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A Paipo Interview with Jerry Vasconcellos

Making & riding paipo boards, directing contests and sculpting wood & stone.

A Paipo Interview with Jerry Vasconcellos
July 18, 2012 - Honolulu, Hawaii
E-mail interview by Bob Green

Jerry has spent much of his life spreading the stoke about paipo boards. Besides organising contests he made paipo boards for kids as part of his job with the Honolulu Parks Department. These boards were made for free in local parks. Since 1970, Jerry has been making sculptures from indigenous Hawiian materials.
1. When and where did you start riding a paipo? Who else was riding paipo boards at the time - was it mainly kids your own age or were there older guys riding paipo boards?
I started riding paipos at The Wall in Waikiki. Interesting place. Kind of a wild frontier place. I would bus with my friends or brothers and other kids would get dropped off by their parents or ride bike or bus. It was all kinds of kids. The waves at the wall are perfect for learning and yet complex enough to really train you. There are bowls and double ups and second breaks and a whole lot to learn about so it was a great training ground. It was mostly all kids but several what seemed to be old men at the time and midrangers as well.

The boards were all home made usually with straight sawed noses - that is two cuts to draw the nose not to a point but to a nose - and when they had skegs, they were usually attached with L brackets. Here and there was a board that was rounded. These guys had access to a sabre saw or such. Mostly plywood but 1x12s worked. It was cool because you didn't need much. I got to ride a big, shaped-like-a-bullet board at Kawela Bay when I was nine. Our house burned down and I ended up with the Dennis's in the second to last house on the east road. We were actually in what they call Turtle Bay, as in the Turtle Bay Resort - that was actually the Kuilima. But anyway, that board was like a platform to me and it got me thinking about what my next one would be like.

Jerry 2012.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Vasconcellos.

2. Who made your first board and what were the boards like back then?
I don't recall my first board. I probably did some sawing and painting to make it. I do remember one with the nose maybe a foot wide straight back to about 2 to 2-1/2 feet wide at the center for maybe a foot and then in to a 1-1/2 foot tail. Painted green and I put resin on the bottom. I wanted to do the top but it was my first time with resin and I put all the catalyst into the quart can and shook it up and carefully put the cap on nice and tight when I was pau covering the bottom. I was stoked with the finish on the bottom but pissed because the can had obviously harderned. I wasn't too interested in the boards as I had mine and it was just too much fun surfing with it to worry about. Apart from that board I rode out at Turtle Bay, I was having too much fun.
3. Do you know about the background to how the 1970 paipo and bodysurfing contest organised by Chuck Shipman came about? What was the contest called?
The first contest at Makapu'u was called He'e Nalu Makapuu. Chuck was the original Ocean Recreation Specialist for the City and County of Honolulu's Parks Department. He was tasked with the promotion and education of the ocean as a recreational resource. He saw competition as a means to honing one's skill and at the same time identifying the guys that knew the sports. I ended up winning both the body surfing and paipo boarding catagories and he offered me a job with the city teaching and promoting them. I started at Kapiolani Park Bandstand across the street from The Wall and we made boards and took kids to The Wall to surf them.

Contest t-shirt, 1974, designed by Stan Osserman; trophy awarded to Craig Mattthew, 1981.

Photos courtesy of Craig Matthew.
4. I've read you won the contest that first year. What did you have to do to get a high scoring ride? What else do you remember about the contest?
That contest was fantastic! The waves were some of the best Makapu'u I've been in and I practically lived there for years. It was up to 8 feet and breaking cleanly out in the middle of the bay. The right was all the way to the shorebreak while the left tended to peter out. The size was intimidating but it was so clean and at that point I was comfortable and I just surfed it for the enjoyment of it. We didn't know competition at that point so it was just a matter of making the best of the wave and with those waves there was a lot to have. The standard we were told was the largest wave and the longest distance in the most critical section. That was what we all were doing anyway so I figured it to be just surf the hell out of it.

Contest t-shirt, 1971.

Photo by Craig Matthew.

Did the guys in the contests primarily ride on their knees or prone? Was knee riding scored more highly?

