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A Paipo Interview with John Kovar

Geometry, tubes & the Malaroo

A Paipo Interview with John Kovar
December 8th 2010 - Canberra, A.C.T, Australia
Email interview by Bob Green
Photos courtesy of John Kovar

John began making and riding bellyboards at a time well past the peak of bellyboard riding in Australia. Originally developed as bellyboards his boards have been also been ridden standup.
1. What was your surfing background before you starting riding a bellyboard?
I'm 54 years old and it's 2010. I was born in 1956, and started surfing on a coolite foamy in 1964, at age 8 [see Note 1]. Long boards were in and leg ropes hadn't been invented. Most of my surfing was on my belly and in shallow, safe beaches. At the age of 12, I got a mal 9'6", and rode that each holiday on the beach in Victoria, Australia, around Point Leo and Shoreham. When I was about 19, I moved from Melbourne to Torquay and then one year later to Lorne, in Victoria. I bought a Michael Peterson board, then a Wayne Lynch board. In 1982, I made some very strange boards, but got laughed off the beach. Like 4'6" long with 6 fins, quad fins, fat tails, no nose, twin mal fins that were close together and not flat but elliptical and crossed through each other. The twin mal fins worked really well. In 1985, I moved to Avalon in Sydney and In 1986, I made a 5'2" McCoy-style board with 3 fins and rode that as my stand up board for the next 17 years till it died. In 1994, I made my first belly board. I surfed everywhere from Noosa in QLD to Warrnambool in Victoria. I had a sales rep job that kept me travelling the east coast of Australia. All my money and spare time was spent on surfing trips. In 2000, I moved to Bawley Point on the NSW south coast of Australia.

Malaroo tube action

Photo courtesy John Kovar.
2. When and where did you start riding a bellyboard? Where did the idea of making a bellyboard come from?
My first bellyboard was while I lived in Avalon. early 1990s, in 1994, I think. I shaped it from a broken board, as a matter of fact it was a broken Palm (the brand Palm) kneeboard that had a broken tail and someone threw out. I gave it 3 fins and a square tail -- it had a rounded nose. Went like rocket. Suddenly I could have fun on the simplest of waves and surf places that were too hard on a stand up. I found myself surfing this bellyboard more than my stand up and loving it. That never changed, I still prefer a bellyboard.
3. What was this first board like and how did it ride?
It had a flat bottom at the widest point with and increasing vee to the tail and nose. As mentioned above, a square tail, rounded nose and three fins. Very easy to catch waves and do what you wanted. In the tube the tail would lift and turn the nose towards the wave, so tube riding was done on a tilt and slightly sideways, very exciting. Could ride and work speed on the smallest of days and fast enough to make every wave I rode on a standup board. It had a strange continuation of the bottom curve and would accelerate in a certain spot after a wobble and some resistance as you leant forward, which really means the curves on the bottom weren't blended together properly.
4. When did you first make bellyboards commercially? What did you call the boards?
I started selling them in 2005. I called them MALAROO.
Malaroo logos: the 39 and the latest logo.

Photos by John Kovar.

5. You mentioned the design for these boards came to you when watching the surf at Bawley Point? What happened?
I noticed that when a friend of mine walked out on the rocks holding his mal on a certain angle his board took on a geometric shape. Being a designer (I worked designing 3D objects on computer and then cutting them out on a CNC machine which I owned), when I saw this geometric shape I realised that it meant I could draw that shape on computer, turn it into a 3D object, project obvious related shapes through it to get intersection curves and shapes and then play with them to create a surfboard. I made a board, bellyboard, and it worked. Super fast and responsive, didn't have to compensate, just surf. I then explored all the possibilities and designed a range of boards some of which were bellyboards. I sold twenty-two bellyboards, mainly through an enthusiastic customer, David Guy, who loved to ride, drew a lot of attention and kindly organised sales. He also had a bellyboard as a kid. Bit like riding a bike -- you never forget. I then got into financial difficulty and had to give up making boards and work hard to save losing everything.
6. Do you experiment much with design or have you stuck with a basic design and refined it? What are your designs based on?
I base the designs on the possibilities or what can be done with my geometric method and "what works." I look for relationships of the dimensions, for example a classic stand up board that people love to surf is my 250, the length of the board equals dimension A, that length turned into a circle, makes a circle that has a diameter that is dimension B. Dimension B is the width of the board. Dimension B divided by 4 (250 being a percent that is a quarter of 100) becomes the thickness of the board. The concave of the board is a quarter of the thickness of the board, it is mixed with a vee that is also a quarter of the thickness of the board. It has four fins. I have explored the possibilities and come up several classic geometry designs, mals and shortboards. My 9'1" mal design was ridden to win the NSW state championships after winning many local heats. Of course credit has to go to Sean Chivers, the rider, and Terrry Glass who came up with concept, I then did the geometric design and he shaped it from my templates. My machine wouldn't cut a 9'1". Terry Glass is a genius shaper. Each of my designs can be made as a bellyboard.

