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A Paipo Interview with Jeff Callaghan

Surfer and meteorologist

Jeff Callaghan Paipo Interview
May 16, 2010. Brisbane, Australia
Questions and e-mail interview by Bob Green
(Click on images for a larger view - photos courtesy of Jeff Callaghan)

1. How did you first get into riding ply bellyboards/ When was this?
It was a legendary day when we were bodysurfing Kirra in probably the best cyclone surf ever experienced at Kirra, on 3 February 1965 (see below). There were only a few out, Col. Taylor and Bogangar Bob on conventional boards, and around 5 of us body surfing with flippers. After surfing for 5 hours we met Bob McDermott up from Maroubra. Later on we took him out for a wave. He had one of the these ply bellyboards which were in vogue at the time in Sydney. Bob was working on a trawler at the time, out from Tweed Heads, and we became good friends, life-long in fact. Kit Carson eventually married his sister. Bob McDermott became known as ‘Bellyboard Bob’ which was a little confusing as Bob Ryan was known as ‘Bogangar Bob’ at the time.

Jeff riding Winki, July 1969.
Photo by Kerrie Carson

2. Had you seen belly-boarding before this? When and where was this?
Not really -- only occasionally you would see the Hawaiian paipo boards in the U.S. surfing movies.
3. Who made your first board? What was it like?
I am pretty sure that Joey Larkin made them from marine ply under our specs. Later on we made them ourselves. We used to surf with Joe and were pretty friendly with him and I had purchased a couple of conventional surfboards off Joe in the past.
4.  Who were the guys you remember surfing these ply boards with and where were you surfing them?
Terry Law, Col Taylor, Kit Carson, Graham Dunne, Graham Byrnes, Ken Wiles, Mick Potter, and Jimmy Purdon to name but a few. We surfed mostly at Kirra, Duranbah, Snapper and Bogangar. I guess in the pre-leg rope days we were the first to regularly take off behind the rocks at Snapper as it was relatively easy to do on a belly board. We were probably the first to regularly surf Duranbah, after it magically appeared, after the Tweed training walls were extended by 1963. We had other excursions like people do today further afield from the beach breaks at Surfers and Hastings to Angourie etc.

Kit Carson, Winki June 1969. Photo by Jeff Callaghan

5. When did you move to Torquay? Were guys riding bellyboards when you moved to Torquay? If so, what type of boards
were these?
I was a member of two Antarctic expeditions, in 1966 and 1970, spending a year there on both occasions. Before going down there we were training in Melbourne for six to nine months and that is when we surfed Bells and Winki. The first time I went down there it would have been July or August 1965, and I caught the train down to Geelong and hitchhiked down to Bells. I got a lift from a member of Torquay Surf Club and he drove me to Bells and it was 10 foot (face height) and perfect. I body-surfed it as I didn’t have a belly board there at the time. Kit got married and came down to Melbourne shortly after to work and brought down the belly boards. I think we mainly surfed Bells around that time. When I got back from the Antarctic we started surfing Winki. But I went back to the Gold Coast early in 1967. By the time I went back to Victoria in February 1969 (before the 1970 Antarctic trip). Kit was well established and brought a weekend house with Rocky Hall, at Jan Juc. We (Kit, Rocky and me) surfed (bellyboards) always at Winki till I left for the Ice in December and we had some incredible surf. We virtually had the place to ourselves every weekend as this was the pre-leg rope era and the cliffs at Winki were unforgiving on boards. A few of the Torquay crew started using bellyboards, particularly Ian Seely, John Olsen and Rocky Hall. Col Taylor began surfing belly boards as he was down in Melbourne at the time running an office cleaning business. Col previously was a well known conventional board rider progressing from Yallingup, Sydney to the Gold Coast. I had further stints in Melbourne in 1974, and 1982, of around 9 month durations in each case, while engaged in Bureau of Meteorological courses, and I continued belly boarding there from Winki, 13th Beach and the Portsea area, etc.

Jeff Callaghan at Winki, June 1969. Photo by Kit Carson 

6. You’ve surfed two of the world’s great waves, Kirra and Winki, on ply bellyboards. Did your approach to riding these waves differ? Could you tube ride these ply boards?
Both are obviously great waves and you could get tubed in both on the ply boards. Very large days at Winki were easier to surf than similar days at Kirra due to the lack of sweep and also the tendency to have longer lulls between the sets. Though one day (around Sept. 1971) I went out at Winki with no one out at Bells or Winki as it was maxed out. It was very difficult getting out with a strong side sweep, but I got out and got a wave which swallowed me up and I ended up near the steps past Boobs. I heard later that the waves were large even at the protected Fisherman's Beach where a wave ski snapped in half.

A Wednesday at Winki. We took this picture on our way home (June 1969).