During the early contests almost all the riders rode prone. As time went on, however, more of us started exploring knee riding and the numbers increased to maybe a third. Knee riding allows for a more aggressive style with more radical cutbacks and maneuvering. It wasn't scored higher unless the ride conformed more to the judging criteria. I personally saw it as an exploration of the potential of the boards and rider that I pursued for it's own sake.

Mercer Aikala at Point Panic in a 1970s contest.
Photo and copyright to Wayne Bartlett.
5. How did you come to direct the contest the following year? How many years did you direct the contest?
After the contest I was hired to be an Ocean Recreation Specialist. Body surfing and paipo boarding were my assigned specialties though we did it all in those days. I started clinics and classes and also established contests at Ehukai, (we weren't into Pipeline yet), Point Panic and The Wall. The Wall was my favourite. The contest was called the "Waikiki Free Paipo" and it was a fun contest for all The Wall Rats. The kids themselves signed most of the waivers for that contest, as it was too much trouble for them to take it home and have their parents sign it. There were several future pro surfers that came through that contest and everyone had a good time. The Point Panic meet was dubbed the "Honolulu Bodysurfing Championships" and paipo boarding was a category along with handboard and surf mats. The Halona Point Bodysurfing Association (or maybe club - I don't recall) put on a contest at Sandy Beach that included paipo boarding. There were a handful of regulars paipoing Sandy's. I surfed Makapu'u as in those days there was a big social scene at Sandy's that I didn't feel a part of. Besides, I loved Makapu'u as a gentler place on the whole. Sandy's with any sort of size demands some serious respect. Most paipoing took place at half point over the rocks and you didn't have that problem at Makapu'u. I believe I ran the Makapu'u contest for 4 or 5 years. We wanted to pass them on to the clubs as soon as they could do them and I believe there was some sort of club that took it over. It's been a few years so there are a lot of gaps.

Program of the Third Annual Sandy Beach Bodysurfing Championships, 1974. The competition was started in 1972, by the Halona Point Bodysurfing Association. Jerry won the 1972 competition and Mercer Akila won in 1973.

Photos courtesy of John Clark.
6. Did you generally get good waves for the contest? Was the contest always held at Makapu'u?
The Makapu'u Classic as it became known was always run at Makapu'u. Ya don't run the Kentucky Derby in New York. The surf generally was good. We would have a holding period and hold out for better waves if it was really junk. I think we may have not run it some years as we would finally decide it wasn't gonna happen after a month of checking the surf at the crack of dawn both Saturday and Sunday. We didn't have any sort of indicators apart from wind in those days.
7. How many competitors would there be and where did they come from? Did surfers from different areas have distinctive styles?
There were maybe 60 to 70 competitors I'd say. That would be for different age groups , different catagories, and for men and women. I don't recall any women paipo boarders. Makapu'u attracted folks from all over. That was another thing I didn't really pay much attention to. You'd see guys from Sandy's and Town and, of course, Waimanalo. I know the Makapu'u style was the big drop and run style. It was really a beautiful sight when the waves were big. The lines were drawn to take you down the face and below the mush (the onshore lip) and it was all about milking the incredible speed from the drop. Cutbacks were wonderfully graceful as the boards by law could not have skegs.
8. Who are some of the paipo riders that stood out in the contests?
Well, it's been a while. Some of the names I remember, and not necessarily in order of their abilities, but in my ability to remember are George Paku, Mercer Aikala, Stan Osserman, Bud Scelsa, Sean Ross, Craig Matthew, Harry Akisada, Tom Stone from The Wall, and of course Val Ching.

Bud Scelsa riding Pipeline during an early-1970s contest.

Photos courtesy of Bud Scelsa.

Bud Scelsa riding Pipeline during an early-1970s contest.

Photo courtesy of Bud Scelsa.
9. How did you get involved in building paipo boards for kids and what was involved in this project? What material and tools did you use?
When I worked for the Parks Department we had a van that we took around to the different playgrounds and we would make paipo boards. We used 3/8 marine plywood, a sabre saw, surform rasps and sandpaper. I made three template boards, small, medium and large, and when arranged properly we could get 6 boards per 4x8 sheet. The design was from the Paipo Nui but revised with straight rails and a slight curve on the tail (mostly for comfort). They were good boards. I liked the medium one and used it often for myself. We would cut the boards out and give them to the kids to straighten the lines and bevel the edges and clean it all up with the sandpaper. Those we let them decorate with poster paint and spar varnish when pau. Generally not the best idea for varnishing over the paint but it worked for the purpose and the kids loved them. Later we'd arrange a beach day at The Wall, or "Sherwoods," in Waimanalo.

