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A Paipo Interview with Keith Usher

Surfing Wales and beyond, finless

A Paipo Interview with Keith Usher
May 10, 2014 - Swansea, Wales
E-mail interview by Bob Green

Introduction. Keith Usher started out on a surfboard but realized he could catch a lot more waves riding prone on a bodyboard. Ten years ago the seed of riding something different to a standard bodyboard was planted and in 2013, with the assistance of a local shaper and some inspiration from the boards of Tom Wegener and Larry Goddard, his ideas became a reality. Since then he has ridden waves on his paipo boards in Wales, California, and Indonesia. Not sitting still, Keith is experimenting with other designs, including wooden boards.

Photograph: California adventure, February 2014. Courtesy of Jeff Chamberlain.

(In most instance you can click on an image to view a larger version.)

1. How long had you ridden a bodyboard for before you first rode a paipo?
I had been riding a bodyboard since about age 19 to 38, so about 19 years.
2. A lot of bodyboards look alike - what sort of board did you ride? What are your thoughts on bodyboard design?
Yes, it's very true that in the last 20 years bodyboard design has not been very evolutionary. In my younger days I tried every new gimmick that came on the market! Glad I have now grown out of that. Bodyboard companies seem to work on material more than shape, I think the process of manufacturing a bodyboard holds back its evolution as it is hard to add complex hull shapes and rails. The pros manage the most amazing surfing on them aerial-wise, but as far as speed and carving I think the bodyboard design is stunted.
3. I've read that you started out on a surfboard - why the change to riding prone (usually it's the other way around)?
I grew up in the landlocked Lake District National Park in northern England. In my teens I was a rock climber and road cyclist, mountain biking was also in its infancy so I was getting into that too. I then moved to Wales, to a city on the south coast called Swansea to attend a product design degree (which when I found surfing suffered to the point of non-completion). A friend I shared a student house with who was also from north England had been a keen windsurfer and through that knew of surfing, so after a few trips to my new local beaches I acquired a 6'3" regular surfboard, similar to my friends.

We met at college a new friend who was from Cornwall, south England who from an early age had starting bodyboarding. So the three of us would head for the beach on weekends. After a few weeks of struggling with poor paddling strength and not even managing to stumble to my feet on a skinny 6'3", I had been watching my friend on his bodyboard flying around, doing 360s, air rolls and kicking his way out back easily with fins. So after about 6 weeks on the 6'3", I took it to my local shop and traded it in for my first Manta bodyboard. With strong legs from my years of cycling I was out back and surfing waves the first time out on the bodyboard. This surfing thing was now fun! I still look at many surfers in the water struggling and not really surfing thinking they could be having more fun from the first time out prone.

Having fun at G-Land, ca. 2013

Photo by Dave Thomas.
4. When and where did you first hear about paipo boards? Was it dissatisfaction with bodyboards that prompted you to get a paipo board made?
In my local area I have mostly surfed with stand-up riders and being interested in design had wondered if a small board in foam and fibreglass would work. A friend had seen a guy on a surf trip with one and said I should get one, but back then (10+ years ago) I did not understand board design enough to know what I would need. It would have just been a direct copy of a bodyboard in fibreglass and at about triple the price of a bodyboard it never happened.

I then one day bumped into a guy at the beach handplaning. Over time we became friends. He was also a bodyboarder and one day showed me a wooden paipo by Paipoglide, from Cornwall, England, that he was having built (see Note 1). When he got the board I had a go and the seed of something better than a bodyboard was replanted.

Leigh Evans with his Paipoglide board at Tenby, Wales.

Photo by Keith Usher.
5. Have you noticed much difference between riding a bodyboard and a paipo?
The paipo I designed is far superior to any bodyboard I have ever owned in terms of speed. It took 10 or 20 sessions to truly dial in slight changes in my riding style to get the real benefits out of my paipo. It basically feels like I have got out of a van and into a sports car!
6. What were the paipo boards you've had made based on? Any particular shapers or designs that was influential?
The paipo I designed had two main influences and one hidden one. With the Internet now at our fingertips the access to information is vast and what had held me back over ten years ago from designing was now out there on the web to read and soak in and basically steal.

So my first paipo experience had been on my friends Paipoglide, which after talking to the builder I feel was more a beautiful piece of woodwork, more than a form follows function design. It was very fast, but struggled to turn. Once I was on the wave after take off the board struggled to keep speed due to lack of frontal planing area. It also had fins (tri) which I found made it track in very straight lines and took far too much movement and effort to turn.

