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A Paipo Interview with John "Doc" Milliken

Kneeboarder, paipo rider and knowledgeable guy

Paipo Interview with John "Doc" Milliken
December 5, 2009 - Cape Cod, Massachusetts (USA)
Questions and e-mail interview by Bob Green

1. Did you start surfing on the East Coast? When and where was this?
I did, on Cape Cod in the late 1960s. To be exact... well, it's been long enough that I don't remember exactly when. Old, heavy, clunky longboards borrowed from a surf shop which was in the back of a gas station I worked at when I was (roughly) twelve years old. Then, I started to use a Newport Paipo Concave Vector the shop owned, and had the long-term use of it all one winter... and I was hooked. Paipos were fun, longboards were just logs. Heavy, ugly, nonperforming logs.
2. I read you were about 14 when you got your first board and that you still may have this board. Was this a stand-up board?
Uhmmm- the first board I owned, as opposed to borrowing, was a 5'x19" Gordon and Smith, which was built as a kneeboard but I used it as a paipo until I got my act a little more together. I still have it, and somewhere I have photos.
3. What got you into kneeboards?
You know, I kinda wonder about that myself, now. It was around 1970, or a little earlier. Greenough was by far the most advanced guy surfing. Kneeboards were different than the common herd and I was intentionally different myself. Plus, they went like hell and could do things surfboards couldn't do. So, I went for it.

And kneeboarders, at least then, were the techno-intellectuals of surfing, which appealed to me. I hadn't heard of Terry Hendricks then, but it's unsurprising that people like him were well represented in the kneelo crew. Similarly, on the 'net, kneelos and other alternative forms were disproportionately represented... just a more techno bunch.

4. What has been your involvement in bellyboards/paipos?
Uhmmmm- user, half-baked theorist, if I had a decent one I'd be back on them. Though I have to confess that I'd again be looking for something like the Newport Paipo, or something at the technological edge. Middle of the road stuff, well, it's never been fun for me. Bodyboards, for instance, have zero appeal to me.
5. How long have you been involved in running a surfshop?
Just under 40 years as a hanger-on, over 30 working there. Which all ended a couple of years back. It was time, I guess.
6. No doubt you've seen lots of fads and had plenty of feedback about what works and what doesn't?
Fads by... well, if not the dozen, at least many. Few of which were functional.
7. In addition to homemade balsa or ply boards and boards from Hawaii, were bellyboards being made on the East Coast? If so, who was making and riding them?
Good question. Plywood paipos really didn't show up here, nor did balsas. But then, our surf era didn't really gain traction until, oh, 1964-65 lets say. Some must have been made here, cut-down longboards and the like or one or two made by regular manufacturers (and there were several out here) but I can't really recall seeing them in any detail.
8. The 60s-70s saw a number of commercially produced bellyboards such as El Paipo, Newport Paipo, Hansen, Dextra, and Jacks. What are your views on why these boards were produced? Was there a market or was it marketing?
Good question. They saw a market for something (I think) that could be used with a short learning curve and could be sold cheap. At least, that was Hansen, Dextra and Jacks. The latter two were definitely selling to the lowest bidder. Same for (I seem to recall) Surfboards by The Greek, who I believe made a few and advertised them in the magazines. Pretty much all of those were attempting to sell anything that anybody was willing to buy.
El Paipo and Newport Paipo were different. Not the cobby, mini-surfboard-like things that Hansen et al were making but distinct paipo shapes. Not round railed, not the same center fin setup that was basically a smaller glass surfboard fin. E-P and N-P were made by paipo guys for paipo guys, at least that's my take on it.

9. What do you know about who owned the companies, shaped/designed these boards, the volumes sold and how long they were produced for?
Uhmmm - I can't really tell you much about that. I knew a little at one time but long since forgot it. On the other hand, I know who would know, and that's Ron Romanoski. He worked for Newport Paipo and I think worked for El Paipo, too.

The last I really saw of Newport Paipo and El Paipo was around the first twin-fins. They were trying very hard to do a crossover market with boards in the 5'4" range like the Newport Paipo Shoe... which didn't work especially well, and the El Paipo equivalent was a dog, spun out easily and plain didn't work. Around then, too, was when Tom Morey got clear of Morey Pope and started doing boogie boards, and those undercut the paipo/kneeboard market to where it is now.

10. What do you think about how these boards respectively rode? Why did they stop being produced?
Ahmmmm- the earlier Newport Paipos were pretty good, some of the El Paipos were interesting at least. The others you mention were, comparatively speaking, dogs. Performance and edge holding were pretty worthless.
11. You've written that there are two definite things about a paipo: "edge control is a major thing in successful paipo and they work best on hollow, fast waves." What design features enhance speed in a paipo? How can you maximise speed when surfing a paipo?
Okay, a little side trip into physics plus a hiccup or two of Naval Architecture/Marine Engineering; A paipo is a relatively small planing surface. But it's loaded relatively heavily. By way of planing hull design, the more power you put to a planing hull (weights remaining constant ) the more lift you get per unit area.

