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A Paipo Interview with Leigh Tingle
(including Leigh's Story of His Trip to Hawaii in 1964)

Telephone Interview with Leigh Tingle (Sydney, Australia)
September 14, 2009
Questions from Bob Green

I thought we might begin with whether you started surfing on stand-up boards?
No, never have done stand-up boards. Direct from bodysurfing if you like to bellyboard.
How long had you been bodysurfing for?
Since I was about 5. All my life I have been surfing. Mainly the only other thing I used was a surfoplane when I was a kid.
Surfboards never interested me very much, so when I saw this movie, which I mentioned [in an e-mail], in 1957 at Coogee Surf club, and I saw, I am pretty sure it was George Greenough (but I can’t be absolutely positive). So many of my friends were there as well, they said, “Leigh why don’t you get one of those. We can make one for you” and so that’s how it all happened and that’s how the bellyboard was born.
What did you make it of?
It’s made from balsa wood, from the offcuts around the front and the back of surfboard blanks, balsa blanks at Scott Dillon and Noel Ward’s board factory at Bondi beach. And it was glassed all over. They actually did the cutting of it, the laying it together because it’s sort of laminated so that we could get sufficient thickness out of these pieces of timber and then we took it across to Gordon Woods who at that stage had an idea of what he wanted to do to actually create the shape of it. So he was the actual shaper and then cut out the handles and then originally it was two plywood fins but they were just stuck in there with ordinary nails but eventually rotted as the glass in those days in 1957 wasn’t absolutely perfect and it leaked a lot of salt water in and rusted the nails. That’s why if you look at a photograph at the back of it, you see the black marks, that’s the actual residual from the nails. It now has two yellow fibreglass fins stuck into it.
I was going to ask you who made the board, but I think you’ve already answered that question. Had you ever actually ridden a bellyboard before you got this one made?
No never. No, it’s the first time anyone had actually seen one being used in Australia. I had never seen any of these paipo boards being ridden or anything around in 1957. But then of course, when that movie turned up, I think people probably turned up with those paipo boards - those plywood ones on the beach. I was quite surprised when I looked at surfresearch on the Internet to see so many variations on bellyboards, paipo boards, and chest boards. To my knowledge I thought I was the only one who had something called a bellyboad for many years. But that’s been proven untrue with the amount of research done through surfresearch.
I was going to ask if there were any early influences or whether you had to figure it out yourself?
Absolutely had to figure it out. It was really Gordon Woods. He said, “I reckon it should be about 4’ long and 20” wide and dadadada, and put a handle on it.” And I said “that’s great” and its proved to be an absolutely perfect thing, that handle because its slightly raked in the front so you can grip it, it won’t pull out of your hand on a big wave. And it also allows you to actually go out under waves very easily, because the actual bouyancy of the board is very close to being neutral. You don’t have to force it like a boogie board through the waves, it just sinks with you. But once it gets down far enough it just pops up the other side, so it brings you with it.
I know what you mean, I was actually thinking were there any early influences on how you rode the board or did you have to figure out what you did on it yourself.
No, I had to figure that out. All I really saw was that tiny snippet in that movie. I wish I could remember the name of it and from there on I just had to make up my own mind.

The board also had two fins, Gordon said “you should have two fins, one either side because you are going to be riding this so hard on a wave and then if you are cutting across a wave, if you only have a middle fin you’re liable to fall out of the wave.”

Leigh Tingle with Boards (Top Views)

Leigh Tingle with Boards (see fins)

