Interview with Jack Coberly
December 2, 2017 - La Verne / Pomona, California (USA)
E-mail interview by Bob Green
Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly
Jack grew up in Newport, California. A long time bodysurfer, Jack was
riding a longboard but was put off by the crowds and decided to get a
bellyboard. His first bellyboard was made by Joe Quigg in the 1960s.
Soon he was making and riding his own redwood, twin fin paipo boards.
Before getting his own transport he'd hitchhike anywhere between Santa
Cruz to Mexico. Over several trips to Hawaii he surfed the north and
south shores. During his time in the military there he used the base
work shop to make his boards which were then glassed by Surfboards
Hawaii. He then moved inland but still has his original board which
he's thinking about dusting off again and getting back into the water.
Coberly posing with his best
friend during the period they lived in the part of Waikiki called "The
courtesy of Jerry Noland. Noland is a gifted artist who was living in
Waikiki at the time and picked up Jack Coberly where the S.S. President Wilson
docked. Coberly and Noland shared a studio apartment right behind The
Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki with four other surfers).
| 1. When and
where did you start riding paipo boards?
Joe Quigg made me my first belly board sometime
around 1961. It was the
first of its kind that I saw on the West Coast or Hawaii. It was foam,
one fin, with a redwood stringer and about four feet long. It was
stolen from my house about a year or two later. It saw action from
Santa Cruz to Mexico in waves from 3 to 12 feet and actually rode onto
back of a grey whale off the end of the Hermosa Beach pier.
2. What inspired you to ask Joe Quigg to make you a
Did this board look like the Joe Quigg bellyboard in
the photo below?
Yes, almost exactly in shape and size. It was because this bellyboard
was so buoyant and hard to get out through large beach break that
started the idea of a buoyant neutral board.
Jack with his Quigg bellyboard, Waikiki ca. 1962.
Photo courtesy of Jack Coberly.
Quigg got me started with his tales of riding the Wedge with his custom
handboards. He was always working, if not on longboards, then his
original design of the P-Cat he was building inside his surf board
3. When did you make your first board?
I left longboard surfing in 1961, because of the crowds and switched to
bellyboarding. Once in Hawaii I found the waves and the idea to design
the sort of board I wanted to ride. I was never part of the popular
surfing groups and pretty much a loner seeking out spots that had
little or no crowds and got very little or no media exposure. In the
islands in the early-1960s, I was basically a surf bum 'til I went into
the military and was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base. I built the
boards at the
wood shop on the base and took a couple of the blanks to Surfboards
Hawaii to get glassed. At that time I had to paipo board at whatever
weird times I had available—that's why I was surfing alone so much of
the time. I spent a lot of time at Fort DeRussy so I could surf along
the (Waikiki) strip and play volleyball at the fort and in front of the
Hotel (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village).
Out of high school I flew the old, I think, DC-6's, to the islands to
surf on Trans Pacific Airlines ("Trans-Crash Airlines"). Ninety dollars
and you could take a
board and one bag. I also stowed away on the President Wilson Ocean
Liner (a remodeled WW2 troop carrier). I boarded the ship in Long
Beach, CA, with a athletic bag that held a tee shirt, trunks and my
Churchill swim fins. I always found a way to get back to the Islands to
Starting in 1964, I was making custom redwood
paipos to ride big waves
on the North Shore and around the islands. They were made of redwood
and glassed with two fins and built to ride up to 16 to 20 ft. waves.
was, as I remember, only two of us riding big waves with custom paipos
in the early- and mid-1960s in Hawaii. I am sure there were many
I just don't remember paipos out when I was out in waves over 10 to 12
4. Do you recall who the other guy was who rode big
waves on a paipo on the North Shore?
Jack Coberly surfing alone at Laniakea on the North Shore. On his next
wave he rode over a 10-foot shark. (Below right) Shorebreak in front of
my cabin north of Shark's Cove off Keiki
Photos courtesy of Jack
No, I never met him. I am sure he made his own
board, an elongated dish
with no fins. It looked like formed varnished plywood, but maybe it was
glassed. He got some media attention and I think was in a film, maybe a
Bruce Brown surf film, but like I said I don't recall ever meeting him
or his friends.
5. Tell me about your boards?
It sounds like John Waidelich. Do the guys in this
paipo surfing video look familiar? (See Note 1
Yes, very, but I don't remember two of them out at the same time. Now
that I see two of them together in the film I must have assumed there
was only one that was riding big waves. He might have been older than
myself at the time and I remember how good he was. The film made my
ribs hurt again and I can see our boarding styles were similar.