7. Do you see any connection between bodysurfing and the technique used on bellyboards?
We thought of it as body surfing with an aid and it opened the opportunities of what we could achieve while minimising the medium between us and the ocean.
8. You’ve been described as pretty fearless in big surf. What was your attitude to riding big waves?
We considered the ultimate was to ride the surf generated by tropical cyclones and east coast lows. This was a period (prior to 1977) which experienced a very large number of impacts from these events (see below). Maybe Tim Winton in his book Breath sums up the reasons for the attraction of surfing large waves. You sure feel elated after a big wave session.
9. Of all the waves you’ve ridden are there any that still stand out for you?
The New Year's Cyclone 1963, where we (with Peter McNiven) paddled out off Snapper on surf boards and by the time we got out we were at a very large break way outside Kirra. We got a wave each before we were engulfed. Today they would tow it. The Anzac Day Cyclone 1963. I was alone off the Big Reef at Kirra on a surfboard where a big left was pumping. This also produced the historically legendary surf at North Narrabeen. TC Judy 3 February 1965 Kirra Point (see below). All the 1967 cyclones and east coast lows were memorable and TC Dinah (category 4 cyclone off the Gold Coast and see below) stood out. We surfed Dinah (belly board) for days as it came in and when it was just off the Gold Coast we had a rescue when two lifesavers were swept around from the inner break at Greenmount to the shark buoys at North Kirra. It was an incredible experience swimming out to the shark buoys with Vic Arnell and Wren Bligh. Somehow or other John Cunningham also made it on a rescue buoy after several attempts. Tropical Cyclone Giselle came past Kirra in April 1968. This was the cyclone  which sunk the Wahine in Wellington Harbour with the loss of many lives. I believe many people got safely off the Wahine but perished in the vicious shore break which was generated by the cyclone on the steep banks of Wellington Harbour. The waves at Kirra from  Giselle were large and perfect and I was staying at the Kirra Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC) and had the waves to myself as no one knew the waves were coming. Tropical Cyclone Colleen in 1969, again on the 3 February. Winkipop June 1969 on bellyboards mid-week and not a soul at Winki or Bells even in the car parks. The May long weekend in 1971 delivered perfect large long period set waves for our belly boards at Snapper. This was similar to the July 2001 long period wave event and in this 1971 event several trawlers between the Sunshine Coast and the southern NSW coast were destroyed on bars with the loss of 5 lives. There were 8 lives similarly lost in the 2001 event. There have been many great days since but I have focussed on the period of my youth.

The wonderful tropical cyclone Judy charts (1965)

Effects of tropical cyclone Judy. Best ever Kirra? Photographs by Bill Stafford.

The late Bogangar Bob.

Jeff Callaghan.

The late Bogangar Bob.

Walking around Kirra Point to launch into the waves
again are, from the left: Kit, John Cunningham, the
late Jack Dunsdon and
Jeff Callaghan.

The big one – tropical cyclone Dinah (1967).

Modern day large wave events compared with large wave events of the past.

This shows how the number of tropical cyclones affecting the Gold Coast have dramatically reduced since the 1976 1977 season.

The latter part of the 19 century was much more active even than the 1948/1976 period so we think these active phases are periodical and we may be entering a new active phase as we notice that El Niņo events (which keep cyclones away from the Gold Coast) are on the decline. The period from 1977 to 2004 was absolutely dominated by El Niņo episodes keeping the cyclones well away from the Gold Coast.

Snapper Rocks (1967). Photographer unknown.

10. What is the best design for a ply board?
I am not sure but I think that if you are in a big tube at Kirra it is best not to have fins on the boards as you really fly without them. With fins on the boards you have more manoeuvrability on average waves though.
11. Joe Larkin described making balsa bellyboards on the Gold Coast. Do you know if these balsa boards were similar to Vic Tantau’s bellyloomer or Fred Pyke’s balsa boards? How did these boards compare to the ply boards?
I think the advantage of ply boards was that they are not buoyant and relatively easy to get out even in very large surf.
12. Did you ever try a fibreglass bellyboard?
13. When did you last ride a bellyboard? Have the design of your boards changed much?
A few times in recent years but I have been mainly body surfing. My present board has no fins, is wider at the back (58cm, 22-3/4 inches) than the front (40cm, 15-3/4 inches) and is 90cm (35-1/2 inches) long.
14. Any other comments?
Obviously the crowds now are horrendous but I am grateful to be healthy at 66 years old and sometimes it’s great to just to be able to swim out with my flippers on a crowded but perfect day and just be amongst the waves and maybe even jag a wave or two.

Some more pictures

Kit and Jeff at Winki during the Winter of 1969. Photographer unknown.

Kit and Jeff. Photo taken by Rocky Hall.

Rocky Hall (top rider) and Jeff Callaghan at Winki.

Big chunky day at Winki on Dec. 7, 1969 - Rocky Hall. Photograph by Kerrie Carson.

Winki on Dec. 7, 1969 - Rocky Hall and Kit Carson (inside). Photograph by Kerrie Carson.

Winki on Dec. 7, 1969 - Jeff Callaghan. Photograph by Kerrie Carson.

Magazine Cover Shot (1969). Nat Young at Winkipop, 1969. Surf International, 2(4).

This issue features a cover shot of Australian surf rider Nat Young at Winki in 1969. The paipo rider in front of Nat Young is Jeff Callaghan, confirmed by both Rocky Hall and Jeff Callaghan. In a review of John Witzig's newly published Surfing Photographs From the 1960s and '70s, Geoff Cater of notes that the photograph, "Nat Young at Winkipop, 1969," was originally published in 1969 on the cover of Witzig's Surf International magazine (Vol. 2, No. 4) and that the bellyboardrider (riding on the outside of Nat) has apparently been brushed out of the later version.

Jeff relates, "I didn't know Nat but as I recall at the end of the ride I said to him 'Sorry mate, I didn't see you there' or something similar, and I think he replied something to the effect that it was alright but he didn't think I was going to be so fast and keep out of his way."
Feel free to send me suggestions, comments and additional information to: The Paipo Interviews.

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