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A Paipo Interview with Col Taylor

Prawn trawlerman and surfer
Col Taylor Paipo Interview
June 5, 2010. Stradbroke Island, Queensland, Australia
Phone interview and questions by Bob Green

1. I’d like to start off with how and when you got into bellyboarding?
Well, I was a surfboard rider and we were about twenty years old. We were always getting into trouble with the surf lifesaving club people because we were riding our boards in through the flags and all that sort of thing. Anyway, we got to know the surf club chaps. One day we were out in big surf and these guys were surfing with us, just bodysurfing, I couldn’t believe it. So we got a bit friendly with them at the pub and that sort of thing. I went to Melbourne and came back about a year later and they were riding these little bellyboards. These little ply bellyboards in big waves. I finished up in Melbourne later on and they were down there too – Kit and Jeff and Rocky. They had their bellyboards. I didn’t have my surfboard so I got in with them. That’s when we started riding this Winki-Pop, next to Bells. This was before legropes, the board riders couldn’t handle Winki. We all had the best surf of our life down there, it was huge, huge surf. Bloody fantastic. I always had a bellyboard. It was easier to carry around and the good thing it was plywood and you could go under big surf.
Col Taylor with a favorite board.
Photo by: Kerrie Carson.
Whereas the one’s you use now, the boogie boards, you can’t get under the big surf. With the ply one’s we could go right down deep and the waves would go over us. We wouldn’t get knocked around too much, we could handle it. The main thing about Winki-Pop we could ride these waves to ourselves because the boardriders couldn’t get them. But we put up with the bad weather of course. We really got keen. Being with a group of people you surf to with, you have a common bond. One leads the other on and we keep on going together and you have a lot of fun.
2. Did you keep up the stand-up surfing or did you give it away?
I kept up stand up surfing. When I came back to Coolangatta, I was a fair dinkum surfer. These guys were in surf clubs, like Kit and Jeff. They were all too busy with football and university. They were surf clubbies in summer. They never had the opportunity to ride surfboards. They were too disciplined, surf club trained, R & R, and march pasts and all that sort of thing. They were schooled up in that. They had discipline and all that and missed out on the surfboard riding.
3. When you were up on the coast what would determine whether you rode your bellyboard or not? What were the ideal conditions for a bellyboard?
Steep, sharp, tubes on sandbanks. You could get out at Snapper in big surf fairly easily. The other guys would get knocked back a bit. You could get out reasonably easy. The main thing you rode a bellyboard was that you didn’t have the skill to stand up. You’ve got to learn that skill. I suppose most of the time I went out on my board, but I’d take my bellyboard out with others and have fun with them.
So it was mainly the company and getting out in big surf?
You felt confident on both of them. The bellyboard wasn’t quite as good to make the break if it was closing out. Whereas you’d get through with a board you wouldn’t with a bellyboard. It had a few more limitations than a surfboard.
What were some of the limitations?
It wouldn’t go quite as fast as a surfboard so if you had to get out of a closing out section it was a bit harder on a bellyboard, you just couldn’t really get through. Whereas with a board you could sometimes get through.
4. Who made your boards on the Gold Coast or did you make them yourself?
I didn’t actually know this Bellyboard Bob. I was down in Melbourne at the time when he came up from Sydney. We got Joey Larkin to make them. I didn’t know if he got the template of Bellyboard Bob’s board and copied it, or what. Joe started to knock them out of one sheet of 6 x 3 plywood and they were the right shape. They were so economical. They were 3/16 or ” plywood and he stiffened them with resin.
What did he charge you for one?
Oh, I don’t know. They were cheap. Twenty bucks or something like that. It was nothing. It was before the dollar.
So the resin wasn’t to set the fin it was really just for the stiffness.
We had to set the fin with resin. I suppose it was convenience. Rather than mucking around with varnish we would just give it a coat of resin. I have tried varnish but the varnish had limitations. The resin made it stiffer. It was a lot better with resin. I also used cloth with the resin, but the cloth made it not so buoyant. When you lost it, it would float, but it would take a long time to float and it was hard to find. So one coat of resin gave it a bit of stiffness and did what varnish did, and protected it.
So what were the varnished boards like, were they too flexi?
Yes, too flexible, a little bit too flexible.
How would this affect the performance?
It would dig in sometimes, you know. You’d lift the board up, with your left hand, lift the board up with your handle to lift the bottom edge. The board would lift up, but wouldn’t lift the whole board; it would only lift up the edge. It would bend more and not lift your whole board. It was too flexible and your nose would dig in. You needed that coast of resin on it to get that stiffness.
5. Did anyone make them besides Joe?
No. I don’t know how many were made. He probably only made about 20. There wasn’t that many people who used them. Once legropes came out and once the boardriders proved that they were going to last most clubbies gave up the clubbie thing and went surfing. Once everyone got on a board then the limitations of the bellyboard were that the board riders would run over you.
I was going to ask about surfboard riders attitudes toward you.
You couldn’t go quite as fast as on them and they’d make the wave and you’d wipe out. If the were on the inside of you they’d cut you off to get out and you’d get sick of getting hit in the head with a board all the time. So that’s why we gave it up I think. But we still ride our bellyboards. Old age gave us a sixth stir.
6. So when do you think that you generally gave up?
Kit lived down in Melbourne and he didn’t come back, Jeff married and went to Brisbane. We still ride bellyboards. Grahame Dunne rides bellyboards, I ride mine occasionally.

