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A Paipo Interview with Lewis Cawsey

Paipo surfing Cronulla in the 1960s

A Paipo Interview with Lewis Cawsey
March 9, 2014 - Cronulla, Australia
Phone interview by Bob Green

Growing up near the ocean and an interest in sailing craft, led soon enough to Lewis Cawsey going surfing. His early days were spent riding a coolite board [see Note 1]. Like many young surfers of the time he then made and rode a board of his own construction, likely influenced by a magazine photo or movie image he'd seen. The powerful point waves at Cronulla provided a perfect place to ride a simple planing machine made of wood. Before leg-ropes and shortboards, Lewis and his friend Greg, amongst others would ride paipo boards at Cronulla. His board also doubled as a skimboard, versatile in the waves, on the sand and shorebreak.
1. I gather you rode a paipo around Cronulla at some stage?
Growing up in Cronulla, you are brought up swimming, surfing, fishing and taking out a boat whenever you could. I always used to swim with the guys from school at South Cronulla, however, I broke away from the group one day and started to swim at Cronulla Point. How it happened was a guy from the surf club told me how good it was, so we swam out to the point to catch waves where there were other surf club members body surfing all the time. From then on I could not stop going out there for good waves and the power, it was so exciting. Next came the hand plane, then belly board / paipo, then surf boards.

When was this do you reckon?

I was 10, and the year was 1960, when I started surfing at Cronulla Point. The surf club guys out there taught me how to bodysurf the point properly. The technique for the point is quite different to other bodysurfing techniques, as you needed to harness the power on the steeper, hollow and fast waves, it was really different from the beach waves. It was a place I liked. To ride properly you would use your right hand down your side like a fin and the left hand to support yourself on the face of the wave. Cronulla Point is very powerful.
2. How did you get into riding a paipo board?
At home we used to make our own boats and we had marine ply. I got the idea of what was going on in the surfing scene and made my own paipo board. I had a mate up the street, Greg Vaughan, who ended up buying his own bellyboard (two fins) from school friends. Swim fins came from the Bob Frazer Sports Store in Cronulla, near the theater. Greg's board had a laminated wood resin finish and two fins—nice board. Mine was just marine ply and varnished. My ply paipo board was also used as a skim board when the surf wasn't working.

So for how long did you ride the paipo board?

From 1963 to 1965. After that era I rode surf boards. Alan Breakspear introduced me to board riding with us kids sharing his family's hollow ply surf board at North Cronulla Beach and around Gunnamatta Bay. My board riding started at North Cronulla with Alan. I always liked the paipo more than the board, however, the board won. Got my fist mal in 1965, and still use it occasionally. I continued to surf the Point and have had many boards since. Have been surfing with Alan Macoustra at Cronulla Point since 1966.

They're very different experiences.

Yes they are. Riding a paipo you look up at the shape of the wave, a completely different perspective to being on a board looking down on a wave unless of course you're in it, then it's the same view. Paipos are fast.

Lewis Cawsey bodysurfing with a hand plane and Greg Vaughan bellyboarding, at Cronulla Point.

Source: Jack Evans [photographer]. (1965, Summer). Belly Boards. Surfabout: Australasian Surfer, 3(1), 1.  
3. I've spoken to a few people from Cronulla. It seemed a hotbed of creativity in the 1960s.
Certainly was. I had two paipo boards. One was made out of an old Barton board. Barton boards were coolite things five feet long. What I did was cut two feet off it, get a sander to it and put two concaves on the base and stuck five fins, large to small radiating out from the center, in the bottom rear of the board. It worked like a dream but cracked under pressure. So the next one had concaves and no fins—it worked well—still didn't handle the pressure well though. Painted the boards white on the base with a black top and waxed them, just house paint to give them a smooth finish. Problem was the coolite was not strong and broke or cracked—so that's where marine ply came in.

Below, on the Surfabout magazine cover, I'm the bodysurfer and Greg Vaughan is the bellyboarder. I'm in other photos around the place. Guys would ask me, "Who are you?" and I never liked to put my name up to people, so I'd just say "I'm just a local."