Bud Browne's The Big Surf Toured in Australia in 1957
Ok, I know that I have a record somewhere of the movies shown in 1957. I’ll see if you can recognise them.
Alright, you can try. Don’t know if I can see them. Guess you can probably get hold of it somewhere in the world if we hear the names of them and who produced them. I don’t know if it was Bud Browne at that stage, or Miller? [See Note 1: In 1957, Bud Browne toured The Big Surf in Australia.]
I think it was probably Browne. Where did you usually surf, Leigh?
Initially it was South Bondi and from there I sort of then started going to Manly, Fairy Bower, Voodoo around at Kurnell Point. All sorts of places, Palm Beach, Whale Beach – all those beaches. Dee Why Point, Long Reef off the Bombie in a big surf with a guy, a friend of mine, called Mal Anderson – he used to be the guy who with Jane Farrelly, Midget’s sister, were tandem contestants around the early 60s.
What sort of wave do you think your board is ideally suited for?
The bigger the better really. A nice big shoulder that just rolls off – that’s the sort of wave I like, the big bombies. Fairy Bower, places like that. Some years ago I rode Avoca. That was a monster surf about 20’. That’s up the Central Coast, around Sydney. Another place that’s a brilliant beach is Boomerang Beach off the north point in a NE swell in January. I was up there on holidays and we, my son and I, both had boards. It was running about 15’ that day. It was just stunning surf. And of course I’ve surfed overseas, Zuma Beach, in America; Hawaii, the north shore. I’ve surfed Waimea, Sunset, Haleiwa, Pupukea, Pipeline, Makaha, all those places. [separate account of this trip written by Leigh follows the interview]. Two weeks were spent in Bali, in 1977, but the waves were not very good.
All on the same board?
Yep, haven’t changed it. Still riding it. It’s had 3 glass jobs in 41 years it is.
In your opinion-when was the height of bellyboarding in Australia?
Oh gosh, in 1967 I think it was. I gave up work and started making them. There was a guy I found, a fellow who in those days had what was like a microwave press that actually he used to produce all the plywood seats in the Opera House. I took my bellyboard out there and said, what do you reckon? Can I make plywood bellyboards and he said, “yeah, I can do that. We can press the bottom out and have a flat deck, and then glue it together and put fins on it and handles and away you go. I had thirty of those produced and I assembled them and resined them and all in John Witzig’s skateboard factory at Narrabeen. And the whole thirty were all sold. I have no idea of what happened – I had one of them and it just sort of disappeared with me my moving houses over the years so I don’t know where it is.
So you weren’t tempted to do anther run?
No, they weren’t really successful. The glues that we had, the stresses on them were huge in the surf and the seams just opened up. I ended up having on my particular one, having to have little brass screws screwed into it around on the top, particularly where it was sort of bowed. There just wasn’t enough, what would you call it, surface area to take the glue properly so it really was impractical. I ended up blowing that one full of foam to give it some sort of support inside. It was alright but I just don’t know what happened to it. They were called Barracuda Bellyboards. There was an ad I placed in the Surfabout magazine I think it is. I met John Witzig recently and he sent me a photocopy of the ad that I didn’t bother to keep years ago. So it its nice to have that again.

(Click on pic to load PDF file, Surf Magazine, 1967)

I’ve seen that ad.
I’ve sent you a copy of that, didn’t I?
Yeah, that’s right. Did you ever get involved with contests for bellyboards or was there a contest scene for bellyboards?
No, there was only me around when I first did it. You know, now I’m 72 years of age so it’s not the sort of thing you do racing around competing. Because quite honestly I can’t do the flips and rollovers and things like the kids do on a boogie board because they don’t have fins and can do the turns without any problems. Whereas mine's just really just straight out of the corner and keep going fast, high speed.
So even in the 60s?
They were made from the balsa and I drilled a hole in the front of the handle and put in one of those pitot tube speedos and it got up to 35 mph, which is 60 kph across a wave. I don’t know how accurate that was, but it was rather exciting to know the speed I could get up to.
That was a real innovation.
I reckon. It caused too much drag so I took it out.
So even in the 1960s - 1970s there weren’t many bellyboards around?
No, well not that I ever saw. There were guys on paipo boards but not that many really. Very rare. I’m really surprised by all the ones surfresearch shows. Maybe they’re not Australian. I haven’t really looked deeply at each one to see what the source of it, if it is in Australia, or overseas.
There is a small number of Australian ones but there certainly weren’t many.
No, just people like me keen to have one made like me, to have one made and that was it.
So did Gordon Wood make many more boards like yours?
Not that I’m aware of. I saw him about 10 years ago, that was the last time and he didn’t mention he built any more. I don’t think they were that interested. He was one of the guys that started the NSW and Australian Surfriders association and I was sort of heavily into organising things at that time of my life and I guess it was just buddies helping buddies. Like in 1964, at the first world surf championship, I was the official starter there and I also did commentary for Channel 10 for that particular event and even down roughly 1969 the Bells Beach championships that year I was down in Melbourne working. My cousin, Ross Kelly, who was president of the ASA and the NSW, he said “you know enough about surfing, you can be one of the judges, Leigh”. I judged one event and they threw me off. “You don’t know how to ride a board how can you judge them?” I said, “It's got nothing to do with whether you can ride something or not, its whether you know what people are doing, it’s visual.” But anyway, they kicked me off anyway.
Did you ever try any other paipo boards or did you just stuck with one board?
Only one board. I haven’t tried any others. Oh, in America, I built one for a friend there in 1964 out of foam. I don’t even know what happened to that. I’m still in touch with his daughter who I met in Hawaii at that stage. So then I assisted with my son, about what was Year 9, so that was about 16. So that’s about 8 years ago.
When you were in Hawaii were there many other paipo boards? I gather that was around 1964.
Yeah that’s right. There were a couple. You’ll see one of them on a wave with me and you’ll see other shots if you ever get to see the complete film of Magoos that I have. There were other people around that were riding bellyboards, or boogieboards or whatever was there. They weren’t foam, they were just made of timber -balsa or ply.
Were there any particular differences in the style of how you rode the waves?
No, not really. Just get on a corner and go for it. You can actually brake yourself by putting your hand in the water. To act like a water brake or you can twist it a certain amount and put your body down on the back of the board and sort of brake with it that way, especially if you were going down a dumper. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, you’ve got to go straight ahead to get beyond the dumper or you get crashed. And that’s happened a few times.
I’ve never heard of the braking technique before.
You will actually see in one of those still shots I think I sent up to you, you’ll see me dragging my hand in the water, the wave side hand. That can brake. You can stop the board from running too fast, running out on a shoulder. If it looks like its starting to fill and you want to come back. I can do twists and turns. I can sort of go out on the wave and back again, but I just love going fast. A mad speed demon.