Now, taking that along, the paipo (and its cousin the kneeboard) have a theoreticly higher top speed (I'll oversimplify with 'lower surface area = less friction = higher top speed'), but also a higher stall speed, that is the speed at which the small planing area fails to generate enough lift for the thing to plane at all.

So, what I said was that hollow, fast waves are pretty much a necessity for paipos (and kneeboards) and that you need good edge control. Going back to the power required to push the paipo at a plane: what you have is pretty much MG * sinW, where MG is the mass of the board-rider unit multiplied by gravity and that in turn multiplied by the sine of the angle the board-rider unit are headed down: the wave face, which I have called W. The component of power produced by the motion of the wave itself is pretty much something that can be ignored.

Vertical wave face? Sin W goes to 1, maximum power and thus maximum speed. Bare roller-type swells, sin W is pretty low, no power available and the paipo won't go.

Okay, but... you can't just be going straight down the wave. Instead, you're at an angle along the wave face. The steeper the better, for maximum power available and thus maximum speed..... and maximum fun. But, to hold that edge skittering along a near-vertical wave face, you gotta have an edge that will hold. The thick round-railed Dextras, Hansens and their ilk wouldn't do it, but plywood will, or a thin down-railed edge on a well made foam paipo (or kneeboard) like the Newport Paipos. And, as I recall, the El Paipos were not nearly as sophisticated that way as the Newports, at least not early on. Romo would know better than me.
12. What are your thoughts about flex in paipo, kneeboards and mats?
I think it's a very good idea and where the bodyboard people lost sight of what made the original Morey Boogies such successful surfcraft.

Rocker, on a non-flexing board, is always a compromise. The bottom doesn't conform to the water surface of the wave when planing, at least not entirely, so drag goes up. Kind of like how the Space Shuttle or other lifting-body aircraft come in at low speed, the angle of attack is kinda high, trading off drag for increased lift.

On the other hand, a flexible bottom kneeboard...or paipo, or mat, it conforms to the curved water surface of the wave face, lowering drag considerably. In a hard turn, you're not dragging a stick through the water for all intents and purposes, you're using something that flexes into the turn, conforming to the waterflow much better and losing less energy in that turn. 'Cos in a turn on a surfcraft, you are trading off momentum and speed as you turn, until you pick up a new line down the wave and start accelerating again.

Now, I should also say that this and the 'edge control and wave power' things that preceded it are massive oversimplifications. They'll do as short explanations, but the reality of it is much more complex.

13. You've said fins cause drag what design features might compensate for this in a bellyboard/paipo?
Well, minimize the fins, anyhow. Terry Hendricks has said (and I agree) that fins are not especially necessary in a paipo, it can all be done with the rails. There have been a whole lot of very successful paipos that were no more than pieces of finless plywood, held on down the line by the edges.
14. What are your thoughts about buoyancy and paipo performance?
Uhmmm - to paraphrase the Borg, 'Buoyancy is Futile.' The idea of the paipo is, really, to be a better planing area than bodysurfing. But with the same intimacy and more speed, controllability and to allow more of the wave to be used than you could with just the rather oddly shaped human body as a planing surface. At least that's my take on the essence of using a paipo.

But, if you're working that tight to the steepest part of a wave, buoyancy can be a hindrance. You need to go deep fast and easy. Catching waves very steep/very late, well, buoyancy doesn't help.
15. Hulls, mini-Simmons and paipo? Any comments?
Uhmmmm - bear in mind that I am a half-assed, incompletely trained Naval Architect/Marine Engineer, so I have Opinions......

Hulls...ain't any more or less hulls than board with flat bottoms or concave bottoms. What they are is convex planing surfaces, like the 'skimming dish' sailboats of times past. Can they be used profitably as paipos? Sure, though as the angle of bottom to edge changes you have less edge holding ability and this in turn detracts from the function of the thing.

Mini-Simmons - I'll confess that I don't know much about these beyond thinking that Simmons himself might have disowned them. Simmons was an interesting cat, Caltech -trained, he was the kind of guy who studied and Did the Math. Unlike Greenough, but very much like that other Caltech-trained innovator, Terry Hendricks. An iconoclast, if he'd been around twenty years later it might have been him and not Greenough who was the kneeboard ideal. I am pretty certain that Simmons wouldn't be going backwards, he'd be tank testing things with damned clever gear.

Paipos... should have as little to do as possible with mainstream surfboard design theory. First off, most of mainstream surf theory is akin to astrology in its relationship to real science and engineering. Next, paipos ain't the same thing as a surfboard. They plane differently, weight loading and accelerations are different, turning/controlling 'em is different. Paipos cannot and should not follow surfboards, it should be the other way around.
16. By weight loading - do you mean the weight distribution of the surfer? Can you to elaborate on your comment regarding the difference between paipo and surfboard design?
Let's see- yes, that plus how weight transfer is used for turning and what have you. Consider a surfboard with the sort of usable flex that you'd get on a flex paipo or kneeboard. First time somebody stood on it, it'd turn into a banana or more like a "U". Surfboards have effectively single point loads.

