone for what seemed forever, I ran out of shoulder and that was that. Bud was a little alarmed at my lack of control, and I had to pass the board back to him pretty soon. Didn't ride it again but I had learned a lesson about the importance of having a skeg.

Not much later I had my foam and glass twin fin kneeboards and they gave great control even in the typical onshore trade wind chop. I'd hitchhike out at dawn and surf Makapu`u or Sandy Beach, whichever looked better. I tell you there were some absolutely flat days, and some great days. Having the place all to yourself just after dawn, with the sun coming through the back of the wave was unimaginably rewarding. I can only relate the line Eddie Aikau used some years later in an interview, "It's that feeling you get… when you get that feeling." And that's it.

When the Makapu`u lifeguards arrived the law was - no fins - so I would come in. If the day was uncrowded, and weekdays usually were, they would let you stay a while if you weren't greedy or a hazard. It was no fun if you were a bodysurfer and got a fin hack. I hit a guy once at Sandy's and he was not happy, but he dropped in on me and…. That was a a long time ago. I always tried to avoid contact because as both a bodysurfer and kneerider I could so easily be on either side of the matter.

9. I’ve heard several people refer to Primo and Royal Richards – what do you know of them?
Primo was mostly a Sandy Beach regular and I don't remember seeing him elsewhere. He was pretty much the hot ticket on an El Paipo plywood -- I don't remember anyone being close -- at least at Sandy Beach. Didn't know he had a brother. I never knew him personally but we saw each other often enough.

Often these interviews keep sparking memories.

The thought just struck me - there was one guy in the early- to mid-1970s, who would show up at Makapu`u with, literally, a big pillowcase. He would catch the wind, the thing would inflate and he would twist the end and keep it blown up, and ride waves with it. Just straight off, of course, but the guy was totally unique and should be remembered somehow. I never met him personally or knew his name, but again, the regulars all knew each other at least by sight. (See Note 1 for more on "The Bagman.")

10. When did you last ride a paipo board? Do you have any other memories of your days riding a paipo?
I really never rode prone on a paipo other than as a little kid. My observation of the paipo guys, mostly at Makapu`u, was that finless paipo surfing was surely the fastest way to cover a lot of water. The advantages were obvious: speed, ability to get under closeouts, portability, and for some the low cost. For me, though, pretty early on I had made my foam/glass "shoe" boards with two deep fins at the corners of the tail. I liked the flotation and they were still small enough to duck dive pretty well, they were fast and could turn almost anywhere without spinning out. The fins meant that they could turn more sharply and carry speed through the turn, so there wasn't any attraction in the finless arena for me. I never rode any of the knee well boards in the standing position, but I did stand once in a while on the first flat deck 4'2" board I made. I got stuffed on the reef for my trouble and still have a 5-inch long scar on my right side.

Meeting John Clark in the water recently on one of the flat redwood/pine laminated boards pictured has got me thinking... I still like the aspect of some flotation and maybe a flat bottom 3/8-inch lauan plywood (for some small amount of flex) with the wide point maybe 2/3 back, with some EPS stuck on the top around the rails -- that would give me flotation and thickness there which would allow actually shaping a rail rather than just rounding off the edges. A tapering vee cut in from the nose, then bent and glassed together would allow some primitive rocker. Maybe I would try this out with door skin first as it is cheap and accessible. Would need some thought to dial in the correct nose rocker... It would have to be epoxy glassed - a big negative in my book with the cost of epoxy resin.

I've been looking at a photo of John Clark. The shot shows him standing with two wood paipos made from 2-inch strips of redwood and pine (I'm guessing by the color). (See Note 2.) It stirs the imagination because I walk by Publics in Waikiki some days and watch guys just screaming across the (still pretty shallow) reef at high tide. I just KNOW that wave would benefit from a flat-bottomed twin fin wood paipo with me aboard... but maybe I'd end up with more scars to reshape my imagination.

I think the "guitar pick" paipos that Harry and others rode at Makapu`u (I still rarely see one of those boards around) are the fastest thing on the water, and carry speed out and across the flats the best. They smoke the spongers, but the cost and weight of them probably keeps them from being more popular. There may be advantages to sponges, but for speed and carry, the flex only slows you down. The downside of wood is that it's heavy and thus dangerous. I think, too, of the terrific rib-busting bounce that one always encounters at speed on plywood. I suspect a speed paipo could be made a good deal narrower, say under 20", and cut down the bounce. This hasn't been tried that I am aware of. Almost every wood board appears to be 22 to 24 inches wide. But surfboards used to be that way too, and now they are much narrower and faster. I think the wide point belongs well back similar to the guitar pick style.

