Interview with John Saul
February 1 and 2, 2013 - Virginia & California (USA)
E-mail interview by Bob Green
many who grew up by the ocean, swimming from an early age, John
didn't start surfing and swimming until he was eight years old, when his
family moved to Hawaii. Virtually as soon as he was off the ship John
began surfing. At school he was surrounded by surfers. One of his
friends was John Clark, with whom he became involved in organizing the
Sandy Beach bodysurfing championships which continue to this day. Both
Clark and Saul rode paipo boards and bodysurfed. While John Clark went on to
write about the beaches of Hawaii and Hawaiian surfing traditions, John
Saul wrote poetry which in recent years he has begun to
publish. In addition to describing his surfing experiences John also
describes what it was like growing up in Hawaii in the 1970s.
| 1. As an
eight-year-old how did you find the move from Virginia to Hawaii?
We embraced the adventure. We were the only
family members who moved away from the nucleus of the group and left
the state before the age of commercial jet travel. A journey of seeing
the world outside Virginia covered 10 days of travel and a distance of
5,000 miles. Excitement was mixed with a sense of apprehension. Not
knowing what life would be like in a far away land. Home in a U.S. territory. Uncertainty seasoned the topic of conversation.
2. Had you had much exposure to surfing before coming to
John and Joy
Saul 2008 (left) and a recent photo of
John still sporting a Hawaiian shirt (right).
Photo courtesy of John Saul.
3. How did you get involved with surfing in Hawaii? Was
school much of an influence - I've heard lots of paipo boards were made
in wood work classes?
It sounds like you started surfing almost as soon as
you got off the boat. Who or what got you started?
No one acted as influence. Dad was not athletically inclined nor a sports
buff. My younger brother was two and my middle sister not interested in sports.
What prompted me was reaction to watching the graceful athletic ability
of guys riding small gentle waves in Waikiki. Seeing something
different I had never witnessed. The urge to run and grab a long board,
jump in the water, and see if I could emulate the locals. A challenge
for sure, but believing this undertaking involved learning a new skill;
it was artful and poetic; but not rocket science.
What did your parents think of their non-swimming son
Shock and awe and a taste of relief I got the hang of it; fairly
quickly. That I showed resolve and determination and was able to stand
up, not fall - too often, and ride a wave a meaningful distance. I can
forever visualize them sitting on the beach on their towels squirming
in the sand. Yelling out encouragement, not wanting to interfere; they
always kept a nervous watch.
I didn't know how to swim before paddling out
on a long board. Took the bus - board, fins, bar of wax in arm, from
home on Pueo Street and got off in Waikiki and watched from shore
locals and tourists surfing at Queens and the Wall. Believed I could do
it, so I tried it. I fell, wiped out - the usual failings of a
beginner, and often found myself gasping for air. Fear of drowning
makes one believe they will find a way to survive! Like learning
nuances of the sport itself, a self taught approach to learning how to
swim became the chosen path: Observing others, imitating those who
excelled a simple formula to follow.
4. What was your first paipo board like? Did you make it
Paipo boards as far as I know were made at home. Or created in a school
shop class. Don't recall seeing them marketed - until the beginning of
the 1960's, when they become mass produced.
A "potato chip" design. Shorter area across
rounded nose. Wider at bottom. Medium weight. Two feet wide, 52 inches long.
Wood taken from 4x8 foot piece of marine plywood. First boards had a flat
underbelly surface. Later, boards evolved the underbelly slightly dug
out with about a quarter-inch depth. Carved and chipped. Similar to techniques used in making
Koa wood canoes. Design concept taken from studying the wing structure
of a butterfly. Strength in surrounding frame. Lighter, thinner space
in between. Board was able to absorb shock and pounding on large waves.
Thinness allowed for easier and faster take-off. Less buoyancy than
foam. Ability to push the board with one hand into the wave. Paddle
with the other. Speed it provided enabled one to make it through a
sectioning wave before close out. The artful part: Steering the board
critical in that riding too high or low in the wave directly determined
and affected whether you made the wave.
5. When did you start riding a paipo? Where was this and with who did you surf?
Yes, first board I made at home in the garage. Skill and jig saw and
electric sander the primary tools. Marine plywood, 3/4-inch thick, coated
with a black color marine base paint the finish. Later boards used yellow or
orange color paint. More common practice. Easier to spot and
retrieve the board after wipe out.