The center of mass of a surfboard-surfer unit is up pretty high, so that the inertia and momentum are centered higher too. Might be able to put more force into a turn... if someone had amazing traction and very strong ankles.... but there's drawbacks. The pivoting forces that a stand-up can use are not present in paipos at all and to a much lesser degree in kneeboards.
17. Also, is there anything more that you want to say about paipo design theory, especially in relation to the factors you mention in the above quote?
If you go with a paipo that's a scaled down surfboard, well, it's essentially like the old Dextra paipos, a horribly inefficient way of prone riding. On the other hand, take my old steed, the Concave Vector - note the rails, note how the planing surface does no more and no less than give optimal planing.

Newport Paipo Concave Vector

Length: 40 3/4"
Nose width: 16 1/2" and Tail width: 20"
Tickness: 1 1/4"
Source: (see more information on the Concave Vector).

Similarly - see the steps in the right direction and steps off the path the various makers had..... like the El Paipo 54" mistake.

El Paipo Knee Machine 54

Source: (see more information paipos from this period).

18. Did you ever build a paipo based on John Galera's specifications? If so, how did it go?
I haven't, yet, but there is a great deal of potential there, either as a paipo or as a flex kneeboard.
19. If you were to make a bellyboard for yourself, what would it be? What would it be made of?
Excellent question, that. Depend a lot on what I wanted it to do. Flex, for instance? Okay, that's very different than how you'd want to build something that was a planing hull. Terry Hendricks has built a successful hydrofoil bodyboard, though it's more a paipo than a bodyboard. The possibilities are fascinating.
20. Do you see any bellyboards/paipos being surfed?
Yes, but few made or surfed competently, more are hacks doing hack jobs.
21. Any particular surf or waves stand out that you rode a bellyboard in?
Big, cold winter waves here, with real power. Doing drops that were on the skittering edge of disaster but making it and drawing long, long lines as fast as I could possibly go. Was and still remains my idea of 'pure paipo' use and pure surfing enjoyment. Like this below, at one of my local breaks.


22. What has been the attraction of riding prone craft?
Ah - intimacy with the wave, intimacy with the forces involved, the sensation of speed and power. Those jokers on SUPs haven't a clue and never will.
23. Your website contains two stories. I bet you could tell a few more than two stories? Did you get any feedback about how the sex-wax went?
Haaa- she never showed up. The thing I learned in 40 years in and around the surf biz is this. Surfers suck.... but there are a lot of very interesting people who happen to surf. That's why I stayed in the business and in surfing, the interesting people.
24. You seem to have a broad knowledge and range of practical skills, what else are you into besides surfing?
Heh - my one grandfather was trained as three kinds of engineer and ran a company making Rayon, first one that there ever was. And he was neither a textile engineer nor a chemical engineer, but he could lay out what they'd do and do it well. My other grandfather was a man who could make or fix anything. Unschooled, but great practical knowledge and a feel for how things worked.

By comparison, I'm not much. However, an idea of what I have going on right now:
  • Boat repair on two boats, including sail and other canvas work. I am, after all, a trained boatbuilder, it's my basic trade.
  • Growing shellfish: aquaculture.
  • Developing new methods and gear for growing at least three separate shellfish species. I have enough engineering training that in some ways I think I can make some real contributions.
  • Teaching shellfish aquaculture for the local county extension service.
  • Sitting on a regional committee that gives out several hundred thousand dollars a year in research money for the aquaculture industry, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • I have to write a little software sometime soon, a kind of macro-from-hell for MS Outlook that will auto-respond to a RSS/XML/XHTML message with the proper responses and send it out at a variable/random time delay between two specified response times. Plus writing the manual.
  • Writing history - a history of a local estuary, actually, with some geology and tech history thrown in. My great aunt wrote the history of the town I live in ( and that my family had a part in starting, back around 1640) and she got me interested.
  • Painting watercolors and doing pen and ink drawings, for money. Something else my great aunt started me on.
  • Carpentry work, post-and-beam stuff. It's fun and I get a chance to use my adze and broad hatchet.
  • Tool restoration, for fun.
  • Production-type work with shellfish gear, engineering jigs, fixtures and production methods. I really enjoyed the little bit of manufacturing training I got in engineering school.
  • Painting and fixing up my house.
Essentially, I was very broke for a long time, grew up without much money. And having my background, and working offshore as a commercial fisherman now and then (my favorite job, actually), well, the idea of paying somebody else to do something rather than learning the trade myself, it's an anathema to me. Besides being unaffordable, it's kind of throwing away a pretty neat opportunity to learn something. I try to learn one new trade a year.
25. Any other comments or general thoughts on surfing?
Uhmmm- surfing oughtta be fun, rather than a quasi-religion. How the fun comes, well, watching the numbers dance as you do engineering, or learn how things work, or do a nice job on a ding repair with a couple of nice techniques, that's all part of it too.

And of course the people. Not least, the kids coming up, passing on what little I know to them, as those before me passed it to me.

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

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