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A Paipo Interview with Robert Hosking

"He didn't have the body of a surfer … or the ability" (Paul Gannon quote)

A Paipo Interview with Robert Hosking
July 6, 2016 - Sydney, Australia
E-mail questions by Bob Green

Robert was one of a group of young, local surfers who rode the hollow waves of Avalon which was ideally suited to bellyboards and bodysurfing. In addition to riding waves, Robert made boards for sale. Impressed by his entrepreneurship, a friend's father even made business cards for him. Interestingly, at this time Robert learned that his great uncle also rode wooden bellyboards when he was a youth, but on the other side of the continent.
1. I've seen the 1932 photo of your uncle, Dr. Huntly Higgins, with bellyboards. Did you know of his background with bellyboards and was this common interest something that you discussed with him?
I did not know of this background. These photos were distributed at his funeral. My father was the Scoutmaster at the time and probably knew of these exercises. He often spoke of using this type of board at Cottesloe while I was building mine (see Note 1).

Dr. Huntly Gordon Higgins with Scarborough Scouts, January 1932, on land and in the sea. In the Scouts' surfing photo, lower right, from left to right:  H. Gordon Higgins, R.D/G Royce, G. Moore, C. Spivey, G. Knapton, L. Bowen. Absent from the "boarders" were B. Forster and J. Atkins. 

Photo courtesy of Robert Hosking.
2. What was the background to you making your first board in 1962? Were there many other paipo riders around at the time?
No, not at all. Peter Sobels, whose background was in the family furniture business built a couple, (I recently discovered that he lived next door to one of my close Architecture mates in Hunters Hill) and then I started making them. I'd made myself a few handboards by that time and was out in the surf on foam plastic surfoplanes (a term or model of surf mat, see Note 2). My first was made in builder's ply, which I tried to waterproof with black epoxy resin, and a red fin with two chrome plated brass handles. It didn't last long.

To me, they were not paipos: A spoon is a paipo, narrow at the front and wider at the back, ala Greenough.
3. What were your boards like? How did the longer 4-ft. boards compare to the shorter 3-ft. boards?
They evolved over time:

(i) 3' (36 inches): Wider at the front and tapered towards the back, curved cutout at the back. 3/8 inch Cemac Seaply, first painted (by hand) with Marine Varnish, then with Dulux varnish (much better). First single wooden fin, then glass fin, then double glass fins. 45 shillings.

(ii) 3'6" (42 inches): Basically the same, still 3/8 inch Seaply, but using Taubman's solid colors (didn't show the staining: I trialled different paints, and this was by far the best!!). Back to wood for the fins, using the cutout ply from the back of the boards.

(iii) 3'6" (42 inches): Paipo shaped (i.e., wider in tail than nose), but not spooned. Basically the same design back to front. Easier to catch a wave with, but nose dived easily (of course!).

(iv) 4' and a bit (48+ inches): Angled them slightly to get the best use out of the ply. Now 1/2 inch Seaply. Originally painted. A couple of specials, using car spray paint (metal flake blue with Holden 179 sticker for Ducksy (Donald O'Brien), my best mate and collaborator, tri-fins for me), but the later ones were coated in polyester resin (I couldn't work out why some ended up slightly sticky and others finished and polished nicely: the place I was buying it didn't distinguish between laminating resin and Gel-coat!!). Twin fins. These are the ones we used to kneel on. Much easier to catch waves with and quite fast. Considerably faster than a Boogie, which seem to push a lot of water (although I use one in the surf myself these days!). I have recently made some templates for Gary Clist and he has sent me some great photos of the boards he has built from them!

Gary Clist replica based on Robert Hosking's last template. Colors are the same as Gary's first board made in 1965-1966, and cost 6 pounds ($12). 

Photo courtesy of Gary Clist.

4. What was involved in making the boards?
Tools were originally a coping saw, Grandfathers Diston saw, surform plane, and sanding disk attached to my father's Black and Decker (B&D) drill, followed by a jigsaw attachment and saw attachments to the B&D kindly provided by St. Nicholas around this time of Year!! It was a highly mechanised operation!!

The best of them had racing stripes.

5. I've spoken to some of the northern beaches paipo board surfers like Paul Gannon and Pete Sobels. You've mentioned a few people I've not heard of: John Bridger, Jeff Payne, Roger Seaborne. What do you know of these guys? Did they ride your boards?
John Bridger, Jeff Payne, David Flatt, "Ducksy" O'Brien and Paul Gannon were all school mates at Narrabeen High, and in the same year. We formed a group and rode the boards I built at Avalon, and particularly Little Avalon when it was working. Roger was my best mate in my final years at the different school I went to. I built him probably the most fancy of all the boards. We used to go down the South Coast in our final year of school. (See Note 3 for paipo interviews with other Avalon surfers.)