Then one Fall, me and the Paipoglide board owner and another bodyboard friend headed for Cornwall for the world bodyboard championships. A fun event with no wetsuits allowed in the cold British waters, using only plywood vintage bellyboards (Google it). There at the event the owner of Paipoglide had a booth and was also working on bellyboards, alaias and hand planes. He had a couple of prototype paipos, one foam and fibreglass and one wood like my friend's board, but without fins. So I got to test them out and found with the wood one without fins I could now turn easily and still hold a rail, and the foam and fibreglass was more buoyant, catching waves easier and holding more speed in flat sections.

World Bellyboard Championships, Cornwall, England, ca. September 2013.

Source: The website of the World bellyboard championships.
After seeing the alaia board at the booth I became interested and watched videos on them on YouTube and found that their rebirth had been due to a guy called Tom Wegener. Luckily in several Youtube videos he has talked at detail on how the alaia works and holds a rail. He had then found that the alaia, lacking float, was very hard for an average rider to catch a wave on so he started the Seaglass tuna project. That board and the alaia have in the rear of the board a single concave rolled into "V" and chine rails that I have "borrowed" for my paipo design.

So the alaia supplies the rear hull shape, the plan rail curve I took from my favourite bodyboard and continued the curve to a point rather than a blunt cut of nose simply for looks at the time. And also for looks I gave it a swallow tail fish tail instead of the standard bodyboard crescent tail. I wanted it to look like a small retro surfboard, not just a square fiberglass bodyboard.

Wegener Tuna and Keith's SDF concave paipo

Photos courtesy of Keith Usher.

7. What was the process of getting your boards made. Were you clear on what you wanted or did the shaper have a lot of say?
After 20 years surfing I knew the whole surf industry in my local area. After going to SDF Surfboards, who sponsored a couple of my friends, and watching them get their boards shaped, I became friends with the shaper there, Sam Du Feu, and asked if he would be willing to build my design.

Sam Du Feu shaping Keith's first paipo in 2012.

Photos courtesy of Keith Usher.

When I presented him with my design we worked out how to get the rocker, nose and tail with and board thickness we would need to get my 3'8" board out of a 7'2" USA foam blank! So after the blank arrived I headed to the shaping bay and we shaped the board. The board was a mix of the design in my head, a template I had drawn from my favourite bodyboard, and Sam's shaping skills to turn the foam in front of him into what was in my head. The process was basically me saying "here it needs to be shaped like this" and Sam having the manual skills to make the foam take that shape.

He had very little input into design as my board was so alien to anything he had done before. But the shaper influenced parts as to how that had to be to get wrapped in fibreglass. It ended up taking over 4 hours to shape instead of the usual 6' short board he shapes in less than an hour.

Board # 1 dimensions, in inches: 44-1/4 x 21-3/8 x 2-3/8.

Photos courtesy of Keith Usher.

8. What are the main features of your boards and how do they differ from your bodyboards, both in design and performance?
The main features are in the rear hull, the single concave rolled into a "V" and the chine rails. The plan shape is taken from a standard performance bodyboard. And the hidden design which I mentioned earlier, which turns out to be that by form following function, we ended up with "up rails" forward of the chines which gave the front of the board "belly," or a displacement hull. In time I discovered this is the same as the front of a Simmons hull. This belly front hull helps catching waves becasue a displacement hull works at any speed, rather than having to paddle up to the speed a planning hull begins to plane.
9. Do you have plans for any more paipo boards?
Yes, I want to recreate my next board in wood. It feels like part of an organic evolution for me. Bodyboards always felt factory made and plastic. The foam and fibreglass were a step towards an organic shape. Wood is the next step in giving me an organic material which I am hoping to source locally from my friend's coppice (see Note 2).

(Below left) Board # 2 dimensions, in inches: 44 x 21-1/2 x 2-1/4.
(Below right) Malcolm Edwards owns the Welsh coppice which will be the source of cedar for my future boards.

Photos courtesy of Keith Usher.

Board #2 rail profile.

Photo courtesy of Keith Usher.

Keith scorching a nice left on the Gower Peninsula, Wales.

Photo courtesy of Keith Usher.