Col Taylor and Kit Carson with their bellyboards, ca. 2010 - the boards are about ten years old. Col said he wouldn't get white boards again because they are too hard to see. These boards were finished with cloth & resin, rather than resin alone, which made them a bit harder to kick out in and slow to surface.

Photo by: Kerrie Carson
In terms of that more popular phase was that the early 1970s?
Around 1964, to probably 1974, was about the height of it all. Once we got kids and things it was a bit different, we didn’t get down there as often. Once board riders got legropes you couldn’t get away from them. Winki-Pop was the place we could ride and board riders couldn’t get there.
7. So where was your favourite wave on the Gold Coast? 
Kirra Point or Snapper. Kirra Point I’d say.
Why was that?
You’d get locked in so tight at Kirra. You really got a fantastic sensation and you were really pretty close to the same speed as the board riders.
And the board riders wouldn’t have been getting in the tube in those old longboards?
No, they couldn’t do that. They couldn’t take off late enough. We are talking about mals, not the shortboard.
So they had some distinct advantages.

The main thing was that you could get out in heavy surf without getting knocked back to the beach like a board rider with a mal and taking longer to get out.

8. What was it like taking of a solid wave on a 3’ piece of play?
That was the magic about it. You’d have your head close to the water. It was a fantastic feeling. Absolutely fantastic. You were feeling the whole water going past your body.
So it was very much the closeness to the wave.
The closeness to the wave – you were part of it. You weren’t just standing up there and controlling it, like driving a car. You were in there and physically in touch with it.
9. Was there much technique involved in riding these boards?
Not a lot. You had to have a lot of wave sense to understand what a wave was going to do. When you are on a bellyboard you had a bit of technique with your right arm and you’d put your left arm out and you’d swing down. We were trying to do the same thing as the boards, we were hotdogging in those days we called it.
What was the purpose of swinging your left arm around?
Your left arm would grab an edge of the water and flip you down the face of the wave. And your right arm, this is going right of course as we mostly rode right-handers, you put your right arm out and catch the face of the wave to lift you up and your left arm would take you down.
10. Do you see much connection with bodysurfing
Yeah, it was bodysurfing. Bodysurfing with plywood help.
11. Was there much variation in surfing styles or was it pretty much, speed planning in a straight line?
It was just like bodysurfing in fair dinkum waves. You’ve seen good bodysurfers. Well this was just bodysurfing but using plywood to get you up out of the water to get you up to some speed. It was the same as bodysurfing.
12. Did you travel much? Where else did you ride bellyboards?
Currumbin, Lennox Head and all those places, Byron Bay. But once the board riders got a bit of a problem we couldn’t mix it up with the board riders too much. We were always trying to get out where there were no board riders.
Lennox would have been a good wave for a bellyboard.
That eventually got too hard for us. I think that’s why we gave up.
Did you come across any other bellyboarders?
No, no. Then that George Greenough came out with his kneeboard.
13. Any waves or surfs that still stand out for you?
The best waves were, nothing would compare with what we rode at Winki-Pop, some very good surf at Kirra and Snapper. Kirra, Snapper and Winki-Pop they were the best. You would never ride Winki-Pop like that again because of the boards. You can’t mix it with them.
I’ve seen those photos of empty waves.
You don’t see that any more.
Anyway, I’ve still got my bellyboard down here in the shed. I take it out there probably once every couple of months or something when there’s a good wave. I can’t be bothered getting the board out. I’ve got a crook leg now. It’s a lot better for me on the bellyboard.
What sort of wave do you go out in now, what do you look for.
I don’t worry about it too much now, 3 or 4‘ As long as there is a bit of shape on it. As long as you get on it without too much physical exercise. I’m 71 now.
Cylinder or Point Lookout – what would be your favourite?
Cylinder Beach.
So you’re looking for that lined-up wave rather than a peaky wave?
We’d be looking for a sandbank first so you could walk most of the way out. A quick jump across a sandbank and you’ll get caught in a sweep and but you’d catch 1, maybe 2 waves on the way in. It’s just a bit of fun. We’re not worried about surfing any more.
14. Are there any stories form those days which you’d like to pass on?
Those surf club guys they couldn’t ride a board. They were too old when they got into it to have the time and patience to learn how to ride a board. But they had heart, they had a lot of guts. They knew nothing about surfing but caught some enormous waves that I wouldn’t take off on and they got murdered. They hung in there. When they got the bellyboards they were fantastic and proved themselves real heroes. I’m talking about Jeff and Kit, Rocky and Graham Dunne who was a board rider and still is. .
So what do you reckon were the biggest waves they rode on a bellyboard.
10’ would probably be it. 10’s a big wave. To get an 8 footer at Snapper Rocks or Kirra Point was a pretty hero job. But you’d get in those cyclones coming through, a big swell, if it was clean and there wasn’t too much sweep and you managed to get out there. It was so hard getting back in against the sweep. You’d have to take off at Coolangatta and get out and go around the groyne there at Kirra. You’d only stay there 2-3 minutes and you were washed down. It was pretty hard. A lot of hard work getting back against the sweep. That was the biggest problem.