I think that’s the major attraction of paipo boards for people.
Yeah that’s right, I tend to get some people upset on a wave. I remember that day at Avoca and I took off on a wave. I was on the outside of this fellow and I didn’t get off the wave and he really carried on a treat. And I can just hear him I was so damn far away that I couldn’t have caused him any trouble.
You get it don’t you? What do you think makes your board go so well? What design features make a paipo board go well do you think?
Well, mine is the fact that it is so thin. I can’t remember what the measurement was. I think I sent that up to you, its probably only 1" to 1-1/2 “ in the fattest area. It’s just so little material on the wave and what am I, 80 kgs (175 lbs) now. I used to be 60 kgs (135 lbs). I think the weight over that area and being so thin. There is virtually no obstruction. There is no drag. It just goes like a rocket. I don’t use wax on the board by the way. Never have used wax. Just grip it with my rib cage really. It’s really weird. People get on it and they can’t really stay on it. But I can. I have this ability, maybe I have grown special ribs at the bottom?
Practice I reckon.
Yeah, practice probably.
If you were to make another board would you still go with ply?
Balsa. Commercially?
No, if you were to make one for yourself?
Oh yeah. That one we made. Sam and I made for that project at school when he was in Year 9. That was balsa. I had to buy the wood. I had to source the balsa, it’s not easy to come by. But at that stage there was a guy out at Taren Point, importing container loads of it and I managed to get hold of some blocks from him, I think about $200 just for the timber. So I thought if you ever want to do this properly for instance, it would be prohibitive in cost.
Balsa certainly isn’t cheap. There’s a guy in Sydney who imports it I think.
It’s probably him at Taren Point. Actually I learnt a lot from doing that. I was helping Sam doing the shaping. I could have cut those logs, depth wise and got two boards out of that timber. So that means it would be about $100 for the balsa, plus glass and resin. You gotta make fins for it and the handle has to come out of somewhere. I didn’t think there would be much money in it. But I still have this one as a back up if that one ever collapses and falls over. He never uses it, he’s a board rider now.
And how often do you still get out?
Not so much in winter. I swim every morning in winter at Northbridge tidal baths in the Harbour here. It gets down to 13C degrees (55F) in winter. But I only do about 10 laps just to keep fit. Surfing, I’m out there any day its over 6’.
Okay, so you don’t like small waves.
No, don’t like them. They’re not strong enough to push me along. You got to have that ability to get right where its starting to kick over because you’ve only got 4’ of board its not going to glide for you. So you need a flipper with a relatively long blade on it, not too long otherwise you wreck your ankles. I have an old pair of, what are they called, Hanimex Scooters. I’ve never liked the Churchill fin for instance. I like something a bit longer and not as weighty as those. But that’s just because of my foot. I have a very narrow ankle and a very wide ball of the foot. So I have great difficulty sometimes finding flippers. Also these flippers don’t have a boot, they have a strap at the back. Boots come off straight away, they’re useless for surfing I think.
They sound a bit like the new UDT fins.
I guess if that’s got a strap around the back, then that’s it.
Are there any other comments or recollections you’d like to share?
It is amazing every time I go out, its very, very rare that I don’t get asked, “hey mister what’s that?” Then I have to explain what it is and how old it is. Then their jaw drops and then they keep asking more questions. It’s very unique believe me.
I guess your age adds to the effect of it.
Yeah, that’s right. Well I have to say this I don’t look 72. If you look at Facebook you’ll find me there.
Leigh, thanks very much for your time and for sharing your story.
Ok, that’s fantastic.

