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A Paipo Interview with Jack Coberly

From riding big waves to marine encounters

A Paipo Interview with Jack Coberly
December 2, 2017 - La Verne / Pomona, California (USA)
E-mail interview by Bob Green
Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly

Introduction: 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.

Photo: Jack Coberly posing with his best friend during the period they lived in the part of Waikiki called "The Jungle." Photo 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 the back of a grey whale off the end of the Hermosa Beach pier.

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.

2. What inspired you to ask Joe Quigg to make you a paipo board?
Joe 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 shop.

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 (Hawaiian) 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 Kaiser 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 surf.
3. When did you make your first board?
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. There 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 others, I just don't remember paipos out when I was out in waves over 10 to 12 feet.

(Below left) 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 Road.

Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly.

4. Do you recall who the other guy was who rode big waves on a paipo on the North Shore?
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.

It sounds like John Waidelich. Do the guys in this paipo surfing video look familiar? (See Note 1 for video.)

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 2).

Photo courtesy Jim Growney.

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. I 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.
5. Tell me about your boards?
The 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.

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 thinking even 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 sure it was about 1 or 2 lbs. lighter when made.

Jack Coberly's board.

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 then 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 for glassing.

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 of the fins.
6. How many boards do you think that you made? Did the design of your boards change much over time?
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.

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 experiments?

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 my concern.

Jack Coberly's 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.

Fin template

Photo courtesy of Jack Coberly.

7. In some of your photos you have your inside arm extended. What technique was involved?
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.

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.
8. What sort of wave were your boards suited to and where were your favorite spots?
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.

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.

(Below left) 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 and 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 Pier (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 active.

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 that 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 about boarding up there, but as I got older the water that far north was just to damn cold.
9. What stokes you about paipo boarding?
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 around 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.

(Below left) Lunch 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 of board?

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 moved on.
11. Do you still ride a paipo board?
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 bucket list.

Jack's board - ready to be surfed again.

Photos courtesy of Jack Coberly.

12. Any other recollections?
Oh my 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 you 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.

Jack is pretty sure that was Peter Pope Kahapea surfing next to him.

Photo courtesy of Jack Coberly.

Note 1The 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:

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." Link: An Interview with Jim Growney.

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

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