(Below left) Paul Gannon, Robert Hosking and Dave Cairns, 1998. (Below right) Robert with a finless board from ca. 1963.

Photo courtesy of Paul Gannon.
6. You mentioned having contact with George Greenough. What influence did he have on you?
Did I? I met George briefly (very) through the Witzigs some years later when John and I were studying architecture at Sydney University (or later, probably mid-1970s). At that stage I had completely given up building the ply boards, and was trying to ride a board, (see "ability" quote above) and I hassled George into using his mat at Whale Beach. I then rode a mat for a year or so. (We had always taken out the Australian made Advanx inflatable rubber Surf-O-Planes when it was pumping for fun!)
7. What sort of wave were your boards suited to?
Wave waves—the bigger the better! Good for tight spots such as Little Avalon.
8. Where did you mostly surf and are there any surfs that you still remember?
Northern Sydney Beaches, mostly Avalon (my parents' house was 200 yards from the beach). I don't remember any particularly - I surfed daily for many years. I moved to Manly in the late-1970s, and by this time had taken up windsurfing - mainly at Long Reef, with early morning board surfing at Manly. There are many Japanese photo albums from their trip to Sydney standing beside that surfer from Manly (I didn't tell them that the guy over there called Tom Carroll could actually ride the board, unlike me!). Once I move to the Eastern Suburbs, I was surfing at Bondi and Maroubra.

Paul Gannon's second board on top of Dave Cairn's GT Cortina packed for a trip to Noosa, ca. 1970.

Photo courtesy of Gary Clist.

9. For how long did you make paipo boards? How many do you reckon that you made?
At top production, I was building a massive 4 per week perhaps (1 sheet of ply = 4 boards). Including experiments and prototypes there were about 60 in all. I'd say I was building them on and off from the end of '63 to the beginning '66, i.e., from when I was 16 to aged 19.

Robert Hosking on his professional bellyboard business cards: "I sold a board to schoolmate, whose father owned a printing business. He was impressed that I had a small business going, and printed these cards for me!!"

Photo courtesy of Robert Hosking.
10. When did you start riding a bodyboard? How does a bodyboard compare to the wooden paipos?
Once I was surfing in the Eastern Suburbs, and the kids were growing up (say, mid-1990s), it was easier to catch waves without being hassled by Bra Boys in the water. I can use them anywhere, between the flags or not, and you can still get a nice tube. You can't really kneel on them properly: the one knee method doesn't appeal to me, and floating has the upside of keeping you on top of the water, but with extra difficulty getting them under waves. Flippers are not mandatory, and they also serve in the same way as the Surf-O-Planes. Oh, and of course you can spin them, as they don't have fins!
11. What did you enjoy about the wooden paipo boards?
A lot of fun for very little outlay. However, they were never for complete beginners in the surf: some used to buy them from me, and would not get the method. You needed to come from body surfing at least. They were a step up from body surfing when surfboards were large and heavy, and unsuited for tight rock waves: they were so much more manoeuvrable in those days. Of course, everything's changed now.

Robert Hosking wasn't going to ride this board but he had to clear out the house at Avalon after his father died.  The photo was taken around 1995.
Story note: Ian Cairns, brother to David, Paul Gannon's best mate and in the photo of Paul and me, a future world surfing champion, used to come around to Hosking's house and borrow this board to use before he took up board riding! Unfortunately, Hosking didn't have storage space, so he took this photo before heading to the dump.

NB: I still use these flippers: Continental from 1965 - 50 years old!"

Photo courtesy of Robert Hosking.

Note 1: Wooden boards were widely ridden at Cottesloe Beach, Western Australia. For more information on in Western Australian Bellyboard/paipo surfing history, see Paipo - Bellyboarding in Australasia.

Cottesloe "bodyboards." Below left is a Ward board ridden by John Julian and below right  is one of two boards built for the Jarrott brothers, Barry and Clive, c.1956-1958.

Photo courtesy of McKenzie Auction catalogue and Barry Jarrott.

Note 2:
The surfoplane was the forerunner of the surf mat. For more information, see the John Ruffles paipo interview.

Note 3:
Other paipo interviews with Avalon surfers include:
  • Pete Sobels Interview by Bob Green. Questions and telephone interview by Bob Green. March 14, 2015. Mullumbimby (Australia). Avalon paipo rider from the 1960s.
  • Paul Gannon Interview by Bob Green. Questions and e-mail interview by Bob Green.March 14, 2011. Coopers Shoot (NSW), Australia.Coming back to paipo.
  • Dick Ash Interview by Bob Green. Questions and telephone interview by Bob Green. September 26, 2009. Byron Bay NSW, Australia.

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

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