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A Paipo Interview with John Galera

John Galera Paipo Interview
September 22, 2009. Honolulu, Hawaii
Questions from Bob Green
 Interview by John Clark

Photograph Credits: Land shots by John Clark and water shots by Jamie Ballenger.
I believe that you started riding paipo around 1964 under the guidance of 'Uncles' Moses and Steamboat Mokuahi. Where did you first surf?
I first learned to paipo in the early 1960s at Ali`i’s. My Dad was in the Army, and he was in charge of Army Beach in Haleiwa. When I wasn’t in school, I paipoed all day long at Ali`i’s, which was a short walk from Army Beach.

My Uncle Moses (“Mo”) Mokuahi gave me my first paipo board about 1966. It was an old wooden paipo with twin fins. I used it for about two years until 1968, when I made one in wood shop class at school. During the summer we would paipo at White Plains and Waianae Army Beach, which at that time were off limits to civilians. But my dad was still in the Army, so we could go. Once in a while we would go to Waikiki where Uncle Steamboat ran the beach concession inside of Queen’s. There we would ride the Wall and Publics and anywhere we could go to explore Waikiki and Ala Moana. I started to ride Yokohama as I got older.
What was your first board like? Did you make it yourself or was it made it for you?
The first board I made was a plywood twin-fin that I made at school, but my Uncles, Mo and Steamboat, started making paipo boards out of foam, so in 1970, I made my first board out of foam. Everyone called it the “45 Cal.” It was red and shaped like a 45 caliber bullet, and it had a single 7” long skeg, an old surfboard skeg. That board was indestructible, and I rode it for nearly four years. 
Did you surf much in your school years? Were many other kids riding paipo?
Everyone I knew started on a paipo, and in the lineup at Ali`i’s in the early 1970s, paipos were as common as surfboards. The advantage was the paipos wouldn’t get cleaned out on the closeout sets when surfers would. The surfers didn’t have leashes then. I surfed regularly during school on weekends and whenever we could get a ride to the North Shore.
You have previously described Jockos around 1969 as basically a paipo spot and Ali`i Beach having lots of paipo riders. How many paipo would be out? What sorts of boards were being ridden? Was there much variety or just a few standard designs? Any guys standout as hot paipo riders?
I remember around 1970 most of the surfers would ride Chun’s. My family, the Mokuahi’s, and about six other regular paipo riders would ride over at Jocko’s.  The spot was not frequented by many surfers since there were no leashes on boards in those days, and if you lost your board, it went straight in on the rocks. I remember at least a half dozen paipo riders with me surfing at Jocko’s. Jock Sutherland and his friends were the only board surfers we would see regularly. The rocks, the heavy rips, and the barrels were intimidating, and I remember paddling out and sitting in the lineup for at least three months before I even caught a wave.

John Galera - Jocko's - January 2003

By 1970, the Mokuahi’s were all riding foam paipos that Uncle Mo made, but most of the other guys rode wooden paipos, the Paipo Nui’s that Val Valentine made and their own boards that they made in wood shop in intermediate or high school.

There were many riders then, but I can’t remember all of them. Moses Mokuahi Jr., George Mokuahi, Bert Rickard, Jerry Quinby, my brother Brian, Sean Ross, and John Freeman come to mind.

John Galera - Close-Up - Jocko's
December 24, 2003

John Galera - In The Pocket - Jocko's
December 24, 2003

Three NO
FIN Paipo Boards

John Galera Holding a NOFIN Paipo

What year did you start exclusively riding paipo? Any reason for this? When did paipo start declining in popularity. Did it happen gradually or was this a fairly sudden development? What are your thoughts on the decline in paipo boards?
Throughout the 1970s, I rode paipo regularly, and I surfed and bodysurfed. In the early 1980s, when Morey came out with their Red Edge model, I rode the Red Edge exclusively for four years as one of their team riders. I entered some contests, but they weren’t my thing, and I didn’t do too well. In 1984, I gave up boogie boards, and I started riding paipos exclusively, and that’s when I developed my current design. I experimented with a lot of different designs and made some boards with fins and some without. I decided that my paipos rode the best without fins, so I started calling them Nofins. I came up with the idea for that name in the 1970s, and I first used it on a board in 1981, but when I went back to paipos in 1984, I started putting Nofin decals on all my boards.