Surfabout cover 1965. Lewis Cawsey is the bodysurfer in the bottom frame with Greg Vaughan below.

Source: Jack Evans [photographer]. (1965, Summer). Belly Boards. Surfabout: Australasian Surfer, 3(1), 1.
Times were different then.

It was against the surf club rules to ride a board with fins in the surf area, as it is now. One summer's day I was surfing out the back at North Cronulla on my ply paipo, outside the crowd across the back of the flagged area—great wave on the day—and when I came to the beach, out of the surf, I was approached by a surf club patrol guy at North Cronulla beach. There was a good surf rolling and I had been riding across outside of all the people swimming in the flags, my board was a paipo and it had no fins. So it wasn't a problem to be surfing in or near a flagged area, however, if I had fins on the board, I would have lost my board and had to pay a fine. Any way this guy picked me, grabbed the paipo off me. He said, "Where's the fins?" and I said, "It doesn't have any." He said, "How do you get across the wave?" Then he handed my board back and said, "Just make sure you don't hit anyone with it." And then he walked up the beach. I watched him walk away and he put his hands in the air talking to some guy up the beach saying, "It's got no fins."

Times then were with good friends and good company. Mid-summer, in the morning, Greg and I used to leave home at 3:30 a.m., to walk around Gunnamatta Bay to the beach to go for a surf (no daylight saving). By the time we walked around to Cronulla main street and the bread bakery for a free warm half loaf of bread to share, then we were ready for the day. Morning apple pies were always great from the pie shop. There was a bit of a lifestyle, local thing going on that was good to grow up with. There wasn't many out the Point then, just good groups of guys, body surfers belly board/paipo riders, and board riders. There were some good surfers in the crowd. There was a guy called Wells, a top bloke to surf with. I think he would have been the more famous of anybody who went out there with his distinctive two hand planes and body surf style—an excellent bodysurfer and nice guy.

Lewis and Greg. Cronulla Point.

Source: Jack Evans [photographer]. (1965, Summer). Belly Boards. Surfabout: Australasian Surfer, 3(1), 44.

4. There must have been a lot of places along the coast like that but Cronulla probably had slightly better waves?
The interesting part about the Point is that it can be 100 percent dynamic and very Hawaiian on its day.

The Point is a good wave for that type of board.

The Point is a wave that has a stand up wall, that does all the right things when it works. However, there is a hollow section and a stand up section (that is hollow when big), and it allows a cut right back to get into it again and go for another section. Some days it can be the biggest drop. Just a good wave. It does slam you if you get it wrong. The take off spot out the back is fully lined-up so everybody knows where the take-off area is. But it's very narrow to get into the right spot. Just this little draw that you can slide into. A good wave.
5. Did you know Bozo Griffiths? That same Surfabout article described him riding a bellyboard. Turns out it was a kneeboard.
No, I don't, I'm good with faces. There were a couple of guys out there and I remember a kneeboarder who stood out. What he used to do was get inside the tube and roll over inside it, making the wave, sometime kneeling. The wave was fun, we never thought of it as dangerous. That's what happens, you get used to it. You get done or go down to the bottom and you hang onto the bottom. What I liked after I got rid of the coolite board was the marine ply paipo. It meant I could do all those things I could do when bodysurfing. When the big sets come through and you get caught out you just go down to the bottom and hang onto a piece of cunje, stay calm, stay down, the board doesn't float up to the surface in a hurry, and with decent fins on you just power off again. You can leave the bottom and you climb up underwater.

