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A Paipo Interview with Jon Manss

Kneeboard pioneer & paipo rider

A Paipo Interview with Jon Manss
December 5, 2009 - Santa Cruz, California (USA)
Interviewing by Kim Green based on questions by Bob Green
Photos courtesy of Jon Manss

A little clarification ahead of time might make this interview more understandable for those not familiar with Santa Cruz breaks. Many of the breaks in town during low tide show sandy beach with a few rocks, but at high tide the water reaches up into the coves with plenty of boulders and rocks. Before leashes were available this had a major effect on which breaks were surfed, when they were surfed, and with what kind of board.
1. Where did you grow up and where did you first see surfing?
I grew up in Santa Cruz from 1959. I was 6 years old. Lived up at Mitchell’s Cove, where my next door neighbor was a guy named Billy Jones. He would go out on an old paddle board at the cove and would just rip the place up, a long hollow board with no fins on it and a pointed tail. No one else would go out there because there were no cords. So I thought that was pretty cool.  The cove was my backyard. Back then there were lots of body surfers, then mat riders. Mat riding was sort of a summertime, rivermouth type of deal.
2. When did paipos come in?
Bob Dubois came back from college in Hawaii with a finless paipo -- that was when I was introduced to it. It was made of wood, like an HPD, the guitar pick shape. At the time we were already starting to play around with some foam boards but when he came back with that we started building our own based on it. We would take a piece of plywood and put fins on. I don't remember if his board was store bought or home made.

You should talk to Bob. I just got a postcard from him from Costa Rica -- he's a real character. Look at the video
where a guy on a paipo knocks a guy off his long board with his fists. That's Bob. All of that film was from Bob's clips. He's a little older than I am.

Santa Cruz Proto Kneelos @
A film by Scott Wessling.

We actually went to Keinholz and Angel, (a board shop that was Mark Angel and Tom Keinholz). We would go in and take the old tails or the nose, from when they were done shaping a board, and glue that on a piece of plywood and then shape a spoon out of it and then fibreglass that on to the plywood. That was a plywood spoon. That was from about 1965 to 1967. The foam was mostly to add rocker, not float.
3. Was that inspired by the Greenhough spoon?
Oh yeah. And then later I shaped two fibreglass spoons, it was an evolving thing. And then we started shaping boards, real boards. That's when John Mel showed up in town. And he had supplies, and we were going to him to get supplies and we were making all these bizarre creations.

This is not a spoon but one of the guitar pic wood boards. Note
the Freeline logo.

4. Back to the early wood paipos, did they have any rocker?
I am sure they had a little bit, it's been so long... I'm sure it had a spoon to it.  It must have because we were having trouble with the plywood warping. Unless you sealed the top, we had to seal the bottom differently, because they would warp the wrong way.  So I ended up taking a piece of plywood and sticking it in my mom’s bathtub and then putting some bricks on top of it and then it warped and dried finally.
5. Did it keep the shape?
Oh yeah. I fibreglassed one layer on the bottom and took some black enamel and put it on the top.
6. Didn't you want to fibreglass both sides?
Who cares, (laughs) that's just the way I did it.
7. When did you first start putting fins on it?
Well, because we already had a couple of knee boards out there, we were already planning that was something that was going to happen. I don't think were saving the form of the paipo down to the knee board. We were going back and forth. It was not a straight progression from paipos to kneeboards, it was mixed up.
8. Oh! I thought you guys had kind of progressed from paipos to knee boards but it sounds like it was kind of mixed up.
It was a mix up, so basically we could go out at higher tides, with no leash – there were no leashes. We were hoping for a good rideable board that wouldn't go all the way into the beach, it would just sit in the water, even when we went into heavier thicker foam boards. We were body surfers too, almost everybody I knew started out body surfing and then they progressed to the mats and then to the knee boards and belly boards, but there weren't a lot of paipos per se.
9. When did the belly boards come into the mix?
It was about the same time that Bob brought that paipo down. But belly boards were already available in the surf shops. We had these belly boards coming up from LA that looked like stubbed off long board noses. And everybody tried them and they went flying into the rocks, they were too fast, so we didn't really use those designs, we kept formulating our own designs. A lot of thin, thin, thin, foam boards.
10. Did they hold up?
Sometimes. I had some snap on me.
11. Where did you surf?
Sewer Peak, down by the Hook when it was big. All the local spots. There were a few people that surfed up north. I surfed Scotts and then I gave it up, Moss Landing.
12. Was there any particular spot that was known for paipo or prone riding?
Probably Windansea, body surfers, Bob would be the guy to talk to about that. He would know all those old salts. They would have these duck feet, big brown duckfeet. They'd be out there with thick thick wetsuits that looked like they were for scuba diving.
13. Now wet suits weren't even available for kids. Did you see people wearing them?
Yeah, O’Neills was down here, but I got my first set of duckfeet for Christmas. I didn't have a wetsuit and I went out to the rivermouth and just about froze to death. I was blue, I'm sure I didn't last more that 20 minutes. But I was the happiest kid in town. I had my fins. I couldn't wait for summer.

So that was it, my first wet suit was what they called a short john, the vest and legs all together.

