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A Paipo Interview with Gary Crandall

Bellyboarder and artist

Gary Crandall Paipo Interview
November 22, 2009. Highland Village, Texas (USA)
Questions and e-Mail Interview by Bob Green
Photos courtesy of Gary Crandall

1. Why did you start riding a bellyboard?
Had tried a regular surfboard, but always liked the feel of acceleration through hot curl most of all. All the histrionics on a wave… up and down, back and forth… was just a bunch of chewing gum. Give me a straight shot of Cuervo! And unless you’re riding the Pipeline you’re not inside the curl. A bellyboard is down and dirty with the wave… inside the curl even on smaller waves. And the sense of speed is greater just inches from the water. Feeling the salt spray peppering your face is pure joy.

There was a guy named Bob Haworth (as I recall), who hung out at a local surf shop in Goleta, California (adjacent to Santa Barbara). He had built his own paipo board and was kind of an underground legend around the area. He surfed all the spots from Hollister Ranch north of Santa Barbara to Rincon and Ventura. Tall, lanky guy. He was a regular dolphin in the water. Watching him made me want to try bellyboarding.
2. When was this?
1964… early in the surfing evolution.

Bike ride down Mt. Haleakala - Maui - ca. 1998

3. Tell me about the board you named ‘L’Enfant Terrible.’ Where did you get the design from? What were the dimensions and construction method?
I got the design from the guy mentioned above, Bob Haworth. Definitely a pioneer in bellyboarding. It was homemade out of marine ply about 5/8ths of an inch thick. Approximately 4 feet long, 2 feet wide. The skeg was in the center of the board where the weight of the body was balanced. Just a slight shift of body weight gave the skeg good bite in the water when cranking out turns.

I added a little panache to it by painting my own design (a Tasmanian devil sort of creature) on it. Called the board L'Enfant Terrible, and gave the whole thing a coat of resin.

This is around 1965 before the commercial styrofoam Boogie Boards hit the market. Although you can see from the article there were some sleek paipo and kneeboard designs beginning to emerge at the time.
4. Where did you get the idea to place the fin in the centre of the board? What benefit did this fin set up have?
The idea came from the board used by Haworth. He used one like it to great effect. It made sense. The center of the board was where the body’s center of gravity was. It pivoted very smoothly. Although it might be interesting… hydrodynamically… to compare it to a rear-placed skeg or dual skegs if it hasn’t already been done.
5. Was ‘L’Enfant Terrible’ your first bellyboard? If not, can you tell me about your earlier boards? What were they like and did you make them?
Yes, L’Enfant Terrible was my first bellyboard. And the best of the lot. I made two others like it. One in 1977 (see photo to the right), but it didn’t seem to perform as well. Possibly because this was in Redondo Beach shorebreak, not good point break as in Santa Barbara.
6. Did you make or have any other boards made for you after ‘L’Enfant Terrible
I had a comical experience in Brazil along those lines. I wanted to try the surf there so went to a local carpenter with a sketch. He got the dimensions right, but instead of marine ply he made it out of a local wood called jacaranda. It’s very hard and very heavy. The board barely floated. I tried it at a coastal town named Ubatuba. The surf was pretty lousy, but the locals got a chuckle watching me wrestling that thing onto buses looming out of my backpack.
7. What sort of waves did your boards go best in?
Point break was always the best… especially in hot, fast curl. A quick ride down the tube of a shorebreak cruncher was also lots of fun. Still shaking the water… and sand… out of my ears.

8. What was your style of surfing? Any particular techniques that you used to turn or gain speed?
I was there for the speed, not the aerobatics. My left hand was on the front of the board for steering. My right hand thrust out ahead of me for balance. I shifted body weight for turns and finding the “sweet spot” in the wave. Lifted my legs to reduce drag.

Although this style board was a sweet ride once in the wave, getting into the wave took a lot of power kicking and reading the waves right. Lighter weight Boogie Boards will pick up waves easier. My plywood board was fairly inert, so I had to be the engine.
9. Did you always ride prone or did you knee-ride as well?
Always prone… not a good board for knee-riding. But my main objective was to be down as close to the water as possible. I wanted that feeling of intimacy.
10. Where did you surf mostly? Did you travel much?
Another guy and I used to go down to Campus Point at the University of California, Santa Barbara a lot in those days. There was a student community called Isla Vista right on the beach where we lived. Major party town. 10,000 students packed into a half a square mile. Between surfing and partying there was a high attrition rate at that university!

There was a nice point break there. But I've used the bellyboard at many places up and down the California coast… Rincon, El Capitan, Jalama, Hammond’s Reef, County Line, Dana Point (before they put in a yacht harbor there it was known as "Killer Dana"), Laguna Beach, and other spots. Maui, Brazil.

