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A Paipo Interview with John Saul

Paipo rider and poet
"Like the dolphin, seal, riding waves-engaged, enveloped"

A Paipo Interview with John Saul
February 1 and 2, 2013 - Virginia & California (USA)
E-mail interview by Bob Green

Unlike 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.

John and Joy Saul 2008 (left) and a recent photo of John still sporting a Hawaiian shirt (right).

Photo courtesy of John Saul.

2. Had you had much exposure to surfing before coming to Hawaii?

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 surfing?

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.
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?
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.

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.
4. What was your first paipo board like? Did you make it yourself?
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.

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. Interest and commitment in exploring the past-often dead in the water. In the eye of the old waterman, sunny dreams and imagination lives on!

John's paipo

Drawing by John Saul.

5. When did you start riding a paipo? Where was this and with who did you surf?
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 hardship.

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.
6. Where were your favorite spots to ride a paipo? Why these spots?
Sandy Beach, Point Panic, Portlock Point on the south shore. Pipeline, Pupukea, and Haleiwa on the north shore.

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 day.
7. How did you get involved in organizing the Sandy Beach bodysurfing contests? What do you recall about these contests?
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.

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.

Sandy Beach 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.

8. Do you see much cross over in technique between riding a paipo and bodysurfing?
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 following function.
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 replicate.
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."

Frank Lee contest surfing
Photo by Wayne Bartlett, courtesy of Stan Osserman.

11. Any other names from those days stand out?
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.

Did you ride a stand-up board as well?

Yes, started out on a long board. Plan to teach my grandson how to surf on one.
13. Do you still ride a paipo board?
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.

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 Beach.
14. Any other thoughts or recollections from those days?
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 been invented.

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.
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?
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…

Writing Verse
It chooses who
Way of seeing
Destination too.

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.

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