Was the potato chip style board popular at the time?
Did someone help you make the board?
Don't know. No one asked me to make them one. From a distance it didn't
look noticeably different in appearance to the Paipo Nui. Paipo Nui was
a popular board similar design-wise, but wider overall and across the
bottom; thinner too; incorporating a flat curved underbelly.
What was your last board like?
Board made from memory. In Virginia. Then shipped it to Hawaii. Board
in hand on arrival, my two week vacation made better. It was 52" long, 24"
wide. Nose shorter across in width. Rounded. No point. Bottom, wider in
width: 28" across. Shape where the description "Potato Chip" came from.
Looked much like a Paipo Nui. Except underbelly. Carved, sanded, bottom
last 1/3 of the board, resembling butterfly wing. More hollow in the
middle. Recessed. Stronger, thicker the outside frame. "Cut out
area" -- thin layer of wood gouged out and removed, acted to keep board
from spinning. Difference maker at the Pipeline, Point Panic. Better
control. Like a fin provides. Board thickness: 3/4-inch. Marine ply easy to
round and sand edges. Not beveled. Board straight, not bending. No
curve to it. No fin(s). No identifying signature label.
Overall size and dimensions similar (wider bottom the exception) in
form to historical boards made of balsa and redwood. Underbelly concept
introduction notwithstanding. Unapologetically said, I take issue with
those who may lay
claim wood paipos died with the advent of foam boards. Lost generation
of thin wood boards disappearing in shadow of innovation and marketing.
The public fashion hungry for newness of style, color, convenience.
commitment in exploring the past-often dead in the water. In the eye of
the old waterman, sunny dreams and imagination lives on!
Drawing by John Saul.
December 1954. Right away, hit the water
probably a week after getting off the boat. The Lurline or
Matsonia - can't recall which, docking at a pier at the Aloha Tower. Dad
elected not to travel with a family of 5 and fly 13 hours from
California on a prop commercial aircraft. Enjoying food and fun sailing
on a cruise ship that took five days to get to port - not exactly a
6. Where were your favorite spots to ride a paipo? Why
The Wall, Kuhio Beach, Queens. Makapu`u, Sandy Beach, the surf spots that
came later. Slow, easy waves Waikiki offers. Dangerous current and
shallow reef not factors. Beginning as a teenager, rode the south shore
mostly: Wailupe Circle, Diamond Head, Point Panic, Ala Moana.
No one at first. Before I got a driver's license. Got on a bus, surfed
all day, then got back on a bus and went home. Surfing an individual,
non-team sport meant when the surf was up... you were gone. Juices
flowing, you didn't need to swallow contents of a power drink to get
pumped. Means of transportation: whatever got you there. Bikes,
skateboards; hitch hiking a common practice. And when you couldn't bum
a ride. Friendships often developed in the water. Guys liking the same
spot you saw time and again. Telling tales of surf stories in high
school meant you usually ended up in the water with guys who shared
their stories on land. On campus and at private parties. Word spread
fast - comparable to internet speed today, when a swell was running.
Randy Rarrick, Gerry Lopez, Fred Hemmings, John Clark, Randy Spangler,
Frank Lee, Primo (Richards), Norman Gedge, Jay Scafe, Harry Soria, Leo
Mufford, Carl Reppun, Gary Smith, and Ricky and Mike Kramer the
gentlemen I shared waves with. Others, I surfed alongside and knew only
by sight. Never asking their name. Surfing a fraternity, not a
fellowship. Friends from high school and the neighborhood many leaned
more toward bodysurfing. Still others preferred the long board. Short
boards in the 1960s were still a concept in designer's eye. As years
passed, guys who favored bodysurfing became so often by virtue of age.
A welcomed choice. No longer wanting to paddle and chase after a board.
Obesity and being out-of-shape also correlating reasons.
Of the guys named who rode paipo?
Primo and John Clark; others may have also. Besides the two, never saw
the others riding one.
Sandy Beach, Point Panic, Portlock Point on the
south shore. Pipeline, Pupukea, and Haleiwa on the north shore.