One drawback to surfing the more popular spots was that the standard surfboards could get up and into the wave faster than a bellyboard.  And they didn’t have any qualms about “dusting” you with their board… usually with an expletive or two… if you got in the way. The Code of the Sea didn’t apply. In fact, I think they delighted in it. Bellyboarders are definitely 2nd Class citizens at the major spots.

Wave Riding at Campus Point - Santa Barbara, California - ca. 1965

11. Did you see many bellyboarders in the local area or on your travels?  If so, what sort of boards were they using?
At that time, very few. Mostly standard surfboards and surfers. Later the Morey Boogie Boarders hit the beach in droves. Mostly amateurs, but a few surfaced who could really wire the waves.
12. What was it like surfing Dana Point on a bellyboard?
Scary. Dana Point got some really hairy waves rolling through in the old days. Big and mean. I remember wiping out and being caught inside one time. I kept surfacing for air, but the waves broke so hard there was several feet of foam on the surface. I couldn’t get all the way to the top. Could have been a goner that day. Makes you a believer and respect the power of waves.
13. Any surfs or waves stand out from the others?
I always enjoyed Campus Point next to the University of  California, Santa Barbara. My buddy and I would ride down there on bicycles. We could take off out by the rocks where regular surfers didn’t go. That allowed a hot, fast ride before the wave built up again into a longer, slower line-up that swept down the beach.

Also, Rincon. A classic place. Beautiful long rides with predictable line-ups.

14. What was the attraction of bellyboarding for you?
Intimacy with the ocean. The sense of speed. Matching wits with a capricious force of nature.  An absence of rules. The heady scent of salt air. Beach fires. Warm sun and wetness on bare skin. The minimalism of the sport. No clunky paraphernalia required. Fresh air. The adrenaline rush. Every wave is different. The sense of timelessness about waves that have been travelling for thousands of miles and crashing on shores for millions of years. It’s not better than sex… but it’s a close second.
15. Was there much reaction to the article you wrote in Surfer? What was the background to writing the article? [See Note 1.]
Don’t remember much reaction. I wrote it as a paean to the sport I loved. A free-lance article I submitted totally on spec. But, serendipitously, they had some other pieces in the slush pile and they liked mine as a sort of mood-setter introduction because I tried to capture the poetry and sensations of the bellyboarding experience.

16. You are in Texas now. When did you last regularly ride your bellyboard?
Texas is flat as a fritter. Not much surf. Haven’t done much regular surfing since the 1980s. Only an occasional Boogie Board fling in Hawaii, Cancun, Cape Hatteras on the Carolina coast.

Bodysurfing in Cancun, Mexico - ca. 1994

Cancun, Mexico - ca. 1994
17. Any other comments about bellyboarding or surfing?
If the earth were to shift three degrees, all the plankton would shift three degrees. All the birds in the sky would shift three degrees. All the leaves of the forest would shift three degrees. But the guy speeding down the freeway in the air-conditioned behemoth dripping with chrome wouldn’t have a clue… and would go sailing off the nearest precipice. Because, as human beings, we aren’t paying attention.

So many people are dead from the waist down. We have lost touch with instinct. We have lost touch with ourselves. We have lost touch with that million-year-old creature at the base of our spine.

That is why I like surfing.

It cleanses the cobwebs accumulated by our landlocked existence… all the rubble of false rituals and oppressive rules. The sea is always up to its old tricks. You have to stay alert. You have to pay attention.

Out here every fish, every bird, and every piece of flotsam is on its own. No favors asked. No quarter given. A billion years rise up on the crest of each wave. And there’s an ornate happiness in being immersed in all that time… and all that liquid.

“Civilization is falling from me little by little,” said Paul Gauguin as he rediscovered his instinctual self in Tahiti.

To me, this is where it matters. This is what bellyboarding has given me. In the voluptuous barbarity of the waves. An awakening of the senses… the muscles… the molecular energy of movement. In things that can be touched and felt. Things that jolt the emotions… where the sparks fly… an awareness of what it means to be alive. Where you can hear the gleeful howls of the inmates escaping from the asylum.

This is Cosmos 101. The Classroom of the Waves. From here on in our directions come straight from the universe. And there is something about it… in those inconsequential moments of surfing…  that aspires to the beautiful soul.

Acrylic Art by Gary Crandall (click on figures for larger image views)

Toucan with Orchids

Surfer with Red Sky

All the Yummy Things in Life

See more of Gary's artwork at:

Note 1. Gary's article, Potato Chip Thrills In a Washing Machine, was part one in the small trilogy, "Toward Unencumbered Flight," in Surfer Magazine, 11(2). PDF [6.5MB].

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

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Last updated on: 12/01/09