The 250

Photo by John Kovar.
7. What do you primarily aim for in your boards - speed or manoeuvrability? What are the key design features of your boards? Is there anything that you have found that doesn't work?
What struck me the most about my boards is the way you don't have to surf around a characteristic. All my previous hand made boards had a funny characteristic, for example, a wobble on take off, a dead spot, or a spot forward where they will accelerate. My computerised boards are beautifully balanced. All the curves are derived from each other, all curves are therefore related. People have told me (and I have noticed) that they don't have to think, they can just surf. They can do things on them that they have never been able to do. What doesn't work is curves not blended together. To check this you must look at a board from all angles and look for bumps, they will show in the performance of the board.
8. What type of waves do your boards go best in?
Bellyboards, because they are fibreglass like a surfboard, the bigger the surf gets the more likely you are to crush your rib cage. Funnily enough I have a rib cage problem, possibly from some landings that I thought would kill me. In Indonesia I made a 15-foot drop, but it damaged me. I like riding small waves, less than 2 metres, you can pump my boards for speed like a surfboard. On small waves you can barrelled, where as on a stand up you can't.
South Coast sequence.

Photos by John Kovar.

9. Any idea as to who rides the bellyboards you made? In your travels have you seen other bellyboarders?
Mainly older surfers because they aren't driven by the "in thing syndrome" and they don't want to ride the biggest waves. They just want to surf and have fun.
10. You started riding and making bellyboards when there would have been very few bellyboarders around. What approach did you take to learning how to ride a bellyboard?
I think having a background in riding finned stand up boards has given me a natural need to work with fins when surfing. I don't enjoy a riding a boogie board. I Just kept going out and discovered a few things along the way,
  • Always keep your elbows on the board and hold the nose, especially when going through the white water, otherwise you will get a board slammed into your face.
  • Finned bellyboards can pump like a surfboard to get speed. Do this by grabbing the nose and throwing the board around your hips.
  • You can get out of the impossible barrel by turning hard into the bottom of the wave. You will pop up out the back in a fraction of a second and find yourself heading out to sea as if you have been paddling -- a funny experience.
  • On take-off, if it looks too hard to take the drop and get across the section you can pivot the board on the fins to cut across high in the wave until you fall down or air down the face which will give you even more speed and you can make sections that normally you couldn't.
  • In a long tube ride that has just closed out on you, you can still make the wave by turning into or through the falling lip and as that hits your back, you pull back into the wave and it gives you an amazing thrust that will some times put you ahead of the barrel again or back into the barrel again.
11. Any surfs on your bellyboard stand out for you?
One wave in particular. It was a winter morning first light, slight offshore wind, and I was trying out a flat to vee bellyboard. (Flat bottom at the widest point with an increasing vee to the nose and tail.) The surf was only shoulder high. I took off on a wave and was thrown through the air towards rocks, and as the fins bit in I got thrust forward and I was in the barrel (1st section), well in, but dry, and I could see the way out, just as I thought I would come out, it barrelled over and ahead of me again (2nd section), still dry I worked towards the way out, and again it barrelled ahead of me (3rd section) and I worked to get out and again it barrelled ahead and over me (4th section) and then it shut down on me, I turned into the lip and as it hit my back it shot me forward and I found my self back in the barrel (5th section) and raced it and I came out at the end of the point. That was at Bawley Point, barrelled the whole length of the wave. This Indian guy was on the rocks whale watching and came up to me as I sat on the rocks looking at how far I had been in the tube, and said how do you go under the water like that, I saw you take off and then watched the whole wave and I couldn't see you at all and then you came out of the water. I told him you have just seen the best tube ride I have ever had in my life. Honestly that was a 200-foot tube ride in a small wave.
12. What has been the attraction of riding a bellyboard?
Being able to get the most out of small waves and being able to take on waves that on a stand up board are a bit to scary for me.
13. Have you been thinking about any new design ideas or directions?
Of course, flippers on top of my feet so that I can stand, some sensible way of having a wing under the board that takes over when you get speed, like a miniature board that hydroplanes you. Different fin concepts, such as a continuation of the deck rail curve to wrap underneath and go right across? I want to remake my elliptical crossing mal fins, curved pointy rails, quarter thickness concaves, four fins, five fins. I have tried these concepts but not in the one board yet. 