10. You've ridden your boards in the allegedly non-existent waves of Wales, at G-Land and California, to name a few places. What sort of wave is your board most suited? Have you noticed any design limitations?
So far the only limitations I have noticed are my own riding skills. I have had this board perform better than guys surrounding me on longboards at a weak 1-foot Welsh point break. The board enabled me to make sections and barrels at G-Land in up to double overhead waves. On previous trips with my bodyboards I never thought making those sections would have been possible. Even with no fins I can bottom turn a hard as I like on a big, powerful double-overhead wall holding a rail with no problem. Fins have drag and a finite top speed. With those not present, my board's top-end speed seems limitless.

Launching Pad into Speedies, at G-Land on the island of Java, Indonesia.

Photos by Dave Thomas.

County Sligo, Ireland and Monterey, California.

Photos courtesy of Keith Usher.

11. Do you ride the paipo the same as you'd ride a bodyboard? Any comments on the skills and techniques involved in turning, getting speed and tube-riding a finless board?
There is an adjustment from bodyboarding to my paipo, but it's subtle. Finless riding is about getting your bodyweight on the rail, and about driving through your wave face rail with your elbow and hip bone. The further forward on the board you can get used to mean the board would go faster, but that also made the tail feel looser. So it's also about moving about on the board as you manoeuvre. Up on the nose for take-offs and speed, back on the tail for big bottom turns and carving.

(Below left) The start of an under-the-lip reverse-360, on the Gower Peninsula, Wales. (Below right) Riding the tube at G-Land.

Photos by Dave Jones (left) and Dave Thomas (right).

With a short stubby design like mine these forward and back movements are small, the longer/bigger the board the more you will need to move, and in the case of finned boards I have tried you have your weight over the fin. Tube riding my board was a trip at first:  I would get way back in a barrel and wait to have the rail slip and get eaten by the foam ball like I would when going too deep on a bodyboard. But, on the paipo all of a sudden it was like being a sunflower seed being squeezed between wet fingers. Speed come from nowhere like a rocket up the bum! You feel the water squirt through the concave and you're out wondering how that ever happened!! Barrels on the paipo over a bodyboard are now a calculated, enjoyed further back in the tube experience.

I have also now started to draw more "stand-up" lines on a wave with the paipo, rather than the trim central position to tend to hold on a bodyboard. This is where I hope to develop my surfing with more off-the-tops and more sweeping roundhouse cutbacks.
12. Any particular memorable surfs on the paipo?
Last year's trip to G-Land was an eye opener for me as to where I could take my board on such waves. The extra speed was confirmed by several strangers over several weeks randomly commenting, "I can't believe how fast that thing goes." This winter I also tried the board out on some classic California point breaks, including Rincon, Malibu and the Hollister Ranch. But sometimes the best surfs have been where it amazed me how much fun I have got out of tiny clean conditions where others are struggling to get going at all, even on longboards.

More G-Land, Money Trees section, ca. 2013.

Photos by Dave Thomas.

13. Do you come across other paipo riders?
Last year in the G-Land camp I randomly bumped into Terry Newcomb from the paipo forum. We spent a few happy days in small but clean conditions and had a few board swaps to contrast and compare. I also met Jeff Chamberlain of Morro Bay, CA, and was lucky to be invited on his fantastic boat for a surf trip to "The Ranch." Jeff is also forging ahead with large-liter epoxy quad paipos from L41, a very innovative shaper called Kirk, in Santa Cruz. I also have two local friends who paipo and we go for a surf when we can meet up.

Terry Newcomb and Keith Usher at G-Land.  Newcomb is holding his Romanosky paipo and Usher is holding board #2, a red SDF Surfboards paipo. 

Photo courtesy of Keith Usher.

Californian adventure at The Ranch, ca. February 2014.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Chamberlain.
14. Any other comments?
I'm glad to say that paipos have given my surfing a new lease of life after 20 years of bodyboarding and pretty much thinking well it's just going to be more of that kind of riding and its limits. My new design has given me a whole new angle to surf from. I have found that most paipo riders I have interacted with are thinkers as it take a step away from the norm to not be doing what all the other kids are doing. I also think paipos have the biggest diversity of board designs currently being ridden in surfing.

Not taking things too seriously

Photo courtesy of Keith Usher.

Footage of Keith, shot by Keith using a compact camera set up a tripod at two local beaches, in Clip 1 and Clip 2.

Note 1: For more about PaipoGlide, see our Interview with Andy Bick and Andy Bick's Paipoglide website.

Note 2: Oxford Dictionaries defines coppice as "an area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber." Source: Coppice. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved from

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