7. How did you get involved in organizing the Sandy
Beach bodysurfing contests? What do you recall about these contests?
Bottom formations, shallow reefs, hallow thick waves, offshore
winds - combined to spin their web. Seducing and pulling at one's
competitive nature. You wanted to return. Unfinished business. Perfect
wave not ridden. Unless you entered a contest, there was no winning.
You beat yourself or got better.
Any surfs or waves still stand out from over the years?
Sandy Beach, early 1970s, the bay closed out. 12-18' sets broke outside
in the middle and across the bay. White water reformed and walled up
closing out the shore break. A day the biggest wave I ever took off on
and can say I made it. Someone said they took a picture. I was never
presented with the photo. At 17, more guts than brains I refer to
myself for having the courage (and stupidity) to paddle out on that
Volunteered. John Clark and I met at Sandy Beach.
He, then a lifeguard with the county. We formed an instant
love-of-surfing friendship. We talked about the idea and said why not?
And moved forward with it. I admired John and felt he was someone I
could work with. For his talent as a prospective judge and knowledge of
bodysurfing. More importantly, because of his smarts. Listening skills
and reasoning ability.
8. Do you see much cross over in technique between
riding a paipo and bodysurfing?
Fun. A coming of age in the world of bodysurfing. Tall speakers on the
beach blaring sounds of pop music. James Taylor and Carol King songs.
Crowds cheering for their friend, husband, son, and neighbor. Sharing
challenge of a first time tournament.
contest scene and a bodysurfer in the shorebreak
Photos courtesy of Steve
Wilkins. Full story: Kempton, J. (1979, November). Surfing Alternatives: The
Sandy Beach Affair - Body Surfing's Grass Roots Pageant. Surfer Magazine, 20(11), 74-77.
How long did you stay involved in the contests? Did
you compete as well as organize?
Not certain. John perhaps having the better memory; my guess: two, maybe
three years. No, I never did. Directing, not the actor role I
preferred. Allowing others, especially young kids chance to compete;
the chosen course. After 20 years in the water realizing the statue
didn't need polishing; goal achieved. With John's help we laid the
ground work, writing the rules, managing but for a weekend
expectations - quest for glory that lay deep within the eyes of every
kid that carried a dream: to be recognized and rewarded for his talent,
and receive an award symbolizing it. All for doing something he loved.
In the place he wanted to be.
Program of the
Third Annual Sandy Beach Bodysurfing Championships, 1974. The
competition was started in 1972, by the Halona Point Bodysurfing
Association. John Clark continued his involvement for 17 years,
Figures courtesy of John Clark.
Similar, though limited: Use of swim fins; Duck
Feet the popular brand; non-breast stroke paddling into take-off; free
style arm movement. Experienced bodysurfer's ability to flip, spin, and
change direction. Paipo boarder knee rides; spins around before, after,
and during take-off in prone or knee stance; Creative aspects of form
9. After your first board, did you experiment much with
different types of boards?
No. Felt comfortable with the Potato Chip design.
Nothing tugged at me saying change it. Rode a Paipo Nui board once, but
design and maneuverability didn't make for a decision to purchase or
10. Steve Zane mentioned that you surfed with Frank Lee
a fair bit. What can you tell me about Frank?
No one reason we surfed together. Frank was a
school classmate. He was high energy, talented, always wanting to meet
at different surf spots. Two buddies out having a good time. We were
dependents of our parents and didn't face stress and pressure of
holding down a full time job. Life was good, simple in terms of the
outside activity we chose. To paraphrase the late great musical
virtuoso Gabby Pahunui we were... "living on easy."
11. Any other names from those days stand out?
Frank Lee contest surfing
Photo by Wayne Bartlett,
courtesy of Stan Osserman.
No. Just the ones I can remember mentioned in
question # 5. I'm sure I forgot someone. At my age, I have a hard time
remembering a hamburger helper recipe.
12. What was the attraction of riding a paipo?
Speed played a large part. Intimacy: closeness,
primordial sense of connection. United with ocean's far. Like the
dolphin, seal, riding waves-engaged, enveloped.
13. Do you still ride a paipo board?
Did you ride a stand-up board as well?
