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A Paipo Interview with Chuck Gardner

“There is Chuck Gardner, ‘King of the Wedge,’ getting tubed."*

Chuck Gardner Paipo Interview
December 23, 2009. Costa Mesa, California
Telephone interview by Rod Rodgers, Questions developed by Bob Green

Introduction. Chuck Gardner, one of the first guys to ride Wedge on a bellyboard.
Now 64, Chuck grew up on the Newport Beach peninsula at 9th Street between Newport Beach and the Balboa pier. Wedge was about a mile and half away towards the east. His family moved to Newport in 1953, when he was about 10 years old. He'd been to Wedge but had never appreciated the waves. He started surfing around the summer of 1959. Chuck surfed at 9th St., which broke top to bottom, bodysurfing and rafting. One of the older guys had said "you guys need to get out into the water." He still has the original bellyboard that he made in 1959 -- it's about 48 inches long. Chuck got into Wedge after graduating junior high school

At the time of the black ball nothing over 4' could be ridden but bellyboards could be legally ridden at Wedge if they were 4’ or less. No surfing or boogie boards. Chuck rode the same board for over 30 years - round rails, fiberglass foam and balsa stringer. He also had other boards that manufacturers made for him. Chuck told me that “nobody else was really into bellyboards but their group.” Skip Briggs may have preceded him at Wedge. He rode kneeboards and bellyboards and made them as well.

Other early Wedge surfers, who were about 15 years older than Chuck, included Carter Pyle, Joe Quigg, Tom Jewell,
and Mickey Muņoz. Joe Quigg made Quigg Surfboards. Joe Quigg also came up with the idea of the Hobie Cat. Tom Jewell, who now lives on Maui, first took the kids down to Wedge. Carter Pyle, Joe Quigg and Tom Jewell were bodysurfing Wedge. They had the place to themselves and were doing incredible things. They were really pissed off when the gremmies starting riding their bellyboards there. Those were the guys that were there first and the bellyboarders ran them off, and the other crowds and attitudes. Joe Neely was another one of the outstanding Wedge surfers, 15 years younger than Chuck Gardner, that came along a little later. Chuck noted that Neely, to the best of his knowledge, was the first bodysurfer featured in Surfer Magazine riding 10 to 15 foot Banzai Pipeline, in the late-1970s. A classic photo. Neely recently passed away at the age of 55 years -- he lived 4 houses from Wedge.

There is a movie of Wedge form the early 60s to the 70s with lots of Wedge pictures by Skip Briggs. Chuck is also featured in several movies, including the Endless Summer where he is shown jumping off the Wedge jetty and was in two Greg MacGillivray movies, including MacGillivray narrating in Cool Wave of Color, “there is Chuck Gardner, ‘King of the Wedge,’ getting tubed." Chuck described himself as "very aggressive" and as having "no fear at all".
1. What got you started on a bellyboard?
No other bellyboarders at the time. We were riding wood paipos, skim boards, or a raft. I started on a canvas mat riding prone and then on my knees.  At that point we had never seen fiberglass bellyboards with people using them to turn on the waves. Pretty serious surf at 10 years old – started riding Wedge around 14 or 15 years old. The bellyboard really provided an advantage at Wedge – you could do everything unlike bodysurfing.

I was already an accomplished stand-up surfer at the time -- stand up board surfing was my first love -- but the bellyboard was the best way to ride Wedge. It drove the bodysurfers crazy. Kids are now skimboarding Wedge – we never ever considered doing that.

My first board was a Velzy and Jacobs 9 footer. I started around 1957, when I was about 10 or 11 years old, going to Doheny or Huntington Flats (Huntington Cliffs).

I can’t surf anytime anymore since having my hip replaced and both knees. Everyone (of the crew) complains about their C6 and C4 vertebrae. Doesn’t really matter because the water is absolutely filthy these days. Sewage plants have waivers, it gets dumped into the ocean and comes back in to the line-up. There is also too much boat pollution. I won’t even go in the bay these days. Stopped surfing the river jetty in the mid-60s. It is also very territorial these days in Southern California. All the way up the coast.
2. What were your first boards like? Who made them?
Tom Jewell suggested the design to our 9th Street gang. “Let’s all make bellyboards,” he suggested. We made them under 48” to evade the blackball. These foam and fibreglass bellyboards could out catch a wave over a wood paipo board.