John Kovar's superconcave board.

Photo by John Kovar.

If I had the time and money, two small boards strapped to my feet like roller blades, being towed in by dolphins or leaning into a wave for take off, that would be fun. paddling might be a bit hard and being laughed off the beach would be a bit embarrassing. If it worked I could get most clicked on Youtube and make a fortune.

14. Any other comments?
Bellyboards are a great fun thing, if you can think beyond what is fashionable and the done thing. If you don't have to be part of the mainstream to feel comfortable in the surf, this is an experience you don't want to miss out on. So many more surfs because of the ability to have just as much fun in small waves. You don't get hurt falling off because you are already at sea level, can't fall. If you are older and limited to a mal and mal waves, then here's another option that works. On a bellyboard there are just so many more opportunities to have a great fun surf.

December 9, 10 and 11 Follow-Up Questions

15. Were you thinking of a bellyboard when you reshaped that kneeboard in the 1990s?
The bellyboard. I wanted a belly board because I didn't like riding a boogie board, Wanted fins and a rocker I could work with. I remember the first time I rode it. I was thrilled by it, amazed by its liveliness and ability to get around sections. Rode it heaps, mornings after work, I was obsessed. Made a second one shortly after, but it was a dud. Bad bottom curve and too wide. Lucky with the first one I guess.
16. I'm still curious - why a bellyboard in the1990s, when nobody else was riding bellyboards?
I had a few prone experiences. When I was about 24, and living in Lorne, a friend of mine stuck two fins on a broken board, about 4 foot long and we rode that prone. After 1985, when living in Avalon, Sydney, I rode some knee boards standing up and prone. So a bit going on there, I'm sure that the coolite is a big influence because it was my first way of riding waves. I have a picture of an older guy who regularly surfed Avalon with a new red bellyboard twin fins, I'm not sure if he was before me. We never communicated.
17. Why the name Malaroo?
Well funny you should ask. I went down to the beach one morning and I was wondering what to call the boards? The surf was big, the biggest day of the year, offshore, and I'm just standing there, staring in a dazed stupor. Suddenly I see this thing about as big as a kangaroo shoot out of the water, pull a turn and fly along an unbroken wave. You know like those birds do. As the wave starts to throw over, it pulls into the barrel for a few seconds and flys out really, really fast, squarking like a terradactile. It flies up vertical for a few hundred feet, stalls, falls backwards, does a twisted back flip summersault dive, flies back into the barrel and disapears. I'd never seen anything like it. When I got home I rang the University and I tell this guy I've just seen this kangaroo thing with two heads and bat wings, a dolphins tail, and webbed feet get barrelled on a massive wave and do this like acrobatic dive back into the barrel. What do think it was? The guy says, "Mate, I think you've seen a Malaroo," and hangs up on me.

The Malaroo.

Photo by John Kovar.

Note 1. In The Surfin'ary: A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak, Trevor Cralle describes a Coolite as an Australian brand-name for a Styrofoam trainee surfboard. Cralle cites Mark Warren's Atlas of Australian Surfing as the source for this definition. For more information and pictures, see Geoff Cater's website, pods for primates : a catalogue of surfboards in australia since 1900.

See the John Kovar video of the Malaroo being ridden stand-up and prone.

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

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