I worked for the parks department from 1971 through 1980, quit and spent 15 years in the private sector before taking my old position back. By the time I got back the focus was on Boogie boards, bodysurfing, canoeing and canoe sailing so in many ways I left paipo boarding back in the 1980s. When I left the city it was both times such a relief to be out from under the absurd bureaucracy that I hit the ground running away from all of it.
10. I've read that on one particular day you made 47 boards. What do you recall of this day?
Yeah, I remember that day. We were at the Palama Settlement in Palama, on Oahu. The kids were clamouring around like it was Christmas. More and more came as word got out and we just kept laying up and cutting. We reached a lot of kids that day.
11. What were the boards like that you made? Would you later see any of these kids out in the surf?
Like I said, the design was from the Paipo Nui but flat with straight edges and a slight reverse curve at the tail. Most of them were ridden at The Wall and they were around for quite a while. Many of the kids "graduated" to stand-up surfboards as was the general perspective. I've always despised that concept but the real glory was in "surfing" and the paipo was viewed as a stepping stone to it. Paipo boards were wonderful for the financially challenged and there was always a lot of that, but to their credit a lot of the kids really took paipo riding as far as they could. There were a lot of really hot riders at The Wall. I loved surfing The Wall on a good summer swell. Watching kids do their thing with their boards and checking out the boards was so cool. Boogie boards have taken the individual character out of it but remembering the source as being the paipo board is always there.

Here are a couple shots of my last paipo. I just pulled it out from under the house and noticed the tail section has been enjoyed by the termites. Bummer! I used it for knee riding and was focused on more of a kneeboard surfing style. George Greenough was always a hero of mine. I worked with Ben Aipa on some surfboard building classes with the kids and his "stingers" (like little rail skegs) are where the rails on this board came from. It worked well for me.

Jerry's last paipo

Photos by Jerry Vasconcellos.
12. How have your paipo boards changed from your first board? How many years did you ride paipo boards?
I started surfing in fifth or sixth grade, going along with the "graduating" concept, but gave it up after high school. No leashes in those days and I spent a lot of time chasing my board and hated the fact that you had to put yourself through some serious beatings to protect your board. I got to be a pretty good bodysurfer chasing my board all the time and I loved that both bodysurfing and paipo boarding allowed you to dive under waves and not have to go through the thrashing on the surface. I consciously decided I would be a bodysurfer and paipo boarder at that point and haven't regretted it. I have a 10'0" longboard that sits at home and on the rare occasion I ride it but it isn't the same. I will admit to owning and using a boogie board these days as the beating my elbows took on a hard paipo board is so not there on a boogie. I suppose I could pad the deck of my paipo and maybe I will. The only board I've got left is the last one I used in competition and it's designed as a knee rider and I don't do that anymore cuz of the banging my knees took. This growing old stuff is for the birds. Oh well.
13. For you, is there any cross-over in the technique between bodysurfing and riding a paipo?
I think there is. I am conscious of the imperfections of the body as far as board design is concerned and constantly try to flatten my surfaces, at least mentally, when I ride. I was head judge of the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic for years and loved to watch Mike Stewart bodysurf. He seems to forget he has no board. I never asked him about paipo boards. He's probably ridden them but he grew up in the boogie board era and more than likely only had boogies. I'll ask him next time I see him.
14. Where did you mostly ride your paipo and is there any particular surfs that stand out from over the years?
I rode all over. For a long time it was Makapuu, The Wall, Publics, Cliffs, Ala Moana (in the early days), and Magic Island when it was built (even Garbage hole before they buried it). Point Panic (in the early days), Yokohama, Makaha, the entire stretch of the North Shore. Just about anywhere the wave needed the extra speed. I would body surf if it was too radical like shorebreaks and such but basically wherever there was a wave, I'd surf it. I even went to the U.S. Surfing championships one year in Huntington Beach with my paipo in the kneeboard division. Unfortunately the surf was a fridge, blown out foot high and it would barely carry me on my knees. Reminded me of a terrible, blown out, way too cold Kailua shorebreak.
15. What are your recollections of paipo surfing before the boogie board? Where were the popular paipo surfing spots and who were some of the paipo surfers that you remember?
I mentioned most of the names I recall in the section about the contests even though some of them didn't compete. My favorite watching spot was Makapuu when it was going off. Harry, Stan, George Paku, and Mercer just streaking across the water. Primo and Royal were hot Sandy beach paipo boarders. I was always really impressed with what Sean Ross did at Pipeline. He was the one that learned the line needed for a skegless board there. I remember dropping in and going so fast that you couldn't dig your rail and just shot straight into the flats in front of the wave and losing speed and then just getting clobbered by the lip. I usually bodysurfed instead.