You must have been pretty fit.

We were. We were only about 25.

15. Any other comments?
I just wanted to add about the club guys, how much guts they had. It was unbelievable. They mastered the bellyboard and once they did, they were all mixed up with us. We were all part of the same group. It was slightly a hero-worship type of thing. We’d egg each other on. We’d go out at Winki-Pop in the middle of winter. We had no wetsuits.
How long would you last in the water?
We’d be numb before we got off the rocky ledge. Some of us would vomit on the beach from exposure. It was absolutely maniacal. We were silly. We had a huge swell that year Harold Holt disappeared.1 It was one of the most wonderful surfs I had. Glassy, calm conditions about 10’. It was fantastic.

Follow-up questions.

16. How would you turn the boards to hotdog them?
It was a bit of an art we actually developed. It was pulling on the outside edge, and leaning and drop your left arm down, your left arm it would catch in the water and you’d swing left and you’d turn left, you’d put your right arm out and it would swing you back right. It was the same as bodysurfing. When you are bodysurfing your left arm will drop you and your right arm will raise you, this is going right. Down the bottom then up the top, down the bottom, up the top. Just like a board rider really.
17. You were using your arms rather than pressure from your hips to turn the board?
That’s right, you’re putting your arm out and you are using your hips and everything. You’re leaning, you’re leaning down and leaning up, basically.
18. In terms of really hollow waves, how would you stay in the face of the wave?
With a lot of difficulty. That’s why we have fins on them. Without fins you could slide sideways and forwards. It was quite difficult. Jeff used to do but we couldn’t.

Col Taylor thin plywood board with two fins

Photo by: Kerrie Carson
I’ve seen bodysurfers roll up and put their back into the wave.

That’s what I’m talking about. You roll over and put your back into the wave and put your right arm out and lean right back into it.

So that is a bodysurfing technique?

It is the same technique as bodysurfing. It’s basically bodysurfing with help from the plywood board. It gives you the speed to get up and match it up with the boards. Also for people who haven’t spent years, since 10 years old, learning to stand up, they can learn these pretty quickly and don’t have to worry about falling off.

19. But you obviously needed surf knowledge and fitness
You get that through surf club training and through real bodysurfers, you get that knowledge.

Footnote 1. Harold Holt, an Australian Prime Minister, disappeared in the surf on 17 December 1967. See

Other references: TBD.

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