Leigh Tingle's Original Board

(Click on pictures for a larger view - click here for PDF version)

Some measurement conversions:
mm = inches mm = inches mm = inches
1220 = 48 307=525 = 12=20.75 39 = 1.5
384=537 = 15=21 384=48 = 15=1.875 250 = 9.75
614=531 = 24.25=21 16
= .67 128=102 = 5x4

Note 1. "Bud acknowledged the impact of The Big Surf. 'My movie The Big Surf that I showed there [first in Australia, in 1957] featured huge 15-25 foot waves, filmed at Makaha and on the North Shore of Hawai`i. This was the first time many surfers had ever seen waves that big being ridden. And... it is true that surfers from all over California and Australia began showing up in Hawai`i on a regular basis after this film was shown around. It's hard to know these things for sure, but it does seem that way.' " Source: Malcolm Gault-Williams, Legendary Surfers: A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes, "Bud "Barracuda" Browne: Surfing's First Commercial Filmmaker" (chapter updated on Feb. 17, 2006, accessed on the Internet on Sept. 21, 2009).

Leigh's Story About His Trip to Hawaii
January to February 1964

This was the year that 22 Australians had organised to compete in the Hawaiian surfboard championships. I decided to tag along and take my bellyboard. Left on the Arcadia on New Year's Eve, December 31,1963. It was a P&O vessel going to Auckland, Suva and Honolulu. There were a few other Aussies aboard. When we arrived at Honolulu, we were greeted by some others who had come up earlier for the Makaha Championships. They had managed to rent two houses on the North Shore west of Sunset Beach at a place called Pupakea. Five old bomb cars were used for transport around the island, and I spent a glorious 6 weeks there.

Because the cars were in such a bad state of repair we always seemd to be changing tubes in the tires. Some days we would experience five punctures.

Nat Young went home early after becoming involved in a fight with locals. He was very high spirited at this time of his life. Others who were there included Scott Dillon, Barry McGuigan, Barry Kelly, The Ant, Midget Farrelly, Bob Pike, Peter Troy.

At the time Scott Dillon was a milkman back in Sydney and was used to getting up early in the morning. He still did this and would roam the house saying “Surf's Up, Surf's Up” if he could hear the breakers in the dark. We either cooked for ourselves or went to Haliewa and had a meal at the local restaurant.

Peter Troy came off on a big wave at the Pipeline and severely cut his face, back and arms on the coral reef below. The water is only 30 inches deep. He was taken to Haliewa Hospital where the procedure for this type of injury was to use a scrubbing brush to remove all the coral from the cuts. It seemed a viscious way to attack the removal of the coral but it all had to be removed, otherwise infection was bound to set in. It became a standard joke to say that "it took only 4 muscles to laugh but 14 to frown" referring to the agony Peter went through everytime he laughed.

On calm days when the surf was not running I discovered that there was an enormous number of heavy sinkers caught in the reefs. So, I enlisted the help of others and we recovered the sinkers by the bucketful. These we sold to the local scrap metal merchant and used the proceeds to buy six packs of beer.

I surfed the Pipeline, Waimea at around 20 foot, Haliewa, Sunset, Makaha and a wave spot off Waikiki.

Waves are so thick and heavy that you dare not just punch through, even a small one, when going out to a reef; they will knock you off your board easily. I believe they are so thick due to the distances they travel before arriving on the islands.

The shoulders on the waves were brilliant for my bellyboard and I could really let her fly across the face. Twenty-footers are quite challenging, particularly over there where the offshore wind is rather strong and you have a battle to just get on the wave.

At the end of the holiday, I met some Americans who had a flat at Waikiki and stayed with them. One of the guys, Steve, was the manager of Glenn Yarborough, who sang with a group called the Limeliters. Steve was really great on the 12 string guitar.

Bellyboarding 1964 by Barry McGuigan. Surfers Include Leigh Tingle & Others
Editing by Bob Green

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