14. Not a beaver tail?
No, it was what you were supposed to put under the jacket, and the long john was the vest and the legs. But those (short johns) were absolutely worthless, because as soon as you went under a wave it just flooded with water all the way through. You needed the short johns with the beaver tail.
15. So those were the fins you saw then?
Yeah. Duckfeet, rarely Churchills. A couple of diving fins, but mostly Duckfeet. They were considered to have more power, those were the best. I wore them for along time without booties and I had bumps on my feet like this (shows knuckles), then I got a larger size and started wearing booties and the bumps disappeared.
17. Were there any other paipo shapes beside the guitar pick you guys worked with?
Oh yeah. I thought of a bold single fin thing that was pretty wild. One thing I  remember about those plywoods, when they went under water you'd go up to the top and you would just wait while they're sucking to the bottom. You can't pull it up.
"This is a shot of my board held by my cousin and aunt.
That's my Mustang in the back. Man I miss that car."

18. How about friction between standups and paipo and kneelos, was there much hassle?
I don't think there was much hassle.  It was more like harassment, friendly harassment. We all knew each other. We all went to high school together. It was a community of people. The people who got harassed were from over in San Jose, I mean they got serious harassment, but we were all locals, so we were just “belly bombers” or whatever they wanted to call us. It was more of a community back then. There weren't as many people in the water, not a lot of foreign faces in the water.

Scariest thing that ever happened to me, I was out at the point on a day of south swell and I snapped off a fin from a plywood board, a single fin, and I snapped off three quarters of it so I just had this stub in the middle of the board. And I went back out and caught this really big wave and this guy paddling out, this big burly guy Bob Henderson, was  paddling out. I couldn't control the damn board and went right over the top of him, he dove off his board and my board embedded right in the center of his rail. It was glued shut to that board. I flew over the top and when I came up there was Bob going “GOD DAMMIT IT WAS A BRAND NEW BOARD! LOOK AT THIS! 6 INCHES IN! LOOK AT THIS.” I just thought “Oh man, I'm going to get it." I go “Bob, look the fins broken." Bob replied, “GET OUT OF HERE! GET IT FIXED!”  Oh man. I saw him the next day though and he was nice about it. People seem more aggressive now.

19. Did you do much travelling in those early days?
One summer Bob said we're going to surf from Big Sur to San Francisco. He had a list of what he wanted to surf. So we did, we just drove around from Andrew Molero all the way back up, surfed  little spots through Monterrey, not in succession but the list was there. We were going to Five Mile where we had to go through the fields. He would say, “There's a wave out there, see that wave right there.?" I'd say, "Bob, it's in the Brussels Sprouts!”  He'd say, “I'll go talk to the honcho.” So, he'd walk up and knock on the door and say, ”Hey we wanna surf out there, is it OK?"  And there would be a pause and they'd say, “Go ahead.” He was just like that. He got us to surf Pomponio, San Gregorio, Gazos Martins Beach. A little wave above Ano, it was worthless, but he wanted to surf it.
20. Were you concerned about the sharks?
No. Well, there was concern but, when you're eighteen you're pretty much immortal.
21. When did the paipos fade away? When did you stop seeing them?
It was pretty quick, probably the seventies. It lasted from … 1964 to 1970? It really didn't catch on as a form of surfing. There was way more body surfing than there was paipo boards. We were headed for kneeboarding, we just wanted to get up you know? The other thing when we first started making kneeboards there weren't any short boards, they were all long Hawaiian boards. These guys were all riding long boards and we were back in the pocket.
22. Was there a kneeboarding boom at that point?
Oh yeah. Before the cord. A lot of standup surfers were kneeboarders too. They'd go out when the tides were higher and ride their little boards and if they lost it they'd follow it in. Occasionally some standup would come out and he'd  last four, five waves and he'd bail, his board would go into the rocks and be broken in half.
23. So rather than having the cord was it the flippers that allowed the kneeboarder to get to their board before it reached the rocks?
Yup. So when the cord came out it systematically allowed all these standups to get on their boards all the time and they gave up on the kneeboarding. People like Kevin Reid, Steve Russ. He's the guy who made the suction cup and surgical tubing, he made the first leash. There were lots of kneeboarders who immediately jumped on their boards and became standups.
24. So the advent of the leash in a way was instrumental in the transition from knee boards to shortboards because they no longer needed flippers to catch their boards?
Yes. One time I was surfing Stockton Avenue and Kevin Reed came out took my board and said, "Lemme see that, Jon," and we exchanged boards. He had a big fishy kind of board and he goes, “I can ride that.” He grabbed my board, about 5'4” and 19” wide and he was jammin' on it. But he came back out and said “it's a little too small for me but wait until you see me next time” and he started shaping boards smaller. That punched a bubble in what he knew he could handle. And he started making shorter boards. Twin fins and single fins with the little stabilizers in back. Wide tails, 5'4” maximum about 2-1/2” thick.

Jon Manss continues to live and work in Santa Cruz, where he designs and builds outstanding custom furniture and boards at J.S.M. Wood Works.

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

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Last updated on: 11/27/12