When Morey started mass producing boogie boards, their popularity overcame the paipos quite rapidly. Around 1986, I noticed that I was the only paipo rider riding Jockos and Himalayas. I remember Sean Ross riding then, but I stopped seeing him when he left the North Shore.
When did you start making your own boards? Were these wooden or fibreglass? Was it around 1971 that you started with foam - what benefit did foam have?
As I mentioned, I started with wood and went to foam in 1970. I found that foam floated me a lot better, since I weighed around 180 pounds, and it helped me get under the bigger waves with enough buoyancy for a quick assent after duck dives. I also was able to make more radical shapes and rockers in my designs.
Your boards are radically different compared to other paipo around. What was your inspiration to add the distinctive features of your boards, such as channels, curved deck/bottom and a rope handle? What are the key design features that make a paipo board ride well? What function does the rope handle serve?
The radical shape was developed as a result of experimenting with many different boards. I got a lot of different ideas from observing all types of water craft. In the 1980s, I was a shipbuilding apprenticeship, so I utilized my shipbuilding knowledge to make a board that would be hydrodynamic, be able to hold a turn, and still be able to speed along at paipo speed.

Most of my boards are 56” long, 22” wide, and ½ “ thick. A lot of people think I get the deep concave in my boards from shaping down a thick piece of foam, but I actually use a thin, ½” blank that I bend and glass with 10 ounce cloth. I put weights on the blank to hold it in place while the resin dries. My rocker averages 3 to 3 1/8”.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that my boards don’t have any stringers. The “stringers” are actually lines that I’ve painted to look like stringers. I’ve experimented with my rails and found that slightly sharper rails work better than rounded ones. They hold their edge better in hard turns and hold a line better on the face of a wave.

By experimenting with paipo boards with skegs and without them, I found that skegs add drag and paipos skim over the water faster without them. But to help my boards hold their direction of travel, I put channels in the bottom of my boards. The raised area between the channels, the bottom runners, are about 5-½” wide. When I’m riding, I try to find the line that every wave creates as it races to crest and break. I call it the “corduroy line” because it looks like a line in a pair of corduroy pants. It’s my belief that if you can lay your rail into that “corduroy line”, the water moving up the face will allow the board to travel faster than the surrounding water, which will allow the board to speed faster than the rest of the wave. The trick is to pull out at the right time or go over with the curl. On a flat plane the rocker prevents it from planning at speed without a lot of power to push it along.

Bottom-Up, Rear View of a NOFIN

When you take off on big waves, you need all the speed you can get to catch the wave and make the drop, so I use my outside hand to paddle as I’m kicking with my fins. If I’m going right, I paddle with my left hand. If I’m going left, I paddle with my right hand. I added rope handles to my boards because my non-paddling hand would slip off the nose, rather violently at times, and I needed something to hang on to. I also attach a bodyboard leash to the handle in case I wipeout or if I need to bail out.
I understand that you continue to experiment and build a number of new boards each year to test. What new directions are you experimenting with?
I am now removing a rectangular portion of the foam blank in the tail to make a deeper channel and to give the board a pure fiberglass backend. I hope this design change will make the board flexible, so it will store energy on the turns. But I have not really changed my basic design over the last 20 years. I’m just making subtle changes to make the boards a little different and perhaps better.

Topside, Rear View of a Fiberglass Backend of a NOFIN - A Flex Tail Spoon?
Click here to see pictures from five different angles of the three boards John has made in the past two years.

What are your thoughts on wooden paipo boards, especially the resurgence of alaia styled boards?
I applaud the trend of going back to the roots, but in larger performance waves I still like to ride foam. I have not seen many alaia in the water here.
There are quite a few links on the internet to a picture of you riding Jockos a number of years back. Can you tell me about this day?
Jocko’s to me is one of the most challenging and difficult places to ride. It’s one of the worst places for heavy rips, so I’ve learned to wait on the inside, away from the currents on the outside. That day photographer Jamie Ballenger, who had just started his photo-taking business, just happened to be there on a rising northwest swell. I remember it as a good day, right after New Year’s, but then I’ve had many other days as good and far better in riding Jocko’s.  

I caution anyone reading this that Jocko’s is not a wave for people who do not consider themselves expert. The current is treacherous, the waves reach down deep, and they will work you like not many other waves on the North Shore. And the sneaker peaks from the north can be as much as 10 feet bigger than the normal swell coming in. You have to be in shape to handle it. I use 7” Vipers, paddling gloves, and I wear a helmet.
What sort of wave do your boards go best in? Any favourite spots? What are your thoughts on riding paipo at spots like Waimea or Pipeline?
I made the Nofins for waves 6-12 feet (Hawaiian). The radical rockers and kicks require a very powerful, steep wave to allow them to reach maximum speed. What I’m after is any large, steep, fast wave that will allow the Nofin to reach top speed and performance. Bob Green rides one of my boards, so he can testify that size counts.

