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An Interview with Dick Ash

Bellyboarding builder and enthusiast, innovator and owner of Okanui surfwear.

September 26, 2009, Byron Bay NSW, Australia
Questions and telephone interview by Bob Green
Photos courtesy of Dick Ash



1. How did you get started?
When the malibu’s first started I was a tall skinny guy and I had great difficulty standing on land let alone balancing on a board. From the old rubber surfoplane days to coolites and things I just found it a lot easier to lie down. [See Note 1.]

I was about 14 (ca. 1959-1960), when I cut up an old broken balsa boards to make belly boards and that’s how it all started. There was a guy who came back from Hawaii and he had a paipo board. There were guys making what we called tea trays before that, there was a mate of mine who shaped a piece of ply literally in the shape of a tear. He varnished it and had a chrome towel rack on the front as a handle. No fins. That’s cool. That was sort of a bellyboard.

I was surfing South Avalon when a few guys asked me to make other belly boards for them. Then I finally shaped one and thought it was pretty well the perfect shape. And what I did then was roto mould it. It’s the same principle as they do dinghys now. The first ones we brought out were hollow but what we found they were a little bouncy, so we drilled a little hole and filled them up with foam and they were a lot better. And that basically was the Bellybogger.

2. When was the first one?
It was about 1970. That was the first major production model. We were selling them quite well, then Manly Waringah Council banned them in between the flags because they were hard. All the mums all of a sudden said – “oh, you can’t have those” and then along came the boogie board soon after and that more or less took over from the Bellybogger. We bought the Bellybogger out before the Morey Boogie came to Australia.

Bellybogger advertisement from
Surfing World (1978, Aug.), 27(5). Issue 167,
 (inside back cover). Thanks to
Jeff Bickerstaff for a copy.

3. I found an ad in Tracks in 1994.
Ah, yes that’s when I revived it and made a different model.
4. How did it differ?
Basically the shape. It had removable fins, the first one had built in fins and it had a sort of a mat deck, a good grip deck, like a neoprene deck and a wider tail, because I believe the wide tail helped.
The original paipo design was a tear shape with a narrow nose and very wide tail. They’d turn the nose up, some would make an extra piece of ply like a little channel around the front then the whole back was just a big slab of ply. The idea of that was that it gave surface to take off on those Sunset waves. The paipo boards need to have a lot of surface to get into them. Those big Hawaiians you see on those paipos, once they get going they slide to one side so the outer edge is not even used, it’s the inside rail that’s what its about.
5. How many do you reckon you made all up?
Well the first Bellybogger we made about five hundred. But the second one I brought out I probably only made fifty at most. There was interest from various mad guys around the world, even Felipe Pomar, who was the longboard champion. I sent one off to him in Hawaii, so they are scattered all over the place, a couple I sent to England. I was shipping them all around the world, there was a very select and elite market who knew what bellyboards were about.
6. Can you tell me about your latest board – you gave it a very long number (“I think it must be about prototype number 7394”)?
The latest one is a closed cell EVA and what I have done is make a skin top and bottom over a piece of ply. So the whole thing is completely safe. In other words you can go into a barrel and not worry about being cut up or banged on the head because it is all nice and soft. The rigidity is given to it by the piece of ply in the centre. But I’ve still got a lot of flex in fact -- the last foot of it is a complete flex tail. I surf most days with George Greenough and his mat mates out at Wategos. A mat is an interesting thing because of the flexibility but I’ve learnt from the mat by not wasting energy on something solid. I love a NE [an on-shore, nor'easter wind] because it blows the surfers away and creates a chop. I’m out there by myself. This flexy board you can actually ride over these bumps and your not wasting energy. It’s the same principle as a mat, whereas a board if you’re taking a straight object and trying to flatten out the lump you’re actually wasting energy. So the sensation of riding over and around the little bumps is quite exciting. I actually enjoy riding all the little choppy waves as you’re working with the energy of the wave.

