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A Paipo Interview with John Heath

U.K. bellyboard rider

A Paipo Interview with John Heath
April 18, 2011 - Perranporth, Cornwall (UK)
E-mail interview with questions by Bob Green

John prefers to ride a style of bellyboard that has been referred to as a "coffin lid." At 70 years old he still has the "bug." In addition to ridiing a bellyboard his family hardware firm diversiified into making bellyboards and selling surf gear. John also shares some of the techniques involved in riding an English bellyboard, a tradition carried on by his sons and others, young and old.

1. When and where did you first surf a bellyboard?
At the end of World War II, when Perranporth was still not a holiday spot and the dunes at the back of the beach were still a minefield, we had to crawl under a barricade of scaffold pipes and barbed wire to reach the sea!
2. Were there many other bellyboarders at the time?
At that time only a handful of local people surfed and of course there were no wetsuits -- here in Perranporth the water is rather chilly -- 8/9C deg (46-48F) in late March and 17/18C (63-64F) in late September. I've lived here most of my life (except a period at University in England and then some paid employ) and have surfed bellyboards since before I can't remember. Taught by my Mother (born 1914).

What did your mother's instruction consist of? Did she ride and other members of the family ride a bellyboard?

My Mother (Jennie nee Rilstone) surfed as a child of less than ten years as did her two elder sisters and so did my three younger brothers (now all living in NSW). My Mother stopped at age 85, when she found getting up from the shallows was too much like hard work. Her instructions were like those of most parents "watch me and do the same."

John and a coffin lid at the 2004
UK World Bellyboard Chamionship
in a borrowed Manly March Past swimsuit.

Photo courtesy John Heath.
3. What was your first board? Was this board typical of those ridden at the time?
Very similar to the ones in the postcard below thou "cut down" for my small frame

Whilst I can ride any woodboard (or bodysurf) I most often use what I started on. That's a board made of two pieces of groove and tongue soft timber held together by three cross pieces. This is about 5 feet long and 13 inches wide and I can catch just about anything with it though I really only enjoy riding green waves.

Postcard of surfers at Perranporth circa 1920s.

Figure courtesy of John Heath.
4. What other styles of bellyboard have you ridden?
A surf mat which I found a most unrewarding experience and a variety of Tom Morey's boards.
5. Why do you prefer the
tongue and groove style of board?
I guess it is actually easier to catch a green wave with a longer board?

All regular boards now are made from sheet ply found in 8ft x 4ft sheets so its only economical to cut 8 boards at 4 foot long and 12 inches wide. Smaller boards are usually the result of a 4-foot one broken in bending the nose after steaming.

John Heath at the 2009 World bellyboard championships [see Note 1].

Photo from article: Wegener, Tom. (2009, September 16). The World Wood Bellyboard Contest. Drift Surfing. Retrieved May 04, 2011, from
6. What type of wave is best suited to your board and are there any waves or surfs that stands out from over the years?
Here there are big tides (today the rise is 7 metres) which gives very flat, firm beaches and the Atlantic has waves quite close together making for a hard paddle out. Best conditions for us are south or south-east winds producing swell. As a generality the majority of bellyboarders favour length of ride. This is because here on the north Cornish coast the tidal rise and fall will be between say 5.5 and 7.6 metres which produces a very shallow fleeting beach with long "runs" of surf. Added to that our prevailing winds are mostly from the southwest to north quarter so waves are often broken and messy so finding accessible clean corners is difficult and making for hard paddle out. When winds switch to the east to south quarter with low pressure out in mid-Atlantic the waves form well and provide decent clean waves and rideable corners - not often enough. The notion of "peaky beach breaks" is not one we enjoy.

Memorable waves - returning to the beach after school sports in Truro in hot weather (hot for us that is) came over the hill and saw that a sea mist had covered the beach/surf (a temperature inversion phenomenon) - undaunted entered the water following the course of a small stream anf some ninety minutes later left the water (it was now about low water) quite unable to recognise my location as I was then some 1.5 miles from where I'd entered.

John out the back paddling onto a left, ca. 2003.

Photo courtesy John Heath.
7. When did you first get a wet-suit and do you ever use swim fins?
Made my first in 1969, from a sheet of French "nepex" which came with the shape of the body panels marked out. These panels were cut out and the long-john assembled by butt sticking. This was followed by cutting it again to make it fit, re-sticking and then taping the joints with some rubbery tape. It was a "life-changing experience" and encouraged me to make a jacket soon after to go diving. That suit lasted many years, being cut down for small people, and than passed on to friends. From time to time I use fins and a 4-foot board.
8. I've heard of a one arm paddle technique to get to to the line-up and catch waves. From where was this technique learned? Do you use this technique?
My style is to hold the board across my body and duck dive with it, and yes, its fine for cut-backs. From time to time I use fins and a 4-foot board.

Holding the board across your body and duck-diving would seem to present more surface area for a wave to push against. Can you describe how you achieve this move and why it works? Was this something you worked out yourself or a traditional technique?

Think of the "vanes" on a submarine - they give lift or dive don't they. Imagine holding the bellyboard across your body then put both hands on the same (further) rail and roll the board until it touches your forearms then you can angle the board to judge a depth of dive to suit the oncoming wave.
9. What technique is required to turn and ride a tube on your board?
Just weight the board in the direction of turn. Pressure exerted from the appropriate elbow gives precise control of direction.
10. How did Piran Surf first get established?
Our family business was a hardware store (though we referred to ourselves as ironmongers). But the advent of sheds (like Mitre 10) caused us to look for new directions and in 1971, we bought some moulded boards ( 6'7" S-decks) and long-johns and started hiring. The rest is history.

Piran bellyboard - probably ca. 1970s. In center is the Piran Surfboards logo from a magazine advertisement.

Sources: Board photos courtesy of the Museum of British Surfing. Center figure: Piran Surfboards [Advertisement]. (1977, Summer). Surf Magazine, xx(x), 10. Courtesy of Henry Marfleet.

30-year-old Piran bellyboard. 

Photo courtesy of Andy Bick.

11. Was there one style of board sold or did you have different types of boards? How many boards do you estimate were sold?
Now they are waterproof ply, but we have bought solid elm boards (in the post-war shortages of materials) and sold some elegant but fragile balsa boards after Thor Heyerdahl's epic voyage(one still in my garage).

In the "heyday" of bellyboarding, in the late-1960s and the 1970s, we used to sell more that 100 wood boards a day. Remember there was no alternative except a mal.

John and fellow bellyboarders

Pictured from the left are: Gerry Hunt, Janet Heath, John Heath, Ann Horton, Robn Ross, Brenda Williams.
Source: van der Bij, N. (2006). Silver surfers unite. Cornwall Today, Septemrber 2006, 40-44. Provided courtesy of Sally Morgan Moore.
12. What has been the attraction for you of riding a bellyboard?
It's a bug - once bitten you can't forsake surfing.

Note 1: This contest was first held in 2003, to commemorate the death of Arthur Traveller in 2002, and is held at St. Agnes in September of each year. Source: van der Bij, N. (2006, September). Silver surfers unite. Cornwall Today. pp. 40-44.

Additional Information. English bellyboards have been documented in books such as
The above links will take you to WorldCat, the the world's largest network of library content and services.

Covers for You and your surfboard and Surf-riding on the Atlantic Coast 

For more information on the above booklets, see the MyPaipoBoards Annotated Bibliography.

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

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Last updated on: 05/09/11