Waves at spots like Chun’s are generally too small and not steep enough for the Nofin to perform well. I normally surf bigger days at Himalayas, Laniakea, and Jocko’s. I also ride at Day Star in Mokuleia, Waimea Bay, and Puaena Point. I used to ride Pipeline a lot with Sean Ross, but once the leashes came in, the surfers started taking it over. That’s when I moved down to Jocko’s.
Do you see many paipo riders out in the surf these days?
Where I surf on the North Shore, another paipo rider is a rarity and has been for the last 15-20 years since Sean Ross moved to Maui. 
You've described utilizing techniques from bodysurfing and bodyboarding. What is your approach to wave riding - straight lines for speed or turns? What sorts of turns can be done on your boards?
With my boards your body position on the board makes a huge difference. When I want to turn hard I normally scoot back on the board and lay my hip and leg on the turning edge to force a turn. While I’m riding, I also get off the board and force it to turn radically, using my body as a pivot point. And using your body as a pivot point, you can even do 360s and El Rollos. I like to do whatever the waves allow me to do. As I reach 54 years, I am more inclined to cruise into a barrel and avoid airs, which kill my back when I come back down. My Nofin paipos can do any turn you have the guts to attempt.

When you ride a bodyboard, you’re on the wave and not in it. When you ride a paipo board, you’re right in the wave, and a lot of times people watching can’t even see the board. It’s like you’re bodysurfing, and if you really think about it, riding a paipo is an extenstion of bodysurfing. If you’re a good bodysurfer, you’ll be a good paipo rider.

When acceleration is required, I just find the speed line and hold the edge as close to it as I can. Then I break away and head down the face for speed. When I am in the barrel, I lay back against the wave like a bodysurfer does to stay in the curl, keeping the board parallel to the face to maintain the grab on the line. One of the big attractions of riding paipos is their speed. It’s a great high.
Are there any particular surfs or waves that you rode that really stand out?
One of the most remarkable rides I ever had was at Laniakea. It was May 31, 2003 on a really big north swell. I took off at the most outside point at Lani’s, and I made every section all the way to the sandbar just outside the bridge. I even got through the sandbar and ended up just off the beach in front of the third house on the Haleiwa side of the bridge.
What do you think is the future for paipo boards?
I honestly think that big wave paipo riding on the North Shore of Oahu is seriously endangered since I have not seen anyone else who regularly surfs where I do.  Most people say they have never seen a board like mine. That’s a compliment to me, but a sign of the times. I just had a grandson, so if I live another 20 years, hopefully I can get him interested in carrying on.    
Any other thoughts or comments?
I always like being different from the other wave riders in the water. I like doing something that no one else really can do, but now it gets lonely and makes me long for someone to carry on what was started way before me.  Many years ago I predicted big wave paipo riding might die with me, but hopefully history will prove me wrong!

This "El Paipo Spoon" is Part of John Galera's Paipo Board Collection

See more pictures and words here.

Photograph Credits: Land shots by John Clark and water shots by Jamie Ballenger.

John Galera article in the Honolulu Advertiser
Soul Surfers: North Shore waves a lifestyle for some devoted residents
by Mike Gordon, Honolulu Advertiser

For John Galera to miss a day of surf on the North Shore because of poor planning is not only unthinkable, it's unacceptable. His routine is sacred, a thing that has defined his life every winter for decades.

If the waves are big, Galera will go.

The 53-year-old Galera, a postmaster at the Pearl City post office, wouldn't have it any other way. It's that simple, that important.

"Work comes first, but I always can find a couple of days during the week where I can leave at 4 o'clock and get a few hours in there," he said. "If it is really good, I will go every day. I make time. I go after work. I go before. I go at lunch."

Like so many who surf the North Shore, Galera knows the seasonal pull as well as its annual promise.

Every winter, the North Shore is host to a migration of surfers from around the world. Many are sponsored professionals who come to ride some of the best waves in the world.

But the hallowed surf breaks along this thin stretch of coastline attract another dedicated following — surfers such as Galera, who twist and fold their daily routines around surf forecasts.

Just out for fun

Just because no one is paying devoted North Shore surfers to ride winter waves doesn't mean they don't love it just as much.