Using this relaxed style you can be underwater for quite a long period of time. I only found it out years later that Hawaiians do the rock running underwater as training for surviving big surf. You can go down and hang onto the bottom and relax, and you get used to the whole idea of it. That's what I used to do. You get caught out the Point in some of those big days and you can get really pummeled, you can get pushed to the bottom so you hang on and relax, and you wait for the bubbles to start coming up and you know you're okay and you can see the shadow of the next wave coming, so you pick your time to come to the surface. I never realized how much influence that Hawaiians had on survival in big surfs.
6. Do you think there is much crossover in technique between bodysurfing and riding a paipo?
When riding right on a paipo board I'd have my left hand nearly straight down my body to hold onto the nose of the board so my body was over the front of the board and my right hand would have been out in front. That's part of the reason I liked the photo of Leigh Tingle. His body position on the board is just absolutely excellent though mine was further forward, it's not my style but excellent at the same time..For me going left was the opposite position.

Leigh Tingle at Haleiwa.

Source: Unknown (1963, Winter). Spotlight on Hawaii. Surfabout: Australasian Surfer, 2(6), 13-19. Photo appears on p.17.

Cronulla Point going right body surfing is:
  • Right arm down your side hand is used as a fin.
  • Left arm to support you on the wave.
Cronulla Point going right Hand Plane surfing:
  • Right hand out front with the hand plane / fin.
  • Left arm same as above.
How would you turn your board?

Mine had a little bit of flex in it. It's what I liked about the design. What happens, under the nose I had a slow curve up to the front edge which is still quite solid and then in the middle of the deck of the board you dish it out with a sander down to the next layer of ply. Dishing out the top allowed the board to flex. The profile shape I like, is similar to the one I have at home now . They're not really rounded and they're not a point either, but there is a soft curve. It tapers slightly on the sides and the back corners are a 3" curve and rounded.

Got caught a couple of times at the Point. I remember I got down the bottom of a 10-ft. Point wave, on edge, and hit a tiny bit of chop and skipped out sideways. That's not fun. Nothing worse than slipping out and going backwards, looking up at the wave that's about to land on you—especially at the Point.
7. Paipo design?
A marine ply paipo board is excellent, if you live around the water, you can use them for skim boarding, they're comfy to sit on out of the water, they're easy to carry around and they don't take up any space when put away in your room and when used, they're a dynamic piece of equipment in their own right. There are lots of paipo designs and to be truthful I was most happy with my homemade version, compared to others, it didn't cost me a thing. I was right into design of boats and how water moves around. When it came around to making a paipo board, I was really comfortable with what I shaped. It just needed to be a specific width, have a slight taper and curved areas, and not be too flexible. If they are too flexible they snap or don't go. You just have to have them so they are really solid but at the same time if you give them a bit, they flex. It's all about the smooth surface, slight curve, that little bit of flexibility to make them do what you want them to do and they are so fast to use. Absolutely excellent.

A paipo board that Lewis Cawsey made for his boys, ca. 1980. This board is not dished out on top and measures 37-1/2 by 21 inches, tapered.

Photo courtesy of Lewis Cawsey.

8. Lewis and friends sand skiing at Wanda.
We use to skim board at North and South Cronulla beaches, Gunnamatta Bay and on the local golf links in a big wet, and people took pictures of us.

We also used to go sand skiing (also homemade) at the Cronulla sandhills. Look at the size the sand hills were then! On top we were looking down on the power stanchion. The photograph below is in a Sutherland Shire magazine, showing five local guys sand skiing down a hill together. Just mates, left to right, are Unknown, Richard Forrest, Bruce Forrest, Lewis Cawsey and Unknown.

Sand skiing the North West edge of the Cronulla sandhills near the big power stanchions, at Wanda.

Source: Cronulla Surf Museum, at

Note 1: In The The Surfin'ary: A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak, Trevor Cralle describes a Coolite as an Australian brand-name for a Styrofoam trainee surfboard. Cralle cites Mark Warren's Atlas of Australian Surfing as the source for this definition. The Encyclopedia of Surfing notes that the average coolite was five feet long and 20 inches wide, with one or two long, narrow finlike runners along the bottom. For more information and pictures, see Geoff Cater's website, pods for primates : a catalogue of surfboards in australia since 1900.

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Last updated on: 09/03/14