Stan Osserman and Frank Lee - contest surfing

Photos by Wayne Bartlett, courtesy of Stan Osserman.

I loved the speed and oft times out of control lines of China Walls at Portlock and Publics on a big day. That is really one of paipo's real standout features. Being able to draw a long speedy line and go. Always wanted to paipo at Maalaea. Never got to.
16. Sandra Kimberley Hall, the biographer of Duke Kahanamoku, advised me that your father dined with Duke the day he died (January 22, 1968). Did you have much contact with Duke Kahanamoku?
I grew up at the Waikiki Yacht Cub in the Ala Wai. Duke was this old Hawaiian man who hung out there. The club was an all-white affair in those days and as kids we were never given any reason to admire Duke. We wondered what his deal was but were not encouraged to ask about that sort of thing. Duke had a Manakai 20, a plywood catamaran designed by Woody Brown. There were maybe 10 of them at the club and most of the guys were not among the mainstream of the membership. These cats were super fast and the yachties didn't know how to handle them so they were an outside group. In a lot of ways they reminded me of skateboarders , totally into their thing and not really accepted by the mainstream. I did sail with Duke (i was maybe 8 to 12 years old then) and always loved the speed. It wasn't until much later that I came to know and respect this man's achievements. I was close to Maroni Mederios who worked at the Parks Department. He was the president of the Duke Corporation. He was the one who took me to the U.S. surfing championships. I worked on the Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic for many years and even was awarded a "Duke" trophy for my bodysurfing and paipo boarding. I regret not getting to know Duke better but enjoyed my time with him as just another non-mainstream sailor. He got me going in my sailing-for-speed quest. I love to just sail but I really love sailing fast. Canoe sailing interisland for several seasons with the Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association were some great times.
17. When did your interest in art begin? What drew you to sculpture and what for you is the continuing attraction?
I started as an artist in 1970, after I dropped out of the University of Hawaii. Art 101 was my main inspiration as my professor Duane Preble made it clear that if you created it was your art. I live on a river and have worked with stones pretty much all my life, making dams in the river mostly but exploring carving them came naturally and from there to wood and haven't looked back since. I actually started as a watercolorist and acrylic painter but couldn't get past the need for "illusion." Sculpture is real. I didn't have to deal with illusion and felt a lot more comfortable as a sculptor. It's been a great time exploring the possibilities of carving and managed to keep doing it through my career with the city. I recently retired and was commissioned to do a large piece for the new Cancer Research Center, in Kakaako, a stone's throw from Point Panic. I'm arranging for a lot down in Kakaako to do the carving and hope to hit Panic when there's waves.

Ocean Soul and Dolphin form Koa on marble

Photos by Jerry Vasconcellos.
18. Any other comments?
I've always maintained that surfing started with man being pushed by waves and then trying to go with them and soon they were bodysurfing. Paipo surfing would follow as trying it with something to ride on and then stand-up surfing has taking that to its next level. Paipo surfing has opened the door to wave enjoyment for so many and it has since evolved into boogie boarding and I love that there are those who appreciate it's uniqueness and want to keep that going. Thank you, Bob, for your efforts with this website and I appreciate what it means to the perpetuation of this ancient sport.

Other info: See Jerry Vasconcellos's web-site for more of his sculptures.

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

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