Another thing is it’s now quite long, it’s 1.5 metres long [about 59 inches], because the principle is to get your knees out of the water. A guy out on a ski the other day said, “When you go across a wave you hardly make a wake.” I’ve got really good fins on it now, proper FCS fins. All set correctly. I’ve now got side fins or thrusters. It’s incredible I’ve just gone through an exercise of using centre fins vs thrusters or foils. I wouldn’t believe the difference. I’ve always pooh-hoohed the idea of foils, it really does work. The centre fins for some reason act like a drag whereas when I put the foils on, wow, the sensation of speed is great.

Getting back to the flexibility of it all. I can catch a wave beside a malibu, because I push the board out in front so you have 12 to 18 inches out in front of your hands. So if you are 6 foot you become nearly 8 foot and I have really old giant Continental flippers, they’re really big long ones. I’ve thinned them all down, so when you add another foot on that, you have got 10 foot and if I’m beside a malibu I can catch a wave beside that guy. The trick is the flex, I can bend over the front of the wave and then you can feel yourself being pulled onto the wave and you push yourself onto the wave and off you go. If you’ve got a stiff board you don’t get the same sensation. The flexibility is the trick, it’s a beautiful feeling, especially if you are doing bottom turns. You can almost feel yourself being sprung off the bottom.

And the other thing about belly boarding as you know is the feeling of speed. You can travel 30 mph in a Holden and it doesn’t seem very fast but if you go 30 mph in a go-kart you’re really flying and it’s the same with bellyboarding. When lying down on a belly board what I do is I stretch out and my chin is literally only inches above the water. So the sensation of speed is really fantastic whereas even when I prop myself up on my elbows when I am wanting to pull out of something, it feels like I’m doing half the speed. That’s why I don’t understand why boogie board guys ride on their elbows because they are not experiencing the sensation of speed.



Source: Ash, D (1994).Bellybogger: The fastest way to get your guts across a wave. Byron Bay NSW, Australia: The Author.

7. Is there much buoyancy?
There’s not a lot of flotation, but enough. You can go under a wave and it acts as an aquaplane. It actually holds you in position under the water. So you can dive right down deep.

I don’t paddle around with my arms. You can, but I just find it easier to just kick. I’ve got channels either side, where I put my thumbs and I just kick. My legs are a lot more powerful than my arms are.

8. And how old are now, Dick?
63. I’ve been doing it for a while. That’s 50 years. Every time I come out of the shed I say to my wife, “This is the ultimate!” and she says, “That is what you said last week.” It keeps me like a kid -- I have to go down everyday -- there’s something different to try out. That’s what it is all about. Everyone should have a new board every week.
9. Are you planning to produce your latest design or is it a work in progress?
I won’t make a mould or anything like that. They’re all handmade. There’s a few people now who say, “How much?” I could say I could make it for $500 dolalrs, but the materials are about nearly half that. By the time I’ve spent a good part of 5-6 hours shaping and gluing it all together, I’m not going to make a million dollars making bellyboards. It’s a bit like an artist. You create something and someone wants your product. It’s a bit of a thrill.
10. There’s a guy called Warren who mentioned you to me about a year ago.
Yeah I know him. They [surf mat riders] get some amazing waves. But, I just like the rigidity of a bellyboard. See what happens when they ride a mat, they have got to hang onto the ears by both hands. I just don’t like it. With my board I can let go of my hands completely, have a hand free, I can hold onto it with one hand, hang the other into the wall or use it as a rudder. I can drive through the wave. I can be in a complete barrel, shove one hand in the wall like a bodysurfer and come completely out the other side. It’s completely different feel to ride.

The other nice thing about mine is that it has a completely concave nose. The trick is that I have rails almost dead straight. You can put my edge of my rail and line it up against a 10’ malibu and it’s the same line. It’s a bit like a guy sailing along on a monohull. He sees a catamaran scream past. They are doing 20 knots but they say, “But that’s not a real yacht, that’s not counted.” I work on the same principle of two long straight rails and a concave through the front. The water glides under the board. Everything I have watched, whether its surfboard, a kayak, it doesn’t matter what, anything with a pointy nose, you’re pushing water out, you’re creating a bow wave. On mine, with the concave the water goes through the front and underneath.


Source: Ash, D (1994).Bellybogger: The fastest way to get your guts across a wave. Byron Bay NSW, Australia: The Author.