Yes, started out on a long board. Plan to teach my grandson how to surf
Yes. Have not done so recently. Probably 8
years. Hard to find in Virginia good waves, warm water, some of the
ideal conditions that Hawaii offers. And no need of a wet suit.
14. Any other thoughts or recollections from those
When did you move back to the mainland?
I left 1979. A job opportunity in Las Vegas presented itself. Received
an offer to design and build a swimming pool waterfall on the property
of Shecky Greene. At the time a celebrity movie star and stand-up
comedian. The Who performed at The Sands hotel. He married a local island
girl who knew a friend, who knew a friend, word finding its way to my
doorstep. I was 29, single, and anxious for name recognition in the
landscape construction business.
Where do you mostly surf these days?
When I'm in town, Honolulu, I'll dust off the board, lather on the
sunscreen and check out Point Panic, Portlock, Sandy Beach, Queens -- the
old standbys. When I retire, and can still push a wheelbarrow up the
hill, I hope to return to the south shore on Kauai. And at least for
one day, relive memory of the glory days ripping up the place at Poipu
Advent of the 1960s, revolution was in the air
its movement flourished: all forms of surfing print media labeled it as
sport which translated into a rising popularity; the women's movement,
civil rights, Roe versus Wade, music and marches exemplified a call for
change. The Vietnam War raged on; a mandatory draft in place. The
Military-Industrial Complex-Establishment being challenged protesters
fighting to dismantle it. Upheaval and unrest factored into a tearing
down of social and economic norms. By virtue of Hawaii's geographic
location, forces within this framework of change affected the island
community differently. As students, though we wore trendy madras shirts
to school and sang and danced to popular songs heard on the radio, we
were not impacted to the level and degree I believe as our mainland
counterparts. Television was in its infancy; snail mail the way we sent
letters. Cell phones, computers, blogs, Twitter, the internet hadn't
15. I believe you started writing poetry in the early-1970s? How did you get interested in poetry and what sustains your
interest to write?
In a lot of respects Hawaii's young were isolated from what was
happening in other states; and the world in general. Perhaps out of
indifference or allegiance to discipline of our island upbringing many
struggled with finding balance: What was acceptable behavior as our
lives entered a new era; what was fashionable-an appearance profile we
chose to adopt. We wrestled with sense of identity. Carrying
ambivalence tucked away inside soul of rebellious youthfulness. One
might say we were standing on the steps of history watching the dawning
of the Age of Aquarius. For those who didn't fall and succumb to the
darkness of drugs and alcohol-or worse, surfing was an escape-outlet
providing a sense of control and stability; a forum for self
expression; and like waves themselves: poetic beauty, ride unending.
Surfing never just a means to engage in physical activity and stay out
of trouble. Eagerness to get away, be happy (and cool), pause and make
a U-turn from the home front, for many we couldn't wait 'til word came
a swell was running. The common motto: Paddle out and forget about it!
Misgivings and shortcomings of youth we knew would be there tomorrow.
The selection below, "Bitten," pretty much sums
it up. Choosing to write verse not something one trains for or aspires
to at an early age. More a calling that unfolds. Naked stage you find
yourself on. One day a voice taps you on the shoulder and says, "Hi,
I'm here," and you deal with it. The paradox: other than as a child
being read to, I never liked poetry. Or literature for that matter in
school. All the while as student penning words of poetry. Not
understanding why. Or questioning why bother. Other than realizing it
wasn't hard, but a hard thing to do. At 65, I know I'm not done writing.
Like surfer waiting to catch the perfect wave. Haven't caught it yet…
It chooses who
Way of seeing
A book by John P. Saul, IV, Candle In The Window.
Figure courtesy of John Saul. Barnes
and Noble carries the e-book. The store, Politics and Prose, sells the book in
paperback, at its Washington, D.C. location.
Love of words began in childhood. Writing poems started when I was a
teenager. Candle In The Window, my first book, is a collection of 66
poems written over forty years. Selections compiled: 1971-2011. A
Living House, book number 2, is scheduled for release this spring.
Michael and I
at his graduation; Family shot: oldest son David seated, second from
left; his wife (Brandy) to his right; my brother Mike, right, seated
with my granddaughter Allison. Mike is a pilot with Hawaiian Air. My
sister, Betsy, next to me.
Photos courtesy John Saul.