I think flex is a great thing on the other guy's boards.

"In Hawaii '71 - hollow places can be be found." (Photograph Caption in Surfer Magazine.) Pictured is Charlie at Sandy Beach inside point.

"My second kneeboard and probably the first I made with knee wells. It was an ugly house-paint green color with blue kneewells and a shameful attempt at a yellow pinline around the blue. There were two deep wood-core fins (probably 8-1/2 inches) glassed on about an inch from the corners of a 14-inch wide diamond tail. I made it in spring 1971, while living at my aunt's place on the beach in Kailua. Well actually I shaped and glassed it in my grandfather's garage, also on the beach, up near Kailua Beach Park. The dust irked my granny quite a bit, but I hosed out the garage and didn't hear much more about it. This was pretty early in my board-building career and I was still getting the hang of things."

Source: Author unknown and no photograph credit. (1971, October). Our Mother Ocean: People Not Profits: HULI. Surfer Magazine, 12(4), 76. According to Bob "Jens" Jensen, Surfing Historian/Archivist, the likely authors of the article are John Kelly and Mike Moriarty, who were both heavily involved with the "Save Our Surf" organization back in the day.

Note 1. "The Bagman." For a full account of bag surfing see: Clark, John R. K. 2011. Hawaiian surfing: traditions from the past. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, pp. 86-88. Bag surfing is described in John Clark's book as peaking in popularity after World War II. Clark identifies the bagman as Albert "Al" Santos (personal e-mail from John Clark, August 23, 2012), a paipo rider and sand slider, who rode bags sewn by his wife, Kitti. He referred to his surfing as "belly bagging." Santos was featured in the Curt Mastalka 1973 surf movie, Red Hot Blue.

Al "The Bagman" Santos preparing a surfing bag and bagging a wave. 

Photos courtesy of Al Santos.

Craig Matthew, former Makapu`u lifeguard, in a personal e-mail, August 21, 2012:
"I remember the guy [Al Santos]. He'd actually taken a sheet, folded it lengthwise, and hemmed it. It looked like a pillow case or a big bag. He'd ride it as described below. Kind of roll up on top of it, so that most of him would be out of the water. Knees down in the water, so that he could kick and propel himself. He'd usually hold both ends of his sack and more often the waves caught him rather than vice versa, but he had good body control, and would twist or turn 180 degrees to be riding face-forward. He had some directional control and when he wanted to bail out, he would simply let go of hand holding the twisted, open end of the bag. Instantly deflating and dropping him."

Al Santos aka "The bagman."

Photos courtesy of Al Santos.

Stan Osserman, in a personal e-mail, August 22, 2012:
"Actually I still have my "bag", but I don't use it any more (I will sometime though just for fun!) and I didn't invent it. Someone had it pretty well figured out (I don't remember who though) and I tried it a quite a few times at Makapu`u. It's actually a lot of fun once you got the hang of it, but there wasn't any maneuvering involved, just take off and hold on until you wanted to get off, and then it was just let go of the open end of the bag. Basically you took a single sized, flat bed sheet with a high thread-count (for strength and to limit air escape). You fold it head-to-foot and stitch it along two sides so you have an extra large pillow case. You swim out into the surf with the bag, when you see a wave coming that you think will break about when it gets to you, you hold the open end of the bag into the wind and fill it, twist it off and hold the twisted end in one hand and then grab the opposite end with the other, then hop on as the wave pushes through. Let go when you want to stop, and that's it. The key was not to over inflate the bag, or you would usually flip over the front as you tried to jump into the bag while catching the wave."

Al Santos, bag surfer in action.

Photos from Curt Mastalka's 1973 surf film: Mastalka, Curt. (Producer). (1973). Red Hot Blue [Motion picture]. USA: Independent.

Note 2. John Clark's paipo partner, Bud Scelsa, built the two alaia paipo boards Charlie mentions in Question 8. One board was made out of redwood with pine stringers and one out of wiliwili with koa stringers. Both boards are about 5'2", 3/8" thick, flat-bottomed with no fins. Learn more about these two boards here.

Other info: Covers for Surfer Magazine, 1971:

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

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