11. So it’s got a flat bottom and a concave under the nose?
Because the nose is soft, or the centre part is soft, what I do is ride with my hand on that soft part in the middle so if I’m going over a really steep section I can just lift it up and it never crabs. But the points on either side still act like a cataraman. And that where I get my speed.
12. As you said its speed and being close to the wave. When you strip it down it’s pretty basic.
It’s like body surfing but with the speed. With body surfing you just can’t get through the sections, whereas I can glide across an unbroken section and catch up to another section. So you can get some really nice long rides. The mats can do that as well, they’re pretty good gliders. They got the principle of not wasting energy, they can go with the little bumps.
13. Do you see many guys around now on bellyboards?
No. A couple of guys on kneeboards. I’m the only guy out on a bellyboard where I am. Sometimes down in the shorebreak, when the surf is dead flat and no one is there I can go and have an absolute ball with these little 2-foot barrels sliding on the edge of the sandbar. You get in there and your head is tucked down and you’re in this 2-foot barrel, it’s fantastic. Sometimes I have more fun on that than going out the back on a big wave because you’re just shooting long on this glassy barrel and you can never get that on a board or a boogie bard because they’re up on their elbows.
14. Some of the worst conditions can provide you pretty fun waves.
I always am pretty much out at Wategos by myself – I wait for the NE to come through.
15. You wouldn’t have too much of a crowd in a NE?
The other day it was quite big, it was a NW and no one was even in the car park let alone the ocean. So it’s just a matter of timing, time management, as you get older you need that.
16. To go back, do you ever think there was a period where bellyboards were popular in Australia?
No, not really. It’s a macho thing to stand up. It’s the same as a stallion in a herd. The stallion or the person who can stand up on a board, he is the hero.
17. It intrigues me, you’ve sold lots of boards, I have spoken to a couple of guys who made boards, but it never survived. They are in people’s garages or it was too much hard work or I’m not sure what happened. Any ideas?
I think it gets back to that -- they want to ride a surfboard. Because their mates are doing it. The ridicule I used to get when all my mates were learning to ride a malibu! I was ridiculed. You have to be a little bit of an individualist to ride a bellyboard.

At the time I was making all these crazy things. Down at Avalon, I’d appear with something and they’d say, “What’s that he’s got now?” I made kite boggers -- I made a kite back in about 1960. I bought a box kite and scaled it up. I got mum’s sewing machine out, scaled everything up to 8-foot and took it to Wallis Lake near Forster and lay on the bellyboard with this kite. I was screaming, ripping across this lake with this kite and got to the other end and went, “Well, that was great but how do I get back home?”

It went back to the shed and that was the end of my kite days. When I think what they are doing with kites now, gee, then I had a surferbogger, I made a little short bogger exactly the same as a fish – same principle, roto moulded, so all these mad things. I made a nipperbogger which was a ripper - a swimmer's kick board made out of the same plastic and they were all patented. I went into the trade patent office and I remember the guy. I’d bring something in and he’d say, “What’s the difference between that and the other one?” I thought, “What’s the point of patenting anything because he couldn’t see the difference?” That’s why I gave up on patents.
18. There seemed to be two routes, people being influenced by what was available in Hawaii and local Australian creativity.
Australia is a very creative country. An old guy told me one time, this country is amazing you couldn’t just ring up and order a part, if you were in the bush, it’s not like you were in America and rang Ford -  “part so and so.” In the bush you had to make it. That’s why all those great inventions have come out of Australian sheds. Like the Australian ute – it’s an Australian invention. So we had to adapt, that’s why we’re creative.

Note 1. It all began in Australia back in 1956. A visiting American swim team demonstrated some new surfboards at Avalon, Manly and Torquay. The boards were called Malibu’s or Okanui’s. From the Okanui Surfwear website, http://www.okanui.com/origin/okanui-origin/p/85, accessed on October 25, 2009.

Other Information:
  • Booklet: Ash, D (1994).Bellybogger: The fastest way to get your guts across a wave. Byron Bay NSW, Australia: The Author. Download and read the 12-page booklet here. [PDF, 3.5MB]
  • Dick Ash's company, Okanui Surfwear, http://www.okanui.com/.
  • Dick Ash's new (ca. 2010) Bellybogger website: http://www.bellybogger.com/.


(Click on pic for a large image.)

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