Jim Growney and
John Waidelich (right) with Paipo Nui boards (see Note
Photo courtesy Jim
Did you train to ride these big waves?
Very little. The long walks on the beach and hours spent in the water
was really good training. Swimming out to the breaks in sometimes rough
water and foam and rip tides seemed to be training enough at the time.
had surfed in California prior to going to Hawaii and had bodysurfed
since I was a child at Huntington Beach. We would jump off the pier and
swim or body surf in to the beach, then repeat over and over.
My cousin and I would practice holding our breath, but that was it,
nothing very serious. When I first moved to Oahu, I worked on the new
Pali Hwy., and as a caddie at the Kahala Golf Course, and would surf
either before or after work so I was always in pretty good shape.
design was meant to be buoyant neutral so I could dive under a big wave
and hold on to a coral head while the break went over and for the board
to never float too far away. It was also designed to porpoise under the
lip of a peaking large wave. I built the board on a bevel to absorb the
shock of a 6 to 8 foot drop from the top of the wave.
6. How many boards do you think that you made? Did the
design of your boards change much over time?
I have only ridden my boards which were designed for various sized
waves, hopefully up to 20 feet. I figured this was about the limit to
get into the wave, take the drop and survive before the wave came down
on me. There was no tow-in surfing in those days though we were
back then, "What is the best way to get into big waves?" Helicopter was
the only thing we could come up with.
What were the dimensions of your boards?
They were 40 inches long, 23 inches at the midsection and the tail
width was 18 inches. The fins were rounded and were 6 inches long and 3
inches at the highest point. I made one or two boards that were a
little longer and maybe a half inch wider for larger waves but found
little difference in performance. My board now weighs 14 lbs., but I am
it was about 1 or 2 lbs. lighter when made.
Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly.
How long did it take to make a board? What was
involved in making a board?
I started with several drawings for the design and made two templates:
one for the fins (which I just found in the cover pocket of my board,
covered with sand and melted surfboard wax) and the other for the board
itself. The board template was made from the center point out, so I
could use it and then flip it over to complete the drawing. Both
templates were cut from 1/8 inch plastic.
In the making I chose redwood because of it's strength and durability.
I started with four 1x6 strips of redwood and wood glued the outer
edges together , then clamped the strips together so I had a
rectangular slap of wood approximately 42 inches long by 24 inches
wide. After 48
hours to cure the glue, I took the clamps off and planed the whole
piece down to 5/8 inch. This was done on a large planing machine. I
drew the outline with my template onto the slab and cut the template
design with a jigsaw.
I then hand planed the edge shape by hand. The nose was upturned and
tapered almost down to mid board and at that point I tapered at a
downturn down to and including the tail section. This allowed for a
comfortable surface to lay on and a flat bottom. The mid body edge was
neutral and sharp where the upturn and downturn met. I then rough hand
sanded for fine tuning of the shape and finished with fine sanding. I
blew the dust off with an air hose and with medical gloves wrapped it
The fins, I layered fiberglass cloth (I can't remember how many
layers of glass) and resin and squeegeed out excess resin, put waxed
paper over it and put a weighted flat board on top of that, to cure.
After curing I put the template of a full fin on the fiberglass and
drew the outline for two fins, cut the fins and sanded to perfect the
edge. Where I put the fins on the board was guess work for the first
board, but turned out pretty dead on the mark for what I wanted to do.
I had glassed a board before, but felt there were some technical
obstacles with the fins, so I took the boards to professionals that
knew what they were doing. They glassed to my specs because I was
concerned with thin edging and the position and angle of the placement
I made 6 to 8 boards and the one in the photo,
that I still have, was
glassed by Dick Brewer and has been ridden by me all around Oahu and
Southern California and Baja and still does what it was intended to do
for the past 53 years. I experimented with edge shape and fin design,
but stayed pretty close to the original dimensions.
7. In some of your photos you have your inside arm
extended. What technique was involved?
I made very few boards (not with money or recognition in mind) and
gave my boards away, except for the cost of glassing. I am Buddhist and
did not think of it as a profit kind of business but to share with
friends. Plus the time and cost of making it was prohibitive.
What did you learn about board design from your
That a certain amount of flexibility in materials would have made
for better maneuverability and tricks with smaller waves. Since with
larger waves you had to stay inside the break to catch the wave just
before breaking, a stiffer board that could dive under larger waves was
board: two angles on the fins and rail line.
Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly.
From the photos it looked like the rails on your board
were round rather than hard. Is that so?
Before glassing my mid body rails were very sharp and in future models
the glass jobs reflected that. But to answer your question, the more
rounded rail would hold me at a pretty steep angle like at Pipeline
pretty, but was actually better in bigger and thicker waves where you
weren't hanging so high in the wave. The fins helped to hang and keep
the board from slippage more than anything in a hollow wave. The fins
probably would have been better for quick or trick turns if they were
further forward or smaller but I put more time into fin design and
shape to help with high speed performance than the placement of the
fins. I also think the fins helped to stabilize the aft end of the
board from swagger when in the face of a good sized wave.
Photo courtesy of Jack Coberly.
It just felt natural, it's how I had bodysurfed
since childhood. On
bigger waves holding with two hands was necessary because the belly of
the waves could be very rough and bouncy sometimes, like a rock
skimming over the water.
8. What sort of wave were your boards suited to and
where were your favorite spots?
How did you turn your boards? Did you use your
flippers for turning?
Turning was easy on this design and on most small to moderate waves
could be done by shifting body weight. On a long steep wall the inner
edge and fin kept me level, with no side slippage. On entry and on fast
bottom turns I would shift my mid and upper body and lean into the wave
pulling with my outside hand. On slower waves I would have to use my
swim fins to gain speed for upward turns. On big waves the board was
going so fast I couldn't attempt a turn 'til the board slowed down and
held on with both hands or I would simply be bumped off.
In the 1960s, big guns were used to ride big waves and my paipo could
hang above them in the wave and pass them by. As it turns out,
especially after watching kids nowadays, my design resulted in a board
that was built for straight line speed and hanging high in waves and
less for radical turns and tricks. Basically it was scary in good sized
waves, especially alone, and I ended up making a board I could survive
on. Plus it did more.
I preferred waves in the 7 to 12 foot range so
I made my boards that
handled that size or what I thought would handle that size the best.
9. What stokes you about paipo boarding?
Many fantastic spots, but Kaiser's on a big day was the best. A big
long wall and a tube that would spit you out into the boat channel.
Short and sweet, plus the swim from the hotel lagoon wasn't that far
to the break. I also liked Pupukea, Sandy beach and the shore break off
Keiki Road where I lived. Newport Beach in Southern California: The
Wedge and 40th Street. I actually recently wrote down the places I rode
my paipo board during the 1960s and early 1970s: at least 16 to 20
surf spots on Oahu and 17 from Santa Cruz to Mexico.
Coberly's favorite wave was the right at Kaisers. (Below right) A
typical day at Queens, 1965.
Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly.
You mentioned that you had listing surf spots that you
had surfed. Where were your favorite mainland spots?
Like my mother used to tell me when I was about 10 or 12 years old
at Huntington Beach when she wouldn't see me all day. Don't go north to
Tin Can Beach alone, only cross Pacific Coast Highway at the pier where
there is a light,
go no further south than the Newport River outlet; but she gave me
absolutely no rules about the ocean or jumping off the pier. I think we
were willing and given more permission to take chances back then. And,
of course you have to love and respect the ocean.
Sometimes the spots had no name. Sometimes I would get dropped off from
hitchhiking and there just happened to be a good break. No name, just
a break, so I would go out. Like I said, I didn't have a car for much
of the 1960s and Newport Beach was my mainland home. I lived, worked
sailed there. Since I had no car, I held my board and rode my bike to
Corona Del Mar, The Wedge, 28th St., 40th St., The Jetty and Newport
(if the break was good). North of Newport was Huntington Beach, Tin Can
Beach (Bolsa Chica), Hermosa and Manhattan Piers, Rincon and Santa Cruz
Point. Many less frequented spots in between. The further north I
traveled the less fun I had, because I couldn't afford a wetsuit for
the winter swells, so my time in the water became more limited the
further north I got. Usually 30 to 40 minutes was my limit if I stayed
To the south of Newport where I could get to with my bike was Laguna
Beach. Lots of good boarding at the end of streets those names I can no
longer remember except Brooks and Agate Streets because I had friends
lived down there. Killer Dana on a few not so killer days, Doheny (not
exciting most of the time), I loved the first break you came to at San
Onofre, a place called Cottons further south. There was a spot we used
to sneak into on the Marine Base where we got chased out by the Marines
and once had to swim two miles north before we could come into the
beach. Oceanside Pier and Swamis were always fun on good days. It
seemed the further south you went the more vicious the locals got and
the more they tried to take you out with their boards or fists. All
these spots south of Laguna Beach to the border I depended on rides
from friends or hitchhiked and many times I got rides there, slept on
the beach and hitchhiked back the next day to Newport.