They may even love it more.

From as early as September to as late as May, they revel in waves that arrive practically in their backyard.

Longtime North Shore resident Randy Rarick, a lifelong surfer and noted shaper who's now best known as executive director of the annual Triple Crown contest, estimates that 10 percent of the area's 7,000 residents moved there to live the surfing lifestyle.

Plenty of people come to the North Shore not so much for monster surf, but for waves that are consistently good no matter what the size.

Mililani resident John Galera is a paipo

John Galera, shown here at his Mililani home,
works his paipo boarding in around his
day job.

Photos by: Jamie Ballenger of
"There are a lot of non-mainstream surf spots that a lot of guys go surf at because they are not in the limelight," said Rarick, who at 60 still surfs every day. "It is still quality surf. I would say 95 percent of the people who surf are recreational surfers who don't like big waves. They are looking for a fun experience."

Adrenaline buzz

Galera, who lives in Mililani, rides paipo boards, made of foam or wood; they are ridden prone by surfers with swimfins. Galera has surfed regularly since he was a teenager and won't go out unless the surf is well overhead.

He draws the line, however, at waves with 20-foot faces. To get a sense of those waves, imagine lying on the lawn beside a two-story house.

From the shore he's easy to spot because he's wearing a red helmet.

"You take a pounding out there when you are riding big waves on a piece of wood," he said. "Over the years I've had my share of concussions."

Still, he views his devotion to the North Shore altar as a way to cut the stress of long days, which often start at 7 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m. It forces him to stay in shape, and he works out almost every day — running and lifting weights — so he can surf more.

"Surfing has kept me healthy and kept me sane," he said.

The thrill of riding winter waves has kept 63-year-old Earl Dahlin addicted to surfing since he was a young man. Dahlin, a civilian truck driver and forklift operator for the Army, lives across the street from the beach at Hale'iwa — and if he's home in the afternoon, he'll be surfing.

He has kept at it despite ruptured discs in his back and the nagging reality that the really large surf is not for him anymore.

"At the end of the day, I hurt a lot — but it doesn't stop you," he said. "I have to get out there. You get bopped around, but the adrenaline is there and the enjoyment is there. You can get addicted to it."

'It's a rush'

Trying to explain the reasons behind why they surf the North Shore has never been easy for surfers. Paul Dunn, the 53-year-old manager at Jameson's By The Sea restaurant, has lived on the North Shore since 1976, and in that time has crafted a lifestyle built around surfing and restaurant jobs.

Originally from California, he fell in love with the winter waves where his boyhood heroes surfed. The seven-mile stretch of coastline had a mystique that still exists.

"Winter is definitely what we are living for," he said. "You can feel the change in the air on the North Shore when it goes from summer to fall and you can feel the testosterone."

It's only possible to truly understand the experience of surfing if you are a surfer, according to Dunn.

"It's a rush that we love," he said. "It gives us the passion to do it. We go out and want bigger and better waves."

A husband and father of two teenagers, he typically works from about 4 to 11 p.m. so he can surf in the mornings. But this winter he's recovering from a torn toe ligament and is spending more time towing friends into waves than anything else.

"I have to take off this winter, which is really a disappointment because it is supposed to be a big one," he said.

Back when he was single, he was often one of the first surfers in the water. When he became a father, that was difficult because he had to drive his children to school. The payoff is that now they surf with him, he said.

"My family has been so supportive it has been unbelievable," he said. "If anything I may have neglected them too much."

Yoshi Chiba has had that same thought. The 42-year-old geologist has a 2-year-old daughter and a wife who likes to surf as much as he does. They live in Hale'iwa, which is close to his favorite surf breaks, but a gnarly, pre-dawn commute to his Kalihi office.

Still, on good days, Chiba can be home in time for a solid afternoon session.

"Actually, I am making my life around surfing," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't be doing it but I am doing it the same way I have been doing it ever since I started surfing."

When Chiba surfs, he's searching for a feeling, one he has found in the briefest of moments on a wave.

"Getting the barrel is the best, but even one nice turn is just worth everything," Chiba said. "You cannot compare it to anything else. I can relive it until the next session. It's a pretty special feeling that you cannot compare with anything else."

Watch the video below, "Surfer describes the thrill of North Shore waves" (01:31)
Gordon, Mike. (2009, December 13). Soul Surfers: North Shore waves a lifestyle for some devoted residents. The Honolulu Advertiser. Retrieved December 14, 2009, from this link.

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

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