The boards had the shape like a mini-1960s era longboard, and had rounded rails, parallel lines, a round nose, and a round tail block that was maybe a 5” squared round tail. The board had a single fin made of wood that was about 7” tall and 5” wide. This is the same board that was used in the Endless Summer sequence of me jumping off Wedge jetty. I made other boards with slightly different designs but always came back to the original.

3. How did these early boards go compared to your later boards?
Surfboards Hawaii made a board which I still have that was very comparable to my original board. But, it ended up getting stress marks all across the nose so kinda slowed me down. My first board was very tough – I always enjoyed riding it.

I tried boogie boarding. The last time I was in Hawaii, I boogie boarded the Pipeline, 8-10’ faces, hollow spitting. That was fun. I never saw the point to riding my bellyboard anywhere else but Wedge. Everywhere else I surfed on a stand-up surfboard without the leash.

When the sponges came out the bellyboard went away. We were doing manoeuvrers that none of the stand-up surfers were doing. I considered doing an invert in the wave and go upside down but never attempted the 360s like Stewart does on his bodyboard.

4. Did you ride bellyboards anywhere besides Wedge or come across other bellyboarders?
No. Only at Wedge. Never had the excitement at any other break like the intensity of Wedge. I used to take off sideways near the rocks. If I went to any other place I knew I could ride it on a surfboard, e.g., Huntington or Newport.
One thing I can say about Wedge - too many surfboards would be too dangerous to all. The guys going out there on Stand Up Paddleboards are absolutely nuts. Way too dangerous. I would tell them to get out.

There is a long learning curve at Wedge, not a place you can just paddle out and ride. Taking off sideways you can make it, taking off right on the peak will pitch you and you have less control. Need to watch the wave to learn it and master it.

Had to back off the locals to let Mike Stewart ride Wedge. Fred Simpson was an older guy that used to ride Wedge – he originated the Viper fin (see more about Simpson here).

5. Besides Wedge, Newport is associated with the El Paipo boards. What was the story behind these boards? Were they always ridden as a kneeboard?
Don’t know the story. I never considered riding El Paipo and Newport Paipo boards, because I liked my original board and it worked well.
6. What's it like riding Wedge?
No other wave compares to the intensity.
7. How long did you ride bellyboards for?
From 1958, until the late-1990s. I stopped after my hip replacement and knee replacements. Arthritis and cold water stopped me from any more stand-up surfing.
8.  I've read a story about a guy nick-named Mackman riding wedge in 1962 on a twin-finned wood paipo. Do you recall this guy?
Is that Gary “The Bear” Ruzicka? All he did was paipo board. Next to Wedge, his spot was 40th Street – although the rules said there were to be no hard objects out in the water the lifeguards let him go out with his paipo board.
9. I’ve seen some photos of Judge Robert Gardner bodysurfing and photos shot by Steve Gardner. Are you related to them?
Judge Gardner is not related but I know who he is. He fought to keep Wedge open. “We can’t keep taking healthy recreation places away from kids,” Judge Gardner said. He was a big bodysurfer. So was his daughter, Nancy Gardner, a Newport Beach Council member. I am not sure if Steve Gardner, who had published several pics in surfing magazines, is related to Judge Gardner; however, he is not related to me.
10. Any other comments?
Of all the kneeboarders, Ron Romanosky was the best, and like me was very competitive. I was a real competitive person -- water polo, swimming, wrestling -- but also a real solo person. And, I had to work. I have respect for the ocean -- I was a commercial fisherman

When Wedge gets really big it isn’t that shallow at the peak but on the inside is treacherous.
* Note: Greg MacGillivray narrating in his surf film, Cool Wave of Color.

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Last updated on: 02/01/10