Every time we went to Ensenada, Mexico, I would paipo a small bay
north of the city (can't remember its name). It usually had good waves
but when I wiped out I had a scary amount of seaweed drop down on me.
It was scary shark wise also and my red flag was always up there. I
didn't see any, but it was a scary place (the locals would say mucho
shark) especially since there was usually no one else out. Reminds me
of Laniakea. Where the reef drops off, the water gets very cold and
changes color to dark blue, very spooky when you are by yourself. Some
places are just like that.
I lived in Eureka, CA, for a few years before Colorado, and thought
boarding up there, but as I got older the water that far north was just
to damn cold.
Being intimate with the water.
10. Where else have you seen paipo boards ridden?
Dozens of kids in the 1960s, especially in
Waikiki. I would travel
the island sitting on my board on my 50cc Honda and see kids and
locals, like at Makapu'u riding, but especially in Waikiki at the Wall.
When I was young, at the beach, people rode all kinds of things and we
would use round pieces of plywood as skim boards and try to play in the
waves with them. It's natural... right? There are waves, so let's find
a way to play in them. Lol.
11. Do you still ride a paipo board?
at Fort DeRussy, Waikiki. Note deeper fins for larger waves. (Below
right) Two of Jack Coberly's boards. His friend, Bruce, owned this
board—its edging was slightly
softer. Fort DeRussy, ca. 1966.
Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly.
Was there anyone you surfed with who rode your style
No, I never saw anyone that had a board of my design. My design is
original and I have never seen another like it or anywhere near it in
concept, durability, or beauty. It was meant to perform, and each one
became a hand crafted work of art. Bruce, I can't remember his last
name, boarded with me in the
islands on one of my boards when I was in the military. He and a few
others had one of my boards and I never kept in touch with them after I
I still have the first board that I last rode
at Huntington Beach, in the late-1990s. I lived in Colorado for 20
years, but am now back in
Southern California and training to ride again. I am 74, and it's on my
12. Any other recollections?
Jack's board -
ready to be surfed again.
Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly.
gosh. Too many stories. Sitting inside Sunset with 15-foot plus waves
in the middle of a white-out heavy-duty squall and not being able to
see more than ten feet and not sure where you or the waves were; two
very close encounters with large sharks, using my board as a shield at
Kaiser's; riding onto the back of a grey whale in Southern California;
a moray eel taking a chunk off my fin at Ala Moana; riding over the
belly of a very large shark, alone at Laniakea; being in a long tube at
Kaiser's and being blown out into the boat channel; big soft faces of
large waves with, offshore winds, carving large turns; going to the
headwaters in Moana Valley when there was only farms and taking a bath
in a stream after six hours in the water, picking shampoo ginger to
wash with; icing the surfing knots and bruises on my ribs; adrenaline
kicking in while swimming out next to large breaking waves, the roar so
loud it sounded like a train and the solitude of being out there alone.
My nose broken four times by surf nazis and once by a coral head. Paipo
boarding close-out conditions at Canoes in Waikiki. I loved Little
Queens on a 4 to 6 foot day. Banzai on a 8-foot day and how it sweeps
into its jaw with no effort at all. Riding the outer break at Sandy
Beach and Makapu'u was always a fun memory. Exploring good waves to
ride between Laie and Kailua. Paipo boarding places that are no longer
there and will never be there again.
Too many memories.
is pretty sure that was Peter Pope Kahapea surfing next to him.
Photo courtesy of Jack Coberly.
Note 1: The surfers in this video edited by Stig Waidelich are Stig's father, John Waidelich,
and Jim Growney. The video was originally filmed by Val Valentine. Paipo Surfing -
1958-1965 - O`ahu, Hawai`i. 9 minutes. See video: http://vimeo.com/9742493.
Note 2: John Clark conducted a
paipo interview with Jim Gowney, a good friend of John
Waidelich, in August, 2009. The interview which covers "development of a board... where they surfed, how they
surfed, how the board was made and in the beginnings. Historic documentation for the word, paipo."
Interview with Jim Growney.